Written by Chris Vandiford, (Middlebury College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Beijing, Fall 2015
I walked into the fifth floor apartment, which hardly exceeded 500 square feet, just barely the size of a two-car garage. The welcome I received, however, was one fit for royalty. As customary, I removed my shoes at the door and was then offered a comfortable pair of lined slippers to keep my feet warm. The apartment was tailored with the aroma of incense and freshly brewed green tea still steaming on the stovetop. The woman before me ushered me in and shook my outstretched hand.
The design and purpose of my visit was to interview this woman, a devout and practicing Buddhist, so I could better understand the modern practices of this faith. Upon my arrival to Beijing I had selected Buddhism, in regards to its origins and influences in Chinese culture, as a topic of research. I had spent the previous weeks poring over texts and historic accounts trying to better understand these religious practices, yet I came to learn more in this one-hour interview than I had in the last six weeks combined.
“How,” “Why,” and “When,” were among my questions as I tried to better understand her motives for dedicating herself to such a demanding lifestyle. This woman who had received multiple degrees from universities overseas, was able to speak several different languages, and even had an esteemed and prestigious career had put everything on hold, to more fully live and understand her religion. To her it was a way of life, a step-by-step process of refinement. She described her daily routine, which included hours of personal and group study combined with individual time for introspection. She expounded upon constraints, which included abstaining from meat and alcohol, and avoiding thoughts or words that would offend others. Towards the end of the interview, I asked her quite candidly why she voluntarily chose to live such a structured and strict lifestyle. Her answer was disarming: “Because it makes me happy,” she replied. “It allows me to be a better version of myself”. And with that, she explained that after a period of practicing she intended to return to her career – a better, more capable, and more influential individual.
What textbooks fail to relate when explaining religion are human emotions such as passion, devotion, and desire. They impart the “when” and “where” of history, but fall short in helping you to relate to a cause. It’s kind of like explaining color to a blind person. You can use every adjective in the book, but unless they experience it for themselves, all they see is darkness. For the last few weeks I was in that darkness vainly seeking for color amidst the lines of black and white text. However, it wasn’t until I sat down with the very person my textbook had been trying to describe that I finally saw what Buddhism was. I left that humble apartment with more than just an impersonal knowledge of names and places; I left with a new perspective, and a desire to act.