Get Enlightened Quick

Beijing's worst Buddhist retreat – by Nona Tepper


After one prostration too many, the weak among us fled the Buddha Room in order to catch some sleep, steal breakfast from the Snack Room, and walk from Longquan Monastery to the foot of Phoenix Mountain, where they shivered in the February darkness to wait for the earliest bus.

It was 4:30am on the final morning of a three day Six Steps Buddhist Retreat, a free workshop near Beijing’s summer palace established to spread knowledge of Buddhism. Twelve of us had signed up for the retreat, having been promised that we would “feel less tired,” “be sick less often” and live “without any stress”. Instead, for the last 48 hours we had listened to lectures on the “Holocaust, dharma-ending time” (how and why the world is ending), kitchen advice on how to please your Buddhist man – and had performed endless prostrations, the spiritual answer to burpees.

Three of the group couldn’t take it and snuck out early, but that morning my forehead hit the floor 88 times. By the tenth prostration, my body reflexively performed the down-out-in-up movements, freeing my mind to wonder why I was here in the first place. Meanwhile, commands were issued in rapid Putonghua – kuaidianr, quicker! We panted and prostrated for an hour, joined the others for a sweaty breakfast at sunrise, then returned to the studio.

Catherine, our retreat leader, now sat in the centre of the Buddha Room. She swore by the next meditation, she said. Like most Chinese, Catherine was raised without religion, but when her parents became very ill, she looked to a Buddhist lifestyle for a cure and, amazingly, it worked. Now all her family members were prostrating vegetarians of the Pure Land sect.

Catherine told us to balance a book on our head, look straight ahead and walk tall. We lined up into a circle of alternating men and women, and inched around slowly. What if I accidentally kicked someone’s heels? I wasn’t the only one who was distracted.

Two minutes in, Camilla, a stylish young Columbian, pulled an iPhone from her pocket and pressed Video>Record – no doubt our solemn faces were headed for Facebook. The other attendees crossed their eyes, stuck out their tongues and started laughing.

“Stop!” Catherine yelled. But just then she received a text from one of the three who had left earlier. “Thanks, but the retreat wasn’t for us,” it read.

My friend Liz looked at me and shrugged. Catherine had offered us free food, lodging and a weekend trip to the mountains, but three sunrises later, none of us were any less stressed or tired, and the unheated dorm rooms left us sneezing. Did all the retreats go this poorly?

Movement meditation was clearly over, so Catherine improvised. She instructed us to find a partner of the opposite sex, sit back to back, close our eyes, and "feel" for five minutes.

Tenaya, a 30 year old Indonesian, found me and explained he had spent the last year married to himself before pressing his back to mine. After two days of “sitting tall” and more than 500 prostrations, I was happy to press back. The two of us inhaled and exhaled in sync, and five minutes later we opened our eyes and discussed our feelings. Tenaya said something about not being ready, but I was just grateful for someone to lean on.

We still had one set of prostrations and a feeding and releasing animals activity scheduled for the rest of the day, but then – without explanation – Catherine said we could have the afternoon off.

So there we were. Stranded in an empty mountain town with nothing but dying iPhones to entertain us for the next three hours. Five of us filed out, wondering how far the bus station really was, while Liz, Tenaya, Hernan – another Columbian – and I grabbed brooms and started to clean up.

Hernan blasted a salsa song from his iPhone for us to work to. He dipped his broom to the floor, swung the brush around, and waltzed gracefully back and forth between the sides of the Buddha Room. Liz and I laughed. We tried to follow his steps, but our brooms crashed to the floor. Instead, we shimmied over to Catherine.

“It’s the talent show section of the retreat,” Hernan shouted, and the other attendees rushed back in.

The Columbians kicked their feet in quick struts. A solitary monk watched the commotion, then got up and sliced the air in a wild kung fu show. But Tenaya stole the show when he rose to one foot, locked his fingers into a butterfly shadow puppet and wobbled a balance dance. Even Catherine applauded. 

When we left, we got a linen goody bag, with prostration beads and DVDs containing all the power points Catherine had presented, “to continue your study.” She graciously called the buses two hours early, and, unenlightened, we went home.

Nona Tepper is a freelance journalist based in Beijing