Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 18 Winter 2019
Elise and some of her students visit a temple north of Taipei.
Elise Anne DeVido, Ph.D., received her doctorate in History and Asian Languages from Harvard University. She has published works on women and gender in Chinese and in Vietnamese Buddhism; on the transnational Buddhist revivals of the early twentieth century; and on Engaged Buddhism. Most recently she was the Sheng Yen Foundation Visiting Fellow in Chinese Studies at the Graduate Institute for Religious Studies, National Chengchi University, Taiwan.
Return to Mucha, Taiwan
by Elise A. DeVido
In the “Preface” to my book Taiwan’s Buddhist Nuns, I wrote:
“Undertaking this study has been a rare learning experience and an inspirational journey, ever since the beginning years ago, when I sought refuge in a small Buddhist temple on a cliff above the sea where the sound of the bell and the drum and the warmth of many red candles vanquished the dark.”
There is a story behind this story.
In 1999 my ten-year old son and I moved from downtown Taipei to a verdant suburb called Mucha. I had just been divorced and instead of returning to the U.S., I stayed in Taiwan and worked at a university. Mucha is the home of tea plantations, the Taipei Zoo, and the location of lush walking trails.
However, I could not enjoy it. Because of the divorce, followed shortly by another betrayal by a good friend I trusted deeply, everything became dark. Everything hurt. Birds were ugly, the cicadas deafening, and brooks stank. Hills with many kinds of bamboo (green, white, purple, yellow…), where flowering trees one after another bloomed in each season, seemed to me just a “slovenly wilderness” (Wallace Stevens). Some days my son and I took the train to a beach on the north coast. I was so emotionally frozen that my bare feet did not feel the heat of noontime sand.
“Betrayed” was the word I woke up with and the word I went to sleep with. I cried every day for more than one year. Somehow I continued to work but all was very precarious, and I had a son to raise by myself.
Ever since I was young, the brain and the intellect were paramount to me. I had never learned the skills needed to handle strong emotions, and this fatal flaw caused great suffering to myself and others close to me. It took many years to learn to sit with, and not run away from, an awful anxiety and how to disentangle all the emotions.
Coincidently, in that dark year, I began my study of Buddhist nuns in Taiwan as a scholarly endeavor taking a historical approach. I had little understanding of Buddhist practice. I had only meditated a few times and had a very rudimentary understanding of the main principles. But Taiwan is the perfect place to research and practice Buddhism with its numerous Buddhist temples, large and small, virtually all open to the public, many with public meditation and sutra-study classes. So Taiwan was a site of great pain for me, but also a place of great fortune.
Around this time I brought my students to Lingjiu Shan temple on a fieldtrip. This was the small temple on a cliff above the sea I wrote about in the Preface to my book. We learned walking meditation and the Abbot Hsin Tao spoke with us at length. He stressed the urgency of Buddhist practice and asked: “If not now, when?” When will you face it?”
To my ears I heard these words as: How did I get here? Put away the words “victim,” “betrayed,” and “broken.” Trace the path of choices I made and the people I hurt. And then understand why. In my “Preface,” I wrote that I “sought refuge” but “refuge” at that point meant “escape” or at best, a search for solace. It would take more years for me to understand what taking refuge meant in a Buddhist sense. The Chinese term for “practice” is “cultivation,” and it rightly connotes a long-term process.
In 2009 I left Taiwan for the United States; my son was already at college in the US. Though I visited Taiwan regularly after that, I never imagined I would return to Mucha. But in the fall of 2018, I won the Sheng Yen Fellowship in Chinese Buddhism at the same university where I had taught in the late 1990s. I was apprehensive at first. On arrival I gingerly entered through the main gate and began walking under the covered walkway from the library to the uphill campus. It was the same route I took many times in the past, often in tears. The bamboos and flowering trees towered over me; the scent of wild ginger flowers wafted from under the bridge. A great green quiet enveloped the Bai’nian Building. From here you could walk all sorts of trails. You could hear many species of birds and some cicadas still, even in late autumn if you listened carefully. Below, a new park had been built along the river and people of all ages jogged, biked, and skated.
As I took it all in, I missed playing and laughing with my son. For a moment, I began to beat myself again for the mistakes of those years, but then I stopped and looked up. I breathed in the sunset and watched the bats fluttering above my head, diving for mosquitos. I breathed out and saw again one of my favorite sights in Taiwan, one light after another coming up in the dark hills.
How much did this relative equanimity come from being older, with greater life experience and more confidence? And how much was the result of Buddhist practice? I also would have not arrived here without the wisdom and compassion of dear spiritual friends. I have to conclude that the contribution of each is inseparable from the other.