young tibetan monk

Early mindfulness training?

It was 1985 and I visited Mainland China for the first time in my life. I was at Yonghegong, the main Tibetan temple in Beijing, known for its close relations to  Chinese authorities, and just reopened after the Cultural Revolution. It was widely rumoured and probably true that monks here were just government employees, and that as soon as the tourists went home, the monks would return to their wives and life outside the temple ground. In other words, this was not the place you would expect spiritual achievement.

In one room an elderly monk stood in the corner mumbling mantras or sutras (I couldn’t tell the difference) while his fingers went over the rosary. Then a group of noisy Chinese visitors entered, and I remember in particular a small and plump Chinese woman, who pointed to some device in the ceiling, turned to the monk and asked loudly “What’s that?” I was wondering whether the monk in his deep absorption would notice her at all, or maybe would be suddenly pulled out of his meditative state and lose his track. Instead, he just lifted his head slightly, told her softly what the device in the ceiling was, and returned to his recitation.

tibetan monks playing ball

Another form of mindfulness training?

It was very impressive. It was also a very powerful image of one of the effects of meditation. Though we may be less spectacular to look at than the monk I saw, many of us still have the experience that meditation helps us to act and react with a little more freedom. We are less driven by external forces (such as the noisy woman) and also less by internal compulsion (like our inner tensions). With its non-religious, psychological approach to meditation, Acem seems far removed from the monk at Yonghegong. But this kind of mindfulness training may be a feature that we have in common.