The Path to Satisfaction: My Life Changing Week.

By Grant W.

I am a lazy teenager. I like to spend summer days sleeping and playing video games. So why on earth would I choose, on my own will, to volunteer at the Chuang Yen Monastery? My curiosity got the better of me. “What would life be like at a monastery? Would it be boring? Strict? Formal?” My dad had volunteered there many times before, but I had stayed at home, doing nothing productive.
At the beginning of the summer, I inquired about my dad’s previous visits. He told me that it was tough work, but I pushed aside his concerns and decided to check it out. Two weeks after school ended, I made my first trip to the monastery. After a day picking up garbage outside, which wasn’t tough work, I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything major. All the nuns were very thankful, but I couldn’t figure out why. The next day, I went again. I sprayed weeds; the nuns were even more thankful than before. By this time, I had already made up my mind; I wanted to stay there for a full week.
When I first raised the issue to my dad, he thought I was insane. In order to stay there, I would have to adhere to monastic life. It would be a requirement to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning for the daily service, eat vegetarian food, and complete volunteer work. Moreover, if we were to go and live there, I would need to work independently without my dad, as he would be doing other kinds of work. I expected this and told him that I could handle it, while secretly beginning to question my decisions.
Fast forward to the first day of our stay at the monastery. I was apprehensive and already regretting my decision. A full week of waking up at 5 a.m. sounded like torture. After we drove there and settled down, we were introduced to our room and given a list of assignments that we needed to finish by the end of the week. First, I helped to organize kitchenware that had been left outside, untouched for an extended period of time. Next, I helped sort food in the kitchen basement and organize the shelves. All this time that I spent helping could have easily gone down the drain had I stayed at home, being my lazy, typical teenage self. These tasks were laborious, robotic, and not particularly exciting.
Staying at the monastery presented many opportunities for me to get to know the others. I had conversations with the staff, volunteers, and the nuns as I worked. This is when I made an important discovery. These people devoted some, if not all, of their time to the monastery. They were helping others, but seemed to enjoy themselves at the same time, which made working with them enjoyable as well.
After all these interactions, I began to perceive that no matter how small or laborious the task was, anything that I helped with was something that someone else didn’t need to do. For instance, if I spent 15 minutes sweeping the kitchen at the end of the day, no one else would have to spend those 15 minutes sweeping the kitchen. This kind of mentality began to prevail in my mind, as I considered how I could better spend time doing things that people didn’t want to do or didn’t have time to do.
As the first couple of days passed, I became accustomed to waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning. I went to the morning service and listened to the chanting. Later, I completed some more laborious tasks, including putting letters into envelopes for a grand total of 10 hours, sorting books in the Great Buddha Hall with Mr. Lee and cataloging books in the library with Mrs. Hsiu. I’m pretty sure I almost fell asleep when I was putting the letters into envelopes. It’s not fun, trust me.
One major task that I considered to be significant was sorting the kitchenware in the toolshed with Ven. Chi-Hong. If I had not been at the monastery on the day that we sorted the kitchenware, who knows how long it would have remained disorganized, dusty, and untouched. After an hour and a half of heavy lifting and organizing, I was feeling horrible. My head hurt from inhaling the dust, my clothes had changed from white to brown, and my hands were grimy. The kitchenware was so dusty because, according to Ven. Chi-Hong, it had been there for so long that she couldn’t even remember. Just let that sink in for a bit. Once again, I realized that I was doing work that others didn’t have time to do.
Halfway through the week, Ven. Pure invited us to have tea. I expected a serious, formal meeting and wasn’t even sure what to say or do. When the time came, I brought a table and a couple of chairs outside. Soon enough, a couple of volunteers and two nuns joined us. I thought it might be awkward, but pretty soon, they were cracking jokes and laughing. The formal and serious time I had envisioned was a total misconception. Later that night, long after the tea party, I made another important discovery. The nuns lived drastically different lives from laymen like us, but this didn’t mean that they were always strict and formal. Looking back, I consider this encounter to be the turning point of the summer. I no longer regretted my decision to stay at the monastery. On the contrary, I was enjoying myself.
On our last day in the monastery, Mrs. Hsiu thanked me for helping her catalog the books. Although I had initially perceived it to be a small task, she was extremely grateful. She only works at the monastery on weekends, and she often runs programs during these two days. Without my help, she said, the books might have been left there for a long time.
I’ve already made a decision to come back next summer. There’s so much work that needs to be completed, and I know that the staff, volunteers, and nuns can always use an additional helping hand. There are two important things that I want to accomplish next summer. First, I want to better understand the meaning of the sutras in the morning and evening services. I listened along, but had no idea what was going on, and I want to know more about the lifestyles of the nuns. Second, I want to go looking for work and be more proactive, instead of waiting for someone to approach me asking me to do something. Occasionally, I would sit around and be lazy, but this happened only occasionally. The entire experience is worth doing for everyone, no matter how old or young they are.
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