PEI, HOPE for the best but expect the worst

中文版

18 Dec 2017

Prince Edward Island, Canada  – Reports have emerged that embattled Taiwanese Buddhist group Bliss and Wisdom, known as GEBIS in Canada, will open a private school in PEI as early as next fall. The school will be named HOPE, which stands for ‘Happiness, Optimism, Peace and Excellence’.

In June, a group of senior monks, including two former abbots, left Bliss and Wisdom’s monastery in Taiwan to expose sex scandals, corruption and Chinese interference in the 100,000-strong Buddhist organization. Since then, Bliss and Wisdom has come under fire for its misconduct from the Dalai Lama and Buddhist leaders. Although Bliss and Wisdom’s unconventional spiritual leader Mary Jin has been widely criticized for her cohabitation with supposedly celibate monks, her extravagant lifestyle and ties to China, she remains firmly in control of the organization.

GEBIS’ growing footprint in PEI and persistent secrecy has been a source of disquiet among Islanders for years. Adding to its recent troubles in Taiwan, Mary Jin’s safe haven in PEI has come under increasing scrutiny. Last year, the monks feared that an outbreak of tuberculosis and a severe rat infestation would be the death knell for GEBIS. Fortunately for them, the monks managed to tap on local connections to convince local media to scale down coverage. Former monks also reveal that the tuberculosis outbreak was successfully concealed from local authorities, while the monks worked overnight to catch rats and clean up the monastery before health inspectors arrived to check on the rat situation.

Please refer to CBC article below for information about the HOPE school GEBIS plans to set up:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-chinese-english-school-mandarin-1.4300044

HOPE school staff: three’s a crowd

Although local media coverage has generally favored the monks, and the government has largely turned a blind eye to GEBIS’ problems, some Islanders remain concerned.

I first heard about Mary Jin’s intention to open a private school in PEI early this year. I was incredulous that it would ever work and fully expected the scheme to fall flat on its face.  Although the monks I knew tried their best to practice kindness and what they thought was ‘Buddhist’ teachings, I found them to be shockingly ignorant about Western culture and values. Allow me to explain…

Many of the monks, including some who grew up in the monastery and some who were ordained for several years, found me to be too ‘Westernized’ and ‘pro-Western’. They sought to tell me all about how evil Western countries, particularly the US, are invading the Middle East to steal oil, trapping poor African countries in debt, and turning South America into a barren wasteland with GM food. My attempts at providing a more nuanced perspective, suggesting that the reality on the ground would have consisted of both positive and negative impacts, were met with the reply, ‘You have been brainwashed by the evil Americans! That is what the Americans want you to think!’ I gave up all hope of having intelligent conversations with them on these topics.

American cultural imperialism is diluting Chinese values, they say, and Bliss and Wisdom’s K-12 school in Taiwan (the BW Edu Park) will rejuvenate Chinese culture by upholding purity amidst a flood of evil. Apparently, China’s economic preeminence could allow Chinese to replace English as the global language of the future, but more importantly, China’s rise will help spread traditional Chinese values worldwide to counter evil, materialistic Western norms.

While I am aware of Western ‘evil’, I am well acquainted with Chinese ‘evil’ as well. Tibet, Xinjiang, Tiananmen, the Cultural Revolution…

On multiple occasions I was very tempted to retort, ‘For all your talk about “gratitude” and “positivity”, that’s a lot of hate you have for America. If hundreds of thousands of American soldiers hadn’t died for our sake in WWII, you and I would be speaking Japanese instead of Chinese today.’  But I held my tongue. I was there to learn about Buddhism, not debate about current affairs.

Last year, I spoke to another monk who visited a Waldorf school near New York with the previous abbot, Venerable Ru Zheng. It was a casual visit, initiated by a Bliss and Wisdom follower, to introduce the monks to alternative education systems. The monk told me that they were pleased to see that at least the Waldorf school exposed children to great thinkers and classics at an early age. ‘But I find that they fail to inculcate moral values in their children, because unlike us, they do not teach their children to emulate those saints. That is why Bliss and Wisdom’s philosophy of education is superior,’ said the monk.

I was so horrified I could not speak. Many thoughts raced through my head – why are we Chinese Buddhists judging other cultures using our own cultural frame of reference? How would we feel if they did it to us? Perhaps it makes perfect sense for them to introduce their children to different philosophies, different perspectives and allow them to make their own choices? Maybe they do not wish to impose notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘holy’ and ‘unholy’ on their children? Maybe we have something to learn from them as well. So much can be said about cultural values and education – but it appeared to me that all conversations had to end with ‘Chinese values are superior’ or ‘Bliss and Wisdom is always right’. So I kept my mouth shut.

One of Mary Jin’s key doctrines is that it is fine to have doubts about your own guru, but no matter what suspicions or doubts you may have, you must always come to the conclusion that your guru is always right. That is the doctrine of ‘reasonable doubt’ – 合理的猶豫. Mary Jin often emphasizes the scriptures which say that the guru should be viewed as the Buddha, and one should not find fault with one’s guru. As a long-time follower of Bliss and Wisdom, I bought into the doctrine initially. I tried to rationalize and suppress all my doubts about Mary Jin and the organization.

But as I began to read teachings and books from the Dalai Lama, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with Mary Jin’s doctrine. The Dalai Lama made clear that if science could disprove something mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, the scientific explanation should be believed and that segment of the scripture ignored. Again and again the Dalai Lama reiterated the importance of seeking the truth and reality – and that this should supersede scriptural authority and the guru’s words. This was the Buddha’s intention, the Dalai Lama argued, referring to many early records of the Buddha’s words. The discord between Mary Jin’s doctrine and the Dalai Lama’s teachings troubled me for a very long time, and I spoke to many monks, but received no convincing answer. ‘You are still very junior, so you will be confused if you read too many external publications. Focus on the teachings of Master Jih-Chang and Mary Jin, so you don’t get confused,’ they told me.

Another one of Bliss and Wisdom’s cherished doctrines is ‘Observe Merits Appreciate Kindness’ (OMAK), which is basically learning to see the positive side of things and express gratitude to others. Many Bliss and Wisdom followers take OMAK seriously – they are always ‘friendly’, ‘welcoming’ and ‘positive’. Unlike traditional Buddhism, which is usually rather subdued, with lots of introspection, meditation and sutra study, Bliss and Wisdom radiated all the positivity and friendliness of one big, happy family.

But as you can expect, ‘OMAK’ comes with terms and conditions attached. You must always OMAK the guru (Mary Jin) and the monks – never find fault with them. If you can see any faults in your guru or in the monks, that is because your karma is impure. You must repent. Your negative thoughts are causing this misperception. Always OMAK those who volunteer their time and give donations to Bliss and Wisdom. As for other Buddhists or other religions – yeah, we can OMAK them as well if they are doing good deeds, but never lose faith in Bliss and Wisdom. Bliss and Wisdom is always superior because (insert any reason here, e.g. we have the largest sangha in Taiwan, we are growing rapidly and will soon save the world, other Buddhists don’t have enough faith to learn from the great Mary Jin….). As for those who criticize our beloved Mary Jin, we can OMAK them as well because they are helping us practice forbearance, and we must have compassion for them because they will burn in hell!

During my stay in the monastery, words like ‘CULT!’, ‘HYPOCRITES!’, and ‘CHINESE CHAUVINISTS’  kept popping into my head. No way, I thought. I tried to convince myself that it must be my bad karma making me see the holy guru and the triple gem as impure.

There were many times I saw (senior) monks up to some mischief, or saying mean things about people. Occasionally I happened to mention it casually in a conversation, and I was usually told, ‘Oh, it would be out of character for him to say that. Maybe he meant something else.’ Fair enough. But there was once when a monk vehemently denied that a senior monk could ever do something against the rules, and a very interesting conversation ensued.

‘I never saw it,’ he said.

‘Well maybe you weren’t there at the scene. I was there most of the time. Or maybe you didn’t notice, or you forgot. Or maybe I was mistaken. It’s not a big deal, I guess it was a fairly minor rule, but I saw it happen,’ I said.

‘It’s impossible for such a thing to happen. You are not practicing OMAK properly. You are finding fault with the monks. That’s why you see them as impure,’ he told me.

‘Could there not be the slightest chance that…’   I gave up. Some people live in an alternative universe.

If it isn’t clear by now what the HOPE school might look like, let me briefly describe how Bliss and Wisdom Edu Park (their K-12 school in Taiwan) works.

Devout parents who hope to give their children ‘the best education’, grounded in what they consider to be traditional Chinese and Buddhist values, send their children to BW Edu Park in droves, hoping to avoid the evil, materialistic, Western-style education in Taiwanese public schools. There are so many applicants that only 2 out of 5 applicants are accepted. Only children who demonstrate strong faith in Master Jih-Chang and Mary Jin, and are obedient, cooperative and diligent, may be accepted. Their parents and sometimes grandparents are interviewed to see if they possess those qualities as well.

Bliss and Wisdom Edu Park is run as a private boarding school, with little government funding, so private school fees are charged. Teachers typically live on campus, are given room and board, and a small monthly stipend. Most of the landscaping, farming, cooking, and building maintenance are done by an army of unpaid volunteers, who receive free room and board. The campus is surrounded by swathes of organic farmland, owned by BW and its affiliates. The children are not allowed to go home, except for Chinese New Year and the summer holidays, and parental visits are discouraged.

As they grow up, the children are trained to love Chinese, Confucian and Buddhist values, taught the importance of hard work and teamwork, and the importance of guru devotion to Master Jih-Chang and Mary Jin. Difficult and uncooperative children can be expelled and sent home (to disappointed parents). The children are crammed into dormitories – they must sleep, study and eat together at prescribed times. Every hour of the day is scheduled. Communal living encourages teamwork, says Bliss and Wisdom; expect no privacy or individuality. No hobbies. Competitive sports are banned, because competition is Western and evil. Cooperation is a traditional Chinese, Confucian virtue. Free time is best spent working on the farms, to learn perseverance and accumulate good karma. Boys and girls are kept apart; dating and flirting is evil and frowned upon, but that only makes it all the more exciting for the naughty ones.

Alumni of BW Edu Park have told me that it can be quite a polarizing experience – some children love it and some children hate it. Apparently a good way of releasing stress is to climb up to the roof, throw glass bottles to the ground and run away. Some children claim that bullying and fighting is rampant, which teachers turn a blind eye to because they are too tired and busy. The children who have perfected the art of stealing food, especially snacks, are seen as heroes (no food is allowed to be stashed). Widely vilified but secretly admired is the boy who sneaked in a porno mag.

It is from the fertile grounds of BW Edu Park that the monks pick promising young children to join the monastery. Only the best are selected. The lifestyle in BW Edu Park prepares them well for monastic life.

Based on comments by the principal of HOPE school, Derek McEwen, it appears that HOPE school will have a similar education philosophy to BW Edu Park in Taiwan. It is unclear if HOPE school will be a boarding school, or where it will be located.

HOPE school expects to be popular with PEI’s expanding Chinese community, but does not expect many enrollments from English-speakers (i.e. non-Chinese). Chinese immigrants to Canada undoubtedly want a better life for their children and want a Western education, but are afraid of losing their cultural heritage. Chinese parents want their Western-educated children to speak Chinese, not just out of nostalgia, but for practical reasons because of China’s rising power. GEBIS has sought to connect with Chinese immigrants on PEI in an effort to expand its local support base, establishing SinoMutual in 2015. HOPE school will be a great boost to these efforts.

Finally, allow me to explain what HOPE really means, according to Bliss and Wisdom’s doctrine:

H – Happiness. All virtues arise from the guru; your guru is the wellspring of all your happiness.

O – Optimism. Always be positive and OMAK (selectively, of course). We live in a Buddhist utopia, a fantasy land where nothing ever goes wrong because of the power of OMAK.

P – Peace. Buddhists should not pick fights with one another. Other monasteries should not criticize Bliss and Wisdom so that we can live in peace and harmony.

E – Excellence. Everything we do is to please the guru (作師所喜). In order not to upset our guru, we must work hard at what she tells us to do. We must excel because it is the responsibility of Bliss and Wisdom to spread its ‘pure’ version of Buddhism worldwide (建立教法).

Islanders have HOPE, the monks are gonna save ya!

Merry Christmas to all my readers.

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