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The Art of Not Going Anywhere

The Life Lessons of a Taoist Monk in Northeast China


"In life, everyone needs different types of cups,” said a middle-aged Taoist monk, handing me a freshly poured cup of green tea. 

Inside Tai Qing Gong (太清宫), a sacred Taoist temple in Shenyang, China, a hot cup of tea is the mediator of my conversation with Xi Yi, a Taoist monk who chose to leave his life's pleasures to fill up the void in his heart. (I’ve changed his name, at his request, to protect his privacy.)

Temples in China are more than just places of worship. They are where you get to see the deepest desires of humanity laid out on open display, which most of the time circle back to “衣食住行” (yī shí zhù xíng) – an old Chinese idiom describing the four essentials of living: clothing, food, shelter, and transportation. But no matter how many years have passed, people also gather in these sacred spaces to also seek two main things: To seek what was lost, or to find what hasn't been found.


This was the case for Xi Yi,  a middle-aged man of calm gestures, who told his life story with resigned-looking eyes. He was a troublesome child, an extremely difficult one to be around, the one who always picked fights with friends and family. “I was narrow-minded and restricted,” he said. “I was in conflict all the time, inside and out.” After conflict upon conflict, he shut himself off from people and turned his eyes to books, especially "天龙八部"(Tiānlóng bā bù), the first book that inspired Xi Yi  to take a leap of faith, pack his bag from Henan to Shenyang, and pilgrimaging on a spiritual path of no return.

It is clear that the past he left behind is not something he revisits often: “At the age of 16, I decided to leave everything behind to come here,” the monk explained, “People are going to university to educate themselves on different subjects, I come here to start the education about life. And the first three years are the tests whether to stay or to leave”. 

“Just like everyone who comes to this temple, I had many life dissatisfaction and unanswered questions,” he explained, pointing out a window at young men and women outside, visitors in their early twenties who were burning incense and offering food to the deitie, one of them is Black Mama (黑仙) -  the black fox patron saint, a notable figure from Manchu shamanism, which implies a blending of religious cultures in Northwestern China. 

His duty as a monk is to manage people in the temple, internally and externally. Having this special position has given him many opportunities to talk to many visitors. “A lot of Chinese people come to the temple in pursuit of what Taoism calls ‘life's pleasures’ - money, love, family,” Xi Yi explained. After spending more than 20 years at the temple, he no longer yearned for it. “I am doing the opposite; every day, I am learning to live with less.” If the 幸福 (Xìngfú - happiness) of some lies in accumulating wealth and acquiring larger homes, “my own 幸福 is found in leading a simple life, adhering to the three fundamental principles of the Tao Te Jing,” 

One is compassion, two is frugality, and three is not daring to lead the world (Living passively).
Built in 1663, Tai Qing Gong was the first Taoist temple ever built in Dongbei, the chilly northeastern corner of China. It was constructed in the capital city Liaoning province, Shenyang, as a call to prayer for rain during a deadly drought. Back in those days, people struggled to survive because of the lack of food. Three hundred and sixty years later, when drought is no longer an issue, new and more abstract issues naturally emerge; people come to the temple to seek something that could elevate their life’s fundamentals 衣食住行 (yī shí zhù xíng). Things that, as society progresses, extend beyond the necessities of life into worldly desires.

“When they don't find what they need here, they search elsewhere,” Xi Yi said, gesturing towards the fortune-tellers and Taoist souvenir stalls lining the temple's approach. If one always seeks fulfillment externally, they will eternally be on a search. 

"The key is to look within one's heart" the monk said.

Holding the same paper tea cup in his hand, he pointed at it, and said: “At different stages of our lives, we seek different types of cups to contain our tea.” Some people like to have a lot of cups; some can only afford to have one. “I am a lazy person,” the Taoist monk said with a faint smile. “Unlike others who have the desire to do big things. I am happy to fall behind at the end.”

“For me, I choose to use the paper cup that the temple gives me. And this is enough.”


Papang Ruckpanich

Papang is a senior Study Away student from NYC campus, majoring in Media, Culture and Communication. Bangkok, Thailand is where she called home, though she has been living abroad in England, Wales (studied in a castle like Harry Potter), and on the ship (Suite life on deck Life!) since the age of 13. She considers herself an explorer. She likes to discover new stories through the lens of a mindful traveler, whether it is in chaotic cities or the vast natural world. 

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