I panicked as the monk’s hand slid slowly down my chest to an area in which it had no business. No business at all.
Rewind a few hours and I was sitting comfortably on an express coach from Beijing to the seaside in neighbouring Liaoning province. In a country as vast as China, anywhere less than an overnight sleeper train journey away is practically next door. I was on my way to spend a week in a small island monastery and I was excited. Buddhism, with its Schopenhauer-esque philosophy of mastering desire as the path to contentment had always intrigued me. That and incense. So when I was offered the chance to stay in a real-life monastery with real-live monks, I couldn’t wait to shimmy into my saffron robes and start notching up some über-karma.
On the surface the monastery seemed idyllic, an isolated island retreat of the sort normally reserved for those on a six-figure salary or heavy-lidded rock stars trying to overcome a crack addiction. Each day ferries would carry fishermen and traders, the odd tourist like me and various oddly-shaped bundles that would whimper, bark and squawk and be mollified, beaten or ignored accordingly.
‘China is far more than just the “world’s fastest growing economy”.’
Quiet courtyards hung heavy with the sweet smell of sandalwood incense as visitors knelt before a colossal golden Buddha to a rhythm of drums, chanting and the distant murmur of the waves.
I passed an interesting day learning about monastic life. In fact the monks were just as interested in me as I was in them. Money was a hot topic. Did I find China cheap? How much was a packet of cigarettes in Britain? What did it cost to study in Oxford? How much did my parents earn? How much did I pay for my shoes? All these questions they asked with an eagerness that transcended mere intellectual curiosity. So much for renouncing worldly possessions!
Then it came to the sleeping arrangements. I was to share floor space with a tubby middle-aged and very jovial monk who was rather fond of soap operas. I gave up trying to follow the complex developments of various tragic love triangles as I struggled to keep my eyes open after an early start that morning. My relief when the TV was finally put to bed was short-lived for I was to be kept awake for the next hour by the noises emitted from his super-swish mobile as he messaged his friends on QQ, the Chinese equivalent of MSN. After a bit of pillow talk (“Is Britain in America?”) the lights went out and I dreamt of sleep. It was unbearably hot, made worse by the fact that my bed-buddy seemed to want to snuggle. As he put an arm around my shoulder, only the desire to be a polite guest and the fuzzy memory of a Radio 4 documentary about platonic male intimacy in certain Buddhist communities kept me from protesting too vehemently. But when his hand started to venture south, the line of cultural relativism was crossed, somewhere around my navel I think. I quietly made my discomfort known and he got the message. Next morning I was on the first ferry back to the mainland with a lucky Buddhist charm in my pocket, an apologetic token from my would-be lover that would apparently keep me safe on my travels.
Although such misadventures are far from representative, my overall experience of Buddhism as a living religion differed hugely from the textbook portrayals of R.E. classes, the celluloid religion espoused by Western celebrities and the sanitized version on show at my local Buddhist centre. By the same token, China is far more than just the “world’s fastest growing economy”. Sweeping statements are easy to make but I want to avoid casting casual stereotypes about such a rich and varied patchwork of people and places. I am not a culture-junkie-gapper; I didn’t find myself in China, but then I wasn’t looking very hard. I went with an open-mind and hope that it has been opened still further as the experiences that gradually filled the pages of my diary challenged assumptions and misconceptions I never knew I had.