When I had my first encounter with monastic life seven years ago, my first lesson was in making my bed. As young novice monks in the week-long retreat, we were expected to fold our blankets to crisp, 90-degree-angle perfection.
I didn’t quite understand the point of it, but I did it anyways.
To the best of my ability, at least. It was impossible for me to get my blanket to be more than an oversized burrito.
Fast forward a year, and I returned for a similar retreat. Again, our first lesson was in straightening our bed sheets, folding our blankets, and aligning our pillows. This time, I had a better grasp of how to fold the blanket, and although my angles slouched, it was beginning to look a bit neater.
Since moving to China, I realized that my bedding was essentially the same as what I had during retreats. A wooden board, one cushion, white sheets, and a blanket that was waiting to be folded to perfection.
Surprisingly, Buddhism is rather difficult to find in China. I pass by temples on an almost weekly basis, but I never encounter any services, any opportunities to cultivate or get involved. More often than not, I pay an admission fee to enter and take pictures of myself next to historical sites. Perhaps I can even buy some incense to use.
In any case, the situation here is far removed from what I am used to with temples at home, and that’s having grown up with Chinese Buddhism. Without weekly services, a lack of local Buddhist events, and lack of resources, I’ve turned to practicing Buddhism through my daily habits.
The one I start my day with is making my bed.
By making sure each corner of my blanket is taut and crisp before moving on with my day, the process allows me to reflect and also to catch myself. Not being a morning person, I would much rather skip this unnecessary fuss and come back to a messy bed.
As I make my bed though, I imagine that I am decorating an altar to prepare for a Dharma service. I haven’t had the chance to pleat tablecloths, stack fruit offerings, or smooth the ashes in incense censers since coming to China, but instead I find that I can still practice the awareness and reverence of these actions through making my bed.
In a sense, this absence of Buddhism in my life has shown me that Buddhism can be practiced everywhere. Without an altar and without incense and candles, I can still read sutras at my desk. I can still make my bed in the morning with the same mindset I had when I was adorning the altar. I might be surrounded by shrieking children and the noise of my school cafeteria, but I can still be mindful of the Five Contemplations while eating.
Ultimately, this experience has helped me understand both sides of attachment. One on hand, rejecting peripheral practices of decorating and ritual practice is the aversive side of attachment. One the other, insisting on having an elaborate altar (or any physical altar at all) is the desirous side of attachment. To accept and embrace the practice of decorating an altar for rituals, and to also accept the lack of explicit religion is the practice of non-attachment.
Throughout the process, the mind can remain stable and at ease, and one can find other ways to cultivate. This trip has also made me realize that those of us in places with a proliferation of Buddhist centers are quite spoiled—we have a buffet of Buddhist schools to choose from and can become rather picky with our interests. Here, where retreats are rarely ever open to the public and finding a monk who actually upholds precepts outside of his 9-5 job at the temple is difficult, there are no such options.
But without options, my choices became increasingly clear. I didn’t have to think about which temple to go to—there were none. I didn’t have to think about which sutras to read—I only had one. All I had was what was right in front of me, and it is within these limits that Buddhist practice pervades.
And so, for those who might be interested in Buddhism but have no center to go to, simply do what you can. Listen to YouTube Dharma talks, chant along with recordings, read the books you can find, and make your bed with the same reverence you would have if you were setting up for a Dharma service.