April 23, 2020
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When Tobias Baumann ’19 embarked on his summer break this year, he had two main goals: He wanted to enrich his Kenyon education, and to go on an adventure. The perfect opportunity arose when his advisor, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Joy Brennan, recommended a monthlong program that would place Baumann in a Zen Buddhist monastery in China.
A religious studies major from Mount Vernon, Ohio, Baumann has always been fascinated by the search for meaning and the idea that “there’s more to know beyond an objective, scientific mode of operation.” Total, holistic immersion in Buddhist culture and religion was his ideal way of learning more about this philosophy. “I wanted to get a really authentic experience of Buddhism,” he said. “I didn’t want to just read about it.”
His stay in the monastery, sponsored by the Woodenfish Foundation as part of its Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program, provided him with the perfect opportunity to do so. He and 80 other program applicants were selected to live in the Jin’e Temple in Ningbo, China, where they studied the practice and theory of Buddhism first-hand.
“Tobias has a seriousness of purpose about his studies,” Brennan said. “When he expressed interest in Buddhism in my ‘Religion in its Global Context’ course, it occurred to me that he might really benefit from this program.”
Monastic life at the temple, Baumann said, was “very formalized and communal.” He and his peers adhered to a rigid schedule and went nearly everywhere as a massive unit. Each day, they woke at sunrise, performed an hour of tai chi, and ate a silent meal bracketed by 10 minutes of standing meditation and the recitation of a seven-minute chant. After breakfast, program participants listened to three hours of lecture on Buddhist theology and history before eating lunch and meditating for an hour. In the evenings, the group attended classes on Buddhist culture, ate dinner, performed evening chanting, and meditated until dark, when they retired to their rooms. Baumann slept on a floormat shared with three other participants. “This was seven days per week,” he said. “It was very intense.”
The program culminated in a week-long silent meditation retreat. For more than eight-and-a-half hours per day, the participants sat with their backs tall and erect in rigid meditative posture. Keen focus and concentration were pivotal to such a demanding task; otherwise, the position became unbearably uncomfortable. Additionally, Baumann was told to abstain from any sort of communication with his peers. “We weren’t even supposed to make eye contact,” he said. “For an entire week. Honestly, going into it, it seemed unfathomable.”
The final week of silence was arduous, but its payoffs were invaluable. Baumann is eager to apply his freshly tested mental fortitude, as well as his valuable background in Zen Buddhism, to future religious studies courses. “It led me to be healthier, mentally, and I learned a lot about my capacity for self-discipline and mental endurance,” he said.
—Ben Hunkler ’20