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Sutras, serenity and senior citizens

Updated: 2016-08-15 08:02
By Tang Yue in Suzhou (China Daily)

Editor's note: This is the second in a series of reports China Daily will publish looking at the lives of elderly people, the problems they face and the ongoing efforts to improve their standard of living. More stories will be published in the weeks to come.

At first glance, the large building at the foot of Lingyan Mountain in the southwest of Suzhou, Jiangsu province, resembles an upscale holiday resort.

Yet the chants that play in a continuous loop indicate that this is no ordinary retreat. It is a nursing home, whose 60 residents are all Buddhists with an average age of 80.

Situated on a large area of land that includes a bamboo forest, a pond and a small orchard that supplies the residents' food, the home opened in 2012 below the 1,700-year-old Lingyanshan Temple, a Buddhist foundation that sits high on the mountain.

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the land was designated as a State farm, and Master Mingxue, the temple's current abbot, who was manager of the monastery in the years before 1966, became a farmer for a decade alongside a number of other monks.

Sutras, serenity and senior citizens

"Buddhism is never isolated from society," said the 93-year-old, who is also president of the advisory committee of the Buddhist Association of China. "As China's population ages, we're doing our part to deal with this social challenge by providing a place for Buddhist seniors."

By the end of last year, China was home to 222 million people aged 60 and older, and according to Chen Zongrong, deputy director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, 474 - or 1 percent - of the country's more than 40,000 nursing homes are run by religious institutions, so there is great potential for growth.

Master Guanyun, director of the office of the Buddhist Association of Suzhou, said the home is not a new phenomenon because Buddhist temples have traditionally always provided care for a small number of elderly lay believers and, sometimes, relatives of the monks.

"I believe many more temples are doing this, but they keep low profiles," he said, adding that temples in Taiwan and Japan have greater experience of the practice.

Although the number of religious nursing homes is relatively small, they provide religious seniors with much needed, and appropriate, space.

"There is no way I could go to an ordinary nursing home. The diet is different and the schedules are different - most important, the spiritual world is different. Here, we have all of those in common," said Cao Qiuming, an 84-year-old Lingyanshan resident.

She said that rather than visit their families during Chinese New Year and other national festivals, most of the residents choose to stay at the home: "Living here during the festivals is even better than usual, because at home, large families always gather to eat heavy food and everywhere is full of unwanted hustle and bustle."

Life in the nursing home echoes the schedule at the temple. Officially, every day starts at 5 am with the morning chant, which lasts for an hour, but many residents begin their own studies much earlier. There is a second chanting session after dinner, from 5 pm to 6 pm, and masters from the temple occasionally descend the hill to deliver lectures to the residents.

The diet is strictly vegan, although leeks, garlic and onions are also excluded because the pungent herbs are believed to be harmful to the central nervous system and as a natural aphrodisiac, garlic can disrupt vows of celibacy. Religious practice dictates that residents remain silent during mealtimes.

That serenity is what draws many residents. "Many Chinese people of our age are taking care of their grandchildren or watching a lot of TV at home. I don't like that. Here I just feel like I'm at a university. We study very hard and make progress every day," said Guan Yamin, a 73-year-old resident.

Long waiting list

Jin Hongzhan, the home's vice-president, said residents paid a flat fee of 500 yuan ($75) a month until July, when Master Mingxue decided to abolish the charge and fund the home directly through donations to the temple.

Unsurprisingly, there is a long waiting list, but that doesn't discourage new applicants. "In July alone, we received 70 applications," Jin said.

While a small number of nursing homes run by Buddhist temples welcome elderly non-believers, Jin said the Lingyanshan home remains exclusive to those with faith, and prospective residents have to pass religious knowledge tests to gain admittance.

"It has never been an ordinary nursing home. It is fundamentally a place to study and practice Buddhism," he said. "Non-religious people would not fit in here. It would be impossible to have some residents chanting the sutras while others were doing a square dance."

He recalled that when the home opened, the management organized a group of local volunteers to clean the rooms. The idea was abandoned, though, because the elderly residents felt that as beings seeking merit, they should always attend to their own duties.

According to Chen Zongrong, vice-director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, only about one-third of the homes run by religious institutions have registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, which oversees the sector, and many of them are small and lack professional management.

In 2014, the administration convened a national conference on the issue, but no detailed regulations or policies have yet been issued.

Jin said that, depending on their size, some officially recognized homes are eligible for government subsidies, but the application process is long and tortuous, and many religious institutions fear they would have to spend time and energy dealing with a range of government departments if they register.

"We are different from other nursing homes, so the standards should be different. As long as we are doing OK financially, we would rather keep the home our own," he said.

That's exactly how Cao, the elderly Lingyanshan resident, likes it. She has lived at the home for three years, but her family visits frequently from Shanghai, a 30-minute train ride away.

"I love my home, my children and my grandchildren. I talk to them on the phone sometimes, but when I hang up, I just let it go. I don't think about them too much," she said.

"I don't have many concerns anymore. I enjoy inner peace. All I want is to spend my life here in peace until the very end."

Contact the writer at tangyue@chinadaily.com.cn


Sutras, serenity and senior citizens

Left: A volunteer assists an elderly resident as she walks to her dorm at the Lingyanshan Buddhist Nursing Home in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Center: A resident hangs out laundry at the nursing home. Right: An 80yearold resident surnamed Xiang, puts watermelon peel into a plastic bottle to allow it to ferment and become a homemade detergent. Photos By Gao Erqiang / China Daily

Sutras, serenity and senior citizens

 Sutras, serenity and senior citizens

Top: Seniors eat lunch in the dining room at the Lingyanshan Buddhist Nursing Home. Center: Elderly residents, all lay Buddhists, chant scriptures from 5 pm to 6 pm every day. Above: A resident collects a portion of fruit after lunch at the home. Photos By Gao Erqiang / China Daily

(China Daily 08/15/2016 page1)

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