At 6 p.m., a man wearing a yellow, ankle-length robe closes the iron gates of Chinatown’s Pu Chao Temple. He takes a cup of oolong tea to his usual seat inside the service room and begins meditating before a wall of Buddhist figurines and flowery ornaments. At one point, a Chinese nun enters the room to present incense sticks at the altar. A few silent bows later, she leaves him alone again.
Other disciples at the temple come in and out, but none of them know exactly how Zhi Wei, a novitiate monk of two years, came to be practicing Buddhism in Chinatown. Few of them speak English. Like most other members of this Buddhist community, they’ve come to accept the dark-skinned foreigner in their midst.
The abbot of the temple, Zhi Wei’s Chinese shifu (teacher), says that this is the first time he’s accepted a non-Chinese disciple into his temple. “Black, white–I don’t care,” he says in Mandarin. “Here, we have empathy. Good people can turn bad, and bad people can turn good.”
If there is such a thing as rebirth, then Zhi Wei’s story is a prime example. He’s gone from serving prison time for assault and drug dealing to living as a monastic in search of inner peace. “I was a bad man,” he says. He won’t talk much about his former life and refuses to share his birth name.
Zhi Wei was only 13 years old when he spent his first night in jail in the winter of 1983. In a wool Kangol hat and oversize sheepskin jacket, the eighth-grader trudged across the playground of his Long Island City high school, where he had been summoned to the principal’s office. There, the police were waiting to arrest him for a violent exchange on the middle school campus over his girlfriend, says Zhi Wei. He declines to discuss the details, but says that even as the police sprang forward to handcuff him, he thought, “It was nothing.” He’d seen his friends put behind bars since they were ten years old.
Still, the arrest became Zhi Wei’s own rite of passage to manhood. For the next twenty years, he was in and out of prison—for weapon possession, robbery and assault. His life revolved around money, girlfriends and illegal drugs. He was entrenched in gang activities, and violence was standard—both by him and against him. “People were looking for me for a lot of things,” says Zhi Wei. “It was a badge of honor, when you were in those circles.”
Although he refuses to provide specific details, Zhi Wei says he spent his last sentence of two years in a prison in upstate New York. He recalls that by then his four children had finally learned the true story of his life: Daddy wasn’t going to the military. He was a jailbird.
Their father’s last time behind bars, however, was a turning point. A fellow prisoner handed Zhi Wei an English translation of the Buddhist sutras—recorded teachings of Siddhartha, the first Buddha. Zhi Wei had read texts of other religions, but nothing called out to him like the sutras did.
Zhi Wei had never been a particularly pensive person. The closest he had come to meditation had been sitting among some rocks after downing a shot of Japanese sake, he says. But, he slowly realized that true meditation didn’t require help from substances. From prison, Zhi Wei wrote to religious monasteries in New York asking for reading materials. Alongside other inmates, he practiced meditation in a Buddhist prison group called the Blue Lotus.
After every previous prison term, Zhi Wei had relapsed into his former lifestyle. This time, at 33-years old, he did not return to his old habits. When Zhi Wei arrived home from upstate New York, he began working remedial jobs as a deliveryman and security guard. But to Zhi Wei any type of business came to represent dishonesty in the human world. Earning money made him feel uncomfortable, he says. It was around then that Zhi Wei found his calling—the priesthood.
Zhi Wei says that he felt the only way to continue his life was to exchange his family for a monastic existence. When people ask him how or why he became a monk, his answer is simple: “This monk didn’t choose this path. This path chose me for something.”
Now in his second year of practice, Zhi Wei says he doesn’t want to think about the past anymore. He calls those memories his “inner demons”—parts of himself that he needs to suppress. To that end, he has chosen to live outside the constructs of regular society. He doesn’t visit his family and doesn’t hold a paying job. “How can you practice as a priest if you still have those attachments?” he asks.
From the shaven head to the austere clothing, everything about a monk’s life is aimed toward achievement of a higher spirituality and detachment from the outer world.
Zhi Wei spends his days reading Buddhist scriptures, chanting at daily services, and cleaning the floors of the prayer room. At night, he sleeps on a wooden platform in the downstairs kitchen and stows his folded robes in plastic trash bags and a duffle bag. The duffle is one of the few possessions he brought with him from home.
Seven years after a life of prison, drugs and crimes, Zhi Wei practices Buddhism at Pu Chao Temple with conviction: “It was the grace of Buddha… that’s why I’m here,” he says.
After the visitors of the temple have left, and after the other disciples have retreated to their rooms for resting, Zhi Wei finds peace in mopping the temple’s floors. With his chores completed, he sits down again to meditate in his usual spot. Rows of miniature electric candles light the space; their red and yellow hues soften the loneliness of the dark surroundings. Zhi Wei closes his eyes and begins to doze off.
When Zhi Wei talks endlessly about compassion, truth and understanding, a listener can quickly feel lost in the abstract. But in these silent moments, his philosophy finally makes sense: “This entity is still here, but the world is completely different.”
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