Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Thursday, November 11, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
It's a little after 9am, and I need to get ready to hike up the hill. We will visit the founding monks stupa, then see what is called the "Transmission Cave." Then we will go up to the top to a nunnery and join the nuns for lunch. We sat in the guest/lay Zendo last night, and got instructions for what to do in the morning. The three of us sharing this room didn't hear the bell, so we had a grand time stumbling around in the dark, listening to the chanting from outside the vast Buddha Hall. I just finished cleaning up the typing of the last post, written on a bouncing bus, some of it on a winding mountain road. I will pick this up some time later today.
Saturday November 6th - On the road back to Nanchang
The day was very full, so I didn't get back to this blog until now, traveling back to Nanchang. Today, so far, has been slower paced. Zazen in the lay/guest hall started at 5am. It's quite a hike down dark cloisters to a large square hall with meditation platforms all along the walls. The altar is right in the middle, with a large Buddha in a glassed in case. The large open space around the altar is used for walking meditation. Each person walks at their own pace in a clockwise direction, faster walking toward the center, slower walking toward the outer circles. Some walk very briskly, others more slowly. If you want to change pace, just move in or out as needed. Very efficient, with passing on the right! People begin with walking as they arrive before 5am. A small mokugyo sounds the end of walking, and people take a seat, women on the Buddha's right, men on the left. We have been assisted in our stay here, and led in practice in the Zendo, by Ven Ming Yi, who has been cheerful and accommodating. Sitting is one straight hour. Zazen ends with the mokugyo, and people make their way out of the hall. I happened on the monks meditation hall in my wanderings around the temple yesterday. It has the same basic arrangement as the lay zendo. We also saw the monks' zendo at the Mazu's temple, and the new one being build at Baizhang's temple, and the arrangement was the same. The only difference I noticed was the platform for the monks was deeper, allowing them to sleep there, sodo style.
As we left the zendo at 6am, the monks were still in service in the Buddha Hall. We slipped in to join them for the last 20 minutes. The service has the same format in the morning here as the afternoon service at Tiantong. I'm sure the chants are different, but it's hard to tell if you aren't familiar with them. After service comes breakfast in the dining hall, which is close to jihatsu style. Servers prowl the hall constantly with an endless succession of offerings. Breakfast always has congee, rice gruel, and today also included steamed buns for the starch. There were five or six other dishes, mostly vegetables, some with some small dark beans, others with some tofu. One was quite hot, a pleasant surprise for me, no so much so for others in our group. We had considered a trip up the mountain to a Daoist community way up on the peak. It's not really a temple, not exactly a monastery, and too big for a hermitage, but it partakes of a bit of each. We discovered the road does not go that far, and it would take too long to hike all that way. Some of us were up for it, but time would not allow as we had to pack up and get on the road by 10:30. We did have time to meet the Vice Abbot, Ven. Ming Ji. Like most of the other temple officers we have met he is very young for such a large temple. The generation of monks between fifty and 70 was decimated during the cultural revolution. This fact is especially poignant for Gyokuko and me, as this is exactly our generation. I expressed admiration for way the temple preserves the history of such an early ancestor, and the way the whole valley holds the spirit of deep practice.
Yesterday we spent the time after breakfast hiking up the mountain to the Fourth Ancestor's stupa. It is huge compared to the others we have seen. The Fourth Ancestor, Dayi Daoxin, is known for establishing the first monastery of the Zen tradition. Before that, Zen monks were ordained and practiced in places of other traditions. Zen was a movement within the larger Buddhist establishment, sort of like the early "evangelical" movement, not in terms of proselytizing, but in the emphasis on direct experience. Wtih Daoxin Zen had its first real home. This set the stage for the monastic rules of Baizhang. We'll come back to him, but for now first I will describe yesterday's hike.
Since I wrote the last paragraph we stopped for lunch at a vegetarian restaurant. Just down the street Gyokuko spied a placed called "Jazz Island Coffee." She had a hankering for a good "cuppa," and she induced Richard, Robert and me to leave the restaurant early and leg it to Jazz Island, which turned out to be a fancy place. We were trying to figure our the menu when Andy popped in and explained that it would take a very long time if we each ordered a coffee drink. A current fad in China is not espresso, it's what they call "Viennese coffee." It's made with a vacuum system heated with a spirit lamp in a brass and glass contraption out of Jules Verne. It's rather like a stove-top version popular in the US back in the 40s and 50s. Roshi Kennett had one she was very fond of. The system in Jazz Island was a more sophisticated version with a brass samovar like container heated by a spirit lamp. When the weight of water in the pot reached a given point, it tipped a balance and shifted a lever that put out the spirit lamp. Then the vacuum in the samovar siphoned it back up a tube, to be drawn out of the samovar by a spigot into our waiting cups. All in all a slow process, and we had to do it twice. Eric saved us from what would have taken more than an hour by ordering a pot with to-go cups. It was worth it. Very tasty, high quality. Not as strong-flavored as the espresso based drinks we're used to, but very nice. The young ladies at the bar were amused by four of us watching with intense interest as the process played out.
Now, about yesterday. Visible from the the temple grounds, up in the mountains to the northwest, are a number of' intriguing structures. One turns out to be the Fourth Ancestor's stupa. Above it and to the right is an imposing white edifice. That is the new shrine structure around the "Transmission Cave," where the Fourth Ancestor transmitted dharma to the Fifth Ancestor. There is an imposing granite stairway all the way to the stupa, then beyond and up to the cave. It looks a bit like a mini "Great Wall" winding up the mountain. Most of our group set out for the climb and received history lessons from Andy and Eric along the way. The area is famous for hermitages and temples, but also for the first dictionary of medicinal herbs, written by a doctor who wandered all through the area sampling and writing about the herbs he found there.
At the top of the first ascent we came to the stupa. This structure is original and looks it. Looking up at the dome from inside, it's a miracle it's still standing. This one is open, so we could go inside to see the altars inside. This is because it no longer holds the Ancestor's body. A few years after his death, his body was found intact and moved to the temple below as was often the custom. The temple burned down later and the body lost. From those ashes Sarira, or "shari" as they are known in both China and Japan, were found. These are pearl-like beads found in the ashes after cremation and associated with great spiritual attainment. These were kept as relics and buried under another memorial altar, which was yet again lost in a fire. Now they are pretty sure the shari are buried somewhere under the current temple. This temple is another very nice one, like Mazu's. It fits in the valley beautifully, and is in harmony with the terrain, also like Mazu's. We continued up the hill to the cave, which has been turned into a shrine in a somewhat unfortunate modern style, including stone patterned wallpaper on the interior structure in front of the little cave. The view from there, however, is wonderful, even with all the smoke, haze, and smog over the valley. From there we continued to the newly built nunnery. This leg of the journey involved less climbing, as we descended a bit as well as climbed into a little valley nook in the mountains.
I don't recall the name of this temple, but this very new facility is stunning, and also fits beautifully into its surroundings. We had lunch there, and I noticed how much this group's meal style resembled oryoki. They have little brushes, kind of like a shaving brush, but longer and more slender, that they use for cleaning the bowls. That looks very efficient and quiet. We had tea with a senior nun, served by a very young novice. After a bit another nun joined us who spoke impeccable English with something like a British accent. She told us the temple there is of the Caodong (Soto) lineage, as is the Fourth Ancestor's temple. I noticed a very similar architectural style between the old and new buildings, and she affirmed the nunnery is a sub-temple of the ancient one below. This temple has a very refined and elegant style, evident in the way the tea service was set out, and the furnishings in the room. It was like a little Shangrila in that tiny valley high in the mountains above the Fourth Ancestor's temple. I should mention that Roshi Kennett was known to our English speaking nun. She seemed please to meet people from her lineage touring Chinese Buddhist sites.
Our trip back was greatly accomodated by two vehicles supplied by the nuns. One was a minivan with nice comfortable seats. The other was a delivery van with some seats and a cargo area in the back. I drew a short straw and was carted down the hill on a rubber pad kept in back there for passengers. I shared the journey with Eric, our translator, and two other Chinese speakers. We had to get to our bus to go to the Fifth Ancestor's Temple not too far away. We didn't have very much time there, but it is a very popular site as it is also deeply associated with the Sixth Ancestor, the most famous of them all. This is the site of the poetry contest and the transmission of the robe and bowl that is immortalized in the platform sutra. There is a shrine building dedicated to the rice pounding apparatus supposedly used by Huineng as he toiled in anonymity before the famous poetry event to determine the succession. The wall used for the poems is long gone, and the poem was erased by the Fifth Ancestor with his shoe (a rude gesture) anyway. After the poems were read, the Fifth Ancestor called on Huineng to invite him to the secret transmission at midnight. There is a cave above the temple that is purported to the be site of this transmission. All of this was done, if you haven't read the story, to protect Huineng, an uneducated rube, from the other monks who would not like to see the succession go to such an upstart. There is long set of steps up the mountain to this site, which is well lined with vendors, as you would imagine. We have, naturally, many photos of this site. There are many little grottos and cave shrines further up the hill, and another rock associated with an emperor who meditated there, and another stupa way up at the top of the climb. We had to hurry down from that site to get to our bus before they closed the temple compound at 5pm.
That, as I mentioned, was yesterday. Today we had an easier schedule in the morning, which allowed me to do some writing on this blog and process some photos. After tea with the Vice Abbot and the obligatory group photo, we got on the bus and made our way back to Nanchang, with our lunch and coffee adventure. Then back to the same hotel we were in a few days ago. We are to have a very short stay here. We arrive after dinner, then up at 5am, early breakfast, and back on the bus at 6. We need to get to the airport for a flight to Shanghai, then another to Zhengzhou where we will stay two nights and start the northern part of our journey. We are now closer to the end than to the beginning, and I'm starting to feel a little sad that the time is getting short.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
We had tea with the abbot after our tour. After a basic talk about practice in the area I told him the atmosphere and energy of Baofeng is especially wonderful. He replied that it is best to have a quiet and peaceful environment for practice, and that today we were blessed with that. We all laughed and appreciated this observation. Then I mentioned the two old trees right up against the Buddha Hall planted by Mazu himself 1200 years ago. All the buildings are still oriented around those and other old trees, maintaining the ancient relationship of the buildings with the land and a connection to the past that is palpable. He smiled rather deeply at that. Elsewhere in China the old is being knocked down and plowed over, or ripped up and yanked out as the new and shiny spreads out over the land, much of it quite slapdash,but some quite well done. The new temple going up at Baizhang's Dharma seat, where we were yesterday, is amazing. It is huge, with vast open plazas, exterior incense burners of monumental proportions, and shiny new statues still being created everywhere. I have some great photographs that show the process of creating 20 foot high statues in situ. This is all new from the ground up, and while the workmanship is first rate, but it is as sterile as Tienanmen Square. I'm sure it will be quite nice in 20 years when the new gardens are established. Right now it feels like a tract housing development. A nice one, mind, like the McMansions up on Skyline Drive in the west hills of Portland.
As the new complex goes up, the old temple at Baizhang is still there, just to one side of the new, and oriented at about a 40 degree variance to the new temple, which surprised me. From the angle of the sun, it seemed the old temple was correctly oriented on a north-south access, while the new one is quite different. The poor old relic is a prime example of the crumbling remains of what had probably been a pretty funky rebuilt version of the original, with a shoddy restoration some time in the past 30 years. Maybe the new developers thought it would be easier to start from scratch, which I understand. The change of orientation, however, appears to me to reflect a similar shift in the attitudes of the builders. In the past, great emphasis was placed on positioning a temple carefully, aligning with the energy of the land. With the new, much has been gained in size and grandeur, but something precious has been lost. At least that's my impression.
The area around the temple, however, still has its history. On the hillside above the old temple is the founding monk's Stupa. This is an important spot for Zen history, because it honors the memory of the monk who created the monastic rules for the Zen tradition. This may seem like monument to bureaucracy, but in fact is was a revolutionary declaration of independence. Zen monks had existed within the established monastic tradition that required the monks to rely on begging and not work at all. In effect, this made the monasteries dependent on patronage from the aristocracy. Baizhang's new rules created monastics that worked in the fields, becoming more self sufficient. Zen monasteries were established in the mountains, near a spring, with plantable land for cultivation, and through farming became nearly free of the political winds of the cities and imperial court. The wildly independent spirit of Zen survived for centuries because of this development. It's been lost and regained from time to time, but this foundation is a point of reference to remind us where we come from. We made our prostrations and bows, then continued up the hill.
That's where the fox cave can be found, not too far beyond the founder's stupa. It's just a little cleft in the rocks, creating a small hollow. It was here that the body of a fox was fond and given the funeral of a monk. "Do not be deceived by karma," a key phrase in our teaching line, comes from this story. I have a great picture of Gyokuko grinning from inside that hollow like the ghost of a fox. From there we went further up the hill to several large rocks. Two commemorate the founding of the Zen Monastic rules at this temple. The are marked with ideograms to this effect. The third large stone is known as the place where a young man with imperial relatives went to meditate when he was a "home leaver" under Baizhang. Apparently he developed an attachment with a local peasant girl who was kind to him. Baizhang was known for whacking his monks from time to time, and this young man took a couple of good blows. Later, as luck would have it, the death of an uncle and other vagaries of imperial politics led to his being called to the court to become emperor. One side of the story is that Baizhang quickly became famous as the monk who twice struck the emperor, and people flocked to meet and study with such a great man. The other side of the story is that the new emperor decided the young girl in the village was just the one for him. He sent a platoon of soldiers to fetch her to the palace. On their arrival the village was alarmed. When they heard that they had come for this young girl, she was terrified and killed herself, lending a tragic air to the lonely meditation stone. This was the second or third story we have heard about local peasant girls and near misses with royal marriages. Cinderellas in these parts have not made out quite so well as others.
Since writing the section above we entered a very windy, bumpy section of road, careening down the mountain from Mazu's temple, and I had to suspend this effort. Traffic on narrow mountain roads in China is not something to take lightly. After we got to the valley, in a little while we came to one of the modern toll roads, a bit like the turnpikes in the US northeast. They are divided highways, not quite as big or fast, but with rest stops complete with some pretty fancy services. No HoJos, however. So I can now resume my typing on the little netbook. Gyokuko just came back with a bag of snacks, as our little stash just ran out. Others brought back packages of tea, fruit, both fresh and dried, and other sundries. We still have quite a trip ahead of us, the total being about 3 1/2 to 4 hours all together, as we head north toward the Fourth Ancestor's temple. We will spend two nights there, the first time we will stay in a temple and practice with the monks since we got here. Our plans to stay at the new temple at Baizhang's seat was scrapped as the facilities are not yet finished. Strangely, I am not at all disappointed.
Looking back over the past few days it is already becoming something of a blur. There has been little time to write, but I have been uploading photos to Fliker, and labelling them and adding captions has helped keep places and events clear. If you are interested in following the photos as they go on-line and don't have a flikr account, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to receive an invitation to view the photos. She can send it from the account to your e-mail address
Here is a brief list of the places and events I have yet to describe in this blog. First is Moshan's Dharma seat, which is undergoing a complete rebuild, and is near Kwuanyin Spring. Next is Huangbo's Dharma seat which is at the end of a remote country road. It is also being rebuilt, but there is currently no activity there at all, and there are remnants of the old temple scattered in the fields there. Nothing at all was left standing. His stupa, however, is some distance on a very pleasant walk along a river, through a farming settlement, then up a mountainside a little way. Then there is Dongshan's temple and the bridge where he saw his reflection, also quite high in the mountains away from most of the appalling air pollution. Finally, there is the little restaurant/club where we ate several meals while in the area near Moshan and Dongshan. This is a cultural revolution retro affair with posters and slogans from the era and a spartan atmosphere that is true to the times. I think the facility, right behind our hotel, is left over from those days. Apparently the effect is a little ironic, and a little nostalgic in a way unique to China at this point in time. It is called "Go Forward!" after a slogan from those days. Andy calls it "The Great Leap" I'll have more to say about these places in the next post.
Now, on to the Fourth Ancestor, where Zen found its first monastic home.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The last time I posted we had yet to see anything significant on the Zen tour, and since then we have seen a lot. I will, by necessity, have to be brief. The first temple we spent much time in is Ayuang Si, or the "Ashoka Temple" in Ningbo. Ashoka lived in India before Buddhism was a presence in China, so we were curious about this place. Apparantly the name comes from a dream a Chinese emporer had. It had to do with the merit of the Indian emperor Ashoka who established a reign of peace and harmony based on Buddhist principles, so that's a pretty good connection. The significant thing for us, however, is that this is the temple of the "Mushroom Monk," as we started calling him. This is the old Tenzo, or chief monastery cook, who made such a deep impression on young Dogen when he first arrived in China in the 1220s. This old monk gave Dogen solid, basic practice advice, and set his feet on the path in a solid way. Later Dogen visited him at this temple. We went to the kitchen to pay respects to this old teacher, even thought the temple has been rebuilt a number of times, and the kitchen is probably nowhere near the site of the one in Dogen's time. It's the thought that counts.
Next we went to Tientong Si, where Dogen practiced under Rujing. I was struck by how much it resembled Eiheiji. It is nestled in a mountain valley, close set on each side by wooded hills. It climbs up the valley in terraced settings for each main hall, so the temple climbs up the incline just as Eiheiji does. It has cloisters on either side that climb the hill with steep steps getting steeper at the top, above the main buildings. Way up at the top is a pavilion with a glorious view over tiled roofs toward the towering pagoda. That is a bit different than Eiheiji, which has a small pagoda, but similarly located. It is much funkier than temples in Japan, especially the gorgeous, immaculate Eiheiji, but the feel is wonderful.
Traveling with us is Eric and Samantha, from Wales, who practice in the Ch'an tradition. They figured out the schedule and how to join the monks for the evening service at 3pm. That turned out to include a special ceremony in honor of the ancestors of a group of lay people who offered incense and made prostrations. This added considerable length to the service, with an elaborate procession much like our serpentining. Everyone joined in, much as we do it at Dharma Rain. There were drums and cymbals, small bells and mokugyo. It was quite the treat for those who joined in, which was most of us. Others went to the top of the hill, where there is a hall of the arhats. On the other side of the wall is a national forest. The birders in the group went to do a little observing.
After the service we met an old monk who came out to greet us. I have his name and position here in front of me, which he wrote in a clear hand in elegant Chinese characters. When I get that translated, I'll let you know what it is. He was very interested in us foreign visiters, and enjoyed chatting with us through Eric, our guide and translater for the whole tour, and Mary, our Ningbo guide.
It's almost time for dinner at an amazing place here in the mountains near Huangbo's Dharma Seat. It's a restaurant called "Go Forward!" Andy calls it "The Great Leap Forward." It is, if you can imagine it, a retro/nostaglia theme spot based on the old Cultral Revolution days. Right now there is an old patriotic march in the heroic worker mode blaring from the PA. There are old posters and slogans on the wall. It's all a bit ironic, but not in the way we think of irony. They are not yet that jaded.
Well, time to go eat a turnip and old potato!
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Andy and Eric were waiting for us with a bus to take us to our hotel. Very accommodating. But again, another big line to check in. There is an expo in Shanghai, so all the hotels are very busy. They do things big in China. Seventy million people have attended the Expo since it opened last May. That's more than 1/4 of the population of the USA. We are now in Ningbo, near Rujing's temple, where Dogen trained and was enlightened. We will see that tomorrow. This little town near Shanghai has a population of two million people, five million in the metro area.
Another reason I am late posting to this blog is that I have been unable to connect with either Blogspot or Facebook since I got here. I can log on to other sites, so I'm wondering if those sites are blocked in China. I'm writing this in our hotel in Ningbo, saving it on my laptop, hoping to upload it when I can. That may turn out to be back in Portland. If so, my apologies for keeping you waiting.