Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Couple of Days in the Life of Kyogen

Friday November 5th - Fourth Ancestor's Temple

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.

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