Saturday, November 6, 2010

Thursday November 4th - On the bus from Mazu's temple to Huangmei

We just left Mazu's Dharma seat in the mountains Jiangxi provence, known in ancient times as Hongzhou. Baofeng, Precious Peak temple, was refreshing and inspiring. Nearly all the temples we have seen so far seem to be either coming or going, either being being built brand new, or crumbling away. Many of the older temples have had shoddy restorations in years past, some with rusting tin roofs over the incense burners in the courtyard. The workmanship has not worn well in these temples. Their condition speaks of the troubled days of the civil war, occupation, more civil war, then Communist neglect followed by the Cultural Revolution. Monks did their best to keep the old places going through all these difficulties. Baofeng is different. It went through some level of restoration in the 1990s, but the bones of the place are excellent. On a quick tour a monk pointed out two very large old trees right outside the Buddha Hall, so close the they almost brush the eves of the enormous hall. All over the grounds there are large trees and well established plantings intermingled with the temple buildings, making the complex blend in with the mountain in a way I haven't seen in quite the same way elsewhere.

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.

Part two

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 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.

1 comment:

  1. so, those two giant trees in baofeng... would one of those be the cypress tree in the garden? ;o)

    keep posting, teacher, i'm enjoying this.