28-29 May 2018
I hear the music and follow it, the sound of the chanting drawing me like a magnet to its source. I come to a room glowing like the sun, it’s golden light making my eyes widen. There’s a golden Buddha at the back of the room and golden bodhisattvas along the walls on both sides. In the centre there is a table with four golden-robed monks seated along each side. At the head of the table, standing at a higher table, is a priest, also in golden robes, with an elaborate headdress that is something like a cross between a mitre and the headdress of a Balinese Hindu priest. The front wall of the room is little more than a wide-open entranceway divided into three sections by sturdy wooden uprights. The whole room appears to shine, and the chanting and music coming from the monks and their small instruments pulls me like a moth to a flame. This is sacred space and I fall headlong into it.
I see sitting off to the left, on a bench that runs along the wall, a Chinese woman dressed in street wear. Somehow I interpret this as giving me permission to enter. Without thinking I step in and join her. One of the monks sitting at the table gives me a penetrating look but doesn’t miss a beat in his hypnotic chanting. I take my camera bag from off around my neck and push it to one side a little behind me. This is no place for photos. Or for being a tourist. Or for being conspicuous in any way. I don’t know what I’ve stumbled into but I am completely undone by it. I hang my head and begin to silently weep.
In this golden space where they are practicing the sacred rituals of a religion I don’t follow, practicing rituals that have been handed down and honed through the centuries, practicing rituals that are in their essence no different from all the time-worn rituals of all religions and spiritual practices throughout time and throughout the world, I am filled with peace and a connection to some place deep inside me that I’ve not visited for a long time. It feels as if my insides have been rearranged into a truth I’d forgotten. It’s the chanting, the ritual, the devotion, maybe some past life experience, a deep memory that I am not what I think I am, that all is well and always has been, that I am loved, that I am love. Relief arises in me as I remember. Relief and peace flow in on the tears.
I sit there beside the woman for a long time. After a while she goes and kneels on the cushions in front of the monks and I realise I may have walked in on a private ceremony. I stay small and still so as not to interrupt. There is a protocol with Chinese Buddhist temples. There are three openings in the door. The centre opening is for the monks. Others enter on the left and leave on the right. I know I can’t leave as the right-hand door is on the far side of the room from where I am sitting and I’m not going to walk across the room during the ritual. So I sit and dissolve into the energy and beauty of the space and the sound of the chanting and the accompanying music from the monks’ conch shells, cymbals, and other small rhythm instruments.
From time to time the monks are quiet and the priest intones some prayers, and then the monks resume their chanting. The chants are in Pali, the language of Gautama Buddha, or perhaps in Sanskrit, or perhaps in the Chinese version of these same litanies. Eventually one of the monks gets up and begins talking to the woman. They go outside and continue to talk. I know that it will be all right for me to leave now that they are talking outside. I get up, cross the room, and leave by the right-hand door. I go back to my room. I feel homesick. I can’t remember ever ever feeling homesick before. Homesick for Don, for routine, for home in myself.
We’d arrived at Baoguo Monastery
earlier in the day after trekking down Emei Mountain from the isolated and largely empty Hongchunping Temple and Monastery where we’d spent previous night.
Of all the Buddhist temples and monasteries at Emei Shan, Baoguo, at the base of the mountain, is the biggest and most important. First built in the early 17th century during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 CE) it cascades down the mountainside covering nearly 40,000 square metres, a multitude of buildings
(including four big halls), courtyards,
and plenty of stairs. It is a major place of worship and pilgrimage for China’s Buddhists, and a big tourist attraction.
My room at the monastery is simple, but somewhat more luxurious than at Hongchunping. It feels more modern and there is a television and WiFi. There is little to distinguish it from a mid-level hotel room except for the communal ablutions area down the “hall” and the overall setting; one doesn’t easily forget that this is a place dedicated to spiritual practice. The “hall” is more of an open-air wooden walkway that connects the rooms.
I go exploring. Opening the big wooden doors at the end of the walkway I find myself in a room of glorious splendour: golden bodhisattvas all lined up in a row, custodians of a higher plane.
I explore further and find another room of bodhisattvas with heaping bowls of apple offerings.
In each courtyard, as at the summit of the mountain and other Buddhist monasteries and temples, there is a place for prayer candles and incense.
We’d arrived at Baoguo in time for a simple lunch, and spent the afternoon in a luxurious spa at a nearby hotel followed by dinner at a restaurant a short walk away. After dinner the others in the group headed off for a massage but I was drawn to stay at the monastery and explore further. It is then that I heard the music and chanting. It is then that I was pulled into that vortex of spiritual ritual that left me full of wonder, and in a puddle tears. It is one of my lasting memories of the trip to China. I feel as if I experienced something both unique and special. When I told Peter, our guide, about it he said that it was a private ceremony and that the woman probably paid a lot of money for it. I hope my presence didn’t ruin it for her.
Moving on from Baoguo the next morning we travelled by bus to Leshan to see the biggest Buddha statue in the world.
So here’s a grisly story. It’s about the monk named Hai Tong who led the construction of the Buddha, begun in 713 CE and finished some ninety years later. It’s carved into the red sandstone cliff at the confluence of the Min and Dadu rivers in southern Sichuan. The Buddha faces Emei Shan, the sacred mountain, and Hai Tong hoped it would calm the turbulent waters of the river below making it safer for the ships that travelled it.
This thing is enormous! At 71 metres (233 ft) high it’s the largest and tallest Buddhist sculpture in the world. It’s as tall as a 23-story building! There’s nothing else like it, and it’s certainly the most significant manifestation of the early presence of Buddhism in China. When Hai Tong thought, he thought BIG!
Apparently when funding for the project was threatened Hai Tong gouged out both his own eyes to prove his devotion and commitment. OK. Clearly this was not a man to do anything by halves. After his death funding was stuck for a while but the project eventually found a new sponsor and the sculpture was completed by Hai Tong’s disciples in 803 CE.
And here’s the kicker – so much stone from the massive construction was removed from the cliff and thrown into the river that it calmed the waters making them much safer for passing ships, so I guess Hai Tong got his wish after all.
It possible to view the Buddha up close by climbing from a site at the top down a few hundred stairs, walking across in front of it,
and then climbing back up the other side.
Our visit to the Leshan Buddha was not nearly as dramatic as the creation of it, or as tiring or crowded as all those stairs. We went by boat,
along with many other tourist boats.
The sheer size of it really does knock your socks off.
It was to be our final taste of Buddhism in China. We travelled from there to Chengdu, home of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
Next post: Pandas!
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.