Up to the Mountain

Longquan Temple

[singlepic id=87 w=320 h=240 float=right]It seems that a lot of religions have stories about mountains. Moses went up Mt. Sinai where he received the Ten Commandments, the Yellow Emperor studied Daoism at Qingcheng Mountain (there are an awful lot of holy mountains in China), and who doesn’t love to build a monastery or a retreat house in the mountains? This story, which is long overdue, is about three days I spent at Longquan Temple at Phoenix Mountain (凤凰岭自然风景公园), northwest of Beijing.

Lonquan Temple (龙泉寺) is a Buddhist temple that dates from the Liao Dynasty. These days it’s a lot bigger than it was back then. Recently a lot of new buildings have been added and more are planned. It’s a kind of modern monastery. The current abbot runs a translation centre, translating his own writings into various languages for global consumption. There seems to be an active evangelism component to the mission of Longquan, though the extent of this mission is not quite clear to me. Longquan Temple maintains an active online presence through a blog, and a network of volunteers using QQ (a Chinese social networking site and popular chat client). It also has a well-equipped media room for audio and video production.

New Year’s Eve

I went up to Longquan (or up to the mountain, as everyone who goes there says) at the suggestion of my colleague Holly. Holly is a big fan of the abbot and the work they do there. It was Chinese New Year, and I had nowhere else to go. Honestly, my preference was to spend some time with friends, setting off firecrackers and drinking baijiu (a Chinese liquor), but that plan didn’t work out. Holly told me the monastery would be ‘bustling’ for the Chinese New Year. I very much doubted her. In fact, I was right, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun or interesting.

Holly and I went up the mountain together on New Year’s Eve (that was February 2). Lonquan was hosting a “Multi-lingual Dharma Assembly” during the week-long New Year holiday. She told me I could go up there to volunteer and to recite the Sutras in my own language. I wasn’t terribly interested in reciting the Sutras, but I did think volunteering for a few days would be fun. That way I could do some manual labour and wouldn’t have to stress about my day job or my studies. I was assigned to the kitchen (大寮) which suited me quite fine.

[singlepic id=62 w=320 h=240 float=left]As usual with many new experiences, on arrival I just had to follow the crowd. Bow when they bow, clap when they clap, etc. I basically had no idea what was going on for about six hours. There was a New Year’s Eve show put on, with various short skits about living the Buddhist life, singing, musical performances, a speech by the abbot, and a year-in-review video of the monastery’s activities over the past year. At the end of the festivities, we recited a Buddhist text as the clock struck midnight. Then we all received our lucky money from the abbot as we went outside. Outside everyone had their chance to ring the temple bell for good luck in the new year. From Phoenix Mountain there is a great view of Beijing, and there were fireworks going off everywhere across the entire city.

A note about fireworks in Beijing. I was told fireworks and firecrackers are banned inside the fifth ring road in Beijing, due to population density and fire hazards. The fifth ring road encloses most of the city. Outside that there’s a sixth and maybe seventh ring road. However the term “ban” is relative in China. Whatever ban there may or may not be, nobody cares. There are fireworks and firecrackers everywhere, every day of the week-long Chinese New Year holiday, even up to the first morning back at work. You might as well say the Communist Party is banned in Beijing. It’s complete nonsense.

After taking my turn at ringing the bell and watching fireworks for a while, I went back into the monastery and chatted to a few people for a bit. I met Hongmei, who was in charge of the kitchen. She wasn’t actually who I was told to find, and I never did find my kitchen contact the whole time I was there, but I did get where I needed to be. Hongmei told me the wake up call would be at 4 AM and work starts at 4:30 AM. I found my bunk in what looked like a gymnasium turned into sectioned dormitories. My dorm had at least 40 beds. Others were bigger. I think I got to bed after 1AM that first night.

The Monks Run a Tight Ship

[singlepic id=76 w=320 h=240 float=right]On the first morning, someone’s alarm sounded at 3 AM. Then he put it on snooze and it sounded again at 3:15 AM. If you know me, you know I don’t like to be disturbed in the morning hours before my planned time to get up. The Chinese philosophy is that “early to bed and early to rise” is good for your health. Fine, I can go along with that, but how healthy do I really need to be? Isn’t 4 AM early enough?

I made my way to the kitchen at 4:30 AM as directed. I wasn’t actually doing any cooking, I was working under Hongmei doing food preparation. We’d retrieve vegetables from the various food stores around the monastery, clean them, chop them, and then deliver them to the chefs for the next meal. We were always preparing food one meal in advance. So at 4:30 in the morning we were preparing the food for lunch. At any given time there were between four and twenty people working on food preparation. I always seemed to be in an awkward position with work assignments. First of all, my Mandarin is mediocre at best so giving me instructions isn’t that easy, and second, I don’t think anyone ever expected to see a white man do manual labour, so they were afraid I’d injure myself or something.

The monks run a massive kitchen operation. It’s exactly the kind of thing I like: organized, logical and efficient. Hongmei ran a tight show as head of food preparation. There are huge pantries and food stores all over the monastery and it has its own tofu-making facility. The kitchen is a full industrial kitchen except it has no dishwashers. Dish washing is all done by hand. The monk in charge of the kitchen, who I really liked, told me that the monastery acts as a place of refuge in case of emergency. They have their own water supply from a spring in the mountain and their own farm at another location. Though there is electricity there, the stoves are wood-fired. I believe the monastery can support 1000 people without any outside resources, and there were about 800 there during the Chinese New Year holiday.

[singlepic id=74 w=320 h=240 float=left]I spent most of the day in the kitchen. At some point Hongmei told me they would need help distributing food at meal time. I wound up doing this every meal time for the next few days, and I quite enjoyed it. I had to do a quick study in hand signals. At meal time we’re not allowed to talk. If you want more or less of some food being distributed, you have to indicate what you want with a hand signal, and the guy distributing food (me) needs to know what you’re talking about. Food is distributed in large buckets. By the way, the food is fantastic. I’m not vegetarian but these were the tastiest vegetarian meals I’ve ever had.

Food distribution was an interesting experience. In China, people sometimes ignore all the rules (see above, about fireworks) and sometimes they queue up and follow instructions military (communist?) style. This was more of the latter. The food servers worse blue aprons and a white hat. There was a young man in charge who lined us up and marched us up to the dinning hall. We lined up all the buckets and he assigned each person a bucket to distribute and told us which rows in the dining hall we were responsible for feeding. He then said a prayer and we all went to work. When we were not distributing food we were supposed to be standing neatly in a line by the wall waiting for further instructions. We were not allowed to engage in idle chit-chat. Distributing food to a few hundred men only served to make me famous. Before that I was the white guy mysteriously doing manual labour in the kitchen, and only known to whoever else might have been working in the kitchen. Now I was the white guy mysteriously serving other people.

[singlepic id=86 w=320 h=240 float=left]Meal times are also interesting because they’re gender-separated. I believe everything is gender-separated at the monastery, not just the dormitories, but also meal times and prayer and scripture reading times too. We all worked together in the kitchen though. As a consequence of the gender separation, from New Year’s Eve, when we all went out to ring the bell, I didn’t see Holly again until we both returned to work in Beijing. In fact, she left the monastery before me and I didn’t even know she was gone.

The Abbot of Longquan Temple is somewhat of a hero for the many young people who were there. It’s a big place, so we didn’t see him often, but on the first night I accidentally had a quick one-on-one chat with him, which made some of my kitchen workmates a bit envious. I was coming back down to the kitchen after serving dinner and saw that there were a lot of people blocking the kitchen door. When people stand around doing nothing in front of doors or at the top of the stairs in a subway station, it drives me nuts. Can’s they go gossip in a corner somewhere? I just pushed right through the crowd. That’s how you get by in Beijing, with lots of elbow, so I’m good at it now. After pushing through I suddenly found myself in the middle of a circle of people surrounding the abbot. At this point I felt a bit embarrassed. There wasn’t much of substance to our simple chat, just him asking me where I’m from and how I came to be at the monastery. My impression of the abbot is that he’s a very sincere guy, dedicated to his work. He’s always got a big smile on his face.

An Ordinary Day at Longquan Temple

Day two at the monastery started at 3 AM, just like the first. I really wouldn’t have minded the extra hour of sleep until 4 AM, but at this point I had to resign myself to getting up at 3 AM because after that alarm went off, many other people started to stir too. Let me tell you this, if I had been able to figure out whose alarm that was, I would have made sure he didn’t get any breakfast. I’m not very zen.

The second day went by like the previous. I worked in the kitchen, discovered new food stores, which continuously amazed me, and helped in food distribution at every meal. The monk running the kitchen invited me to take some time off from the kitchen to go recite the Sutras. I told him I probably wouldn’t understand what was going on, so I might as well just stay in the kitchen. I think he understood, both the reality that my Mandarin just isn’t good enough for that, and the fact that I wasn’t really interested. In Chinese culture, you don’t often say “no” directly, so saying I wouldn’t understand was the perfect way to decline the invitation. In the afternoon I went hiking on Phoenix Mountain with Linyu and Zhibing, a couple of friends I’d made in my dormitory. It wasn’t quite as cold out there as it was in Beijing and the sun was shining so it was a fantastic hike.

[singlepic id=88 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Buddhist Retreat

Before I went up the mountain, Holly had been asking me to help with some translation. The organizers of the week-long “Multi-Lingual Dharma Assembly” needed some terms on the schedule and program introduction translated into English. There was some discussion between us about whether the word ‘assembly’ was the right word or not. I don’t know much about Buddhism, I only have a vague notion of what the Dharma is, and before I went to Longquan I really didn’t know what was going to be happening, so I didn’t know what to call it.

After two days at the monastery, I started to figure out that it was essentially a Buddhist retreat. It had all the hallmarks of any church retreat I’ve ever been on: sleeping in dorms; a massive kitchen operation running to feed hundreds of people; everyone early to bed and early to rise; lots of prayer times; and people addressing each other in ways they would never do on the street. We all addressed each other using a form of the word “brother” (师兄) which is typically only used among those studying Buddhism, Taichi, or other such things. There is a word for sister (师姐) but I was told that it typically isn’t used. It reminded me of Star Trek, where everyone addresses their commanding officers as “Sir” even if the CO is a woman. One thing that did distinguish this retreat from church retreats I’ve been on, was the number of young people. There were a lot of enthusiastic young Buddhists at the monastery that week. That’s good, because every religion like every society, needs new life to pass its values onto the next generation and to carry the torch. Obviously the Longquan Temple’s evangelism work and online outreach programs are effective.

A lot of people assumed I was a Buddhist when they met me. A perfectly reasonable assumption, else why was I hanging out at a Buddhist retreat when I could have been drinking baijiu and lighting fireworks? Others didn’t really know whether I was a Christian (as Chinese people assume all westerners are) or whether I had no religion at all. Some tried to encourage me to become a Buddhist. As is typical of people engaging in evangelism, some of them were more more pushy, and others were more tactful and respectful. I tried variously telling people nothing at all, and telling them I’m Catholic, but it didn’t seem to make any difference in how they reacted to me.

Coming Down the Mountain

My third day at Longquan Temple started at 3AM just like the previous two days. What can you do? I worked in the kitchen in the morning and then made preparations to leave in the afternoon.

[singlepic id=90 w=320 h=240 float=left]As I was trying to leave, I was approached by one of the volunteers and a friend of Holly’s who told me to follow her quickly to some unknown destination with a purpose she didn’t seem to have time to explain to me. We arrived at a room somewhere in the back of the monastery where I’d never previously gone, which was full of young people. These people, who I think were all volunteers, had been invited to have a quick audience with the abbot. He wasn’t there at this point, but we were being briefed by a monk on what to do when we met him. We were all given “lucky money” envelopes to give to the abbot when we saw him. As usual, I didn’t understand a great deal of what was going on. At some point everyone got up and filed out of the room to meet the abbot. I think things got a bit mixed up, because we ran into him outside the monastery on our way to the appointed meeting room. We all handed over our lucky money gifts, and then paid our respects to the abbot by kneeling down and bowing with our heads touching the ground. We did this three times.

On the second day at Longquan Temple, I had been interviewed by the volunteer journalist for an article on the Longquan Temple blog. He asked me what I thought of the place and the people there. I told him that Christians believe our faith should be shown through our actions, that it’s not just words and prayers. I said that it was clear by the way they welcomed me and made me a part of their retreat without hesitation, that the people I met at Longquan Temple were sincerely living out their faith. I’m not sure if he understood what I meant, because that quote didn’t wind up in the article, but it’s the highest compliment I can offer them.

That afternoon I walked down the hill to the bus stop and caught the bus back into Beijing. The city was still empty and quiet, most people having not yet returned from the Chinese New Year holiday. But there were definitely fireworks.

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Star Anise, Congee and the Hidden Teacher

Today is Thursday and I’ll be back in the States in a week. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. Good thing because I miss my family very much and a bad thing because I’m going to miss the host family and the kids at school very much too.

Yesterday was almost uneventful at school.  It took me a while to find out why the kids  were so very quiet and reserved in the beginning.  It was as if I had become a fearsome authority figure overnight. Perhaps I was wearing some culturally frightening new piece of clothing?   Everybody sat straight in their seats and the usual din of repetition was more…military.    After about 15-20 minutes into the lesson I slid between the desks to the back of the room – just to keep everybody on their toes.  Noticed a new girl sitting way in the back.  Looked older than the rest.  Aha! It was their usual teacher, small but mighty.  She was not repeating after me, but she was watching every movement like a cat in a room of 47 mice. She left the classroom  in the last few minutes and the student’s relief was noticeable.

I arrived at the school early yesterday to find two black cars with tinted windows parked way down the muddy lane were cars usually don’t go.   Didn’t think much of it.  When I came into the courtyard, there were 4 or 5 relatively well dressed younger people (mid-20′s to mid-30′s) speaking with Director Wang.   One of the men came right up to me and asked in passable English, “Are you the foreign volunteer?”.  I said I was.  “I am a volunteer too”, he said.  “The children tell me they like you very much.”  I thanked him and asked if he would be working as a volunteer at the school too.  He said that he would not, but that the had wanted to meet me.  There was no further explanation.   By this time, my class was starting (the nice quiet one mentioned above) and I went in.  One of the other guys in the black car group took pictures of me in ‘friendly interaction’ with the kids though the  windows.  Then they were gone.    I found out today that these were people from the local Communist Party headquarters and that yesterday, they had promised to send volunteers to help at the school as well.   That’s a good thing.  The school has been there for a few years, I hear, and it is good that more local help is on it’s way.

Today, Director Wang as well as two grad students from the University of International Studies (am not sure if that is the official English title) took me to lunch.  Tomorrow is the last time I will see Director Wang as he is going home to Henan Province for the Qing Ming Festival next week.  Qing Ming is known in English as Grave Sweeping Day, which sounds pretty somber, but it’s not.  Think ‘Memorial Day’.  If I understood correctly, there was a death in Director Wang’s family in the not-too-distant past and he wanted to go home.   The lunch was down the street from the school, in the second floor of a newer brick building and was, if not ‘world class’, clean and nicely appointed.  We sat in a separee around  a table that was made for at least 10.  The menu came to me.  Great.  This is Chinese etiquette.  The guest gets to choose.  I pleaded ignorance.  I was told, “no problem – just look at the pictures”.  Well, the pictures all looked like Chinese food I had never seen before and unfortunately, the menu was not graced with pictures of happy chickens, cows and pigs like menus are in Kansas City so that you know what you are hopefully getting.  I can read enough Chinese for sure, but names of many dishes totally belie what they really are.  Example:  You order the “Garden Chicken” and you know what you will get?  For those of you who guessed bullfrog, you are correct.   So after much humble pleading on my part, Director Wang ordered…..and did he ever order.  Only question asked was, “can you eat spicy food?”   I definitely can.   In all, we had 8 dishes: tofu noodles (cold), chicken that looked curried, but was just really yellow, chicken with hot green peppers, a whole carp, chicken with potatoes and peppers in a red sauce over noodles, thinly sliced cold beef tongue, long, and dark dried mushrooms with peppers.  No rice, of course.  It was all exceedingly delicious.  Really.  So far, I feel just fine.  Well, except for a little headache.  We also enjoyed a (large) bottle of rather warm beer with the salty, spicy food.  It tasted good too,  even warm. After lots of food and several toasts, it was time to go and teach the class…oh boy…..one and a half hours of class….oh boy again.  I am sure that none of the kids noticed my beer breath.  The odor of the school room takes care of that.  But they did tell me that I looked tired and hot.  They were correct. I was really tired and already these small rooms bursting with bodies are very, very warm.  As I mentioned before, I have no clue how this must be in the hot Beijing summers.

My host family - particularly the grandmother of Ms Jin – has been feeding me as if I were a starved stray cat….which I am not…I’m actually trying to get my weight down a bit.  But nothing doing.  Every meal is prepared from scratch and nothing goes to waste ever.  I have not eaten one thing here that would not go into the ‘scrumptious’ category.  Mornings it’s flat sesame breads, steamed Chinese buns, tofu and mushroom soups, fermented red tofu (my absolute favorite), congee….the list goes on and on.  I have eaten nothing here that I have ever seen on a menu in a Chinese restaurant in the US.   I love wolfberry tea.  What is wolfberry?  Who the heck knows?!  They look like red raisins and you can put them in soup or make tea out of them and they are tart and yummy (and have medicinal value in Chinese-Medicine-World which I don’t really understand).  The Jin’s next door neighbor brought me two big boxes of them and I may have to smuggle them back home.  She also brought a huge bag of dried beef from Inner Mongolia I said I liked…I definitely can’t take that home.   Last night we had crepes which we rolled up with Boston lettuce, scrambled eggs, plum sauce, hot sauce and scallions. Delicious!!  Who would have guessed it?   Noticed this morning that the buttons on my shirt are sort of  ‘pulling’.

I will end here as the sizzling sound of frying something-or-other and the fragrance of a star anise are wafting in from the kitchen, calling me to my evening meal.

Chinese New Year Migration

[singlepic id=37 w=320 h=240 float=right]The annual migration has started. The streets outside the Lotus office here in Beijing are much quieter than usual for a Monday morning. It’s more like a Sunday afternoon, but then, Sunday afternoon traffic in Beijing is not what you’re used to back home. Recently I’ve noticed a lot more inter-city coaches making early morning and late night departures. A few days ago there were five coaches parked on the sidewalk waiting for passengers to board. This is not a usual practice around here. Lately there are always people on the subway, luggage in hand, on the way to the train station.

I’ve been searching for accurate numbers on how many people travel during this period, but it’s rather difficult to pin down reliable numbers. I think it’s safe to say that in the four to five day travel period around the beginning of the New Year holiday, more than 100 million people will travel home. I’m sure you’ve heard it described as the largest migration in human history, and in China, they do it every year at the beginning of the New Year holiday, and then again a week later. The total number of people traveling is probably higher, but it’s spread out over several weeks as students and others who have longer holidays go home earlier, and return later.

[singlepic id=36 w=320 h=240 float=right]I for one will be staying away from the trains during this period. I have been tempted to hop on a train and go somewhere just to have the experience of participating in the largest migration in human history, but I think the novelty would wear off quickly.  Besides, New Year train trips aren’t entertainment, for most people they’re a major headache.