I am not a super religious person, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the soul and the spirit in all things. Today is a day I’ll remember for a very long time.
This afternoon, on the first day of the new year, Liz took me to pray at Faxi Temple, which sits up in the mountains near Hangzhou. It is a Buddhist temple, and though Liz does not consider herself a Buddhist, she said she feels compelled to visit annually on the first day of the new year to pray for a good one. Her husband drops her off, and she treks through Lingyin Tunnel and up the mountain road to get to Faxi, the oldest of the three temples at Lingyin. When she is done praying, her husband meets her on the road and takes her home. And this is what I got to do with her today.
She warned me that she is a fast walker; among other things, Liz is a woman who wants to pray efficiently, and we had to cover quite a distance to get to our destination. If it were not for the heavy traffic to the temple on this particular day, we could get a ride all the way up the mountain; instead, Mr. Jiao dropped us off here:
The mouth of the Lingyin Tunnel. I don’t mind walking anywhere, especially when the weather is as springy and hopeful as it was today, so I happily hopped out and followed Liz. Who took off. I actually had to jog a little to catch her, and when I did, she said, “No talking in the tunnel.” And then she went even faster ahead of me.
Now, I had no idea how long this tunnel was, but since my most common point of reference was the Lowry Tunnel in Minneapolis, I thought, Pssh. Who cares if we can’t talk in the tunnel? We’ll be out of it in 30 seconds. And then 30 seconds actually became 15 minutes. I know this, because I timed it after we entered and I couldn’t find the end. Turns out this tunnel is just a few meters shy of a mile long. If that isn’t enough to make you feel claustrophobic, following Liz will. She hates breathing the air inside of it, so she basically moves at the speed of an Olympic race walker to get through it. Anyone who’s ever seen me plowing through the halls of Minnetonka knows that I’m no slouch when it comes to walking, but I seriously had to monitor my breathing, pump my arms, and engage my core to keep up with her. At one point, I started thinking about what we might see on the other side, and in that one minute of lost focus time, she gained about 10 feet on me. So naturally, I was sweaty and out of breath when we finally made it out, but soon I was pretty breathless for a different reason.
I couldn’t take pictures of everything, but I will tell you that what I saw today was almost enough to convert me to Buddhism. Or maybe just go for it and become a monk.
Hangzhou is famous for its Dragon Well tea (called Longjin), and we passed fields and fields of tea trees today.
The view as we started climbing.
In the upper right quadrant of this picture, you can see the aerial tour ascending the mountain.
This is the stream that we followed all the way up. Its source is at Faxi.
Read from right to left, this is a Buddhist saying that loosely translates,
“The best world is the one right around you.” I like that. If I was the tattoo-getting type, this would already be on my (bulging) bicep.
The first temple we came across: Fajingzi. This is only the entrance.
Continuing to follow the stream.
The second temple entrance we came across. This one is also called Fajing, but while the first one’s name means something about mirrors, this one is about purity.
Liz said this was her favorite part of the path. It was lovely. She told me at this point that she feels this path is a direct line to her heart, that when she feels overwhelmed or tired, taking this path restores her. Not to be a big nerd, but it felt like a really special moment in our friendship.
At last, we approached Faxi, the oldest of the three. In Buddhist tradition, when you pray for something to happen, and then it does, you must show fealty to the same temple by returning to thank Buddha and continuing to pray there. 6 years ago, Liz prayed for something at Faxi, it happened, and now she comes back every year. I didn’t ask her what she prayed for.
The inside of the Faxi Temple was decorated beautifully for the new year. You’ll see more soon.
One of the buildings inside the temple is a cafeteria. All of the food is cooked by the monks who live here, and thus, it is all vegetarian. We got some tofu and sea green soup.
This is the view from inside the cafeteria, looking through the large windows up to the path that leads to the prayer buildings.
Decorations for the new year. Have I mentioned how…transcendent this place felt? Like I wanted every important thing in my life from here on out to happen in this space.
As we approached the prayer buildings, we passed this wall of characters. The tradition is to rub the one that represents your wish, or your prayer.
The character I rubbed means “peace.” It’s in the middle row, third from the top.
Liz told me that this character means something very similar to peace. I liked this one too. Again, if I was the type to get tattoos, I’d have run out of room by now.
People throw coins in here for luck. You get the most luck for throwing a coin through the very top tier. I threw one neatly into the bottom tier, so I get a little bit of luck. I’ll take it!
I can’t show you what happened next, because it’s not allowed- and it’s bad luck- to take pictures inside the prayer buildings where the statues are. I’ve been thinking of ways to describe what I saw, and other than being really impressionistic, I don’t think I have the vocabulary or skill to do these holy spaces justice. So here are my impressions:
A gleaming, golden, two-story Buddha on a bed of carved lotus blossoms. An oversized altar with gifts, mostly fruit. Clouds of incense and fire and clasped hands held at the forehead, bowing and bowing and bowing. Rows of serene, kneeling monks. Pulsing, looping chants, light drums, more incense. Angry gods, towering, looming several meters above the crowds, ringed with snakes, flowers. 500 carvings of 500 individual monks, unique in their expressions, facial hair, clothing. More bowing. Rich, rich, rich, intricate, ornate, painstaking decoration on every surface, hanging from the vaulted ceilings, just out of reach. Chant, chant, chant. No talking.
My eyes hurt from being open so wide.
Back to the photos.
One important part of the prayer tradition is to “invite candles,” i.e. burn incense while you pray. They don’t actually allow it in the prayer buildings (too many people, too dangerous), so you burn it after you pray. But the smoke and the scent is everywhere. (It’s in my new coat. I kind of love that.)
Liz gave me two “candles.” She said Chinese people love even numbers. I used them to pray.
The biggest, but not the only, fire pit to put your candles in when you are done praying.
Nearing the exit of the temple. Still some snow up here in the mountains.
On our way out, we found a story, a Buddhist parable, chalked into the side of one of the buildings. Liz translated: An old monk once asked a young monk to buy some salt at the market. He did, and when he brought it back, the old monk asked the young monk to put it in a cup of water and taste it. He did, and when the old monk asked him how it tasted, he said, “Very salty.” The old monk then asked the young monk to put some salt in the lake and taste the water. The young monk complied, but this time, couldn’t taste the salt. The old monk said, “You see then, that it’s not the salt that matters, but the size of the cup.”
The view as we left.
And finally, one of the 12 dragon sons. His duty is to protect Lingyin. I patted him on the head because he’s doing a really, really great job.
Ah, the best world is indeed the one around us.