Sunday, November 30, 2008

Haicheng and Da Bei Si

It was with stiff legs and a depleted spirit that I went down the lift to meet James for my Sunday adventure. I’d thought seriously about cancelling this trip to the famous temple – too tired from Saturday night – but I knew this was a big event for him and there was still the matter of the 100 pounds of rice and flour sitting in the trunk that he had picked up at his expense. I had tried to offer some financial help, but the translation was lacking and his response made the miss in communication evident, “Don’t worry Terry, they will think the gifts are from both of us.”

In my last blog I didn’t give the whole tale from Saturday, leaving off yesterday’s story with the drive back. But there was more, and those events were partially the reason for my general lack of energy and motivation on this particular morning.

After reaching Kai Fa Qu, it was decided that we would all go on to Dalian to have Sichuan Hot Pot. I thought I understood the whole hot pot idea, but it turns out I was wrong. This hot pot is a major communal meal involving all the elements of intrigue and mystery – fire, boiling hot oil and suspect food stuffs.

Before heading in though, my companions allowed me to stop off at the hotel to drop off my things and to splash some water on my face. They went on to the most popular expat bar in 5 Colour City, Café Vienna. James dropped them off while I was still in the car. The scene out front was a bit bizarre – a table was set up, a fire was burning in an oil barrel and people wearing Santa hats were standing around drinking something that appeared to be warm. A Sino-American caroling party? Not so sure.

I returned 15 or 20 minutes later and the elf party outside was still in full swing. Inside a few westerners sat at the bar drinking interleaved between Tupperware tubs of cookies. It seems that we had a birthday party going on for some Germans. I ordered a beer and grabbed one of the cookies – a chocolate macaroon by looks which belied the fact that it had the consistency of a shard of masonry. I tried to get my closest to the front molar into the front, but worried about the potential damage to my bridgework and the likelihood of getting it repaired in a pinch. I finally managed to grind off little bits of it with my canines and refused a second helping.

One of the bar girls admired my Keffiyeh telling me that the style was very popular this year and that I had impeccable taste. I asked her if the check was too big and she said no, it was just the proper size. While it’s good to be on the cutting edge of the local trends, I think I will draw the line at the stiletto heeled boots and the hip-hugger jeans with the big sanded spots on the back of the thighs.

We sat there through a beer watching the Germans do German things, one woman whose hair might at one time have actually known the delicate caress of a comb kept shooting me “ugly American” glances across the top of her beer stein. I returned the favor, semi-scoffing at her beau who had shoulder length stringy white hair and an undersized untucked dress shirt buttoned halfway down the front. Growing weary of this scene, we went out past Santa’s helpers and got into the car.

The restaurant was just up the street from my regular hotel, on the far side of the square that has the giant boat in the middle of it. From the outside it looked just like most of the fancier Chinese restaurants – lots of glass, marble and neon. Two girls in floor length gowns held the doors for us; James went off to have dinner with his family. It was my first time here but not so for Aaron who attempted to tell the non-English hostesses that we had a reservation, a concept by the way which is pretty much completely alien in this part of China. They started blankly until I tried to tell them we were waiting for our friends. That bit of information also failed to paint their faces with the warm glow of understanding, so I just said “liu” and gave them the hand signal for “6” which gained us entry to the elevator. The second girl reported our impending arrival via her walkie-talkie.

We were seated at a big table with a gas burner down in a center well. Aaron’s warning that little English was spoken here continued to be proven, starting with the beer order, my second attempt at telling them we were waiting for friends and a change to the beer order which resulted in us waiting for our beers in addition to our friends. The other three finally showed up and we got down to the business of ordering food.

The way the place works is simple – you order some special sauces (we chose garlic, wasabi, chile powder and sesame), some raw food (mushrooms, spinach, bamboo, lamb, beef and shrimp balls) and then you cook it all up in a two-sided pot that sits on the burner down in the well. One side of the pot held red oil sporting a flotilla of habaneros, the other what appeared to be dishwater with two spears of asparagus floating on the top. It comes to a boil, you dump all the raw goods in and you eat it as it finishes cooking.

The food was excellent, particularly the lamb and the surprisingly the shrimp balls which went in looking like a lump of gray drywall compound but came out a tasty golden yellow. The bamboo was interesting in that it looked like the back end of a long insect, perhaps a Walking Stick. The spears of asparagus were set aside in the perhaps mistaken belief that they had been recycled from another table. The first round done, we went back for more lamb and mushrooms and in the end everyone was pretty full and only mildly injured by the tendency of the hot oil to splatter all over the place.

It was a pretty nice dinner, all in all.

That late evening activity and a long call home led me to be operating on less than 50% of my normal Sunday morning energy level as I climbed into the car for another day’s drive. You now, the Sundays where I get up and ride my bike for 2 hours in the crisp high desert air, just thanking all the Wood and River Spirits for being alive. Yea, that one.

James took us down through Jinzhou to grab entry to the Shenda (Shenyang to Dalian) Expressway and another route north, this time on the other side of the peninsula. The road out of town here was different – you climbed and climbed, just like that stretch of I70 that takes you west out of Denver. No wind today, the valleys were completely choked with the smoke from heating fires. Off through the haze I could see a new to me temple on the edge of Big Black Mountain. We continued up, passing a service area just like the ones back on the New York State Thruway. Some cultural imperatives are transportable, at least from afar. We did not stop so I can’t say how close the implementation mirrored ours from close up.

We rode past countless fields and fields of those half-circle greenhouses, just like yesterday. Some were wearing their grass mat covers; others open to the morning sun. We crested the first range of hills and went down to a causeway that crossed a tidal area divided up into large rectangles, perhaps some kind of aquaculture facility. At the midpoint of the bridge a giant mermaid holding a sphere sat atop a stone pedestal in the median. On the far side a sign on the side of a company on shore read “marine seeds division” confirming the use of those ponds. I wonder what exactly those seeds are for.

We climbed again and pulled over to do the ritual removal of the plates and went on for another hour or so until we replaced them just before exiting at Haicheng.

After paying the toll and heading into town James began taking stock of the gasoline supply. He only likes China Petrol, pronouncing the others of poor quality. Surveying the first two we passed, he told me they were fakes – exact copies of China Petrol stations but not the real thing. When I scanned the signs I saw the difference – the “guo” character, for “country” was incorrect – it lacked a stroke. Instead of 国, the little right side down stroke was missing and the bottom horizontal line was scrunched up against the middle one. Not only was I amazed that I could figure that out, I was more shocked at the brazen nature of this the same colors, designs and branding, the gas station was a virtual clone of the real thing. Most people therefore drive down the road, take in the big picture overlooking the subtle difference in one character amid the 10 or 12 on the sign and end up paying too much for cheap gas. It would be the same as pulling into Exson in Port Arthur and thinking you’re getting Tony the Tiger when you’re really filling up with Andy the Armadillo. James asked the pump jockeyette how many fakes there were in town and she said three. We’d seen two of them on the way to the real thing.

We took the wrong way out of a t-intersection and got turned around by a helpful woman who was trying to board a bus. Heading down the road, we took our next bearings by pulling alongside two guys on a motorcycle and asking them for directions as they rode down the shoulder and we held up the driving lane. We were heading in the right direction and I suspected as much as I could see what appeared to be a tall statue of Guanyin off in the distance, sharing a hill with what looked like a gravel mining operation. I pointed this out to James, but he didn’t seem interested. Chinese drivers do not reconnoiter the way I do, they prefer to the constant set of selective approximations they get from asking pedestrians. Their way works, but more often than not it does not result in the most direct route.

Exiting to the right off this little highway, our next bearing set was with two policemen about ¾ of a mile down the street. They were standing in an intersection keeping the peace and both broke into a big smile when they saw that I was a foreigner. Probably the best thing for me on these journeys to the hinterlands is the look on the faces of people when I roll down the window to allow James to interrogate them. Sometimes shock, sometimes amusement, but always a big, friendly smile.

Driving around the back of this little hill we passed the gravel operation and turned left, with the statue I had seen looming now off to our left. She was quite beautiful, becoming more so as we came closer. James observed that this temple had its own police station, placed there to stop people from arriving and insisting on being monks.

This temple and its associated order are unique within Buddhism in China. The temples accept no monetary donation, the monks eat only once per day and they often go out on foot into the countryside of China, doing good deeds and accepting only meals from the villages they visit. The Dharma Realm Buddhist association was founded by Venerable Master Hua in the 1970s and has its headquarters, The Sagely City of 10,000 Buddhas, is located on 500 acres near Mendocino, California. This temple is known as Da Bai Si – Great Sadness Temple – reflecting the choice of these monks to live in abject poverty. James was very excited about this visit.

Having parked the car we went up the stairs past a one-legged beggar enjoying some soup in front of the door. We went in and James wandered off to ask some questions and reappeared, beckoning me to join him. I was greeted by a young man sitting on a golden pillow and studying a text in a chilly reading room. We passed through into another room which had a set of stairs that led up to a second level. James talked a bit with a couple of people there and after a few moments, a monk wearing headphones came out of a room off to the side and joined in the discussion. It turned out that this was a hostel and we were invited to stay. We politely declined the offer and asked if we might see the Master. The monk replied that this was merely an annex to the real temple which was located up the road into the mountain behind the city. As is happened an elderly woman sitting there in the waiting room needed a ride into town – she would show us the way.

Back in the car and on the road, we headed off with James and our passenger conversing quietly about me and her and our individual stories. We finally dropped her in a busy little town formed by the intersection of three roads. Ours led out to the countryside.

This drive pretty much took me to a new level in off the grid adventure. My trip to Chongming Island back in 2006 was one thing, this was wholly another. The road was a single lane affair that paralleled a river bottom through village after village. I’m going to guess and say we went perhaps 20 miles out into the countryside, occasionally crossing a tiny bridge from one side to the other and then back a ways down the road. Mule carts caused us to move off the pavement every few miles along with the occasional person on a motor scooter taxi, a regular bike with a small sheet metal house attached to the back with room for a single passenger. Every once in a while the road would straighten out and pass down a long line of evenly spaced trees, backlit and naked in the winter light.

What caught my eye along this stretch was the sheer volume of cordwood and corn shucks piled along the road. This giant mass of plant matter provides the basis for winter subsistence in these villages – fuel for the houses, bedding and food for the animals, insulation for the dark side of the house. The quantity was staggering; the straight sections of the road here were lined with giant stacks of it, narrowing the lane down further. Every home had a big pile, often stacked in the shape of a pitch-roofed cottage. Cows and donkeys tethered to the side of the road made an afternoon snack of it.

The road began to rise and as we climbed up above the trees, a woman came out of a convenience store (of all things) and yelled at us to stop and buy something. In addition to large jugs of cooking oil, boxes of incense were stacked along the inside back of the building. Three little boys on bicycles stopped to gape at me as I passed by.

We were now at the base of an earthen dam and off to our left were a line of construction trailers. We had found the temple and it was undergoing some serious expansion. James had a word with a very friendly man at the gate who told us to go on up to the buildings on the side of the hill. The Master was up there overseeing the construction.

Behind the dam was a half-filled reservoir, the reflecting pool for the entry to the site. A long building constructed of charcoal colored bricks faced down the hillside. We wandered a bit and then saw the Master coming our way, dressed in gray robes composed of many patches – a symbol of the vow of poverty that this order takes. He was of medium height and indeterminate age and gave off that impression of serenity and friendliness you often get from these fellows. He and his assistant were coming over our way to check in the progress of some sort of well that was being dug in front to this building.

James chatted with him for a moment or two and told me we were free to wander around, and that he would see us later. We climbed an unfinished set of concrete stairs and passed through the building entering a second square at the back of which there were three smaller structures. James stopped to pray and I was taking a photograph when a monk loading a minivan yelled at me to stop. This is often a tricky situation, I never use a camera in the center of the temples, but I sometimes will take a shot or two of the buildings. You never know when it is not allowed. I waved and put my camera away. James came over and told me they didn’t want me taking any shots, something that had been made amply obvious, so I told him to go over and to apologize on my behalf.

The three buildings here held all manner of fantastic Buddhas and I went from place to place taking in the sights. James went off an entered a small library where he got into a conversation with a female monk about the available literature. A second monk appeared and handed me a DVD which James explained held an English version of the story of this place. The monk asked us to follow him and we entered one of the closed areas through a big cotton mat hung over the doorway. He took us through a door into a second room where a monk also dressed in gray sat cross-legged on a chair behind a desk. The room was pretty big and well lit by windows along one side. Cabinets with books filled the other and a long Sutra was framed on the wall behind the monk. He had a business-style phone on his desk and a pedestal sink in front of it. Two bottles of Liquid Plumber sat on the floor below it. We greeted each other and he and James got into a discussion about something, me perhaps, that went on for a bit. About this time I began to realize that I was so far in over my head that it seemed I had really overstepped my bounds in agreeing to do this. I was simultaneously fascinated and awkward, an odd combination to be sure. James had apparently negotiated an audience with the Master, something which I was now having serious second thoughts about. James and the monk discussed some literature that James had collected – the second monk leaving and returning every few minutes with something else, adding to James’ pile. We were invited to sit in a row of chairs off to the side of the room to wait. Each chair had a pink seat cushion with a rose on it. I sat there listening to the clock tick and looking at the paint peeling in great sheets from the ceiling. Outside and up the hill, a group of dogs were engaged in some sort of battle, barking incessantly. Perhaps this was some sort of challenge to me in my journey towards spiritual enlightenment? Figures, Buddha would choose barking dogs as my challenge. The phone would ring every few minutes and the monk would answer it, talking softly with whoever was calling.

Ten or fifteen minutes went by – who really knows in places like this and for some reason James got up and told me to follow him out of there. We went back out into the courtyard and he returned to the library. The dogs kept barking joined now by some clacking Magpies.

Off to my left, a long line of monks silently descended a ramp from what must have been the site dormitory. At first I didn’t notice them as they blended into the hill behind them, but I was finally able to make them out – some wearing cowls, all dressed in the same gray robes patched with blue fabric. James was done now in the library and so we headed out between the buildings, walking parallel to the procession, reaching the main square at the same moment. The crossed on the diagonal and went on to the dining hall.

James stopped to light some incense and found that the burner was not lit; he used his cigarette lighter and placed them in the sand to burn down.

I figured we were done for the day and so we headed down the stairs, down the hill and out across the lot. As I veered off in the direction of the car, James continued on along the line of trailers. He asked me if I wanted to come in, and I misunderstood what he was asking. I told him to go on ahead, figuring he was going inside to talk to the guard again, perhaps asking directions. Two other people, backlit and so obscured were walking beside him. He looked over and said “Come on, the Master wants you to come in.”

And so I went.

We were seated in one of the travel trailers with the Master sitting at the head of the room on a wooden chair, his feet up on a wooden box. To his right stood his assistant, dressed like all the others with the same very short buzz cut except he had nine dime-sized spots shaved down the scalp, forming a perfect 3 by 3 array on his head. James sat to my right, closest to the Master. He held a small electronic tape recorded in his right hand, capturing everything that the Master said. Apparently, this Master is held in such high esteem that they don’t want to miss a chance of something very unworldly coming out in these conversations.

Now I thought this was going to be James’ thing but it turned out to be mine, further compounding the sense that I had no right to be sitting where I was sitting. The Master started speaking and James listened intently. After what seemed like 5 minutes he stopped and James thought for a moment and began translate for me.

The gist of it was – the order and the Master have enjoyed a close personal relationship with former president George Herbert Walker Bush.

What?

I thought about that for a while and countered that I believed our new president would be friends to all of the world’s people. James translated and I heard “Obama” at least two or three times. The Master nodded and thought for a moment and James translated his message.

“Buddha is a choice; it is how you elect to live your life.”

Hmm, we were getting into pretty deep waters here, much so for an aging hipster in Ecco shoes, a Mountain Hardware jacket and one who had just been tested by the Barking Dogs.

I countered with “This is a journey for me and I am just at the beginning.”

I could tell from the look on his most serene face that I was coming up short on the long list of the enlightened. He told me that seeking Buddha is not the same as westerners going to church, that again it was more of a choice of how to live.

I replied that I understood the difference between how westerners worship and how he spends his day. He nodded and then he and James went on for quite a while. I heard a couple of instances of “Intel” and “Kai Fa Qu” and “Computer” and I imagine he was giving the Master the back-story. James finally suggested to the Master that I might like to have his picture as a memory of this day. The Master replied kindly but I picked out “Bu hui” which meant there was no way. His reasoning was clear – he was here for purposes other than having his picture taken.

And that was then end of it, he rose, we rose, we said goodbye and went on our way, depositing the rice and the flour at the front trailer on the way out.

I had a lot of time on the way back down the bumpy road through the villages to ponder what I had just experienced. On the one hand, it has been very pleasant for me to spend time in temples over the past couple of years, enjoying the sights and sounds and being just that tad better than the other westerners present who had piled off the bus, paid their 20 kuai and viewed the whole experience as nothing more than a living history museum. I was better than that and I knew it, seeing things on a wholly different level. And today I had been honored by the next step – time with a person totally dedicated to spending his life in search of his vision of truth. I imagine there are practicing Buddhists in the US who would throw me under a mule cart hauling corn sheaves to take my place in that little aluminum trailer. And they would almost certainly view my presence there as nothing but a silly personal pretense. At the brass tacks level, I’m really just a hair more than an outsider on a weekend junket and that was probably the second most powerful emotion of the day right after a strong sense of gratitude at having been treated so honorably by this esteemed man.



































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