Monday, August 31, 2009

On the eve of the Mt Kailash trip

Julian and I are packed up for our trip to Mt Kailash. Cynthia will be staying with the family of Deepak Mohat, owner of Adventure Thirdpole Trekking. His wife, Lalu was a former Peace Corps language instructor before the Peace Corps pulled out of Nepal in 2004. They have two children, a girl 8 and a boy 19. Cynthia is looking forward to living with the family and learning some Nepali.
Julian and I fly to Nepalgunj tomorrow, then Simikot the next day, where we begin our trek to the Tibet border, then on to Lake Manasarovar and Mt. Kailash.
When we arrived in Nepal, my Blackberry was unable to connect to Nepal Telecom, so I called AT&T. They had me remove the SIM card and reinsert it, which I did. Now, I am unable to use the Blackberry for communication at all. I get messages about "Iniialization Failed". I suspect I will have to reinstall the operating system on the Blackberry. But no time for that now.
So for the next three weeks, there will be a lull in our blog postings -- Cynthia may post some entries, but there won't be any photos until Julian and I have returned to Kathmandu on about September 19.
Thank you to all you readers who motivate us to keep in touch.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Feeling of Occupation

Leaving Gyanste a couple mornings ago, a caravan of at least a dozen large military trucks loaded with soldiers passed.  Our guide thought they might be headed to the border with India at Darjeeling.  About an hour later, our car was stopped by soldiers. Several ran further along the road while one remained beside us with his finger on his rifle trigger. Another group of soldiers was further ahead of us.
Our guide tried to ask what was happening and he was told not to ask and not to watch. After about ten minutes and some shouting back and forth among groups, the soldiers started heading back to their vehicles. We were told they would signal when we could move.  After 15 - 20 large trucks passed us heading the other way, we were able to move again.
I could sense the responsibility our guide felt for us, his feeling of helplessness in this, his own country. Street corners are controlled by Chinese military as are open air markets and the surrounding roof tops. The old part of cities which are largely Tibetan have survailance cameras. There is no doubt that the Tibetans are treated as second class citizens. Educations is all in Chinese with Tibetan taught as a foreign language. The number of monks at any of the restored monasteries is controlled by the Chinese and is just a handfull of the number who previously became monks. Restoration of monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, as in mainland China, comes from donations from individuals, not the government though 90% of the entry fee to visit monasteries goes to the Chinese government, thus becoming cash cows for them. It is difficult for Tibetans to get passports and thus travel freely.
The Tibetans way of life is strongly identified with their form of Buddhism and in spite of attemps through the Cultural Revolution, it remains the central focus of life for many Tibetans. We witness thier devotion everywhere we go.
The Chinese have contributed much that has modernized Tibet: an improved road system, better water, improved farming methods, hydro power, promotion of tourism. Most of this has come from the top down with no consultation with the Tibetans, which has resulted in changes to a landscape that they have cared for and regarded as sacred for centuries. Undoubtedly, most of these changes will not be reversed.  The best we can hope for is that the Tibetans will eventually receive an equal voice and receive the full rights of citizenship.
This experience gave us a token feeling of what it must be like for populations in countries that the US has occupied in the name of democracy and liberation.

Yungdrungling Monastery

When we read the description of Yungdrungling Monastery in our Lonely Planet guidebook, we asked our guide if we could possibly visit there on our way back to Lhasa, even though it was not on our original itinerary. He had never been there but was willing to give it a try.
The reason it sounded interesting is that this was a Bon monastery, not a Buddhist monastery. Bon was the religion of the Tibetan people before Buddhism arrived in the 8th century.
We expected to find something very different from what we had seen in Buddhist monasteries and temples, but surprisingly, this monastery had much in common with them.
According to "The History of Bon" in Lonely Planet (p. 68),
"Bon has its deepest roots in the earliest religious beliefs of the Tibetan people. Centered on an animist faith shared by all central Asian peoples, religious expression took the form of spells, talismans, oaths, incantations, ritual drumming and sacrifices. Rituals often revolved around an individual who mediated between humans and the spirit world.
"Bon is thought to have its geographical roots in the kingdom of Shang-Shung, which is located in western Tibet, and its capital at Kyunglung (Valley of the Garuda). Bon's founding father was Shenrab Miwoche, also known as Tonpa Shenrab, the Teacher of Knowledge, who was born in the second millennium BC in the mystical land of Olma Lungring in Tajik (thought to be possibly the Mt Kailash area or even Persia). Buddhists often claim that Shenrab is merely a carbon copy of Sakyamuni (Sakya Thukpa), and certainly there are similarities to be found. Biographies state that he was born a royal prince and ruled for 30 years before becoming an ascetic. His 10 wives bore 10 children who formed the core of his religious disciples. Many of the tales of Shenrab Miwoche deal with his protracted struggles with the demon king Khyabpa Lagring.
"Bon was first suppressed by the eighth Yarlung king, Drigum Tsenpo,and subsequently by King Trisong Detsen. The Bon master Gyerpung Drenpa Nampa (a gyerpung is the Bon equivalent of a lama or guru) struggled with Trisong Detsen to protect the Bon faith until the king finally broke Shang-Shung's political power. Following the founding of the Samye Monestary, many Bon priests went into exile or converted to Buddhism,and many of the Bon texts were hidden.
"To the casual observer it's often hard to differentiate between Bonpo and Buddhist practice. It can be said that in many ways Bon shares the same goals as Buddhism but takes a different path. The word 'Bon' has come to carry the same connotation as the Buddhist term 'dharma'. Shared concepts include those of samsara, karma and rebirth in the six states of existence. Even Bon monasteries, rituals and meditation practice are almost identical to Buddhist versions. Still, there are obvious differences. Bon has its own Kangyur, a canon made up of texts translated from the Shang-Shung language, and Bonpos turn prayer wheels and circumambulate monasteries anticlockwise. The main difference comes down to the source of religious authority: Bonpos see the arrival of Buddhism as a catastrophe, the supplanting of the truth by a false religion."

Travels outside Lhasa

Our Tibetan guide and driver took us on a three day trip to the sacred lake of Yamdrok Tso and the towns of Gyantse and Shigatse outside of Lhasa. Here are some photos:

An operational barley mill

We took a 3-day trip to some towns outside Lhasa and came across this mill used to grind roasted barley into flour. The flour is used to make tsampa, the traditional staple meal of Tibetans. The mill was humming along smoothly, powered by a water wheel.

More photos from China

Our hotel here in Lhasa is the first one we have found in which computer access if FREE! Everywhere else in China we have had to may anywhere from $2 - $13 per hour. So on our last day in Lhasa, we've had the chance to catch up on e-mail and upload some pictures we took a couple of weeks ago.
Here are a couple of slideshows:

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Jokhang

The Jokhang in Lhasa is the most revered religious structure in Tibet. Buddhist pilgrims walk around the structure in a clockwise direction carrying prayer beads and spinning prayer wheels. Inside there are dozens of chapels and hundreds of statues, including the most important shrine in Tibet, the chapel of Jowo Sakyamuni, which houses the image of Sakyamuni Buddha at the age of 12 years.

Thousands of pilgrims stand in lines for hours waiting to enter the chapels where they make offerings of Yak butter and paper money.

Cynthia and I stood in line for about half an hour watching people and taking some low quality video of circumambulating pilgrims (see slide show below). Then someone let us know that tourists were expected to move directly to the front of the line purchase an entry ticket and go on in (pilgrims standing in line didn't have to pay the entry fee). We were glad to move forward but also happy that we had the opportunity of people watching.

Slideshow is at:

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Impressions of Ganden Monastery

Some of the sights and sounds I most enjoyed at Ganden Monastery had little to do with the monastery itself, but with the rituals the locals were using in rebuilding it.

At one point we heard call and response chanting between groups of men and women, each call and response accompanied by pounding. Looking up we saw that workers were tamping the ground to provide a smooth surface for the next layer.

Later we saw a group of women applying a grout of mud with their fingers between stones as they rebuilt one of the destroyed walls. As David took a picture, they all smiled and said "hello", a word even Tibetan children use when they see a westerner.

There is a woodblock printing press at this monastery. It consists of two men sitting at either end of an 18-inch wood block. One, with a graceful motion picks up a long strip of paper, lays it precisely on the woodblock in one fluid movement. The other spreads ink on the woodblock and when the sheet is in place, swipes a roller across the paper. They get a lovely rhythm going with this work and break into a chant. Using sets of woodblocks they create entire books of sutras.

For the first time on this journey, I was disallowed to enter a chapel because I was a woman. Instead of being upset, I chose to enjoy the chanting and the sound of the symbols and drum without breathing in the fumes from the butter lamps. The chanting is really quite beautiful.

To listen to a minute of chanting, try this:

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Ganden Monastery slideshow

Ganden Monastery is the central monastery for Gelug, the sect in which the present Dalai Lama received his training. It was founded in 1409 by Tsongkhapa.

According to the Wikipedia article on Gelug sect:

"Tsongkhapa was an enthusiastic promoter of the Kadam School's emphasis on the Mahayana principles of universal compassion as the fundamental spiritual orientation. He combined this with a strong emphasis on the cultivation of in-depth insight into the doctrine of emptiness as propounded by the Indian masters Nagarjuna (2nd century) and Candrakirti (7th century). Tsongkhapa said that these two aspects of the spiritual path, compassion and insight into wisdom, must be rooted in a wholehearted wish for liberation, all impelled by a genuine sense of renunciation. He called these the 'Three Principal Aspects of the Path'"

Much of the monastery was destroyed by artillery fire in 1959 and 1966. Today it is once again undergoing reconstruction.

Photos taken today are at:

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Friday, August 21, 2009


Lhasa today is a Chinese city with a minority Tibetan population. The city has grown enormously over recent years with large scale new construction of office and apartment buildings and a huge influx of Chinese.

When we arrived from the airport, it wasn't until we entered the "old city" that we felt we were in a Tibetan culture. The majority of Lhasa residents do not have a Tibetan background; instead they are recent arrivals from other parts of China.

Signs on businesses are in Chinese; some include Tibetan script (in smaller writing) as well.

Chinese is the language of instruction in the schools; it's essential for students to be fluent in Chinese in order to take advantage of opportunities for further schooling or work.

The Chinese government provides incentives for people to move to Tibet and set up businesses here. There seem to be clear advantages here to having a non-Tibetan ID card in terms of freedom to travel or establish and run a business.

We have had the good fortune of spending time with a Tibetan guide with whom we have been able to have candid conversations which have created a richer experience for us.

The Tibetans are a very devout people; they continue to observe their religious practices of visiting shrines, making offerings of Juniper incense and money, spinning prayer wheels and circumambulating sacred sites, known as koras. Many practice prostrations before Buddhist statues or in the course of circulating around temples (always in a clockwise direction).
In fact, we saw several devotees who have been doing prostrations to the ground for so long that they have developed large calluses on their foreheads and noses. It's common for these practitioners to use padded blocks on their hands and feet to reduce skin abrasion.

In years past, the tradition was to send at least one child from each family to a monastery or nunnery. There were literally thousands of monasteries in Tibet and many had hundreds to thousands of monks. Now many of these are gone and the few remaining monasteries have only a few monks.

The Potala Palace, built in the mid-seventh century has been the home of Dalai Lamas from the Fifth in 1645 to the Fourteenth in 1959. At its peak, there were over 6,000 monks in residence. Today there are no monks at all and it has been converted into a museum and living quarters for Chinese military personnel.

The Palace has over 1,000 rooms. We saw the burial tombs of several past Dalai Lamas, shrine rooms for various deities and rooms where Lamas met with ministers and foreign dignitaries. The room where Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama practiced his lessons was most interesting. He loved mechanical devices and was fascinated by clocks. We saw one of the clocks he tinkered with (it looked complete; I'm not sure whether it still functions.

We also visited the Summer Palace, Norbulingka. The day we visited was a festival day when families gather under the shade trees and have picnics. Tibetan opera is performed and musicians and storytellers ply their trade. People also pay homage to buddhas, bodhisatvas and lamas. In a museum we saw the tricycle that Tenzin Gyatso used as a child.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Gastronomic Feasts

While we didn't do a lot of sightseeing in Beijing, having seen most of the historic sites 25 years ago when there were almost no domestic tourists and only a few foreigners on highly controlled group tours, we did enjoy several feasts with our friend Patrick as our guide.

Our first evening we experienced food from Northern Mongolia consisting of a delicious soup of mutton and vegetables in a delicious broth accompanied by several other delicious dishes.

The following evening we enjoyed a central Beijing lakeside setting near the Imperial Palace. The evening temperature was perfect for great food and great conversation. Patrick introduced us to Plum Flower Wine which had been his father's favorite. We had a delicious spicy fish soup with a tomato base accompanied by the best spicy green beans I've ever tasted and a salad with some wonderful kinds of sprouts and other goodies I can't recall. I do remember the walnut paste cookies that were beyond belief, not only in beauty but in taste. Patrick and I each had one and my husband the cookie monster ate the remaining four.

On our third evening in Beijing, we were on our own and selected a vegetarian restaurant listed in Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, the address given was incorrect and we couldn't find it. While we were puzzling over our Lonely Planet map and Google Maps on David's Blackberry, a rickshaw driver came and peered over our shoulder. When we pointed to the Chinese characters, he lit up, gave a broad smile and flashed the international gesture for eating. We hopped in and he took us directly to the restaurant.

The food was absolutely amazing -- a hundred different dishes to choose from by selecting the glossy pictures. Very tasty. The kind of place we would go to often if it were nearby.

In a phone call earlier that day, Patrick's wife, Angelika, had encouraged him to take us for a Chinese foot massage after dinner. Late that evening we found ourselves in a health club, in side by side reclining chairs, our feet in basins of hot herbal water, warm neck pillows and warm kidney pillows comforting us as our warm-up shoulder and back massages. In good time, our presoaked feet enjoyed about an hour of pampering and exfoliating. Indeed, neither David nor I recognized my happy feet after the treatment. The experience was like a whole body massage. We all walked out totally relaxed.

Our final meal before we headed to Lhasa was a gorgeous meal of Peking duck with all the trimmings. They even provided us with a certificate of the duck's number.

In every place we were treated to gracious service as well as great food. Thank you Patrick for all you did to make our Beijing stay special.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009


[Note: We actually arrived in Lhasa today. But if I start writing about Lhasa, I'll forget the things I want to say about previous destinations, so just hold tight on Lhasa.]

This post is about Zhaozhou (Joshu in Japanese), a Zen master who lived from 778 to 897. (That's 120 years, by the way). We visited the place where Zhaozhou, at the age of 80 settled down and taught for 40 years. Many of Zhaozhou's teachings are still used today.

"Someone asked, 'Master, will you enter Hell?'

The Master answered, '[I'll be] the first to enter it.'

The man said, 'Why should a great and good [Zen] master enter Hell?'

The Master said, 'Who would transform you through the teaching if I had not entered it?'"
[From Roaring Stream, p. 101]

We had high expectations when we arrived at Bailin Temple (also known as Cypress Grove Temple), having spoken with Andy Ferguson, who has taken several Zen groups here to participate in the practice schedule. (See, for example, the description of the 2007 pilgrimage by the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate group at

But as it turned out, ours was an experience of Falling Through the Cracks. Just by chance, shortly before we arrived, an international Buddhist Studies tour group had arrived and the attention was focused (quite rightly) on this previously organized tour.

So first we had trouble finding the person who could check us in to guest quarters, then here was a problem making photocopies of our passports. We were told that we would be able to meet the abbot, that there was an evening meal available and that we could participate in evening meditation. But when the time came for each of these events, we had no one to show us where to go or what to do. So we simply enjoyed the evening air and reflected on the folly of building up expectations.

The breakfast routine was similar enough to what we had experienced at the Fourth Patriarch's Temple, so that went fine. I did find that the Chinese seem to be able to eat about four times as much rice gruel as I would normally eat (this was the one food item for which you didn't indicate an amount you wanted -- you just accepted (a gigantic) ladle-full in your bowl. I gulped it down, still taking longer than anyone else. Suffice it to say I was well fed that morning.

One thing I remember at Bailin was overhearing the translation of a Zhaozhou dialog by a monk guiding the tour group. It was the famous Mu koan, but I had not appreciated the 3rd and 4th lines before:

"A monk asked, 'Does a dog have buddha nature?'

The Master replied, 'Mu' [meaning 'No']

The monk continued, 'But if all sentient beings have the buddha nature, then why not a dog?'

The Master said, 'It's your own mind that discriminates.'"

And that gem made our trip Bailin Temple worth it.

So the next day we were off to visit Zhaozhou's bridge, the oldest stone arch bridge in the world (completed in 605 CE). In a famous interchange with a monk, Zhaozhou used the bridge ("Donkey's cross, horses cross")" as a metaphor for the mind being a bridge for everything.

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Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wealth in China

It is challenging to reconcile the China we see today with the China, truly a third world country, that we saw 25 years ago.

Then, getting permission to travel anywhere was always a bureaucratic nightmare, and the state controlled where people could live.

While generally, people had jobs and earned small salaries, few commodities were available for them to buy.

Now, while tight governmental control is still there to some degree, people do have freedom to travel and choose their residence and livelihood. The country has completely embraced capitalism.

Along with the amazing progress of the past 25 years, a voracious consumer society has developed. In any city of any size, shopping seems to be the major past time with every level of quality available. It tempers our view of America as the ultimate consumer society. Advertising is ubiquitous, billboards, giant LED video displays, TV, sometimes appealing to classist instincts.

Here, as at home, we wonder where all this consumption will lead. At the present time, it seems to have created a very solid middle class here in China.

Patrick shared with us last night that the recently wealthy in China are quickly developing philanthropic interests. We had heard that in the case of rebuilding Buddhist monasteries, individuals had contributed all the funds but this wider philanthropy was new to us.

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Green China

Among the hundreds of high rise apartment buildings and residential complexes we have seen, essentially all have solar hot water panels on the rooftops. In fact, China has 40% of the worldwide installation of solar hot water systems. Even many of the homes of the small farmers we saw as we passed through the countryside have solar hot water units on their rooftops.

In all the hotels we've stayed in, there is an electric power conservation system installed in which lights and air conditioning in each room only comes on when you are present in the room. Most of the lights are efficient fluorescent types. Toilets are either low volume or dual flush types to conserve water.

Recycling is big; China has one of the highest rates of recycling plastic water and beverage bottles. Most refuse cans on the streets are divided into recyclable and non-recyclable sections.

Last night we had dinner with Patrick Tam, an old family friend from Seattle who has been working in China for the past several years setting up green technology investment funds. Basically, their company seeks promising start-ups or small businesses that are developing environmentally beneficial technologies and connects these companies with investors who seek to make a profit.

Patrick says that China has decided to bypass hybrid gas-electric vehicles and go directly to all electric cars. The three largest companies for manufacturing lithium ion phosphate batteries, the kind that will be used in electric vehicles are all in China. Lithium is a light metal that occurs naturally in only a few places in the world, but there are extensive salt flats in China where lithium can be mined.

So we're getting a rather different perspective on China and the environment here than we could get from the American media. If there is a lesson here, it is probably a caution: next time you read a news article about pollution in China, just remember that China may very well become the world leader in green technologies.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Worship the Measuring

While the Guanxing Tai Observatory is on the same map as the Shaolin Temple, there must be 1,000 visitors to the temple for each one who visits the observatory. Even our taxi driver seemed to be puzzled as to where the entrance to the observatory was.

Built by the astronomer Guo Shoujing in 1276, the Guanxing Tai Observatory is China's oldest surviving astronomical observatory. It was one of 27 observatories distributed around the country.

One of its main purposes was to ascertain the length of the year as accurately as possible. After four years of observations, the astronomer's best value for the length of the year (measured as the time between vernal equinoxes) was 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds. It turns out that his value is only 26 seconds longer than the modern accepted value.

I think careful measurements such as this are often too little appreciated. If fact, I would even go so far as to assert that objective physical facts are sacred. That's why I was so delighted to see a stone stele with the following engraving, referring to a Master Zhou who continued the work of the observatory until 1528 during the Ming dynasty:

"Worship the Platform Measuring -- by Master Zhou in Spring"

"This inscription was written by the famous Chinese calligrapher Zheng Dayuan in the Ming Dynasty. The poem pictured grand scenes of measuring shadows and observing stars by Master Zhou the ancient times."

Well said, well said.
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Bodhidharma's Cave

The path to Bodhidharma's cave is through the grounds of Shaolin Temple, just outside of Dengfeng. Shaolin seems to be primarily a gung fu training facility for boys and young men. Just inside the gate we saw several hundred of them, organized in groups of 30 or so, practicing their martial arts routines.

In fact the whole Dengfeng area has a strong gung fu focus. We saw school boys practicing their running flips in the air and the shouts that go along with various stances. There are shops selling gung fu paraphernalia everywhere.

Since we were more interested in visiting Bodhidharma's cave, we set out directly to find the path up the mountain toward Wuru Peak. Part way up we came to the Chuzu Nunnery, where Cynthia decided to sit under the Cypress Tree allegedly planted by the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng while I went on up the steep stone steps to the cave.

According to Zen tradition, Bodhidharma was the first Chinese Zen patriarch and the twenty-eighth master in a lineage traced from Shakyamuni. He is generally thought to have died around 536 CE.

In Zen's Chinese Heritage, Andrew Ferguson writes (p 17),

"Central to the Bodhidharma legend is his interview with Emporer Liang Wudi of the Liang dynasty. The legend of their meeting serves as the preeminent example of Zen's uncompromising method of instruction.

"The emperor Wudi had attained power through intrigue and murder, but after assuming power he became a great supporter of Buddhism, and in atonement for his past sins, he established many Buddhist temples and provided for the welfare of the Buddhist clergy. But when he asked Bodhidharma what merit he had attained from these activities the sage answered, 'No merit.'

"As recounted in the Blue Cliff Record, the emperor then asked Bodhidharma to expound the highest truth of Buddhism, to which he replied, 'Emptiness. Nothing holy.'

"The emperor then asked, 'Who is it that faces me?'

"Bodhidharma replied, 'I don't know.'"

When I arrived at the cave, three young Chinese men were already there. They went inside to offer incense and do their prostrations. There was an alter with a statue of Bodhidharma. A nun, responsible for overseeing the alter sat off to the side and struck a gong once for each prostration. After the three left, I entered the cave, made an offering, lit some incense and did my own prostrations. Three rings of the gong.

The place did seem like just the right place to be if you were going to meditate for nine years. Except for the constant stream of visitors, or course. The rocks in these mountains seem very old. Immediately around the cave there were lots of cracks. I could just see Bodhidharma moving rock pieces around to fashion himself a place to sit.

Another thing that struck me was how stories of Bodhidharma and his successor, the Second Patriarch, Huike change as they are told over the years. Compare, for example, the story as related in Zen's Chinese Heritage (p 20) with the inscription on a stone stele just outside of the cave, erected by the headmaster of Sholin Temple in 2006. First, the story from Andrew Ferguson's book:

"Huike met Bodhidharma and studied with him at Shaolin Temple on Mt Song for six years. Huike is remembered and extolled in Zen tradition for his determination to realize the great truth of the Zen school. According to legend, Huike stood waiting in the snow outside Bodhidharma's cave, then cut off his left arm to show his sincerity. Recognizing Huike's great resolve, Bohidharma accepted him as his student. Huike said to Bodhidharma, 'My mind is anxious. Please pacify it.' To which Bodhidharma replied, 'Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it.' Huike said, "'Although I've sought it, I cannot find it.' Bodhidharma then said, 'There, I have pacified your mind.'"

This is basically the same story story told by most Zen teachers, and while there is weak historical evidence to back it up, it has important instructional value.

But when I read the recently erected stone stele next to the cave, I was struck by the differences. One side was in Chinese; the other in English. Note that "Dharma" refers to the First Patriarch, Bodhidharma, and "Hole" refers to the cave. Here is what it said:

"Dharma Hole"

"The first year of Da Tong of Nan Dynasty emperor Liang Wu (527 AD), Dharma left Jian Ye (Nan Jing), touring the Central China, came to Five Peaks of Song Shan Mountain, finding a hole beneath the central peak named Fire Dragon Hole where an immortal -- Fire Dragon had been practising. It is all mystery inside, 24-section main keel centers clearly with two dragons on both sides correspondingly protecting the doctrine, stars, moon, colorful clouds, The Yangtze River. The Yellow River, high mountains and flowing water all appear inside, looking like "a mini-universe" The second generation ancestor stands on the right.
The Fire Dragon went up to the heaven after first ancestor Dharma came here who then faced the wall nine years, being in deep meditation. Inside the hole, he experienced "trance" to "conscious trance"; When in trance, birds nestling on his shoulder did not undulate him; Outside, he climbed up branches and stretched body, and imitated monkeys, snakes, etc, forming a whole set each of "Xin Yi Boxing" and "Arhat Stick", becoming the founder of "Shaolin Boxing".
The second generation ancestor -- Hui Ke was determined to formally visit and learn from him. He knelt down on the snow ground outside the hole for nights running, and cut off part of his arm to show his will. Finally he became the second generation ancestor.
First ancestor faced the wall for nine years, and the opposite wall reflected his image, just like a watercolor painting. It is said the stone hole on its left just the one where the king of Qin of Tang Dynasty Li Shi Min escaped being captured under the safeguard of martial monks.
This monument:
Set up by: headmaster of ShaoLin temple -- Shi Yong Xin, abbot of First Ancestor Nunnery -- Shi Yong Mei
Organized by: Shi Yan Zhen from Rizhao City, Shandong Province
Donators: Yan Zhen, Chang Yuan, Chang Qing, Chang Jing, Chang Cheng, Chang Fo, Hao Yu, Jia Yi
Accompliished: on Nov. 25, 2006 (Oct. 5, 2006, Chinese lunar calendar)"

So Bodhidharma is remembered as a martial arts adept, as "the founder of "Shaolin Boxing". And there seems to be a lot of Taoist influence here too. Given that restatements of the story have gone on for 1500 years, I guess it's not too surprising to see these differences, but I think it's good to keep in mind that history is one thing and legend is another.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

They all look the same (bus stations, that is)

Cynthia's take on a day of travel

We thought we had it all figured out. The lovely receptionist at our hotel in Xian checked on the bus station we needed and wrote it down in Chinese characters and also wrote down Louyang, our final destination as well as Sanmenxia, our midway destination for the day.

We confidently handed the taxi driver our information and he took us to the bus station. However, upon handing the scrap of paper with the Sanmenxia Chinese characters to the ticket seller, we learn, No, there is no bus to Sanmenzia from this station. She writes down instructions on a slip of paper and we leave the window. To get to Sanmenxia, we need to go to a different bus station.

Oh well, the buses leave every hour so off we went to another bus station in another taxi. There we learn that it will take us all day to get to Sanmenxia because we have to make other connections and the first bus won't leave until 2:00 so there is no way to get to Louyang tonight.

A quick conference and we decide to skip Sanmenxia altogether and just head to Louyang. Well that means yet another bus station. The young women in the bus station insists we mustn't take another taxi. We end up following a very insistent Chinese couple down the street and in a few blocks we are standing on an island in the middle of the street; the wife is inspecting every bus that goes by and after about 10 minutes we see that the husband has boarded the bus to explain our predicament to the driver. The driver pulls over. They hustle us onto the bus with our packs, hand our bus fare over to the driver and jump off the bus, leaving us to fend for ourselves. After about half an hour or so, David decides to check with the young man across the aisle. Indeed, we are on the bus to Luoyang and four hours later we indeed arrive. Amazing.

We find a clean, quiet, small hotel, go out and have hot pot for dinner and marvel that we actually did arrive.

We had heard that long distance buses in China were quite luxurious. So far, that hasn't been our experience (Maybe we are just at the wrong bus stations) but we have seen a lot of the countryside, a lot of expressways, many country roads and large numbers of poor villages as well as both small and large farms and mountains of many descriptions.

I believe the next best thing to being a young and lovely travelers is being old (gray hair, gray beard) and doddering travelers.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Pilgrim of the 7th Century

Before this trip I had never heard of the monk Xuanzang. But when we were visiting Big Goose Pagoda, I decided to look him up in Wikipedia. He's a rather interesting fellow. Seems our paths have crossed several times, separated only by fourteen centuries.

I ended up reading the entire article to Cynthia. The article is at,

Xuanzang was born in Luoyang (the city where we are right now, having arrived from Xian this afternoon) in the year 602 CE.

While raised in a Confucian family, Xuanzang became interested in Buddhism at an early age and in 622, at the age of twenty, he became fully ordained as a monk.

At the time, there were apparently many inconsistencies and discrepancies among the documents being used to teach Buddhism, and Xuanzang decided he needed to go to India to find some of the originals. So first he learned Sanskrit in order to do the translations himself.

On his way, he traveled through what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan before passing through Kashmir and into the Terai region of Nepal, to Kapilvastu, the place where Sakyamuni grew up as a boy (and the place where I first developed an interest in Buddhism in the early '70s).

At Lumbini, he reported seeing the pillar erected by king Ashoka, which was still there in 1995 when we visited.

He went on to Kusinagara, Sarnath, and Bodh Gaya before going on to Bengal to continue his research for two years at Nalanda University.

After returning to China in 645 CE, (with 657 Sanskrit texts), Xuanzang continued his research and translation work until his death in 664 CE. Many of Xuanzang's translations remain important to this day.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Xian slideshows

Ban Po neolithic village
Archeological excavation of a village occupied from 4500 BCE to 3750 BCE. Evidence of a matriarchal culture

Terracotta Warriors
Constructed by emperor Qin Shi Huang around 240 BCE as part of his tomb, the army consists of 8,000 terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots

Xian street scenes

Big Goose Pagoda
Completed in 652 CE, this pagoda was used to house Buddhist sutras brought back from India by monk Xuan Zang

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Impressions of China after three weeks

The China we see today, 25 years after our previous visit, is a completely different country. Twenty-five years ago, we could sense the potential of an economic powerhouse, from the intense energy of the people, their huge numbers and the vast size of their country. Now it has become a reality.

The capitalist engine is running at full steam and the consumer culture is in high gear. There are huge construction projects all over the country -- superhighways, city skyscrapers, countless housing and commercial development projects, as evidenced by the myriad construction cranes in nearly every city.

At the moment, many of these projects seem to be in a state of suspended animation -- the cranes mostly stand idle over partially finished buildings, due undoubtedly to the worldwide economic downturn. But you sense that when things turn around, these projects will restart where they left off. And China seems to be poised to lead the recovery.

We haven't seen the sprawling ghettos that surround so many large cities around the world; there are plenty of extremely wealthy families here, a strong middle class and a huge working class that seems to be getting by -- we haven't seen much abject poverty at all -- a few homeless people on the streets, but not as many as in Seattle or San Francisco.

Commercial advertising is intense. The big public squares of Xian have giant LED video screens blasting messages to stimulate desire to purchase flashy cars, fancy clothes, perfume and liquor. There are hundreds of shopping malls hawking products of international brands. The only category "missing" relative to current American-style advertising is the class of pharmaceuticals that you should really ask your doctor about.

While the theme song of today's youth may seem to be "Material Girl," there is another trend we discovered in talking with a 26-year old girl and a young man of similar age who came to attend a week-long workshop on Buddhism at the Fourth Patriarch's Temple near Huangmei. She and her friend agreed that while their courses at the university provide them with a huge amount of information, it's difficult to find instruction on how best to live one's life. This is why the summer workshops at several Buddhist temples around the country are in such high demand.

While many temples were in disrepair for much of the 20th century, and huge numbers suffered further destruction during the Cultural Revolution, since the 1990's there has been a surge in reconstruction of temples driven entirely by donations by wealthy patrons and a hands-off policy by the government.

The government tolerates worship and encourages tourism in temples, especially as entry fees provide a revenue stream to the department of tourism.

There is much greater openness now than there was 25 years ago. Then we had to be kept under the watchful eye of a "guide." Now we can travel relatively freely on our own. There still are clear indicators of a heavy-handed central government trying to control the media.

The most aggravating example is the way the government blocks certain web sites. For example, you cannot get to Facebook or Twitter or most of the social network sites via an Ethernet connection. [I can still get to Facebook using my BlackBerry via the cell phone network, however.] Even Google's blogspot site is blocked. This means that none of the photos I post to our blog can be viewed on computers in China.

The English language newspaper, China Daily is an interesting mixed bag. There are plenty of articles bemoaning corruption of government officials, but on the other hand, there is no tolerance for printing the views of the Uygur separatist leader, Rebiya Kadeer whose film has caused so much controversy at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

The strong central government and the fact that all land is owned by the state makes it possible to bulldoze huge neighborhoods and turn them into development projects without much resistance. There is some talk in the paper about compensating people for the loss of their homes or providing them "better" living conditions, but obviously there is a lot going on behind the scenes that is not finding a public forum.

Education is valued highly. Universities have hired many professors from the West, especially in the areas of science and technology. English seems to be the main medium of instruction in these fields.

According to a French student studying aerospace engineering in a Chinese university, it is sometimes difficult to ask questions of his Chinese professors as they tend to take this as a sign of disrespect.

Chinese universities crank out 6 million graduates a year, but as in America, a college degree is no longer a ticket to a good paying job, as least right away. Youth everywhere seem to be facing strong challenges after graduation.

An article in today's paper says that China plans to launch a robotic rover to the moon in 2012 and a manned lunar landing mission as early as 2025. A recent editorial in Sky and Telescope magazine suggested that the first manned mission to Mars will be by the Chinese. I won't be at all surprised if that turns out to be the case.

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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Slideshows of Temples near Huangmei

Fourth Ancestor's Temple

Lu Hua Nunnery

Fifth Ancestor's Temple

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Cynthia's memories of 25 years ago

As I was waking on the morning we were to fly from Nanchang to Xian, the memory of our only internal flight 25 years ago came back to me. We arrived at the airport about an hour before the flight from Beijing to Nanjing. The airport terminal, a dirty, squat building was completely locked up. There was no sign of activity. We wondered if we were in the right place. After about twenty minutes, some officials turned up, unlocked the doors, took our tickets and we were escorted to a plane, a very shabby plane. The seat back wobbled. There were no seat belts. It felt like the seats were missing a few essential bolts. The attendant offered us a piece of hard candy.

David and I glanced at one another wondering if it was really safe to take our five-month-old first born child on such a contraption. And, of course, we breathed deeply and settled into out seats, arms around our sleeping son, and had a safe flight.

Now airports are large and modern, especially considering the somewhat limited amount of air traffic during this economic downturn. We did wait in the plane for two hours due to a thunderstorm in Beijing but that was a welcome wait in the interest of safety, given the rough weather.

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The Fifth Patriarch, Hongren

The Fifth Patriarch, Daman Hongren (Hung-jen in Chinese Wade-Giles and Daiman Konin in Japanese Romanji) was born near Huangmei in 601. He became a monk at a young age and was one of the first residents of the temple built by Daoxin. In 651, when Daoxin, the Fourth Patriarch died there were over 500 monks living here.

Three years after Daoxin passed away, Hongren sought a site for a new temple. He found a place on Fengmaoshan, a mountain that belonged to a man named Feng Mao, located about a half-day's walk from Daoxin's temple. When Mr. Feng heard about Hongren's plans, he gave him the mountain. The new monastery was able to support over 1,000 monks by the time Hongren passed away in 675. [From the book, Zen Baggage, pp 206-207]

According to Bill Porter [ZB, p. 209], the only record we have of Hongren's teaching is from his "Discourse on the Supreme Vehicle":

"The key to cultivating the Way is knowing that your own mind is originally pure, that it is neither created nor destroyed, and that it is free of discrimination. The mind whose nature is perfectly pure is your true teacher and superior to any of the buddhas of the ten directions you might call upon. ... If you concentrate on guarding the mind, delusions will no longer arise, and the reality of nirvana will spontaneously appear. Thus you should know that your mind is originally pure."

After our taxi dropped us off at the entrance to the Fifth Patriarch's temple and drove away, we stood with our bags at our feet, as a woman walked up to us, excitedly pointing to our bags and loudly shouting to us in Chinese, very concerned about something for which we had no clue. Should we move our bags? Should we pay an entry fee? Should we get out of there as soon as possible? The busybody wouldn't stop. We kept saying "Bu dong, bu dong" (I don't understand), but she kept on berating us in Chinese. I fumbled with my phrase book, hoping I could find something that would calm her down. We just wanted to visit the temple for a few hours; we didn't intent to stay overnight. Maybe a phone call to the travel agent in Nanchang would help explain this to the woman. So I called "Mary" in Nanchang and had her speak with the busybody. That seemed to help. The woman stopped her tirade.

We entered the temple and paid the entrance fee. We turned to go in and right in front of us, completely blocking passage into the temple was a mound of construction debris about 20 ft high. So now what?

It was time to bring out the big guns from my phrase book: "Cesuo dzai nar?" (Where is the bathroom?)

The ticket collectors pointed to a hallway on the left -- lucky for us, no only was the toilet just a few feet away, but this was the temporary access route to the temple during construction.

The temple was quite fascinating-- especially the statues of the mothers of the first six Zen patriarchs and the rice-pounding stone used by Huineng, the "jungle rat" who became the Sixth Patriarch.

And my mind felt considerably more pure after the bathroom break.

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Lu Hua Temple

Cynthia's impressions of Lu Hua ("reed flower") temple:

In the mountains above the 4th Patriarch's Temple, about 2 miles up a steep, still-being-built road, a newly built nunnery nestles gently in a setting that seems to have been waiting for its appearance. Unlike other temples we have visited, this modest temple seems perfectly integrated into the surroundings with a lovely lake fed by a waterfall. Plants from outside the walls flow into the grounds. The buildings have more human, less grand proportions. A young Chinese man commented that everything in the "female monks" temple was required to be smaller. I am guessing the nuns are more comfortable in their connection with the earth and more earthly proportions.

There was a welcoming shyness in the smiles of the few nuns we encountered. They all seemed very busy as they went about their daily routines. I feel very pleased with this brief encounter in what has otherwise been a very male dominated institution.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Feeling unblogable

With 4:00 am wake-ups for the past couple of days, neither Cynthia nor I think we will be able to stay up much past 8:00 pm tonight at our hotel back in Nanchang.

But I did want to share this little quote from Hakuin in today's newsletter from the Upaya Zen Center:


Hakuin's Four Ways of Knowing

When you see something, shine through it; when you hear, shine through what you are hearing; shine through the five skandhas; shine through the six fields of sense perception---in front, behind, left and right, through seven calamities and eight disasters, become one with radiant vision of the whole body. See through all things, internal and external; shine through them. When this work becomes solid, then perception of reality will be perfectly, distinctly clear, just like looking at the palm of your hand. At this point, while increasing the use of this clear knowing and insight, if you enter awakening, then shine through awakening. If you get into agreeable circumstances, then shine through agreeable circumstances. If you fall into adverse situations, then shine through adverse situations. When greed or desire arise, shine through greed and desire; when hatred or anger arise, shine through hatred and anger; when you act out of ignorance, shine through ignorance. When the three poisons of hatred, greed, and ignorance are no more, and the mind is pure, shine through that pure mind. At all times, in all places, be it desires, senses, gain, loss, right, wrong, visions of Buddha or of dharma, in all things shine through with your whole body.

From The Upaya Zen Center's newsletter, Aug 3, 2009

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Fourth Patriarch, Dayi Daoxin

Dayi Daoxin (Tao-hsin in Chinese Wade-Giles, and Daii Doshin in Japanese Romanji) lived from 580 to 651.

Some background from the book, Zen's Chinese Heritage, by Andrew Ferguson (pp 24-25):

When he was fourteen years old he went to pay respects to Sengcan Jianzhi, the Third Patriarch.

Daoxin said, "I ask for the Master's compassion. Please tell me of the gate to emancipation."

Sengcan said, "Who has bound you?"

Daoxin said, "No one has bound me."

Sengcan said, "Then why are you seeking emancipation?"

Upon hearing these words, Daoxin experienced great enlightenment.

Daoxin acted as Sengcan's attendant for nine years. After leaving Sengcan, taught at "Broken Head Mountain" for thirty years. This is the present location of the Fourth Patriarch's Temple.

Daoxin is often credited with creating the first self-sufficient monastery for Zen monks in China.

According to Bill Porter, Author of the book, Zen Baggage,

"When people think about Zen, they usually think of it in external terms: nonsensical talk, spontaneous behavior, or minimalist art forms. But that would be to look at it from the outside. If you look at it from the inside, from your own mind, Zen is just a way of living. And that way of living is far easier to realize in a communal setting with the support of others than it is alone. Seclusion has its place, especially once a person has practiced in a community, but it was its communal approach to spiritual cultivation that was the strength of Zen. That was why it overwhelmed all other Buddhist sects in China, both in terms of numbers and in terms of influence. Its success was Darwinian. It produced a better-trained monk and more of them. Other sects were ideology-driven. Zen didn't have an ideology. Zen was life-driven. Its motto was 'No work, no food.'"

Self-sufficiency has been a hallmark of Zen in China and is probably partly responsible for its resurgence today.
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Fourth Patriarch's Temple

As we walked into the Fourth Patriarch's Temple, the one thing we needed most was someone to let us know whether it was possible for us to stay overnight, and if so what the procedure was to do so. We had no idea how to find out or where to go.

At that moment, a taxi pulled up and two women got out carrying some luggage. This looked hopeful.

I went up to the older woman and asked if she spoke English and she motioned to the younger woman, her daughter. The younger woman came over and asked if she could be of any assistance.

She introduced herself as "Carla", and asked us to follow her. It turns out she and her mother had come to stay at the temple for three weeks where she would participate in a week long "camp" for university students interested in Buddhist practice. She took us to the monk who was responsible for checking in visitors.

Carla has been our personal guide, interpreter and assistant throughout the day. We couldn't have asked for a better welcome.

Cynthia and I were directed to separate (but adjacent) dormitory rooms, where we have been relaxing and enjoying refreshing cold showers.

Carla showed us around the temple and escorted me up the long flight of stairs to Tao-hsin's stupa, which house his relics. Cynthia chose to pass up the stair climb and enjoy the quiet pond instead.

We had a nice long chat with Carla about the resurgence of Buddhism in China and the number of new reconstructed temples that are have been conducting summer camps for university students for the past 6-10 years or so. In fact, the camp here will start next week with 180 participants. There are a huge number of preparations underway to accommodate the students. The daily schedule has been modified so that the formal meditation periods have been omitted.

A cafeteria style vegetarian dinner was served around 6:00. Men eat on one side of the hall and women on the other.

At 7:00 pm we joined the chanting service held in the hall with three big buddha statues There are cushioned low benches for doing prostrations. There were about 50 monks and 10 nuns plus about a dozen lay people in attendance. The chanting has a soothing quality that tends to stay with you after you leave the hall.

Lights go out at 9:30 pm. Carla suggested I set my alarm for 4:00 am, as the morning service begins at 4:30. We had a few moments to stand outside the hall to listen to the head monk doing some chanting. His chanting was punctuated by a rooster crowing and some bats flying around. Seemed a bit early for the rooster, as it was still pitch dark.

The morning chanting service was similar to the evening's. Most of the monks knew the chants by heart, but a few held chant booklets to read along. When the head monk noticed that I asn't chanting and didn't have a chant booklet, we went over and got one for me. At first I thought I should refuse it as it was all in Chinese, but then on second thought I accepted it as to not be rude. About the only thing I could gather from the booklet was that you turned the pages from right to left and the characters were read vertically in columns from right to left. Oh, I did notice that some characters were repeated.

Other than that, my practice was to try to keep track of when to have my hands palms together and when clasped over my chest, when to go down into a prostration and when to come back up again.

After the morning chanting service we were served breakfast, this time in a slightly more formal "Zen-like" style. We each had two bowls in front of us and a pair of chopsticks. People serving the food came by periodically and you could indicate our wish to have some by placing your bowl forward, or pass it by by pulling your bowl back. No food is to be left in the bowl when you are finished. They come by with hot water so you can wash out the last grains of rice and drink the liquid. After some meal chanting, we each filed out to wash our bowls in a sink, before placing them in an upright steam sterilizer.

Everyone is busy preparing for the summer camp while Cynthia and I are reading and writing.

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

Numerous kindnesses of strangers to strangers

[Cynthia's observations]
On Mt. Lu, we as westerners are very rare. In fact we hadn't seen any others as we took a morning walk up to the village. In the park near a viewpoint into a valley, we saw many elderly Chinese people playing games -- a unusual version of checkers, majong, and a gambling game with Chinese characters on thin strips of paper. Women were engaged in dancing/qigong and another man was playing a traditional two-stringed instrument.

We glanced up and spotted a young western man across the street. We nodded in recognition and went about finding a place for a breakfast bite. A moment later, the young man along with several Chinese young people followed us in, curious about how we came to be there. His grandmother had gone to school in this mountain top village. I would have liked to know more of this story as I think it would have been quite an interesting piece of personal and cultural history.

We returned to our overpriced, musty, mildew-smelling, dirty hotel and checked out, needing to figure out how to make our way down this steep mountain. The three young women working there brainstormed, and hailed a taxi for us which took us up the mountain. The driver then secured us a place in a minivan to take us down the mountain. The minivan dropped us on a busy street corner 3 km from the bus station.

A young Chinese man who spoke some English then secured us a taxi to take us to the bus station. After 1-1/2 hours we ended up on a filthy old bus to Huangmei. We looked longingly at the air-conditioned long distance buses next to us as our rickety bus pulled out of the bus station. When the conductor at the gate saw our ticket was to Huangmei she gave us a brief look of pity (or was it sympathy)?

In Huangmei the bus driver dropped us at the corner of some rutted back streets. Across the street some young women in a bathroom fixture shop motioned us in. They gave us glasses of water and they and the people from the neighboring shop decided they must help us find an appropriate place to stay.
Then they called the owner of the shop who came and took us to a lovely hotel, the Royal Hotel; he stayed with us until he was assured that we would be well cared for. The staff of the hotel are enjoying practicing their English language skills with us and we are enjoying clean surroundings and air conditioning and a bathroom without jumping spiders.

In general, in the countryside, not many people speak English and here in the south, they speak a dialect that little resembles the Mandarin we learned. With almost no direct communication, quite a large number of people have helped us arrive at our destination with relative ease. We feel great appreciation for all the efforts they made for us.

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