Since I had gotten an invitation to go to Beijing from Lily, I decided to head there, before the cold weather set in in Beijing, and to my pleasant surprise, the weather in Beijing early October was actually perfect, clear skies and warm days. The tea house, called the Autumn Moon Tea House is used as a meeting place; it also has art for sale.
The tea room entryway. The calligraphy says, Zhao Zhou Tea House.
Here is the Chan Tang at the Tea House.
The tea house has an upstairs space where the Chan Tang and other facilities for holding retreats are located. A monk leads the retreat, and every day after lunch, there is a question and answer session. Since my Chinese is not good enough to understand the talk, I didn’t go, but I did have a chance to talk with the monk at one point. These discussions are always enjoyable and give a chance to explore the Dharma together.
The retreat lasted for 6 days, however, one afternoon, Lily had invited me to go to the highly respected professor’s birthday party, mentioned above. There was a pot luck lunch, followed by presentations by his students. Lily practices Beijing Opera, other students performed Chinese flute or Gu Qin, others did calligraphy. A few spoke some English, so I was able to get a feel for what they were doing. I feel refreshed being around people who are interested in art and music, even though I am not schooled in that.
Here, Lily (right) and a friend sing Beijing Opera, which is sung it seems from the throat, in a very high pitch, rather than the deeper tones of Western opera.
My last night in Beijing was rather special. The week of the retreat, October 1-7 is the national holiday marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A couple of acquaintances who had attended the retreat took me downtown where thousands of people were milling around. Hundreds of thousands of people from villages all over China come to Beijing for this event, since there is no work that week.
One of my long held dreams was to go and pay my respects to “the old Buddha”, Zhao Zhou, or in Japanese, Joshu. Lily also encouraged me to go, and arranged my train from Beijing. Beijing is so huge, that if you don’t know the city and don’t know Chinese, it is quite difficult to get around. Lily, ever the most gracious hostess, took care of that for me, as well as taking me out to eat and getting a hotel for me, during my stay, since the Tea House retreat was during the day, and most people commuted there from their homes.
I took a train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital of Hebei Province. Train quality varies a fair amount in China; this train was very clean, comfortable, and fast, as good as any train I have been on. When I got there, someone from the temple was to pick me up at the train station, and fortunately again, I was able to find an English speaker, who could translate for him and me, and after a few minutes, we found each other.
Bai Lin Si, means Cypress Forest Temple, however, it is not in a forest, but in a fairly typical Chinese smaller city. The temple is the main attraction, and many people come to visit.
At first, I had thought to stay for about two weeks, however, once there, I found myself thinking more and more “Dun Huang…Dun Huang…Dun Huang.”
Many years ago, I had gone to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and
I was not able to find it at Dun Huang, however, I like it a lot. We see some Buddhist saint, surrounded by various other entities, the ones in the lower right are probably other enlightened beings, as indicated by their halos. Some are probably lay donors, the one with the largest halo may be a Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. Notice that they are all looking off to the right, probably to a Buddha figure not shown here.
What I like the most is the very strange looking beings, at the top of the picture, perhaps Yakshas, sort of a mythical monster. Yet even though they are really weird looking, they, too are experiencing reverence for the object on the right. I take this to mean, that in a Sangha, or Buddhist community, you will find all kinds of people at various levels of spiritual development, and there is room for everyone, dysfunctional or saintly! We should take this to heart, and be more tolerant of people we think are weird, that is the message I get from this picture.
I had my heart set on seeing Dun Huang, and doing some real adventure outside of the more populous Eastern part of China.
When I first got to Bai Lin Si, the office manager introduced me to Ping, a 30ish fellow taking time off from his hectic job, so he could study Buddhism. Since he speaks English quite well, he served as translator and helper. He asked the office manager if he could take me on a tour of the monks’ area, including the Chan Tang, or meditation hall reserved for the monks. The answer was a polite refusal, since only monks are supposed to go there. However, when I told Ping of my desire to go to Dun Huang, and my early departure from Bai Lin Si, the acting abbot, Ming Ying Fashi (Ming Hai, the abbot, is now in a three year solitary retreat, like Jin Wu Fashi had done) got in touch with me through Ping.
Ming Ying must have heard about me through Ming Ji or Jin Wu, or Lily, because he apologized for not meeting with me earlier. We arranged a meeting time the morning that I had planned to leave, and he took me on a personal guided tour of the temple, including the sacred Founder’s Hall, dedicated to Zhao Zhou and Xu Yun, and also the monks’ Chan Tang.
I feel so very grateful to the many monks who have been so open and supportive of me, a mere “Barbarian from the West”.
He arranged with Ping to get me to the airport for a flight to the city of Dun Huang, and off I went.
It turns out that the weather in Shijiazhuang is frequently foggy. My driver and I started out at 7:30, thinking it would take over an hour to get to the airport by 9 AM, giving me plenty of time for my 10:30 flight. But the fog was so thick that he could hardly see the road, and traffic was heavy, too. He tried an alternate route, but that didn’t work, and we didn’t get to the airport until after ten, which meant that I missed my flight!
But fortunately, the flight itself was delayed, the airport staff said it would be two hours late, so timing was perfect. Not!
At noon, I checked in again….no news. At this point, I was getting antsy. Since my time in China was drawing to a close, and my visa was running out, I’d decided to take airplanes to Dun Huang. The only way to go was through Xi’An, the former historic capital of China. But if I missed my flight to Xi’An I would miss my flight the next day to Dun Huang. I didn’t mind the overnight stay in Xi’An. I wanted to spend the day there, too, since Xi’An has many famous sites as well, like the famous Terra Cotta Warriors.
Every hour or so, I asked the airline about the flight. They said, don’t worry, it will fly they just didn’t know when.
There was another problem, I had booked a room at the Xi’An youth hostel, and learned that it was over an hour from the airport, and my flight was at 7:30 AM. That made it impossible to catch a taxi at 5:00 AM, to arrive on time. What to do?
Finally, having exhausted politeness, I demanded to see the supervisor. A nice attendant had graciously allowed me to stay in the VIP lounge, but that didn’t solve my problem. So I insisted on getting an answer.
After much hemming and hawing, the manager, who spoke as much English as I speak Chinese agreed with me. He acknowledged that they should have let me know a lot sooner. I took the plane at a much higher price to avoid a ten hour train. So instead of sitting in a train for ten hours, I paid three times more money to sit in the airport. Not to mention the hotel problem in Xi’An.
He agreed finally to get a room at the airport hotel, just 10 minutes from the airport, and put me up for the night free.
It is always emphasized that in China, you never ever lose your temper.
EXCEPT if you want to get something done!
I finally caught my flight at 9:30 PM, eleven hours late, arrived in Xi’An and, after a few more mixups, got a shuttle bus to the hotel.
The next day, I caught my flight and arrived in Dun Huang.