My time in China was winding down, but I had a couple more events to take in before returning to Xiamen. While at Lao Zu Si, I made friends with Huang Zhao, a telecom engineer, who had worked for China’s biggest internet company, TenCent, also known by Chinese as QQ.
It is mainly a messaging and blog site, and when people exchange contact information, they will as often as not ask each other for their QQ number. It also works as an email address. However, outside China it’s not used so much.
Huang Zhao had an interesting history. His father had a stroke at the age of 28, and had to be cared for by his mother. After another 29 years or so, his father had died two years ago. So I felt a connection with him since my father had died, too.
He told me he decided to leave QQ and had not worked in about two years: when I met him, he was staying at the temple for a month or so.
He invited me to his city, Wuhan, which is in Hubei Province, as is Lao Zu Si. Since I had planned to go to the Chan Buddhism Conference in Hubei Province in late October, it was pretty convenient for me to take a 20 hour overnight train from Jiayuguan to Xi’An, and then another 12 hour overnight train to Wuhan.
At Huang Zhao’s house, his mom, true to his promise, fed me her delicious home cooked Chinese food, and we did some site seeing.
Here they are on the banks of the huge and famous Yangzi River.
The thing about China is that there are sooo many cities with sooo many people, that we Westerners have most likely never heard of.
Wuhan is a city of 4.2 million people, but it is really three cities, that eventually grew together. We took a walk on the banks of the river,
which is near the historic district. Similar to Hong Kong and Xiamen, it was forced to open up to foreign concessions and companies, so now, despite urban renewal, there are still old charming buildings maintained as historic reasons.
The façade of the (French Colonial) Bank of Indo China
There is a lot of new construction, too, such as a Howard Johnson Hotel that reminds me of the San Francisco Hyatt Regency, with its exterior elevator shaft. Going up the elevator, and looking down on the city, gave a bit of “High Anxiety” like Mel Brooks did in his memorable comedy.
Huang Zhau also introduced me to some of his friends at Wuhan University, one of the best Universities in China, with a strong department of technology. We went to their dormitory, sat around and –true to Chinese form–, drank tea! And of course had very good conversation. We talked about modern society and its discontents and also about the reemergence of Buddhism as a counterbalance to the strains of modern life.
Another highly interesting aspect of our discussion, as well as discussions I have had with a number of Chinese, was the degree to which they are familiar with American History. They know the names of some of our presidents like Abraham Lincoln, and have studied the principles of Democracy. Many express great admiration for the American system of government, the fact that American people have the right to vote, and the sense that the US government is more responsive to the people than their own.
On the other hand, they also are quite concerned about the many wars that the USA gets involved with. So there is a mixture of idealistic admiration as well as criticism. One thing is for sure: they know a lot more about America than Americans know about China, and that the information that Americans get about China is filtered and propagandized AT LEAST AS MUCH if not more so, than Chinese.
At least the Chinese know when they are getting propaganda, whereas most Americans take the narrative they’ve been told for granted as fact.
This is not only regrettable, but could really prove ultimately fatal for the whole world!
The next day, having called Ming Ji Fashi about the Chan conference, I was offered a ride with 8 other people in a van, taking the three hour ride from Wuhan to Huang Mei, site of the conference.
When we arrived at the hotel, I was shown a room which I was to share with another Chinese fellow, a young professor at another university in Wuhan.
There were about 400 people at the conference, and some top professors of Buddhism in China gave major addresses. Before the academic program started in the afternoon of the first day, there was a morning entertainment program. We entered a large auditorium a few minutes’ walk from the hotel, to the sound of the Diamond Sutra, chanted by Imee Ooi, a Malaysian Chinese woman who had done tremendous work in bringing Buddhist chanting to modern ears.
I first heard her rendition of it from my Chinese teacher at Xiamen University in 2009 and was totally captivated by it. She has also done chants of the Metta Sutta, the discourse on lovingkindness, as well as the Heart Sutra in Chinese, Sino Japanese and in English.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUzzivYjvRASanskrit Heart Sutra
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciYO7mWq3OgMandarin Heart Sutra
http://www.immmusic.com/I highly recommend her work.
That was only the beginning. After introductions and welcoming of the honored guests on stage, the program went on for two hours of Chinese classical music, singers, dancers, and other entertainment. Hardly what I expected at an academic conference, but really great performances.
We returned to the hotel for lunch. One dining room served vegetarian food and the other served nonvegetarian.
After an afternoon rest period—Chinese often take an after lunch siesta– the main conference began, with addresses and talks given, first by eminent Chinese, starting with Jing Hui Fashi, then by foreign monks and professors. Later, there were breakout session where particular areas of interest were addressed, such as Buddhism and tourism, Buddhism and psychotherapy, and so on.
Jeremy Zhu, who had studied at Harvard and now is a psychotherapist and Ph.D researcher at Renmin University gave a talk on psychotherapy. He does work with art therapy as well as other creative approaches (www.jeremyzhu.wordpress.com).
Most of the people at the conference did not speak English, so I was not able to fully appreciate what went on, however, I made some friends and contacts. One nice woman, who teaches Koans, the stories so central to Chan and Zen, at a University in Beijing has invited me to go there and do some work, teaching and editing.
Another speaker, Sheng Guang Shi, who has spent 20 years in Canada, spoke on the cultural barriers, separating Asians and Westerners. We had a good discussion, especially since he had spoken just recently at the American Buddhist Teachers’ conference held at the San Francisco Zen Center. He had had a discussion with my own American teacher Nelson Foster just a couple of months earlier. We agreed to stay in touch. Both of us feel that Asians and Westerners would benefit from cultural exchanges. Chinese are very open to foreigners who want to come and practice. And I think it would be really helpful to Westerners, who are sometimes a bit reticent and anxious about going to China, to come and see for themselves what China is about, on the human level, not what we are told about China. As one Tibetan said to Bill Porter, in his book Zen Baggage, a pilgrimage in China, “If you want to become Enlightened, leave your country.”
Here I am with my friend Chen Jie, who teaches Koans.
Here is my translator and helper, Sheng Zhong.
After the conference was over, the conference coordinators got everyone to the airport or train station. I got a ride to Nanchang Airport, since I had had enough overnight train rides for a while, and got back to Xiamen the next day. Cheng Rong invited me to meet her monk friend and teacher, Dao Cheng. When I met him, he was having tea in his room with a couple of young business women. After chatting awhile, I asked him what his practice was, and among other things, he said he studied the Diamond Sutra. We had a good exchange about its meaning, especially for people who are not monks. He said the central point of the Sutra, is Kong, that is Chinese for Emptiness. He then went on to explain in laymen terms what that is, basically, it is the space which has the potential for everything, if I understood his meaning, translated into English by Cheng Rong.
I had first thought to stay in Xiamen, but then decided to make a one day trip to Guangzhou, a few hundred miles south. I had met a very nice Chinese doctor in Dun Huang, Guan Wanxian, who was doing her medical residency, and she invited me to come to see this city of about 5 million people. She told me that she liked the desert, but would not go back again because of the fragility of the environment. Here is a picture she sent me of a poor little plant living in the harsh desert. It reminds me of our own life. We may not notice it, but we are all sometimes like that little plant, trying to survive in a great world of emptiness. Sometimes I see a small insect crawling along the road. I wonder what they
are thinking. Do they know where they are going? Do we know where we are going in this vast universe?
When Guan Wanxian took me out to see Guangzhou at night, I could see that the city skyline at night is really dramatic.
The following day, we visited the tomb of an ancient King of South China.
These are pieces of jade buried with the Emperor of that time. It seems that he also buried food, clothing as well as servants and even a wife, so he wouldn’t be lonely in the afterlife. This is a reproduction of his coffin, since the tomb had undergone flooding in ages past, and the actual coffin had virtually disintegrated.
The Lonely Planet tourist guide book describes this mausoleum as one of the best museums in China, and indeed the exhibits are fascinating. It was built after the tomb was discovered in 1983. The Chinese have a fascination for jade, and the museum has many displays of jade as well as many artifacts from that period 2000 years ago.
Ancient Chinese jade Jewelry
One of the things that I take away from my stay in China, is that, despite everything that China has been through in its very long history—numerous dynasties have come and gone, it has been invaded many times, and suffered tremendous instability, especially in the last 300 years, there is something very solid and stable. On the other hand, sometimes, things don’t work properly, like my problem with the airplane flight, or the possibility of getting scammed. Any time something doesn’t go right and seems unfixable, people often just shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s China”.
Nevertheless, there is a sense of history and culture that is so embedded in the people, that it gives a sense of groundedness that I don’t experience in Western culture. Many young people see Buddhism as old fashioned and superstitious. And yet, their sensibility reflects the impact of Buddhism, as well as Confucian and Daoist ethics and culture.
Also, China, while it has a sense of its own significance, and perhaps even superiority, is not arrogant in the same way that we see in the same way as American Manifest Destiny, that is America’s God Given Right to take what it wants—all in the name of freedom and democracy.
Here is an example of American propaganda about China. When Libya’s civil war started and it became very unstable, China had 30,000 workers there under contract to do some work in the oil business; China had invested several billion dollars in a deal to deliver Libyan oil to China. When the workers were endangered, China sent one warship to go to the Libyan coast as part of a rescue effort, to get its people out of harm’s way.
CNN reported this story as “ a dangerous projection of Chinese power into the Mediterranean Sea.” It went on to say that China was spending —in big letters across the TV screen—90 BILLION DOLLARS a year on its military. Whereas, the United States was planning to reduce its military budget in the future. What the announcer failed to point out, was that the “official” US military budget is well over 650 BILLION DOLLARS. This does not include the nuclear weapons budget hidden in the Department of Energy, or the tens of billions spent on the many “intelligence agencies”, the CIA, NSA for starters, nor the Homeland Security Budget, and on and on. It also didn’t point out that in the Mediterranean Sea, there is the 6th Fleet which, according to the US Navy website has “one or more aircraft carriers, each with an accompanying complement of approximately six cruisers and destroyers. On board the aircraft carrier is an air wing of 65 – 85 aircraft. The air wing is the primary striking arm of the Battle Force, and includes attack, fighter, anti-submarine, and reconnaissance aircraft. Ships accompanying the carrier serve as defensive and offensive platforms with duties involving anti-air, surface and submarine warfare. In addition to its major role of controlling the seas, the Battle Force can also project its power over land.” So who is projecting power?
China is surrounded by US military bases in Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, India, and US backed groups have been implicated in stirring up trouble in Chinese provinces. Chinese frequently complain about the government, however, I ask them how many countries China is currently bombing. The answer is None.
While it is true that a culture of harmony can be construed as a way for authority to say, “Be reasonable…do it our way…or else,” things are not looking so great from a human rights standpoint in the United States. The US prison population is larger than China’s even though the US has 1/4 the total population.
Chinese are, I think somewhat more introspective than Americans, and for sure, they take a much longer view than our instant gratification oriented society. That does not mean that Chinese are frugal. People who have money are certainly spending it. China just surpassed the USA in auto sales this year, and they are spending money on art, liquor, gambling, and so on. It is common for wealthy Chinese married men to have at least one girlfriend on the side. My impression is that their wives have little choice but to look the other way. Is that so different from in the West? I also find that Chinese are extraordinarily generous. When they go out to eat, people literally fight over who will pay the bill. At some temples, the monks pushed my money away when I offered a donation. In fact, there are many temples being built with the generous donations of wealthy Chinese, and the conferences that I have attended were in large part paid for by wealthy Chinese. One beautiful temple I stayed at in Myanmar, Pau Auk Monastery, with 400 monks in residence was built with donations from one Chinese family.
All this is simply to say, that while Chinese know that they have a lot to learn from the West, on the other hand, they also cling to old ideas and ways of doing things that are not so useful. And at the same time, there are aspects of their culture, the sense of social relations, their devotion to education, art, music and culture that is not as obvious in the West (though, perhaps, it may be that I simply didn’t travel in those circles when I lived in the USA full time, and was busy earning a living. )
Certainly, they can learn from us, but we can also learn from them, especially in terms of social relations. When I praise my Chinese friends about their harmonious family relationships, though, they tell me, “You have no idea how complicated and messed up they are.”
It’s all quite fascinating. But what I want to end with, is the recognition that by immersing myself in Chinese culture and being with Chinese people, I think I have learned something about people and about myself that I could not have learned, absent my trip.
Visit China, be open to making friends. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.