By Josh Krieger
An account of an intense, interesting day spent at Mt Wutai, still revered in communist China as the mountain abode of Manjushri, bodhisattva of wisdom
The young couple just sits there oblivious to the jungle of noises and smells that are distinctly Mt Wutai train station. Perhaps one would expect nothing less of Buddhist lovers, concentrating peacefully on their affection while the world revolves around them. A Buddhist rosary some six feet long hangs from around the man’s neck and he is using two hands rather than the usual thumb and forefinger to count each of the 108 baseball-sized beads. His girlfriend’s head rests gently on his shoulder as she gazes at him with loving admiration. I look down at my rosary, a mere 18 small beads, and then worryingly over to my girlfriend Liang Jing.
We have just arrived at Mt Wutai, one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains. It has for more than 1,500 years been a place of pilgrimage for people all around Asia. They come to pay homage to Manjushri, the Buddhist embodiment of wisdom, who is said to cut through confused thinking with his long sword. Liang Jing and I walk through the narrow winding streets of Mt Wutai village. Buddhist monks and nuns dressed in blacks, grays, saffrons, and reds, from every Buddhist sect and country, are here. In my imagination, I expect to find a fat Chinese monk with a big smile and a crooked wooden staff. He has just tamed the wild ox of his mind and is returning to the village for the salvation of others. Unfortunately, I can find him nowhere amidst the thousands of vendors that fill this town. They are everywhere and selling everything: incense, statues, prayer flags, sacred books, and the most unbelievably tacky religious music.
After the long and exhausting train ride up here, the thought of buying something is particularly comforting. I have been looking for a small Buddha to place on my altar at home and I figure this is a good place to find one. For anyone who has ever tried, a good Buddha is hard to find. The Thai Buddhas’ waists are too small, their shoulders too big and they have pointy heads; the Japanese Buddhas are perfect but without life; the Tibetan Buddhas are too ornate; and the Chinese Buddhas, plated with cheap gold, are just plain tacky. It seems I have been forever searching for that perfect Buddha: one who embodies openness. Just by his appearance he shows me that life isn’t divided up into ‘them’ and ‘us’. Of course, he also has the dignified signs of age: an expression of experience combined with serenity and the almost imperceptible hint of a smile.
One could spend a life looking for the Buddha within, but sometimes, a few dollars will do the trick
Looking around at a nearby vendor’s stall, I gaze past stacks of Mao’s Little Red Book, Mao clocks, Mao busts, little Mao watches with moving Mao arms. Behind all that is what I am searching for: a small stone Buddha head. He is pockmarked and worn by hundreds of years exposed to the elements and has that hardly noticeable though irresistible smile with an undeniable sense of serenity. From the rough crack which ends his neck, I imagine his life of suffering has led to his deep wisdom: decapitated during the Cultural Revolution, stolen from a temple and finally hidden by faithful peasants, all the while he sat still. My fantasies soon dissolve when I remember a friend’s expensive Buddha purchase that turned out to be nothing less than a modern duped Buddha. Oh well, at only $4, I figure it’s either a good fake or a garage sale dream. I suppose one could spend an entire life looking inside to find the Buddha, but honestly, sometimes a few dollars will do the trick.
Liang Jing congratulates me on the purchase and we happily walk away. A moment later, three Chinese men in big jackets surround us. As they reach inside their jackets, I suddenly feel like I’m in the middle of some 1930s gangster film. I expect them to talk in thick New York accents.
Instead, they each pull a small Buddha out from their coats. One guy comes up close to me. “How much?” he asks. I don’t want another head. I tell him I’m not interested, but he persists, so I offer a mere $2 for the head.
Just a word of advice, if someone sees you walking down the street holding two Buddha heads, they’re likely to think you want to buy a third. My advice is to just act cool, like you’re carrying nothing special. “Can I give one to you?” I ask Liang Jing. “I’d be scared to keep one of these in my home.” She replies. “Scared?” I think. “Why would she be scared? The Buddha is a symbol of peace and inner reflection.”
Then of course I remember for Liang Jing, as a modern Chinese woman, the Buddha’s countenance holds a collective history that I can scarcely begin to understand as an American. I remember my Taiwanese friend once refused to put the garden Buddha I gave her in her garden because she couldn’t decide where to put it. “If I choose the wrong place,” she said, “it might bring bad luck.”
At the time, I just laughed to myself and assumed that she didn’t understand Buddhism, that even the Buddha is empty; but after living in China for a year and travelling to many temples, I appreciate that maybe this is part of the true spirit of Buddhism. Perhaps the American microscope pointed at the East has chosen to conveniently drop these incongruent superstitions in favour of only the rational, the psychological, the peaceful? I imagine Liang Jing taking a Catholic pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain and buying two old crucifixes each with a bleeding Jesus. If she were to offer one to me, how would I feel? Could I deny that such a grotesque symbol is an important part of Christianity?
We escape to a quieter part of the street and sit down on the steps of a restaurant. “Do you think these heads are real?” I ask. “They look very real,” Liang Jing says and then pauses, “but what’s important is what they mean to you.” Our brief moment of reflection is suddenly interrupted by a strange man who sits down next to me. “Why did you buy these?” he asks me. I suddenly feel like I’m in elementary school again and my teacher has just asked me about the water gun I have snuck into school.
“I’m a Buddhist and I want to have a small Buddha for my altar at home,” I say guiltily. He reprimands me and says that it’s not good to have such things at home, that they belong in the temple. My heart suddenly feels heavy, like I’ve taken an amulet from a dead body and now the body’s spirit will follow me until I return it, until I return these heads. From nowhere, a sense of desperation has appeared in my voice. I don’t want to let the Buddhas go.
“I feel that I’m a practicing Buddhist and would rather have these in my own home than with the vendors over there. They’re just trying to make a buck,” I say. “If you really want to create good karma, you’ll bring them back to the temple,” he says. “Perhaps you should visit the monk Da Tou at the temple up the road; he speaks English, and might be able to help you understand what to do with these heads.”
I’ve heard Americans say that Buddhism is dead in Asia, that now America is its only hope for survival. I used to take this as a kind of destiny, a call to bring back to life an ancient but intensely relevant tradition to the modern world. I would imagine myself in the back of an ambulance traveling down midtown Manhattan. The Buddha lying on a stretcher, his stiff topknot hardly moving as the ambulance swings a corner. The other American Buddhist paramedics around him are moving slowly and peacefully. “His blood pressure is dropping, there’s not much time,” one calmly says. The other is meditating in the corner of the ambulance, not wanting to be disturbed by all the commotion. Can we get the Buddha to the hospital before his last modern breath is taken?
Liang Jing and I both look at each other. It seems these heads have already brought us quite the adventure. As we start to walk away yet again, a young Tibetan woman approaches. “Can I see those heads? They’re both so beautiful! Where did you get them? How much did you pay?” she asks. “Why don’t you give one to her?” Liang Jing says to me. I instantly knew she was right; especially after the talking-down that man on the road had just given me. I also figured that one head would probably give me enough trouble in this life. I gave the second head to the woman with a smile. I do not know whether I’ve just made some good karma or damned two people to unfortunate rebirths as tree sloths, but in the end, this gift felt right to me.
It seems the day already had its own designs for us and we both knew that if now we didn’t visit the English-speaking monk Da Tou our day would somehow feel incomplete. We cross the road and find an old monk sweeping outside one of the many monasteries that line this street. “Da Tou?” we ask. “Oh yes, his room’s right up there.” Smiling, he says: “He’s quite the scholar—very big head.”
Da Tou is more than happy to spend some time talking to us and invites us into his room. I am impressed with the simplicity of the place and it appeals to my romantic American sense of what a Buddhist monk’s life should be: just a bed, a small altar with butter lamps, and a chair. The glass windows are cracked and held together by scotch tape and old newspapers. Even now, in early October, this room is very cold.
“Where did you hear about me?” Da Tou asks. I tell him that a man in the village told us that he spoke English. “Who?” he asks excitedly. While he is able to speak English, Da Tou talks entirely in Chinese and seems to spend much of the time gazing at Liang Jing. He tells us that this is the best monastery in all of China. His teacher achieved complete enlightenment ten years ago and is now the best Buddhist teacher in all of China if not the world.
Liang Jing looks at him softly and asks: “Have you suffered much?” “No, not much,” he replies without adding anything further. His gaze is fixed on Liang Jing and I feel like he’s trying to transmit something to her. In my mind I imagine that he knows I am already a Buddhist and since Liang Jing is not, he wants to convey to her important teachings that are beyond words. This is what I tell myself.
“What’s the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism?” Liang Jing asks him. “Tibetan Buddhism is really the best, even the Buddha said so.” He looks at me and says: “If you had been practising Tibetan Buddhism for only two years you would have already made a lot more progress than the 13 years you have practised Zen. You know, Tibetan Buddhism is now spreading around the world faster than any other Buddhism.”
This thing called Buddhism is just part of the path for some of us
In my mind I can see Da Tou’s big head growing bigger and bigger. It has already become much bigger than the two Buddha heads that I bought in the market this morning. I suppose then that the man in the village was right, the temple is a good place for such Buddha heads.
To be honest, I wish I could say that Da Tou was full of it, or rather, lacking it. I wish I could say that the Buddhism I learned and practiced in the US was somehow purer. But after more than four Buddhist teachers I knew had sex with their students, hid the affairs and then refused to deal with the situation, after I found myself and many Buddhist friends using meditation more to escape our world than meet it, after seeing our longing was more often about finding a good partner than deep insight, I can make no such claim. I just know we’re trying our best in our own confused and eccentric ways. This thing called Buddhism is just part of that path for some of us. I look down at the Buddha head in my hand and feel an immense gratitude and appreciation for the ways Zen meditation has helped me to mature. My gaze moves up to Da Tou who is staring at Jing and I think that perhaps now it is time to leave some of this Buddhism in the past.
As we walk away from the temple, the sun is beginning to set and I feel oddly humbled by our experiences. I think about my own desire to come here to China and understand the root of my meditation practice, the Buddha heads I wanted so badly, the people who were selling them, the man who felt that keeping them was wrong, and the monk Da Tou who was so full of himself. I know there’s a reason why Buddhism has persisted through 2,500 years of human confusion and I’m starting to have a sense why this mountain is devoted to Manjushri, embodiment of wisdom.
I turn to Liang Jing: “Do you want to smoke cigarettes by the temple gate?” Mt Wutai ironically has a cigarette brand named after it. For these two disillusioned pilgrims, we make our way into the village and buy a pack. I suppose it’s a little like going to Rome and buying Vatican-brand condoms. I can just imagine the side of the package now: “The Pope has determined that use of this product may result in extended stays in purgatory or complete damnation.”
Liang Jing and I sit outside the temple gate and look for the moon—none to be found. It is a dark, cold night and the stars are clear. We smoke together, laugh, and talk about our adventures from the day. It’s hard to ignore the deep silence that hangs on the tip of the cigarette.
Josh Krieger is currently studying Chinese and teaching English at Beijing Language and Culture University in China. For much of the last 13 years, he has been practising and studying Zen in the US and Europe. In 1999, he graduated from Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies in Devon, England and afterwards worked as a Buddhist hospital chaplain in Boston. He is originally from New York.
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