China: Seeking my Buddha nature

An index to the China series appears at the first post.

September 25, 2016

I had planned another week in Beijing, but a last-minute change to my schedule meant that the 25th would be my final day in Beijing!  The last day I spend in a city is often the hardest to plan. What places in Beijing would I most regret missing? I decided to visit the market at Panjiayuan, the Yonghe Lamasery Temple, and Beihai Park.

What would I find at a Beijing flea market? The Panjiayuan subway stop did not seem particularly unlike others, except that as soon as I come above ground, I was besieged with hawkers aggressively selling their wares. I had to move pretty quickly to get around them, actually. From there, I needed to find where the actual market took place; that wasn’t so hard, since the subway stop was surrounded by the sidewalks, parking lots, and covered hall for a market. I had arrived!

In what would become a repeating theme, another shopper walked by making a peculiar rattling sound. I saw that he was rotating a pair of walnuts in his hand. As I moved through the market, I saw that a sizeable fraction of people were selling walnuts. I watched a man meticulously brushing them for sale, and I saw a fair number of people with walnuts half-exposed from the green bulbs in which they grow. Miniature walnuts were strung together on bracelets. What, then, is the walnut trend all about?

Among the beads, pendants, statues, paintings, and more that I saw, what was I shopping for? I hoped I might find a 1960s-era little red book, of course, and I saw several for sale. I did not know how to say “When was this published?” in Chinese, though, and the book front pieces did not specify the date in Arabic numerals. One gentleman tried to sell me the “selected works” again, but the price was considerably worse than I had found at the 798 art district.

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You can find a bit of everything at Panjiayuan.

The salesmen and women at Panjiayuan are very aggressive. I saw a chess set that I thought might make a nice present; in fact, as I wandered I saw it three times! The first had a starting price of 180 Yuan (~$30 USD), but the second and third copies I saw of it were priced at 500 and 650. When I asked the price of the sellers on the latter versions, they jumped up with their large-print calculators and typed the price. In some cases, I laughed. Obviously they do not like that response. They would push the calculator at me and insist that I make them a counter offer. I received the same response when I would try to determine the publication date for the little red books I saw. In the end, I returned to the first seller and offered a counter at 160 Yuan, which he accepted (I later saw similar sets for a lower price).

A distinctly Buddhist theme emerged as I continued my day. Three short legs on the subway brought me to Yonghe Lamasery Temple, previously the home of an imperial prince. (What is a lamasery, you ask?  A monastery is for monks what a lamasery is for lamas.) I knew I was in for something significant when I saw the shops on both sides of the street had completely committed to the Buddhist theme. One could buy statues, prayer flags, any type of incense, and of course tourist necessities like bottled water.

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GET YER AUTHENTIC PRAYER FLAGS HERE! SALE!

The temple entrance itself seemed fairly conventional for a building complex from medieval China; I saw an beautiful entrance arch, a ticket booth, a booth for electronic guide rentals, and a compact parking lot. The tickets were somewhat unusual in that they included a business card-sized CD.  When I stepped through that arch, though, I immediately felt that I had entered a restful space. The ginkgo trees lining the walk formed an arch of their own, framing the simple shrub-lined walk. My pace slowed, and I felt my breathing change. Even the tourists towing roller bags across the stone walkway did not irritate me.

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Did you know the ginkgo tree is also called the “maidenhair?”

The information I had read beforehand indicated that this temple was still an active site for religious devotions. I did not believe it until I walked through the gate into the first court. A pair of the largest incense censers I had ever seen were center-stage, and I could smell the smoke rising from them from twenty yards away. At least half of the people at the temple had brought incense, and I saw them kneeling on a rail in the courtyard and then advancing into the next building.

The instructions to all were quite clear; no photography was allowed inside the halls. I can understand why not, with so many Buddhists coming to pray. The statues inside were quite lovely, though. The four heavenly kings were sculpted on a huge scale, and the Buddha at the center was substantial. I enjoyed the next courtyard, as well. The prayer wheels were well-used, and a massive stone stele at the center was covered with writing in symbols I did not recognize. Another large censer was burning. I walked into the side halls and admired the statues there, as well.

The next hall featured three Buddhas (for past, present, and future) along with a host of smaller statues. Many people had come to pray there. Oddly, I did not see the directions to the next hall, and so I missed seeing the 26m Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood. Instead, I sat on a ledge in the courtyard, dangling my legs and feeling peaceful.

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If the smell of burning incense is not your thing, do not visit this place.

After a while, I visited a side hall that turned out to be a modern gift shop. I was repulsed by the display of statues one could buy to guarantee wealth (I quote the marketing materials). I returned to the outer courtyard and paused for some lunch among the trees. When I was descending the stairs to the subway, I saw a woman on a landing with a begging bowl by her side. I normally walk by people asking for money without a glance, but something made me fish for my wallet. How better to express our oneness than to help those in need?

My next stop took some to-and-fro on the subway. My destination was Beihai Park, an area that became an Imperial sightseeing reserve in 1166AD and now serves as a downtown public park. Three legs on the subway got me pretty close, but I still needed to walk a bit to reach the entry gate. For 10 Yuan, I could enter the park; for another 10 Yuan, I could enter the Yong’an Temple on the island. As soon as I stepped inside the park, I realized I had happened upon a common idea for this Sunday afternoon. Families were everywhere, lounging against the rail around the lake, paddling about in rental boats, and otherwise enjoying the great outdoors. A line of willows gracefully surrounded the water. I was happy to find a pride of cats, but the people near me were paying them too much attention for the cats to linger long. A graceful bridge led onto the “Jade Flowery Islet.” A group of women took a photo of me at the bridge.

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If you like willows and lotuses, this is your park.

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The dagoba is the large white structure atop the hill.

The sight that had first drawn me to Beihai was the massive White Dagoba crowning the isle. If you are a fan of Star Wars and you come near a “Dagoba,” you are going to visit it! The path from the east bridge led sharply up stairs wrapped around that side of the hill, past a hall featuring golden roof tiles (by now I had learned that gold tiles ran hand-in-hand with imperial status). Out of breath at the top, I could see the Dagoba up-close. Enormous! Just the pediment on which it stood was twice the height of an adult. As I wrapped around to the south side, I saw that the temple complex started next to the Dagoba and descended the hill to a bridge. I’m including a photo here that shows this relationship.

The Yong-an Temple dates from 1651, a time when Tibetan Buddhism was able to guide temple construction in China. Its layout is somewhat irregular, keeping a close contour with the steep hillside it inhabits. The year 1743 saw a significant overhaul for the complex. The most significant building was the Dharma Wheel Hall, which features images of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the eight great Bodhisattvas and eighteen Arhats. As I saw at Yonghe, photographs were not permitted inside the halls, but I did capture an image of the Dharma Wheel Hall from across its courtyard.

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I loved the patterned roof.

From the temple complex, I began wandering out of Beihei Park from its south end. I took photos for a large family group and paused to look at a massive bronze bas-relief of the park area. The exit dropped me at the end of a bridge we had passed over on the day we visited the Forbidden City. Reasoning that the subway would be away from the water, I crossed the bridge and struck to the west. After walking for twenty minutes without a sign of the subway, I asked some strangers for directions. They did not speak English, but they communicated that I should follow them because that’s where they were headed. We spoke to each other in a friendly way as we walked, with neither party understanding the other. After a while, we paused at one of many stores by the roadside. The older of the two had stopped for cigarettes. They offered me one, but I declined. On we trundled! After ten minutes, we had arrived at the Xisi subway stop. I waved a farewell and descended into the station.

I had been on the subway many times, at this point, but two unusual things happened on the way back to my hotel. First, a gentleman began a conversation with me. He had taken a year-long, once-a-week English class, and he wanted to chat. He praised the range of expression that is possible in English, and he said that these language courses had become pretty popular in China (though they can be expensive). I had already seen that American spellings were preferred in the country; this is quite different than what I see in Europe or Africa, which favor (“favour”) British spellings. It was nice to talk with him. While we were talking, another rare event took place; a man who could not apparently walk came through the train to rattle his cup at each person in succession. When my stop arrived, I popped off to catch another line to my final destination. This ride was entirely unremarkable except for a woman in a stark black cloak inscribed with the words “God is Fair.”

With one last kilometer walk north, I arrived at my hotel for my last night in Beijing. I fell asleep before 10PM, tuckered out by another exhausting day!

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2 thoughts on “China: Seeking my Buddha nature

  1. Pingback: China: Dave visits the Temple of Heaven | Picking Up The Tabb

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