The episode in which I meet up with some Chinese monks

One in a series of random snapshots from my October 2011 trip to China and Thailand.

I was sent to support business meetings in Beijing and that was my first week in China, including some local sightseeing with colleagues.  My business obligations ended Saturday afternoon and the next day I was to join a tour group of German and Australian Zen practitioners who were visiting some of China’s Zen temples, lead by a scholar of early Chinese Zen history who just happens to be from Marin.  Life is weird that way.

The gap between these two activities had been a source of excitement and concern during my planning for the trip:  it represented about 15 hours in which I was floating around China on my own, without tour guides or hotel staff to point me in the right direction, to a part of the country not visited by many foreigners.  I had to negotiate a taxi ride to a train station, find the right train/sleeper car, get off at the right station at 6:15am the next day, and somehow miraculously connect up with some monks who might or might not include a guy in a photo my friend Lucy had sent me.  I had two phone numbers on me and no ability to write or speak Chinese.  It was an achievable challenge, unlike those crazy Bodhisattva vows we keep talking about, but one that required some calm focus if I wanted to arrive gracefully.

As I left the hotel the sky was a deep blue and Tianan’men was lit up.  Apart from a blurry image of Mao I kind of like the photo I took from the taxi’s window.

Tianan'men at night.

Beijing West and Colonel Sanders

Beijing West train station was like any other, complete with recognizable corporate symbols, which was strangely comforting at the time.

Comforting, perhaps because my reference for Chinese train stations was the movie Last Train Home, about the migrant population trying to get home to their villages for the New Year.  Once a year, factory workers spend days at the train stations trying to buy tickets for trains that are so full of people it’s impossible to move or use the bathroom.  Think of Christmas travel in the States when the airports start closing down due to weather and everyone is trying to just get home somehow, by any route.  The Colonel’s familiar face that evening was a strangely calming force. And I had my ticket already through the hotel concierge, it wasn’t New Years, and my seat was in a sleeper car, so my main concern was getting to the right gate, which I accomplished in the usual straightforward manner:

Beijing West train station

I had some entertaining moments using the women’s restroom once inside the waiting area, trying to negotiate my huge suitcase into one of the stalls.  Seven or eight Chinese women watched me queue up, fascinated, and held an intent conversation about me that I didn’t understand.  Strange how one’s brain fills in the gaps according to one’s state of mind, whether it be relaxed or on extreme vigilant alert:  I leapt to the assumption that they were gossiping about me, that perhaps I’d committed some social faux pas they were passing judgment on.  But actually they turned out to be friends, fending off some line-jumpers and steering me away from a water faucet that was spewing boiling-hot water.

People holding tickets to the sleeper cars could sit in a roped-off area with big blue lounge chairs and tables (arousing self-consciousness about class distinctions), and that’s where I found a tour group of foreigners heading for Xi’an. A woman from San Diego said she was impressed that I was out traveling on my own and I had a moment of uncertainty about the sanity of my plan.  Then we all headed for our trains.  The Xi’an tour group turned right and I turned left, and I found myself completely surrounded for the night by people who did not look or talk like me.

I met the train attendant who exchanged my ticket for a little plastic chip, and again I was comforted by the familiar and expected, as I had read about this procedure during my preparations and it was all lining up with my expectations.  My bunk-mates confirmed I was in the right compartment and on the right bed. The train rode on through the night. It was dark along the track and I couldn’t see much, just the black outlines of trees passing by.  I fell asleep early and woke up around 5am, looked but couldn’t find coffee anywhere, only car after car of sleepers.  The attendant came to exchange my little chip back again for my ticket and kicked most of us out at Jiujiang.

I joined a stream of dozens of Chinese people swimming out of the station and into the daylight, where I finally stood in the middle of a plaza next to a crowded street.  Cars pulled up, loaded passengers, and took off again.  This was the point at which seeing a monk holding a sign with my name on it would have been good, but I was left in pause for about ten minutes to think about maybe starting to wonder what my Plan B was going to be if no one showed up. Then I heard a shout and there was a guy standing next to a BMW wearing a grey work outfit, not quite a samue but close, and he loosely matched my ideas about what a Chinese monk would look like so I rolled my suitcase over and let him put it in the trunk.  I tried a few words of introduction to see if we were sure we were meant for each other.  He responded quizzically to ‘Daoxin,’ the name of the Fourth Ancestor whose temple we were going to.  I wasn’t sure how the local monks were referring to the temple.* Then I tried ‘Chongdi-shi,’ the monk whose photo Lucy had sent, which almost got a response out of him.  Ultimately I decided it was unlikely that I would be kidnapped or that a renegade taxi driver would be wearing a monk suit and driving a BMW, so I got in the car. But it was an uncertain moment.

The driver was on and off his cell phone having serial conversations while driving through the streets of Jiujiang.  After about ten minutes the phone rang again and he handed me the phone.  I heard Chongdi-shi saying hello in English (or was it Eric, our in-country guide? things were confused that morning), telling me that the monk would take me to the temple to meet my tour group. I was in the right car after all.

Then we inexplicably did a U-turn and stopped across the street from a park, waiting in the car for another ten or fifteen minutes. What was this about?  I wondered – but couldn’t find a way to ask, and it was not unpleasant, as there was Qi gong and badminton to watch, music playing over some loudspeakers, men and women rolling by pushing huge carts with boxes or pieces of wood piled high.  And then two other monks opened the rear doors and piled in, one of them making the gassho mudra with a big smile on his face, and we were off again.

(Outside of Jiujiang, I spotted:  a small truck with three huge pigs crammed in the back; large brooms made of bamboo poles and something like juniper branches attached at the end; an open-air butcher stand; a woman riding a bicycle holding a handful of mylar balloons.)

Monk buying youtiao

Once we were in Huangmei we stopped at a streetside donut stand (I’m saying ‘donuts’ but I think they are called youtiao) and the driver-monk came back with a big plastic bag of them.

And then we drove through a busy intersection and cut across all the lanes of oncoming traffic to park on the left side of the street in front of a noodle shop.

I’m still looking for the joke that begins “Three Chinese monks and an American tourist walk into a noodle shop …”

Three Chinese monks (American tourist not shown)

One bowl of noodles came out and the smiling-gassho-monk spent a few minutes mixing up the black paste on top so it covered all the noodles and handed it over to me.  I took the noodles and the chopsticks he offered and sat there, thinking it was polite to wait until they all had their bowls. The smiling monk got up to speak with the cashier, and in the course of watching them it dawned on me that he thought I needed a fork in order to proceed. Hah!  I’ve been handling chopsticks since 1978, when I was first introduced to Sichuanese food on nights off from my job at summer camp, before that guy was even born.  I waved the monk back and said “it’s okay,” holding up the chopsticks and demonstrating my proficiency.  The noodles, the donuts, and hot soymilk were excellent.  I felt embraced in nurturing good will.  For them it was probably just an excuse to not eat temple food, but what the heck.

Rice harvest on the road to the Fourth Ancestor's temple

The ride out of Huangmei wasn’t too long and we took a turn off the main road and wound our way up into the hills.  All along the way we were driving over or around mounds of dry grass that turned out to be rice, and in many places the rice had been shaken from the grass and was laid out on the street waiting to be put into big bags, which we also saw piled along the road.

And then we were at the monastery and the monks left me, and I rolled my suitcase along the corridor …

Fourth Ancestor's temple

… and was introduced to tour group leaders Andy and Eric and the Australians and Germans and a couple other Americans who were all starting on week #2 of the “If it’s Tuesday it must be Jiuhuashan” tour.  (The Germans didn’t get that joke either, it had to be explained.  Google it with Belgium instead of Jiuhuashan.)

Fourth Ancestor's stupa

The rest of the morning was spent walking up to the stupa and dharma transmission hall.  The Fourth Ancestor Dayi Daoxin (or you may know the Japanese version we chant at SFZC, Dai-I Doshin – he lived approximately 580-651 C.E.) was buried in the stupa and reportedly the following year “the door of his stupa opened spontaneously and revealed the master sitting inside as though alive.” Early Chinese Zen history abounds with stories like this of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the deaths of the early masters.

Daoxin is also known for bringing farming and work practice to the Zen monasteries, an evolution from the itinerant beggar model that created more autonomy and self-sufficiency for the monks and was more practical for the cold Chinese winters.

Valley of the Fourth Ancestor's temple

This shot was taken from the front of the Dharma Transmission Hall, looking back toward the stupa and the monastery (buildings on the left) and out through the valley toward Huangmei.

Fourth Ancestor's temple - Buddha Hall

Monks at the Fourth Ancestor's Temple

Calling the monks into the dining hall for lunch.

Sunset at the Fourth Ancestor’s temple.

*the monastery’s alternative/historical names include:
  • East Mountain Monastery
  • Feng-mu-shan Monastery
  • To-zan Monastery (Jap.)
  • The East Mountain Temple
  • Sizu (Fourth Patriarch) Zen Temple
  • Shuangfeng (Double Peak) Temple
  • Zhengjue Temple
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About gretchen

Gretchen lives in San Francisco. She writes about Zen practice and mundane moments on a planet that is increasingly ... hot.
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6 Responses to The episode in which I meet up with some Chinese monks

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  2. Shogaku says:

    What a lovely story! Beautiful photos, too. My Dharma name comes from the Temple (Shogaku=Zhengjue). Thank you for sharing!!

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