Monday, July 4, 2011

The Giant Buddha

I enjoyed all of our activities while in Chengdu but the one I was looking forward to the most, in fact the one that I actually went there for was to visit the giant statue by the river. We did that on the last day. One could say, optimistically, that we saved the best for last. Unfortunately it was a more hurried visit than I wanted because we started out early afternoon and the park closes at 5PM. After that we had to rush back to Chengdu and pick up our luggage from the hotel because our flight was scheduled for 10PM.

As previously mentioned, Le Shan, literally Happy Mountain is two hours away from Chengdu by bus. After that one needs to take a taxi to the actual site, pay a 90Yuan fee for access to the grounds and then climb a mountain to get to the top. It was all worth it to me, especially what happened at the top of the mountain.

My traveling companions felt the time crunch more so than I did. This entire trip I was happy to let them make all of our arrangements and I paid my fair share of everything with no complaints even though I spent much more on this trip than I normally would for a four-day getaway. The two things I was adamant about were: no McDonald’s meals and seeing the Le Shan Buddha.

We arrived at Le Shan just after 3PM, leaving us just under two hours to savor the park and all of its wonders. Carrie Ann and Olaf rushed up the mountain, clicking their cameras all the while. I took my time, holding them back from their rigorously planned schedule. They did not get mad at me but they did emphasize that time is of the essence if we were going to make it to the airport to catch our plane.

Climbing the mountain was an experience all its own. A few months ago I would not have been able to climb anything because I had been so sick, so being able to keep up with them, lingering because I wanted to, not because I was physically incapable of keeping up filled me with wonder. It also assured me that my heart and lungs are more than OK after those scary months of not being able to sleep or breathe properly.

At the top of the mountain, level with the Buddha statue’s head, rests a temple. I had already seen two temples on this trip and wasn’t particularly interested in seeing another but Olaf had his camera out and was shuttering away. Carrie Ann was following suit and I just loosely followed them. They took pictures of everything and they did it Chinese style. Not taking time to savor or get the feeling of anything, they clicked madly and moved on. Me, with my inferior camera and my penchant to experience rather than capture things on memory cards, concentrated on absorbing the feel of this temple, only loosely holding my camera in my hand should something picture-worthy manifest itself.

I should mention that I find it distasteful to take pictures of the insides of houses of worship. That goes for any discipline: cathedrals, synagogues (not that I’ve been in many of them), and temples of any kind. To me, these are places of reflection and reverence, not tourist attractions. As such, I do feel reverent when touring temples. I don’t mind taking pictures of the grounds around the temples, just not inside the temples. But that is just me, not Carrie Ann, Olaf or any of the tourists that clicked away in the temple while I silently walked around.

In this particular temple there were monks chanting in front of the altar and people kneeling on the prayer cushions. Outside the masses made offerings in the form of burning incense or oil in chalices, for a price. I did take this all in, but then I left it behind. Alone, my hands clasped in front of me I sought the feel of this temple. What was it all about? What solace did it have to offer? I circled the altar, where no other tourist had yet ventured and looked out at the deserted courtyard beyond. Apparently the tourists were concentrated in the front of the temple, yet the whole back area was being left, unexplored. I thought I should go get my friends and expose them to this uncrowded area.

As I circled the rest of the way around the altar I came face to face with a monk. Without even thinking about it I made the sign of respect and bowed to him. He raised his right hand to chest level, palm facing left, and blessed me. His blessing did not feel like dispensation. Rather, it was the recognition of one student to another of our great Teacher.

Without saying a word, a universe of knowledge passed between us. A gentle, knowing smile played on his face. His eyes, bright with the light kindled in his soul, locked on mine. I felt the impact at some unknown, unnamed place within me and for that instant felt connected to all things past and all things yet to come. This encounter lasted only a few seconds and he went on his way while I went on mine.

That was it. I instinctively felt that my trip to Le Shan had fulfilled its purpose even though I had not yet seen the giant Buddha statue, and I no longer cared if my eyes did light upon it. However, I had companions to consider, my touristy friends who, as far as I know, had not had such a personal and deep encounter with a monk. So I went back to them and to the noise and the crowd in front of the temple and asked them if they had seen the courtyard behind the altar. “Is there anything worth seeing?” asked Olaf. “To me there is” I replied. He gave me a strange look but nudged Carrie Ann and they followed me through the deserted area beyond.

We did in fact climb down the steep staircase parallel to the statue, and the Buddha is impressive. My mind was still distracted by the force of the encounter I had at the temple, away from the crowds and the noise. Intellectually it did register that I was a participant to the activity around me. I had to stop and start continuously on that treacherous staircase carved out of the side of the mountain that was only wide enough for one person at a time, because people in front of me were taking pictures all the while. I really didn’t care. I was content to only snap one or two pictures on the way down, and only one picture once at the foot of the statue for posterity. My real experience had happened atop the mountain.

Ever aware of the time, Carrie Ann set the pace back up the mountain and through the rest of the park. We had to rush back to Chengdu in order to have some dinner before getting on the plane and time was running out. She bartered cab fare back to the city for us and Olaf bought our bus tickets. The only tickets available were on a bus scheduled to depart at 5:40PM, which would put us in Chengdu just before 9PM. Worried frowns on my partners’ faces; they knew we would not manage the time to eat anything decent before tearing off in the direction to the airport.

To make matters worse, the bus stopped to refuel. Here we had been elated because we were making good time, only to lose our advantage at a gas station on the outskirts of the city. Not being able to keep still I had stood up in front of my seat by the window and, facing rear, had spied a cab at the head of the traffic line stopped at the light. Olaf suggested we ditch the bus and cab it back to city center and I pointed out the available cab. Things worked out just so and we made it back into town with over an hour more to spare than we thought we would have. That cab driver first dropped Carrie Ann and I off at our chosen restaurant and then took Olaf to the hotel to retrieve our luggage, finally driving him back to the restaurant. We women ordered dinner. Everyone’s food was served just in time for Olaf’s return. We had time for a leisurely dinner before making it to the airport. This cab driver was jovial and poked fun at Olaf, with Carrie Ann and I translating. That was our final experience of Chengdu.

I leave you to guess which one made the deepest impression on me.

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