Si Men Ta Pagoda Day – Part I

Today was one of those days I will reference in my mind when I think of a particular region of a country…When I think of Bombay, New Zealand, I of course, think of Vimutti and my many wonderful months in the company of Ajahns Chandako and Jotipalo. When I think of Rotorua, I will think of meditating by the Lake with a can of orange juice and fried paua before a soak in the thermal springs. When I think of Buffalo, well…Far too much comes up to list here! And when I think of Jinan, today will undoubtedly arise in my mind. Today was a unqualified success of a day trip. And like so many things, it was entirely not how I expected things to turn out. You’d think I’d know better than to adhere to a plan too closely, but of course, the Universe makes it’s own plans. We’re just along for the ride, and can only benefit to learn, if we so choose, by going aSi long with the flow.

The first thing that did not go according to plan was the weather. We’ve had a streak of gorgeous days as Spring has made itself known here in Northeastern China and with Tomb Sweeping Day giving me a random day off on the weekend, I decided I would do something with it. SOMETHING…But what? Well, Sheryl, one of the other foreign English teachers and I took a trip to a plant market nearby and among a ton of other neat things she gave me directions on how to get to Si men ta Pagoda, which she had been to herself before. Si men ta is the second oldest pagoda in all of China and about two hours away. Sheryl thought it was simply wonderful as there is plenty of nature and seclusion and quiet and it’s a nice ride out there, well away from the city. So I was sold on it. Aaaand when I woke up this morning I was less then pleased to see that there was rain streaking my window pane and puddles on the ground already. And it looked a tad breezy. Whaaat…

Fast forward through a two-hour bus ride with me biting my nails through most of it – being way the hell out in the boonies of Jinan in a country whose language I still don’t speak has that effect on a person. I AM a bit proud of myself though –  each week we’ve been learning a bit more Chinese from Claire at the He Ping school and amazingly, each week is perfectly relevant to my given situation. This week we learned directions, both in a city and on a map, buses, bus stop, how to ask where and how to get somewhere, etc…I put it to good use today!

Fast forwards. I’m standing in front of the entranceway to Si Men Ta Pagoda…It’s a large stone pathway framed by a pair of giant pagodas, and then rows of pine trees. At the end of the path lies a gate. It’s closed. REALLY?! After a two hour bus ride?? Screams my mind. Luckily, upon closer inspection, I see that there’s a side path to a ticket booth with people inside. Phew. After adjusting my camera settings a bit for the overcast weather, I start on my way up the stairs..And right before I enter, a bit of motion catches my eye at the base of the walkway. There’s a filthy little brown puppy scampering around near some broken concrete slabs. But what caught my eye about him was his legs. I feel a rush of…I don’t know what the word is, but that weak, tingly feeling you get when you see really bad roadkill or a person get sliced open or imagine yourself getting hurt bad. That sensation came up as I stared at the puppy’s back legs, both of them twisted and mangled, like they’d been caught in a lawnmower and then healed. The dog had to scoot across the ground like he was on a wheelchair with no wheels, it was pathetically sad. So I went over and started snapping shots. I’m drawn to having my heartstrings tugged on and I like sharing those moments with other people. And what does the puppy do? Run? No..No. He comes scooting right over to me and against my leg. So I have to rub him down…And he…REEEKED. He was probably born wild…You can imagine. But he licked and licked and licked and licked…His teeth were scratching my fingers, he licked me so hard. So I snapped as many shots as I could, then rummaged through my bad with my clean hand and broke off a bit of sweet bread for him to eat. The puppy snapped it right up, scooted far off amongst the concrete, then proceeded to swallow it nearly whole, poor thing.

After petting him some more, I walked over to the ticket sales room and managed to mine and grunt enough basic Chinese to get a bowl of water and soap to wash my hands in. Hands clean and good deed done, I made my way back up the stairs and through the main gate and into a neatly groomed, geometric courtyard. Perfectly rectangular, with buildings at each of the four sides and a central temple. Each building hosted a Buddha or deity statue and each had a pad for worship/contemplation and an offering of incense and fruit in front of them. I went into full photographer mode, playing with angles, settings and distance and snapping as many as I could find inspiration for (I took 480 pictures by the end of the day!) I had the courtyard to myself and it was as quiet and deserted as I’d hoped, if a tad brisk and gray that day.

As I made it out of the second temple building, I heard conversation coming from the main gate as some figures made their way up the stairs, and was astonished (for some reason) and quite pleased and excited to see four monks in yellow/orange robes making their way into the courtyard. I really like Buddhist Monks. Do I really need to explain? I thought not. They were only mildly curious about me; at least that was my impression. They smiled, and gave a bow, hands clasped together, and then went on their way. I was unprepared, and could not think of much more than Ni Hao and Ni Hao Ma to say, and that was that. Boo..I spent a lot…A LOT of time in the courtyard. And at Si Men Ta, in general, really. I had to muse many times, just how much I prefer doing photo safaris alone. I went with Tyler and Hannah one time through Jinan, and while it was fun, they were definitely not so pleased I was moving so slow, snapping pics of seemingly random things. But when I’m alone, I can take all the time I want to, which is quite often, a lot. My venture through Si Men Ta took up seven hours heh.

I was determined to make some sort of connection with the monks, though…talking with Buddhist or taoist monks was something I really wanted to do while I was in China, so I did my best to make it happen. I asked one of the younger monks Shen men ja guh – What is That?, pointing to a giant bell with a wooden ringer. I knew what it was…Obviously, it was a bell. But I wanted to get the conversation going…And it worked. He gave me the Chinese word for it, which I have long since forgotten – my short-term memory is abysmal but my long-term is tremendous, somehow. And then I asked about the gong; this large, wood and leather gong. In China, a gong is called a gong! Neat! That got things going – once all four were over, I asked what I took to be the senior monk Shen men fo min zuh? What Buddha name? He was happy to explain that the statue I was looking at was a name I’d never heard of, but did my best to pronounce properly…And best of all, he was extremely patient with my horrible Hanyu. He used his hands to gesture and mimic and it made it not too difficult to follow him – he mentioned Qi Gong and meditation, and I was able to explain that I too followed the path of Dhamma and even understood some of the historic figures he pointed out – Ananda ( he said Anana – took me a moment), the aide to the Buddha Gotama, who I’d never seen in art beyond the Lotus Sutra painting, and Amitabha (he pronounced it differently in Chinese) Buddha as well. The statues there depicted a number of Buddhas – past and future, I would presume…Not much of a scholar, but I have the names of the Buddhas I saw around the temple and pagoda so I’ll have to research it later on when I’m not writing on my Livejournal when I should be prepping for class tomorrow.

I wanted to sit and meditate for a bit, but at some point, a wave of students out of school and on a field trip had gathered at the doorway to the main temple and were busy being noisy and snapping pictures with their cameraphones. Of me, not of the temple. Oh yes…I was far more interesting to middle/high school age kids than dusty old statues; hell, I was no different at that age. Can I really be irritated? That comes later. Did I mention the monks let me in the main temple and take pictures and talk about Buddha statues, while everyone else wasn’t allowed? That was a special moment..Made even more special when the head monk (I assume) came over to me and held out a charm necklace. I’m wearing it right now – ht’s a wooden bead in the shape of a stupa top; two conjoined teardrops with Chinese characters on them. The cord is yard or something similar, with a stretchy section. He put it on my head, and then handed me a second cord charm, this one with a faux jade Buddha image. Mosty white, with green swirls near the base and a few beads of white "jade" near the head. I was so touched; it’s the third time I’ve received charms from Asian monks and I’m starting a collection, it seems! I didn’t know how to say "wonderful" or "beautiful" (piaoliang) in Chinese, so I just said shyeh shyeh ni (Thank You) over and over again and expressed my gratitude in English. I think they got the idea.

I asked them in Chin-glish if I could take their picture and they agreed. All four of them posed in front of the entrance to the main temple and let me snap off a series. I then shook their hands again, expressed my gratitude, and they asked me Ni _____ Chir Fan? Have you eaten? Which is a super-weird question in China, because it’s not meant to be taken literally…Usually. It’s how the Chinese say "what’s up?" or "how are you?, informally." Or it might literally mean "have you eaten?" And I don’t have enough Chinese to sort out the right answer…So I said Dui – Yes! Meaning, yes, I’d love to eat, only, did I just say yea I’ve eaten, yes I want to eat, or did I not answer the question "what’s up?" Crap! I mean Bu, no Dui! Those were my actual words to them…

They were confused. So was I. Crap. So I said "Wo shir kan kan."I am looking, phrased as a question. The head monk nodded, said something in Chinese and made an expansive gesture – feel free to look around! So I said shyeh shyeh, they nodded and bowed, I returned the gesture, and I wandered around a corner and found it empty. Musing to myself over how neat this day had already been, I turned on my heels and found myself standing on the shoreline of a sea of gawking Chinese kids that somehow snuck up on me and had been waiting quietly for me to turn around before jamming a thousand camera phone buttons at once.

Thus begins Part II of my adventure at Si Men Ta Pagoda.

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