So normally I try to take losing money with a bit of grace – I mean…It’s JUST MONEY, right? But right now I’m feeling the remnants of a stormy (for me) rage brewing, so I need to let loose some steam. I went to Qian Fo Shan (Thousand Buddha Mountain) today on a whim. Unfortunately it wasnt QUITE as nice as it was yesterday (after the rains the sky was a stellar blue; a rarity in urban China) but there were some breaks in the clouds that made the weather quite pleasant overall, and the altitude brought me above most of the pollution. Only cost 30 RMB to get in, which was very nice. Right in the front there are three obviously newish Buddha reliefs with hundreds of mini-Buddhas carved into the wall they’re ensconced (I think that’s the right word) into. I spent a good half hour playing with angles, getting my camera settings right and generally experimenting (photo safari, remember), and after watching an old woman bow three times in the Buddhist fashion, I got a slight urge to do some inner exploration. I’d felt fairly natural doing it at Vimutti, though I’ve never officially donned the mantle of Buddhism, but lost both the urge and comforture when I left.
It was trying, internally. I kept thinking "why do I need to even bother?" "I’ve never felt the awe and devotion of true laity – I find the teaching immensely useful but the images are exactly that – images. The Buddha is in the Dhamma, not the man who may or may not have existed." The inner struggle went on for a bit, but the third Buddha ultimately convinced me. It was holding what looked to be a pearl in the right, fingers splayed in the mudra of confidence, with the pearl about to be dropped into a bowl in his left hand. I pondered that for a bit, since the right hand is empty in most of the art I’ve seen, and decided it was an offering of some sort. My mind immediately fixated on ego; which I’d suspected was holding my back from the bowing and has in the past. So right then and there I knew I had to try the bow and see what resulted; make an offering of ego in the name of the Dhamma.
I started with the leftmost image and before I bowed, took some photos of the cushions. They were remarkably worn – they had ruffled craters of velvet where years of knees pressed in supplication had compressed the underlying foam to a dense, hard consistency. I fit myself into the groove and bowed as I had at Vimutti; eyes closed, hands clasped over the heart, brought up to the crown of the head, then a single bow. Repeated three times.
And then I saw dead people.
Not really. But that would have been neat, huh? Actually, I just felt mildly at ease and more comfortable than I expected. It’s been something that’s been on my mind for awhile – I’ve sort of got a reputation as a Buddhist amongst the expat community here in Jinan and I haven’t actively disavowed it, though I don’t call myself one when asked. I know too much about it and follow the teachings and wear the iconography occasionally – hard to deny it. Though more importantly – WHY do I feel the need to? That’s a question I’ve pondered every so often – I’m completely at ease in Buddhist temples, I enjoy the teachings, I like talking about it, I connect so well with Buddhists both Western and Asian…Yet I cringe at assigning the label to myself; it’s weird. But this is all a gigantic tangent, and so…Back on topic.
After finding just about everything on Qian Fo Shan except the genuinely ancient stone carvings that give the mountain it’s name (not a single sign or map to be found and my Chinese still sucks), I found a single sign in the midst of an arduous climb that mentioned a temple at the end of the path. I decided to follow it since the other driveway was not only an unknown, but a steeper climb. A short distance later, only slightly huffing, I came to a temple complex overlooking the city whose name I can’t recall as I ended up leaving in a huff. But entered bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, peeking this way and that, noting an older and middle aged fellow sitting in front of one of the huge urns full of burnt offerings that sit outside of shrines in China. The older man stood up and gave a cheery hello and said a phrase in Chinese that amounted to "come in and have a look." I said thank you, popped in past the moon gate into the darkened room and was mildly taken aback to find a display case full of beads and statuettes to my left in the shrine area. Very mildly – I didn’t think much beyond "oh, it’s a store – no wait, there’s definitely a shrine here," and then promptly forgot this vital clue. The old man popped in behind me and excitedly began rambling in Chinese, which I was pleased to realize I understood a good portion of. I asked him the name of the main statue as it was one I had not seen before and he said it was Lao _____ (I actually saw a few new ones on Qian Fo Shan – I just wish my short term memory wasn’t so horrendous or I’d have WIki’ed em and talked about them here). Nodding, I started to mill around a bit, but instead the old man brought over a bundle of sticks with writing on them that look like the individual tiles of an old-fashioned Chinese book and motioned for me to take one. I did so, and he rummaged through a much-worn manual of some sort until he found a match somewhere, then proceeded to read aloud the words on the page. Naturally, I understood nothing and told him as much. But undeterred, nay, seemingly even more spirited, he grabbed a big bundle of the giant incense sticks I’d seen for sale on the lower levels of the mountain, dipped them in oil, and lit them efficiently. He then said a quick prayer to Lao _____, handed them off to me, and we proceeded outside to the incense urn, and he took them from me, opened the plastic in a few random spots and then placed the sticks in the urn to burn.
I was thrilled. I felt mildly fake when he handed me the incense sticks because I didn’t understand the significance of it all beyond an offering and I would have declined if I knew the words, but I love spirituality and the sacred, and so I thanked him profusely. Smiling all the while, he led me back inside, where his middle-aged friend was already waiting, to a medium-sized, red (auspicious color) wooden box with golden lettering. And said yī bǎi kuai. Anyone who speaks Chinese is nodding at this point. Anyone whose traveled was nodding a paragraph earlier. The word didn’t click at first until I studied the box and realized what it was – an offering box. Oh. Whaaaat….I just got suckered. When I found my head again, I was so surprised the number still didn’t click. As this whole charade was intended to do, my surprise was so complete, I didn’t have the wit to protest – guilt was the first thing I felt at the notion of refusing to pay. I mean, it was SACRED CEREMONY! And I completed it! Buyer beware, right? He pulled it off flawlessly, and so I started groping for cash and pulled out a pair of ones and a half, begrudgingly, as I started to find my mental balance and the shock wore off. He repeated: "yī bǎi kuai" and then made a one and two zeroes with his hands, still smiling his innocent grin. 100 yuan?! Something along the lines of no fucking way began to form and I began to finally feel irritation and having been tricked. I found my mental balance, glared back and touched both of my pointer fingers together, too annoyed to remember how to say "10." Really, I should have walked out – many people might have but the irrational guilt had still taken root by then (most is untrue – otherwise they would not have bothered with the ruse). As I said; I was in a towering rage – and anyone who knows me knows I don’t rage very well. I still felt the need to be diplomatic. They protested in Chinese but I simply pulled out a 10, stuffed in unceremoniously into the box, and walked out. They started throwing blessings, thanks and something or another my way, but could only feel heat in my ears and barely heard.
I’d like to say my story ends here, but alas, I does not. Deciding to not lament the loss of 10 yuan (not even 2 dollars), I walked into the main temple and after a short discussion with an old woman, trying to explain that I was a teacher, one of the caretakers of the shrine chatted with me a bit as I toured the area, which was quite nice. I was reminded of Simenta and the nice monks who were willing to spend five minutes trying to explain simple concepts to a numbskull laowai. A few statues of Guan Yu, the Chinese Warrior god, and a Buddha image later, I found myself eyeing the main shrine room.
I have to interject here and say that Chinese shrines are some of the most remarkable places on Earth. Not even so much because of the statues, which are generally beautiful, if not as…Polished…As most religious iconography I’ve seen. Layers of dust are not uncommon, though the offerings are always fresh. The shrines usually have wood casing embossed with dragons, lions (or possibly tigers – hard to tell as they’re quite stylized), ivy, and lotus blossoms. But it’s the very AIR – it’s generally about 6-10 degrees cooler within, despite having wide open windows and doors and the air is remarkably still. Horseflies dance outside of the openings as if repelled by an awe of the sacred. And inside, it’s so very still and calm…I ached to take a picture of one of the caretakers at a lower shrine – he was sitting in a beam of sunlight in the dark shrine with a cigarette and the smoke was making lazy curls around his head as he stared quizzically at me, alternating from light to dark…It was the kind of image you’d see in a National Geographic exposee of a foreign land. I satisfied myself with staring back for as long as I could without feeling awkward, which was about two seconds, and etched the image in my mind. I could not ask him for a picture, though…Not only because we were in a sacred spot, but because earlier that day, I’d tried taking a picture of a beggar with a divination mat and coin jar sitting on a stairwell platform and it went horrendously wrong.
I’m still in one tangent from my main story and about to break from another – sorry for the lack of organization but here it is: So as I’d ascended the stairwell that led to the top of Qian Fo Shan, I saw a beggar sitting on the first tier of the stairwell. He had a divination i-Ching in front of him – rather than simply hold out coin jars, many people in China will read your fortune from your hands using the i-Ching to "earn" their money. His pose, the background, etc…Was all perfect. I don’t know why but I always have the urge to take pictures of destitute people – I find beauty in the solemn poise some of them carry and the pain in their expression. That either sounds horrible or artistic – hopefully I inspired the latter. I always make an offering when I want to make a picture but they always turn out terribly, as a rule, and I never keep them. In New Zealand I saw a homeless man with the most amazing eyes and paid him a three bucks for three shots. None of them turned out. I tried to line up a shot inconspicuously; pretending to take shots of the plants around and the artwork on the walls, but I felt slimy and so dropped a yuan into his jar and asked if I could take a picture with grunts and points to my camera. He nodded and stared at me. I smiled and gave a thumbs up and backed up, lining up my shot. I was mildly miffed – I was going for a candid shot, not a pose but decided it wasn’t worth trying to explain and just readied myself for a shot.
And then he stabbed me in the heart. By putting up his thumb in the same manner I did. I was so taken aback, I hurriedly snapped the pic and ran off, shocked and embarrassed by what just happened. He sat there, divination mat on the ground and mug in front of him, clothes and hair disheveled and proceeded to gave a thumbs up like he was posing in front of the Statue of Liberty…And looked into my eyes through my viewfinder with the same expression that caught my attention in the first place. Slightly distraught, confused but somewhat hopeful. Soulful. I was posing him like a mannequin. My mind was in shambles as I walked in no general direction. I didn’t mean for that to happen – I simply wanted a candid shot; he looked wonderful sitting there in the sun with his mat and so…See above. It was evocative…As I found out all too well when I became a part of the art I was trying to capture. I felt like I’d put him in a gilded cage and asked him to dance, throwing peanuts. I tried to assuage my guilt and I have to some degree…I wasn’t going for that, after all, he simply misunderstood me. But I’ve always been sensitive about taking pictures of people – I really like candid human interest shots but always felt awkward taking them. And then that. Considering I actually FELT bad, I shouldn’t have. I immediately deleted the image, even though it seemed to have come out quite nice during the 1.5 seconds I spent looking at it.
Segway over. I’m walking into the main shrine. The caretaker sat in a chair behind a desk for a bit as I toured around, and asked about the names of a few statues. I asked if the biggest one was Guan Yu, knowing it was, but wanting to cement the word in my memory (see forgetful trait). He nodded, and then motioned me to come over. I did so, and sat. He then pulled out a book and opened to a page in the middle and turned it towards me. It was an ordinary notebook (though with a Chinese cover – the kind I’ve seen in stores for 5 yuan) and on the lined print were a bunch of names, all stamped with a red ink stamp. Directly across from them were numbers, also stamped in red ink.
He motioned towards the book and said "name." In English. Neat!; a logbook – seen plenty of these in tourist attractions around the world. A quick glance revealed the Netherlands, America…Hey, the Phillipines! So I wrote "Earl Goodson," and "America" right under that. I thought to date it, but no one else had, so decided against it. My friend then turned the book back towards him, and took me hands in his and eyed me for a moment before saying "close your eyes." I did so, and he began to chant. Eyes still closed, I felt him drawing a sigil on my forehead.
Shut up, dear reader…Yes, I was burned twice within the same hour. After he finished, he turned the book back towards himself, and then took the red stamp, blew on it, and had me do the same, and stamped over my name. And then turned the book back towards me and said, in English: "one hundred, two hundred," and motioned over the various numbers. And then the last horse crossed the finish line. This time I was just mad – I fished around in my wallet for another 10, and put it on the table. He said "one hundred again," and I said "mei you" – don’t have. Again, mad is relative with me. Stupid tact…He motioned for me to write "10," which I did, finally noting as I did so that every single name in his book was written in Roman script, and he then blew on the stamp and proffered it to me. By now I ‘m scowling – I gave a puff and he stamped the book and I got up without waiting for anything else. I stared at some burning candles, trying to decide my next course of action for a minute or so, no doubt looking like a big, pouting baber but too irritated to care. I can’t quite recall what was going through my mind, but I was enraged on several levels. In retrospect, if I could have done anything differently I’d have written SCAM in big bold letters under my name as a warning to future tourists. But alas; hindsight is 20/20.
He stood next to me and did what every human on the planet does when they want to relate to me – put a hand next to my shoulder, drew a line to his head and said "hen gao" – good height. I grunted, said "two meters" in Chinese, and turned away from him to leave. Once again, I was escorted out by my former friend – I sincerely think there was a touch of guilt in his demeanor, though that was more than likely my imagination. I ambled through the courtyard without taking in much and made my way out and down the stairs.
This is getting overlong. Long story short, I made my way to another section, got told I had to pay 5 yuan to see the Buddha images, which ostensibly, I’d already paid to see seeing as I’d bought a ticket for the whole damn mountain, declined out of principle (read: pride), and then wandered for a bit until I found the massive giant golden Buddha the mountain is famous for. Surrounding the Buddha were some rocking horses which reminded me of the very first time I got scammed (that I know of) in China and sent me back to the Buddha images. I decided I’d camp out until some Chinese tourists walked in and if they didn’t get charged, I’d make a scene. "Zhongguoren bu kuai; laowai wu kuai ma?! " was the phrase I rehearsed in my mind, which means "Chinese dont pay, but foreigners pay five yuan?!" (in a caveman-ish fashion as anyone who reads pinyin will note, though clear enough in meaning). If they didn’t charge them right then and there I was walking in and saying "Ting Bu Dong" (I don’t understand) repeatedly over whatever protests they opted to make. I was going to WIN.
So I sat in front of the entrance, ate some food and waited. Eventually the people who were trying to scam me came over, chatted me up a bit, and asked to take a picture with me. I responded that if they took my picture, I got to see the Buddhas. They assented and the deal was struck. With that, I wandered over, and got a guided tour from the woman in charge of the whole enterprise, which had me wondering if there was an additional fee. There almost was – we came to a shrine with an offering box and she asked me for the second time if I was an American doctor. American doctor?…Mei yuan…American money. Doctor…DOLLAR…MONEY?! I put on such a pained expression she let the matter drop right there, said it didn’t matter and we continued the tour. It was awkward for a bit but I asked a few questions and things started flowing smoothly again. I even dropped a couple of yuan in the offering box as I learned something new about Guan Yin – the supposedly sexless Buddha has an aspect holding an infant that apparently pregnant women and women who want to conceive will pray to and leave offerings in front of. And more to the point, I felt bad about being irritable in even that small amount, no matter how justified in retrospect it was.
DAMN MY DIPLOMATIC TACT.
So to the end. I’m irritable still, just a bit. Sure, because I was made a fool of twice and I don’t enjoy that – no one does. I feel pride as keenly as anyone and more so than many and I don’t like being made to look like an idiot, even to just myself. Even over all of $4 US (though currently all of my money is in RMB, so really, it’s $20) But what’s even worse is the locale. Being the former caretaker of a monastery and shrine, I feel well within my rights to feel a bit outraged here. Temples and shrines are, supposedly, Sacred places where people move beyond the evils, pains and sins of the normal world to try and connect with the divine. To use a holy place to scam unwitting tourists is disgusting, in my mind. One can argue that a tourist doesn’t appreciate the sacred nature and so are removed from that inclusion but this is an excuse – the scam artist is the one perpetuating the scam and doing so in a manner that’s decidedly unethical, utterly cheapening the spot they’re supposed to be tending. It leaves a far bitter taste in my mouth that a priest would do such a thing – asking for donations is absolutely fine. Even if his blessing was real in his mind, though, preying on tourists as his book revealed to extort money is abhorrent. In Vimutti the only time I made mention of the offering box was when people asked where or what it was. Every so often we’d get curious visitors; sometimes Asians from the big city, sometimes Kiwis out for a drive in the countryside who saw our sign and were curious. Should I have led them inside the Sala, told them to run their hands over the Sala’s Buddha image, chanted a sutra and then escorted them over to the box by the door and said "one hundred, two hundred?"