blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Evensong at the Lingyin Temple

May 29th, Sunday

Incense burner, Lingyin temple
Evensong is, I suppose, the nearest western equivalent to what we witnessed that Sunday afternoon at the Lingyin temple. As we sat on a wall behind the Hall of the Great Sage (dàxíong bǎodiàn), inhaling the pervasive smoke from the incense burners, we heard a gong strike, at which chanting began. It was a procession of Buddhist monks in ochre coloured robes approaching the hall to hold a ceremony there. We crept up to watch, not daring to take photographs because the atmosphere was so solemn. There were 40 monks, maybe more, shaven bald, some young, some very old––I was impressed by the faces of these old men. A cantor led the chanting with a powerful voice, striking a gong at irregular intervals while the elderly priest in the centre mimed a ritual, cups of tea being proffered to the Buddha, a young couple in ordinary clothes joining in. A tall monk banged a drum. The chanting was loud, continuous and somewhat monotonous (just as Judeo-Christian psalms must sound to an outsider), but I detected changes in the melody; some bystanders were joining in. The crowd seemed respectful, and as interested as we were. In the background, we could hear birdsong and chirruping sparrows. When the monks eventually processed out, we saw that several of them had percussion instruments, such as a triangle and a small pair of cymbals.

The Big Belly Buddha
We had reached the place by taxi and on foot. Pathways followed a stream through the woods; it was similar to the walk beyond Beijing's Botanical Gardens, with precipitous steps up the rocks on either side of the valley and the girls in tottering high heels as usual. No railings to hold onto. There were caves on the slopes and many holy figures, some obviously influenced by Indian sculptures, with crowns, elephants or extra arms, had been carved out of the rock, some around 1000 years old. The carving of the "big belly buddha" and his arhats was the most memorable:
His belly is big enough to contain all intolerable things ... his mouth ever ready to laugh at all snobbish people on the earth.
Monk in a temple yard
Our views were of the steep and jungly forest, in the distance the Feilaifeng Peak with a chairlift up it. The highest point we climbed to was a cluster of hilltop temples around a monastery in the Fayun Historic Village, from which we caught a glimpse of West Lake and the city on the horizon. Genuine monks live up here, some meditating in the gardens and one accepting a handful of peanuts, as alms. In the temples one sees a buddha (or three) enthroned, with tall vases, a bronze bell and a drum beside him and yellow hassocks embroidered with lotus flowers in front. On his altar will be a bowl of neatly piled fruit: oranges, apples, a melon perhaps or those spiky pink dragon fruit. There's usually a prominent wooden box with a slot for the money offered to pay for incense sticks. Some worshippers burn a whole bunch of sticks together. At one point we saw officials carry away a large amount of coins and banknotes, which they'd tipped into a transparent plastic sack.

Cats in sleek condition had made a home in the temples; I saw one curled on a hassock, and lower down the valley I'd been allowed to stroke a kitten belonging to a lady selling packs of incense sticks and salty crisps marked "cool and refreshing" on the packet.

Around the monastery buildings are small tea plantations and gardens, spring water being channeled into a stone basin down a bamboo pipe. Nearby is a fish pond with swirls of multicoloured fish. There were palm trees, gingko trees, pines and other bonsais in pots. The monks have a basketball court, too, and a "music hall" where some act of worship was taking place that day.

Integrated into all this is a rather exclusive tourist resort.

The Great Sage of the Lingyin temple,
the largest wooden Buddha in China.
The ceiling above is 33 metres from the ground.
The Linyin Temple itself, where the largest wooden buddha in China is to be found, is at the foot of the hill. His altar had more fruit and flowers. The burners had bigger flames. I worried that the little girls' dresses might catch fire as they imitated their mothers' obeisances with their votive incense sticks. If you pray, you have to bow to the four points of the compass, and the more devout you aspire to be, the lower you bow. Does your piety also depend upon the number of sticks you burn at once? I have my doubts. It was the same as in European cathedrals; some people looked genuinely moved by the act of worship and others were just pretending.

Worshipping with incense sticks
Behind the giant buddha, painted gold, was another, with a 30 metre high Last Judgement sort of scene on the wall facing the door, with the dramatis personae covered in dust when we saw them, riding monstrous fish or boating down vertical rivers crossed by Chinese bridges. A confusing plethora of characters in this scene, laughing buddhas, elephants, a tiger and the stern arhats again, including the one with the long eyebrows, as seen in Beijing.

Shops in the precincts sell loose tea, silk wares, amber dragons and the usual fans and battery powered windmills, as well as many buddha-related nicknacks––pendants and bracelets that looked like Catholic rosaries and incense stick holders in the shape of cabbages. We found something to eat: half a roasted chicken wrapped in leaves with an egg-drop tomato soup on the side.

Our K7 bus back to town was the fourth in a row after a long wait in the queue at the bus station. Chris and I sat squashed together on a tiny seat, mercifully at the front of the bus so we could see out. It was so crowded (with uncomplaining Chinese tourists) that we could hardly breathe.

Back to the hotel on Bus 96 and finally, around 8p.m., some supper: a (xiǎo) pizza from the Pizzahut at the MixC mall, with a glass of iced jasmine tea topped with a vanilla-flavoured, sugary foam.

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