genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

Calligraphy for Wenjian Liu: “A vision left unrealized”

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi'an

Outdoor calligraphy market, Xi’an: “To see far, you must climb to the mountain’s heights.”

"I love Wudang" by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

“I love Wudang” by a calligrapher who stopped teaching high school after experiencing a sudden mystical calling.

The living art of characters drawn in a burst of inspiration — a Chinese funerary custom with poignancy at the funeral today of Wenjian Liu, a NYPD officer gunned down by a crazed madman in his squad car in Brooklyn in December. We read today in the NY Times (Calligrapher Brings an Elegant Touch To a Chinese Ceremony by Jeffrey E. Singer and Kirk Semple)   how the calligrapher wrote infused with the deceased’s moving spirit. (Of course, it takes lots of premediation, drafts, and many tries.) Then the finished scrolls play a sober, decorative role  honoring and giving comfort.

An Asia Society curator, a young white woman we met once, told us Chinese calligraphy sparked her life work when, as a teenager she fell in love with it studying in Taiwan. One Coplan received directions to study hard in calligraphy (phrased much more poetically-through an ancient stanza) —a gift from a calligrapher now hanging above his desk (left photo above). Another collects pieces, if he’s met the calligrapher. A Buddhist piece from a monastery in holy WuTai Shan, a Confucian saying picked off the sidewalk in his birthplace, Qufu, Shandong…and finally (photo above right), a bit of an odyssey but he tracked down a Taoist calligrapher (and tai qi master) in his little apartment outside Wudang Shan, tai qi’s birthplace, near Wuhan.

The New York Times presents local master calligrapher Zhao Ru, 73, an immigrant and sometime-restaurant worker originally from Toisan, who volunteered his services for Liu’s funeral. He used top-quality ink donated by a bookseller in Sunset Park (Brooklyn’s “Chinatown”). Officer Liu’s “spirit moved me to conjure this work,” he says. The funeral home’s Chinese consultant is quoted: Zhao’s calligraphy gave “the room the high quality of the life that he led.”

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu's funeral today

Photo by Karsten Moran for the New York Times. Zhao Ru, Brooklyn calligrapher, creating memorial scroll fo Officer Wenjian Liu’s funeral today

Zhao’s calligraphy pieces read:

“In the sphere of law enforcement his vision is left unrealized”

“For his service to the people, his name will forever be cherished in our hearts.”

“A model for all police.”

Peace.

For Temple Lovers Only: A Beijing Temple List

Chengde Puning Temple

Chengde Puning Temple

Baijynguan Taoist monk

Baijynguan Taoist monk

We have a joke (actually serious) about visiting active temples / monasteries: ‘It’s time to leave when you reach the monks’ underwear.’ Drying on a line, I mean. There comes that point. You can go no further.

We love that. We couldn’t see enough temples.

Beijing, having sucked the wealth from a continent, for millennia, has unknown minor temples that would be cover stories anywhere else.  There is Yonghegong & the Temple of Heaven. And there are many more. Here is the list had — and didn’t quite finish. Our 14 Beijing Temples List.

1)    Guanghua On HouHai/Shichahai, beautiful, very active Buddhist temple. 31 Ya’er Hutong, Xicheng, Beijing. The boys were given amulets there by the abbot.

IMG_59062) Zihua. At certain times, the monks play ancient Buddhist music. It is the only place of its kind.  A bit hard to find in Dongchen, about 14 blocks below Jianhuomen on Line 5; about 15 blocks above Chaoyangmen. Below Lumicang hutong, above Dafangjia hutong.

3) Mentougou 1 hr. outside Beijing. Best hire a driver for the day. The temple complexes are Tazhe Si, and nearby Jietai Si, from 600s & also very famous.

4) Chengde (many temples) ‘Little Tibet’, about 3 hours’ drive. Summer getaway of the Qing. Main palace in a vast forest park, plus (even better) the many outlying Tibetan-style temples built in tribute, and to rein in faraway lands. Need a car. We went in one too-long day. Best for a week-end. Less crowded at the outlying temples. Many under construction…or should be.

5) Dazhong Si (Great Bell Temple) Right in Haidian, buried in urban craziness. Huge bell! Has its own subway stop. Great.

jietai

6) Wanshou (Temple of Longevity) 5-minute walk from Beijing Foreign Studies U., and from Purple Bamboo Park. Ming. 1578.  Before fall of the Qing, a rest stop for imperial processions traveling by boat to the Summer Palace and Western Hills (it’s on a canal). Managed by Beijing Art Museum, houses collection of Buddha images. Suzhou Jie, Xisanhuan Lu, on the north side of Zizhu Bridge, Haidian District

Dajue Buddha

7) Zhenjue No.24 Wutaisi Cun, Baishiqiao, Haidian District, Beijing. (Chinese: 24; pinyin: Bĕijīng Shì Báishíqiáo Cūn 24 hào). We did not make it here! It’s still on our list!

8) Dahui (Temple of Great Wisdom) Haidian. Ming dynasty. Dahui Lu Si near Xueyuan Nan Lu. Built 1513; restored 1757.   We did not make it here, either!

9) Biyun Si (Temple of Azure Clouds) (Chinese: Buddhist, eastern part of the Western Hills, just outside the north gate of Fragrant Hills Park (Xiangshan Gongyuan). Can also see Sun yat Sen memorial & Fragrant Hills (has a chairlift if you don’t want to climb) We walked up, chairlift down. Taxi works well.

10) Dongyue Si  (Taoist, mid-Chaoyang) – probably the most important Taoist temple in Beijing, Buried in Chaoyang. Near the Russian market.

Dajue Tea House

Dajue Tea House

11) White Cloud Temple (Bai Yungguan) in Fengtai (southwestern) district. Home to the Taoist Association, very large, active temple in the middle of an ordinary residential neighborhood. There is one English speaker (top photo) who was so helpful with explanations.

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

Near Baiyunguan: a buddhist pagoda not on the premesis

12) Xi Huang Si – Western yellow, best lamaist architecture ,1780. This is fantastic gem, unknown. We found it closed to the public but talked our way in. I think its northeast 2nd ring?

IMAG1663

13) Bei Tai (White Pagoda) The temple atop the island hill in Beihai Park

Beihai

14) Dajue Si  at foot of Yangtai Hill, 1498 – Lovely site built into a mountainside. Has oldest extant Buddha statue in garden. Hire a taxi but have clear directions, no one knows where it is. Out beyond the secret military installation, kind of past/near Fragrant Hills. Gorgeous expensive tea house.

dajue spring and building

Yemen: America’s Next War Zone?

Old Sana'a, Yemen

Old Sana’a, Yemen by Jill in 1992

The U.S. shut down embassies around the Middle East based on (we now learn) communication from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula out of Yemen. Hundreds were freed in a prison break. Anti-American violent leadership is now Yemen-based. Militants are flooding in to Sana’a, from around the region, the BBC reports, as part of a (foiled?) plot to attack perhaps ports, oil installations, or U.S. diplomats. In return or in anticipation, U.S. drone strikes have been increasing, and drone surveillance to intercept more terror communication. Yemenis are said to be suffering post-traumatic stress from so many buzzing drones carrying death.

Is Yemen America’s next war zone?

spectacular row buildings kawkaban 1sanaa 1

This painful set of developments has me thinking of Yemeni friends I made there 20 years ago — a young couple. He was mid-20s, training to run his family’s mid-range hotel in Sana‘a, the capital, the old part of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (…for now)….will it go the way of Aleppo? His wife was a teenage girl, living with her parents, not really wife yet, she’d get there later. They seemed happy hanging out.

my friends indoors 1my friends young couple 1

The people are what we miss in war stories, with notable exceptions like Anthony Shadid‘s incredibly rich and profound coverage from inside Iraq.  The people, their culture, the experience of exchange that comes from being places and immersing in conversations…

(…sometimes stoned out of your mind on the local stimulant of choice, qat, chewed with a mint or while sipping tea. Below, my friend is buying.)

Buying qat to chew in Sana'a, Yemen

Buying qat to chew in Sana’a, Yemen

The war against terror informs — distorts — inflects, effects, all we do overseas and how we experience the world as Americans. Who are these people of Yemen but harborers of terrorists? Al Qaeda’s new haunt?

So, I share my 20-year old photos of Yemen & some Yemeni people.

market stall sanaa 1Terror movements need 3 things: alienated constituents. People willing to be complicit. And a legitimizing ideology. This isn’t me; this is scholarship (Louise Richardson formerly of Harvard, now Vice Chancellor of the University of St. Andrews). It is motivated by 3 goals: revenge, renown, and reaction from the enemy.  By this logic, massive military campaigns, ours (and Israel’s, in many cases) simply give the enemy, here Al Qaeda – both the great renown and the horrific overreaction it seeks. There are “the stimulants it needs to prosper” (Richardson).

buildings kawkabam street 1man with jambiya 1

Yet, scholars like Richardson tell us, what  anti-terror campaigns prove (Turkey’s against the PKK, Peru’s against the Shining Path, Britain’s with the IRA) is that what is fundamentally a political challenge can only be addressed politically. By separating the terrorists from their base in the community, by addressing their grievances seriously.

Success requires maintaining the moral high ground. Which, to me, means remembering people. Faces, friends. We haven’t met them (yet). We don’t know eachother, most Yemenis and most Americans. But they will bear the consequences if we take the war to yemen. If we are to be fully human, let’s at least try to connect before we destroy.

grrain seller sanaa 1herb seller 1

Buddhist Business Advice

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

A powerful Buddhist abbot runs Lingyin Si (monastery) near Hangzhou (in wealthy Zhejiang province, southeastern China, one of the places where capitalist “reform & opening” first took hold). It’s the top Buddhist temple, of the Chan (Zen) tradition, in southeast China. This July (2013), with China’s booming economy teetering, alarming the world — the abbot gave, according to the Temple‘s website — a dharma talk & interview to the journalists & editors of CEO Magazine.

Said Venerable Guangquan:

Buddhism should [not stay in the past, but should] advance … into the market economy…to [uphold] the level of morals and ethics, enlightening the people and purifying the mind and heart.

Buddha cliff carvings

Buddha cliff carvings , Lingyin Si

buddhism business grottotryptich closeup

Karma doctrine is useful in business management.

Entrepreneurs should treat employees as they were brothers and sisters, just like all creatures are equal.

In return, they gain employees’ loyalty and gratitude, thus creating a more meaningful and successful organization.

“The moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow” [an old saying goes]: The natural cycle is decline after flourishing. [So]… As wealth is accumulated, contribute actively to benefit society. This balances the self and gives wealth a purpose.

buddhism business grottowith boy

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Laoshan: the Taoist Holy Mountain and the Beer

lao shan seasidekeny in temple gate
Laoshan is a Taoist holy mountain near Qingdao (the business & economics department was generous and sent us in a car with Kenny’s tutor and a lovely 15-year-old boy who hangs with Kenny) Guidebook says it has 72 temples. We saw three — on the coast and up on the misty, rocky peak.

Sea fairies

Sea fairies

The air is clean and wet. The landscape is pine and some bamboo forest ( native?). The mountain’s history goes back 16 centuries, but mostly to the 110s when a Taoist sect was established here, and monks lived in caves.

Laoshan cave

Laoshan cave

There are several peaks, not too high (a few thousand feet) — we summitted one (with the help of a chairlift!).  As always, with Chinese holy mountains, you ascend and descend via staircases. This one was surrounded by streams (used to chill drinks being sold trailside) and cultivated flowers. I noticed wild foxtail lily. Also plenty of tiger lilies.

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

Taoist shrine, Laoshan holy mountain

The Taoist pantheon is still beyond me. But I noticed the elements of nature — so powerful in Taoism — appear as decorative borders on the gods’ robes in the shrines: rainbows, the waves of the sea, clouds, mountains. A few worshippers — not many.
hollyhocks at temple
A sign in the parking lot: “Feudal superstitious activity” is explicitly banned. These kind of old Communist signs don’t have any real relationship to the China we know; though — to be sure — if you were gunning for a big job and you were known to avidly practice a “feudal” faith, I’m sure this would impede your career prospects.

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

No feudal superstitious activity such as fortune-telling or divination!

Laoshan holy mountain's rocky coast

Laoshan holy mountain’s rocky coast

The coastline is a whole new Chinese landscape to us. Korea isn’t far — a cheap ferry. Wish we had time! Qingdao’s a popular resort, with a golf course and lots of fancy villas where — I don’t know — the rich, Party members, both, take holidays.

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

Laoshan Taoist temple with trumpet vine

But it’s not only the elite that enjoy the resort: (see blow) — even Taoist dogs get a terrific place to live at one of Laoshan’s temples.
taoist dog house

lao shan stairs
I’d heard wealthy businessmen have begun funding restoration of some of the old temples (Taoist and Buddhist). I thought this suggested a risign interest in heritage and preservation. Kenny’s tutor said that in his opinion, it was an attempt by people who had ill-gotten gains to cleanse their consciences of their many sins.

dragon detail

laoshan taoist god of the sea and rainbow

lao shan trailside tea house

lao shan above the lake
Taoism is associated strongly with herbalism (originally, alchemy) and we saw some extraordinary herbalists along the trail. Not only the usual array of mushrooms, grasses and fungus buttons, but in this case, sealife: dried snakes, anemones, seahorses.

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

laoshan herbalist selling dried snake

lao shan herbalist seahorses

lao shan herbalist dried lizard
Laoshan’s clear mountain streams were originally used in Tsingtao beer. Laoshan is a holy mountain– & a beer label. Laoshan Beer  was acquired recently by Tsingtao. We completed the day with a toast. Possibly Kenny’s favorite part.Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Laoshan beer: a toast after hiking Laoshan

Beer is, of course, a central theme in this stay in Qingdao/Tsingtao, China’s beer city. Personally, I liked the Qingdao better. The Laoshan was drier and crisp — good. But named after a holy mountain? You’re expecting an almost godly experience in a glass. Not so much.

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

Laoshan Beer (now owned by Tsingtao brewery)

We did the hike on July 7, which our wise 15-year-old noted marked the day Japan invaded China about 70 years ago. The anger even now is still fresh at the table when they talked about the war — young people, as if it was only yesterday.

One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Little Monks

Little Buddhist monk, SW China’s Yunnan province

I’m disturbed by little monks. Yes, it takes a lifetime to learn scripture; I read an interview in National Geo with an old Tibetan monk who talked about his happy willingness to enter monastic life, at an uncle’s urging, at age 6 or 7. In Kathmandu years ago, I remember the armies of adorable tiny monks playing ball (soccer fever among little-boy monks being the subject of the film “The Cup,” 1999). Many little Tibetan monks have a much more materially comfortable life in the monastery than they’d have at home. Maybe more spiritually comfortable. Their families are passionate about religious life and they’re honored to join early. But I’m disturbed. They’re cloistered long before they can maturely consent. China has rightly banned the practice before age 15 or 16, but the law goes unenforced.

Playing with our boys. Baisha, Yunnan.

Our boys have played with little monks, whenever they’ve meet them. Basketball, pingpong, tag. This shouldn’t be taken as me implying that these little monks are victims of sexual abuse. Although the BBC out of Colombo, Sri Lanka covered a terrible story this month, hundreds of sexually abused Buddhist monk boys, and we know from many accounts this happened, happens. And of course we’ve seen sexual abuse in Western religious educational settings. I’m by no means pointing to Buddhism (Chinese, Tibetan, Sri Lankan) as uniquely guilty, and this isn’t the main point of my case, as it is for religiouschildabuse.org, an atheist organization that despises religion and uses child abuse as a bludgeon.

I’m saying, we’ve seen a lot of baby monks. And just as it’s disturbing that little Chinese athletes, say, are removed from home and family and friends to training schools from a tender age, as it’s wrong that children anywhere be controlled by large, forceful institutions of any kind, it’s wrong for baby monks to still tolerated here, in 2012.

Monks cleanup, Kanding, Western Sichuan

Yellow River of Sorrows

Lanzhou

Earlier spring, we were in Lanzhou, out West, Gansu province, upper reaches of the Yellow River–China’s second longest, after the Yangtze. It is, I read, China’s river of sorrow, for its history of horrific floods, some of history’s deadliest natural disasters.

Taoist fortunetellers, Lanzhou

In a 50-year period between 1887 and 1931, Yellow River floods killed an estimated seven million people, including in epidemics that followed.

Lanzhou’s famous beef noodles

Notoriously, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists created a man-made Yellow River flood (not here but to the east) to halt the enemy advance, killing perhaps a million Chinese people and no one knows how many Japanese soldiers.

Lanzhou

The floods’ cause (in part) is in the name: the “yellow” is silt, from a fine, easily eroding rock (loess) that collects and raises the river till it spills over. (Loess is finer than sand, carried by wind, mostly quartz, highly subject to erosion.) We called that beige stuff “Gobi sand” and it got in our eyes, packed into our ears, and had to be dumped out of pockets and bags for days. OK, it was sandstorm season. But never have I seen a dustier place than Lanzhou. Not inches of dust, but piles a foot high in the dustpan after people swept. Mounds collecting indoors in room corners, outdoors against buildings, streets.

Lanzhou: Muslim community

The river’s not so “yellow”– more brown. Industrial waste has rendered it (source: UN) unfit for drinking and also for agricultural and even for industrial use.

These inflated sheep carcasses keep afloat rafts that locals and visitors hire (with a driver) for fun, to float along the Yellow’s filthy length. We did not partake. It made me sick to look at them.

This blog has attracted a VERY nice American follower who lives in Langzhou and I apologize, Dave, but in spite of the cool provincial museum (home to the famous, iconic bronze horse, one of the best archaeological treasures, almost thrown into a smelter during the Cultural Revolution), the awesome hand-uplled beef noodles(flavored with cinnamon & star anise as well as ginger and cilantro) and several active temples & mosques, I do not hope to return to Lanzhou.

Old Street, Lanzhou

And the Yellow River, past and present, made me sad.

Mosque-on-a-boat? Yellow River

Beijing Summer

“Avengers” subway poster.

Summer traditionally begins with several consecutive days over 22 degrees (mid-70s). It’s here, “Avengers” focus and all.

I’m editing student essays on working in a factory, on losing a mother to labor migration, on how grandparents escaped starvation, on a mother’s manual labor:

“My mother and her coworkers are on duty at 7 in the morning and stand on the fruit canning line till 10 or 11 at night, seven days a week. There are two half-hour breaks, for lunch and supper. The workers are supposed to go home at 6 in the evening, but given that the overtime pay increases from 4 yuan to 6, most of them choose to work until night. What can 6 yuan buy in Beijing? One-third of a hamburger at McDonald’s.”
On the lighter side: The Knicks were eliminated, but they live on here

As summer gets into full swing and the sun is strong, women everywhere are out with big, lace-covered parasols to avoid darkening their porcelain skin.

Welcome to the Victorian era.

(If that fails, there’s always Dove’s Asia-specific whitening products.)

Meanwhile: more mutual monk attraction, ongoing at CoplansinChina . Maybe my friend Maya has it right, they were Buddhists in a previous life. Kenny allows that the bar mitzvah, however, comes first. The 10 Commandments, then the 8-Fold Path.

Beijing: You can get used to it. We’re OK with the dense crush, in a basement cafeteria, firetrap of a wholesale market, packed mile-long subway station or 12-lane highway that just happens to be a ‘normal’ city street.
China’s struggles at this moment, the sudden unexpected tension & excitement around Bo’s cinematic fall and Cheng‘s dissident challenge, the surprising optimism of many Beijing students whether or not it’s justified, the mind-blowing history lived by just about every person you meet over 50–and change so rapid you can detect it in 9 months–it’s all  fascinating & important, it’s a privilege to witness.

Tomorrow a leading Chinese environmental reporter-turned-spokesperson for The Nature Conservancy Asia addresses my students. Nabbed thanks to Brown friend Beth Conover, who made the connection.

Monks Look At Jews

Wenshu, an important Chengdu Buddhist monastery, preserved many treasures through decades of tumult: masters’ skulls, sutras written in tongue blood, Buddhas embroidered in human hair. We arrived (the kids said) on ‘monks day off,’ and the boys were invited to play pingpong.
Soon, the monk (beside Kenny) got out his Chinese-English dictionary to look up “Jewish.” Several fellow monks gathered to see the Jews (playing pingpong).

While buying train tickets (here, Chengdu) we were the in-flight entertainment.
Here I returned the gaze:

Speaking of gazes: The Giant Buddha of Le Shan, about 1,200 years old, near Chengdu, built on a river to watch over shipping. I found the big guy, and the atmosphere, more amusement-park than spiritual.

But the Chinese Buddhist monastery there was completely serious.

While northern China in winter is dry brown, the south is green and misty. The crowds sought peace at the Giant Buddha temple complex on their day off, as we did.

Le Shan, near Chengdu

Tibetan Buddhism (Ate My Children)

I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.

I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.

Trek past stupas, Kham (E. Tibet)

Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.

Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.


Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.

Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.

Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.

Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.

When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.

The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.

Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).

Do they get that? We’ve talked about it a little but… no. They simply loved, without complication, and were moved to pray, in the mountains and under the blueness.

Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.

The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.

Kenny

Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.

Lambie in the Muslim Quarter

Grand Mosque's Chinese Architecture

Grand Mosque courtyard. Built 1300s


Lambie visited Xi’an and saw a big, old mosque: the Grand Mosque. It’s Chinese-style!

Islam has been here since it was born. China has 20 million Muslims, like the Hui (“Way”) who speak Mandarin. Others speak languages that are like Turkish and Perisan. Also Mongolian.

Trying tea


Seeing the mosque made Lambie tired, so she went to a tea house in a mansion with many courtyards. It also was a puppet theater! The puppets spoke Mandarin!

Lambie meets some fellow puppets


Lambie sees lamb cooking


Then came the bad part. Lambie learned these people love eating lambs.

Lambie on top of Xi'an's City Wall


She ran away, up onto the city wall around Xi’an. It was the worst moment of Lambie’s life.

Bales of tea in the Moslem Quarter food market


After a while she remembered the puppets and the dried lychee black tea. China has its ups and downs.

Lambie at Xian Drum Tower

Bang a drum, Lambie! It’s going to be alright.

Mountain Climbing, the National (Secular) Prayer?

Ribbons asking for blessings

Hua Shang (Flower Mountain, about 7,000′), sacred to Taoists, is said to house 72 hermit caves. We climbed it (it’s about 13 hours from Beijing). Taoist holy mountains are pilgrimage spots, something I’ve been trying to understand.

Hermits once lived here (carving stone beds, stone tables), giving cave-temples names like ‘the Cave for Having Audience with the Origin.’

Taoism is connected to mountains. (Taoist alchemists loved mountain herbs — still for sale in baggies in the gift shop). “Buddhist monasteries lie below while Taoists monasteries lie above” is a saying I’ve read. Ancients built altars to calm their local mountain god. Climber-pilgrims bravely approached that power, for its help or forgiveness or enlightenment.

Start up the path on China’s 5 sacred Taoist mountains, & I’ve read that the rock inscription says, “You now enter the first mountain under heaven” : This is the world.

Stairs and railings


Before stairs, the trek up Hua Shan’s knife-edge ridges was dangerous. People climbed (some still do) at night, to watch the sunrise; there are still fatalities from falls.

Caves weren’t just for shelter; they’re the mountain’s “heart” concentrating the earth’s chi energy.

Mid-mountain sits a monastery. Many once held dragon gods made of gold, used in prayers (now in museums). The Summit has a temple as well. For a few lucky immortals, the summit is where the climber-pilgrim attains the Tao.


Ascending is a symbolic ascension. The ancients gave summits names like, “Precipice for Abandonning the Body.” The summit was for offerings, rituals, self-purification, contemplation. Up there, the mountain symbolizes heaven, no longer earth.
(The monks also had fun, as suggested by other place names: the “Cliff for Evading Imperial Commands.” The “Chess Players’ Terrace and Pavillion.”)


I read an account from 1989 of living communities of monks rebuilding Hua Shan’s many holy structures, most of which were burned down during the Cultural Revolution.

There’s still a working abbey at the bottom. But the structures on the trek (simple hotels, not monasteries; noodle shacks not prayer halls — a few temples with souvenir stands alongside) are “just” for the domestic tourist trade. People are having a nice tough climb.

But the sheer numbers of visitor? The devotion (especially of older folks)? The seeming national obsession with climbing the 5 sacred mountains? Something much more deeply rooted is going on here.

Devotion (Lambie Discovers Buddhism)

Lambie visited the Yung gang (“Cloud Ridge”) caves, and saw that devotion moved mountains.

Lambie was happy and astonished to see how Buddhism flourished here.


She learned that the ancient Silk Road passed by, carrying goods and gods. While trading foods and fabric, the road carried culture from India, flowing robes of Greek sculptures from Rome, artistry from Iran. Turkestani rulers, who unified northern China, embraced India’s Buddhism, and melded it all together. Here is a great world religion at its height.

Lambie is pumped to see what happens when great civilizations meld.

The giant Buddha caves of Bamyan, Afghanistan were destroyed. These remain, surviving 2,000 years of erosion, corrosive pollution, vandals, political attacks, and millions of visitors.

Lambie was sorry to see holes and some broken caves.

Lambie knows about Pharoahs. The giant Buddhas were Pharoanic in a way, offering worship to Buddha and glorifying the ruler.

Indian monks, Turkic kings, Hellenic motifs...yet distinctly Chinese Buddhism.

Lambie hopes to become more like Buddha by following his example: Meditation, morality, insight, generosity, patience, and kindness.

Lambie is happy.

Hangin’ at a Hanging Monastery

By Ethan Coplan

Seen from below.

I really enjoyed the hanging monasteries because it looked really scary from the very top.

Whaaaaaa!

I really liked the view from different spots.

Filing through the cliff dwelling.

Since it was so freezing, people were wearing big green Chairman Mao army coats. It was really cold there because of the high altitude. We paid 20 kuai (about $3) to rent them. It was the best 20 kuai my mom ever spent.

The Xuankong Si hanging off Mount Hengshan was built in 491. We heard Taoist monks lived here until a few hundred years ago. Fall has arrived.

Big, Big Buddha

We rode a sleeper train to see Buddhas, carved inside mountains, in human-dug (not natural) caves (or shiku), on the Silk Route. The Yung Gang Shiku were created around 400, funded by a Northern emperor. Carvers roped themselves up high, dug a hole, and began with Buddha’s face.

There are hundreds of caves, large and small, filled with Buddha and carved tales of his life. Some Buddhas were destroyed by water, coal dust from nearby mines in Shanxi (a rather poor, mining area with distinctively eroded white cliffs, almost like the Badlands), and vandalism during the Cultural Revolution. Some were colorfully painted about 600 years ago during a restoration.

Some Buddhas were painted outside the caves.

A lot is going on inside these caves.

Preservation is a huge challenge with millions of visitors.

A cave beside Buddha was a good place to meditate.

In all, there are 55,000 Buddhas here.


A few more pictures:



We were told it took about 40,000 people about 60 years to carve. A few weeksago, the Chinese government opened a sprawling complex of Buddhist temples, ponds and pavillions as an entryway. There, the Great Hall Buddhas are molded of plastic.

Chinese Jewish

It’s Yom Kippur in China.
Yesterday in Shanghai, we visited the Jewish Refugee Museum and synagogue, Ohel Moshe. During WW2, a few Chinese consular officials in Eastern Europe gave visas to 30,000 Jews fleeing Hitler, and Shanghai became their wartime home–when no other country would offer refuge. They set up a little Viennatown, complete with coffeehouse. (Ethan enjoyed a graphic novel about it, A Jewish Girl in Shanghai by Wu Lin, 2008; it’s also an animated film.)

While there, we bought a book about the legendary Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: a 1,000-year-old community that’s mostly disappeared. (Originally emigrants on the Silk Road from Turkey, escaping the Crusaders, they intermarried over the centuries.) It’s a big, old hardcover collection of Kaifeng-Jewish folk tales a Chinese anthropologist gathered from the elderly a generation ago.

So it’s Kol Nidre services. Kehilat Beijing, our synagogue. And the rabbi invites up to the bima 3 young Chinese Jews from Kaifeng to say a few words! They were recently back from a few years of religious training in Israel. We couldn’t believe it! They were swamped afterwards as total celebrities.

May you be inscribed in the book of life!!