Chinese Buffet – Part 8: Contemplation at the Temples

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Besides wandering through shady parks, I spent quite a bit if my week in Beijing roaming the grounds of the city’s various temples. Like the parks and gardens, temples were my serene havens, where I could sneak off to escape the bustling streets. Many temples are located right in the middle of the busy city that has built up around them, but once inside the walls of these sanctuaries, the urban buzz dissipates.

Dongyue, a Taoist temple tucked between tall buildings along Chaoyangmen in the eastern part of the city, was the first one I visited. Not having been to a temple before, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I tried not to focus on the fact that the theme of this place is Death. (Dong Yue is the mountain peak that the spirits of the dead travel to.)

This donkey was one of the first things that caught my eye, but I circled the entire temple before I came back to it for a closer look. It was only on my second pause by this guy that I learned the story behind the Bronze Wonder Donkey, who was the riding animal for the God Wen Chang:

“Being a supernatural animal, it has the head of a horse, the body of a donkey, the tail of a mule and the split hoof of a bull. As the story goes, touching the animal could cure diseases and proved to be highly effective.”

Apparently it used to be a customary practice to visit the donkey for a rub of good fortune.

This was exactly the kind of good omen I was looking for. A close relative of mine back in the US was undergoing major surgery that day, and I had told her that I’d seek out a sacred place where I could send some good thoughts her way. I gave the donkey a few good rubs in the worn spots on his snout and side where so many others had done so before.

A few days later I visited the Yong He Gong or Lama Temple, more popular with tourists groups, and it certainly showed in the number of folks milling about. The smell of incense was intense — that lingering scent will be what I remember most from my visit here. I sat and watched worshipers light and burn the hot pink and yellow sticks, meditating on what meaning any of this had for me.

This temple, the largest working one in Beijing, is home to the “yellow hat” Lama sect of Buddhism. There is a large group of monks from Tibet and Mongolia who regularly worship here. A group of the fine feathered fellas came outside while I sat nearby. They chanted in low tones as tourists gathered around them. I stayed back, on a bench across the courtyard, and zoomed in with my camera for this shot:

I sat in the Lama Temple for quite awhile, listening to the humming Buddhist prayers, and how they seemed to move in rhythm with the snores of the Chinese man asleep on the bench next to me. It was comical and spiritual — there was some sort of spirit moving through the air — a peaceful one, that also had a sense of humor.

Directly across the street and about halfway down a hutong alley from the Lama Temple is the Confucius Temple, which is currently undergoing major renovation. It was deserted except for staff and construction crew, but was still open to the public. I enjoyed the emptiness of the place — and took the opportunity to get creative with my digital camera. While incense was the strong scent at Lama, here it was the paint. These glimmering red columns (which I liked contrasted against the bright green leaves) looked as if they were still wet.:

When I went to leave the temple about 30 minutes later, an older gentleman seated by the door motioned for me to head left before exiting. It turns out there was an entire other section of the temple that I would have missed completely if it were not for his direction. I wound up spending another hour or so exploring the additional grounds and buildings, and spent most of my time in a long dimly lit room near the rear of the complex. I again found myself having fun with the camera, trying to catch shadows and light:

I had stumbled upon the Qianlong Stone Scriptures, the “forest of the steles of the Thirteen Classics.” This collection of 190 stones is inscribed with much of the tenets of Confucian philosophy. The temple staff members positioned at either end of the narrow hall each spoke to me in Chinese — I knew they were both trying to share information with me about these stones, about their significance, no doubt. I nodded silently, feeling reverent, but frustrated that I could not talk with them. In the absence of common language, there was only silence to share. All I could do was walk in awe, capturing visual memories of this life-size stone book:

My hours of contemplative wandering through Beijing’s temples were solitary explorations that uncovered treasures like these oracle stones. I didn’t need to know all the details of Taoism, Buddhism or Confucianism to find meaning in these places. I just looked at my own belief system from a different perspective, and discovered common ground — universal truths about fortune, good health, humor and the power of words.