Asia | China | Yunnan Province | Lijiang – Point to the Cloud
No one knew exactly how long Zhi Yun Temple had been there, but it has to be at least 400 years old. Mr. Jiang, told us that when the Karpama came to visit centuries ago, one of the local lamas carried him back to Tibet on his own back for 3 months. As a token of appreciation, Karpama gave the lama some money to build a monastery in Lijiang. As the lama looked around the mountains to pick a spot, an old woman behind him said,’Look at that cloud over that hill. Isn’t it beautiful? Why don’t you pick that spot?’ He looked up, but she vanished when he turned around. He realized that the budhisattava had transformed into an old woman to guide him, and followed her advice. The monastery was appropriately named Zhi Yun (Point to the Cloud) Temple’. ‘That’s a blessed place. The grounds are flaming with camelia flowers every winter. I always bring back some soil when I go there and my camelia would grow very well that year.’ Mr. Jiang added.
What intrigued us more was the story that Mr. Zhang had told us two days ago when we were in Longquan. There is a prayer rock in the backyard of the temple. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, someone split it up, intending to use it for construction. Tibetan Budhist text was revealed inside the rock. The person put the rock on the wagon anyway knowing that it was sacred. People saw the wagon in flame from afar, but the driver was dead and the stone was burned to ashes by the time they got closer. From then on, no one dared to excavate the rock anymore.
The temple was hidden amidst the rolling hills and orchards south of the lake in Lashi county. Contrary to my expectation of a dilapidated establishment, the monastary was freshly renovated, and the only one near Lijiang that did not charge an admission fee. Ginko trees over 200 years old provided pleasant shading at the entrance, and the temple ground was well covered with plants, but all of the bulidings were closed. I saw a lama sitting in a daybed through a door that was slightly ajar, and he stood up to show us around without hesitation. Although his physique hampered by mild dwarfism, he had kept the ground spotless. Growing up speaking Naxi and studying Tibetan, his Chinese was very limited, but he tried hard to tell us the history of Tibetan Budhism in the Lijiang area, repeating the information over and over when we couldn’t understand.
Our guide, Yue Deng, is the lone lama in the monastery for much of the previous 3 years. Born Naxi, his family farms next to the Jinsha river, whee Tibetan Budhism has a strong root. Having had seven generations of lamas in his family, he had been a lama for ten years since he was twenty and had the fortune to study in Tibet for a year with the then 12 year old Karmapa, he told us proudly.
Before leaving the main hall, he gave each of us a Budhisattva pendant, blessing them with his prayers in the presence of the Budda before handing them to us for a safe journey. Even though we are not Budhists, and the pendants are the plastic type sold on vending stalls for less than 1 yuan, it was the best we had received during the trip so far.
To satisfy our curiosity about the sacred rock, he took us to the back hill. A gray rock about 7ft high stood on the ground and prayer flags flew around it. he showed us the two small surfaces where the text was exposed, and started reading it off in Tibetan.
‘This used to be the male stone,’ he pointed to another gray rock next to the sacred stone,’but it was used for construction during the cultural revolution. The rock with text is the female stone. Infertile women pray here to have a baby.’ I saw a few incense sticks at the base of the rock.
‘Did it work?’
‘Of course. Otherwise no one would pray to it. It’s all in the heart. It works if you believe it.’
I observed the stone closely. There are layers of yellowish granite in the rock, and the exposed text seemed to have been covered by these layers.
‘Did someone carve the text on the rock, then layer them up with granite separating the surfaces?’
‘No! no one carved it. All the text is natural. Otherwise it wouldn’t be sacred.’
I really couldn’t see how masons from centuries ago could have stacked up and sealed layers of rocks without any cement or mud, but at the same time it sounded absurb that a rock would have text inside naturally. I would never have believed such a thing without seeing it with my own eyes, and decided to leave it a puzzle as it has been for centuries.
‘Let’s go see the stupa.’ He led us away. A white stupa sat on top of the hill, bright as new even though the prayer flags have faded and ripped. He started circling around the stupa in clockwise direction three times, chanting as he walked. I followed him and watched the idyllic surrounding, overcome with a surreal rush as if his chant had cleansed my soul and I was blending into the sky and the earth. He kowtowed to the stupa three times afterward and headed back to the monastery.
‘Is it hard taking care of such a big temple?’
‘People like us have the Budda in our heart, and this little bit of hardship is no big deal.’
‘Do you have any students to help you out?’
‘No. No one wants to be a lama nowadays. It’s too hard a living. The monastery used to own all the land on the hills, so we could sustain ourselves by farming. Now I only have a little bit of government subsidy, how can I feed any students?’
A young woman joined us as we approached the entrance. ‘This is my sister. She’s been helping me out with cooking and general errands for a year now.’ She nodded shyly at us, her tanned face and muscular built indicating she’s a typical country girl. We accepted his invitation for tea. His room is spacious and clean, but furnished with only a straw bed, some cooking utensil, a stove, and a small square table. He does leave the temple occasionally to visit relatives. A short 180km takes 6-7 hours on the bus, he counted his fingers and told us. His sister put out some cooked flour and walnut grown in the backyard, and started making us yak butter tea, a special treat for guests despite the meager means he lives on.
As we were leaving the monastery, two teenage boys carried an obviously drunk girl out. These are high school students picnicking here on a fieldtrip lead by their teachers. I heard screams coming from the corner adjacent to the entrance, and smelled the smoke of barbequed meat. My sister and I told boys walking into the temple with bottles of beer that this is not a place to party. The argument escalated and one of them raised his hand into a fist as his classmates pulled him away.
Yue Deng kindly told me not to worry and that they do it only once a year.
‘They are Naxis, but have no idea how to be a Naxi.’
I felt a mix of respect, frustration, and sadness while saying goodbye to Yue Deng. Looking at his tiny profile from the car window and the boys sitting across on the field, I thought that only Budda could protect this frail and kind man.