Asia | China | Yunnan Province | Lijiang – The meaning of budhism
Our inn keeper’s brother came to visit her today. As we were leaving for Baisha, a village 10km north of Lijiang, he told us,’Why don’t you go to my village, Longquang. It has a nice temple and it’s only 5km away.’ Either very unmotivated to go farther than we necessarily had to, or wanting some local opinion, we changed our destination as we stepped out of the door.
We climbed onto the back of a ‘hoppy car’, a 3-wheeled motorcycle often used in the countryside to haul just about everything and everyone. A 15 minute hoppy ride just about numbed my rear end, but alas, we were at the arched stone bridge leading into the village. The locals told us that the famous old town Lijiang was modeled after Baisha and Longquan, both dating back to over 1000 ago. Indeed, Longquan is like a little Lijiang untainted with commercialism, or perhaps the idyllic Lijiang that initially caught everyone’s fancy.
Standing on the bridge, I got a great view of the gray tile roofs alternating with grain drying racks stretching all the way to the hill behind the village. Ox wagons filled with dried grains roamed along the unpaved road at an unhurried pace. Longquan, or Dragon Spring in Chinese, is named after the spring at the end of hte village. Despite the switch of dynasties, the same creek has gurgled along the same street, feeding generations of natives with its pristine water for over a thousand years. We later heard that none of the families in the village has tap water, but who needs chemically treated water when they have a gift from the dragon king? A few women in modified Naxi clothes hovered over the creek and did their laundry under the shade of their own roofs. To ensure the clealiness of the creek, they are only allowed to do their washing between 9am and 5pm.
We found Longquan Temple through its backdoor. At least a hundred carps swam happily in a pond in front of the temple. It seemed like such a miracle because they’d be a dish on the dinner table elsewhere in China. A girl greeted us at the entrance of the temple. she grew up in the village, and had been a tour guide in Lijiang before retiring to the serene village to study the Dongba language. She told us that the original temple had been destroyed. The buildings we saw were remnants of the rebuilt version in the 50s. According to local Naxi folklores, a sacred dragon is the guardian of the spring and village and all the carps we saw in the pond were his offsprings. Because he lost an eye in a fight, all the fish have only one eye also, proven by those curious enough to look with a telescope. People have tried to breed these fish in other water sources, but never succeeded. In Naxi beliefs, whoever eats these fish would have bad karma, and the 3 people who once ate them were dead soon afer. That’s why the fish have been able to live in peace until recent years when some of the younger locals became less religious.
The spirit of the dragon seemed to have been killed with the loss of the temple, and most of the springs on the hill have either dried or been blocked due to negligence. The locals still visit the temple, but mostly to socialize than for religious reasons, she pointed to the stove and some barbecue supplies at the entrance.
When we were about to leave the village, we ran into Mr. Zhang, our inn keeper’s brother again. He was ecstatic to see us, and invited us to his place for visit. He walked briskly on the country road, raising his cane frequently as he got excited during the conversaiton. Lean and tanned, his cheeks were sunken and temples protruding, but his eyes were bright and speech clear. Showing us a chunk of yellow solid in his bag, he said, ‘I am Naxi by birth, but grew up in Deqin (near the Yunnan-Tibet border), and joined the military when they needed a Tibetan translator. After my service was over, the government assigned me to Longquan, where my ancestors were from, but my dietary habits are still Tibetan. I love yak butter tea, and my sister gets the yak butter for me in Lijiang, so I go there once in a while to fetch it.’
He lives in a typical farm house at the end of the village. As he fumbled around for the house key, we saw a stack of budhist text on a coffee table in the courtyard. ‘I’m a Tibetan budhist,’ He told us,’I’ve been studying it since I was young.’ He opened one book and started reading as we asked him. ‘The language is Hindu, but it’s translated phonetically into Tibetan, which I know better than Naxi and Chinese.’
‘Are there a lot of Tibetan budhists here in Longquan?’
‘Quite a few. We are all in the karmapa(white hat) section. It’s different from the Dalai (yellow hat) section.’
‘Didn’t karmapa escape to India last year?’ We had heard in the States that he left Tibet to prevent persecution by the Chinese government.
‘No no no!’ He shook his head and hands and explained eagerly, ‘He went to India to study for 3 years with the approval of the Beijing central government. There’s no report of him betraying the country. He’ll be back.’ He looked much calmer now that he has cleared the name of his beloved Karmapa.
He paused for a minute.
‘There are too many cult religions out there today, such as Fa Lun Gong. the government has beent rying to rid of them. Budhism is not like them, even though it’s mistaken by a lot of people as superstition. The monasteries are the most unpeaceful places now. Everyone is looking at money. They study the text, but have no clue what it means. The budhist texts are still true, but the skew-mouthed monks have skewed their meanings.’
‘What’s the meaning of budhism? It’s to become budda (achieve nirvana). If you have budhisattva’s thoughts and budhisattva’s action, then you can become budda. Of course it’s easier said than done. But the true essence of budhism is to be selfless and salvage all living things, not just humans. That’s the same thing as what the government calls ‘serving the people’, just broader in meaning. A lot of the communist party leaders are buddas because they have budhisattva’s thoughts and budhisattva’s action. There’s a Chinese communist called Kong Fan Sheng who was in charge of a Tibetan town in the 70s. He went out of his way to help the locals, and has his statue built and revered with the budda in the temple after his death.’
‘We are at a rough time. There are a lot of buddas among the poeple, but also a lot of devils.’
I wanted to grin listening to this new interpretation of budhism, but thought it really made sense in a way.
‘Did you pray everyday when you were in the military?’ We asked him.
‘No. Not there.’
‘Did you try to join the communist party?’
‘I did, but didn’t get approved because I had a complex history.’He had a look of regret on his face.
He insisted on walking us out of the village, and showed us the kindergarten that the senior citizens in the village have helped supporting. About 10 kids with red cheeks screamed to hug him, and smiled at us without a shred of shyness. I cracked up when they waved us goodbye in English. Lijiang has somehow redeemed its image as I saw its earthy and intelligent side.