I’ve been in China a week, but only just recently have really arrived. It started with the vegetarian banquet mentioned in the last post, reuniting with Li Dana, the head of Chinese Orff who I met over 20 years ago in 1995. Both of us white-haired now, her still with no English and me still with no Mandarin, but enjoying her character so much! Reminds me of some old Jewish women I know and there is definitely some interesting connection between the Chinese and the Jews— both with a history of business, a merchant class, both with strong family attachments and the custom of American Jews eating out on Christmas at Chinese restaurants. Though there were live human translators on hand, Li Dana and I had a hilarious moment speaking to each other through the translator on her smart phone. Who definitely did not always get the translation right.
From there, I went to a jazz club with a Chinese trio who played well. I thought I was going to get to sit in, but turns out it wasn’t on the schedule for that night. But still fun to get out into some night life, a cozy spot by a frozen lake and a hip young crowd that included a few Americans and Koreans.
Sunday was my tourism day with my good friend Cao Li, first to the Prince’s Palace and then to the Lama Temple. Finally out of the big-building downtown into the hutong neighborhoods and a bit more vibrant street life. Some beggars, bent-over wizened elders, folks praying with incense burning and on one hand, feeling uplifted by the feeling of being somewhere else. On the other, the feeling that while it may seem romantic to rekindle my childhood visions of the “Mysterious East,” should it make me happy to see women with bound feet, lepers or opium addicts? Must there be ducks hanging in windows and men bent over with bamboo poles over the shoulders carrying baskets and old men with pig tails and Fu Manchu mustaches? Is it okay that the new generation of Chinese are drinking coffee at Starbucks in the Mall checking their cell phones?
Well, not for me to say. But walking through the Lama Temple, with people praying with incense sticks held overhead, the temples with their meditation pillows reminiscent of my Mt. Baldy Zen Center times and the feeling of respite from the workaday world and stepping into a spiritual dimension was palpable. Without conscious intention, I found myself walking slowly through it all with hands-folded in walking meditation style.
And then we entered one temple with a two-story carved Buddha that stopped me dead in my tracks. It felt like one of the wonders of the world. Imagining the time and energy and devotion spent by the people carving such a masterpiece brought me one step deeper into the world of spirit. It was not the image of Buddha himself, not the sense that Buddha is God (he’s not in Buddhism) and was going to save me (he’s not, but he will encourage my efforts to clear the clouds of my own ignorance), simply the tangible presence in the air that the carvers felt, “This is what is important.”
So a taste of the Old China after all and it was marvelous.