The Scholar’s Stone: Miniature Worlds

 

scholars rock from met collection

山形靈璧石  (Rock in the Form of a Fantastic Mountain) Qing dynasty (1644–1911)

We saw “Museum of Stones” at NY’s Noguchi Museum, a vast survey of elements, mass, earth, flights of cosmic abstraction — weirdly, since solid rock seems at odds with airy thinking. Not so. Not to Noguchi, seminal modernist sculptor, not for the collectors of scholar’s stones, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. Where “rock and water rub up against each other, in a river gorge, along a coast…Rock is the sculptor and water is the material. Expand the timeline a bit, however, and the relationship reverses; water becomes the sculptor and rock the material” (said the exhibition catalog).

The traditional Chinese veneration of these pocked rocks always mystified me, at temples, palaces, gardens (below, Shanghai’s famed classical Yu Garden, Yuyuan). Hollowed-out, craggy — unlike Kyoto’s smooth rock and sand gardens, these stones are furrowed, wrinkled, honeycombed, twisting. What I found ugly is exactly why they’re valuable. Only now do I understand why.

China’s literati collected Scholars’ Stones, gongshi (gong=spirit; shi=rock) for thousands of years. First in gardens; then Taoist monks wanted them inside for meditation and inspiration, small enough to put in their studies. They loved those that resembled mythical creatures, actual beings, or “the magical peaks and subterranean paradises (grotto-heavens) believed to be inhabited by the immortals,” the Met explains. The immortals — the many gods of the Taoist pantheon — live in the holes. Stones may also resemble earthly islands, caves, mountain landscapes. They appear in so many classical paintings, and millennia ago, in Tang dynasty (618-907) poems.

 

I should add that some got drilled, improved a bit, to evoke more. They’re “Rorschach blots in three dimensions,” a Times critic wrote. “In the blink of an eye they move from abstract to representational, conjuring a great deal of Western sculpture as they go…. One thinks of Rodin, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Dubuffet, de Kooning … Michaelangelo.”

The best are perforated, full of emptiness, “worlds within worlds” (as the Asia Society titled a past scholar’s stone exhibition). In them you find creation, time, nature’s forces. The underlying concept emerges from Taoism. Pu — ‘the uncarved block,’ i.e. the power of the thing in its simple, natural state. These are thing and metaphor at once. As Artist John Mendelsohn wrote about scholar’s stones, “Nature made art in its own image, an eccentrically evocative fractal of itself… for tabletop contemplation of the universe.”

 

 

 

scholars stone noguchi museum.jpg

Now I get it. Stones. Battle (David and Goliath). Danger (Scylla and Charybdis). The grab at eternity — how our tomb stones and memorials, as the catalog says, “try to deny the insignificance of a biological lifespan on a geologic timescale.”

scholars stone reclining figure

 

“The last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone”

The Old Town that got renamed Shangri-La (& maybe it was), aka Zhongdian, ha burned down. In Yunnan, on the old Tea Horse Road. An electrical fire. Water was shut off– it’s at a frozen 10,000 feet and the BBC reported the town fathers were concerned about burst pipes. (Really?) We visited in Jan., 2012, the empty, frigid winter off-season. Chinese & foreign implants–passionate preservationists– were responsible for restoring this Tibetan treasure, worn down nearly to rubble, finishing in the’00s, explains Paul Mooney (2010, South China Morning Post.)

fire2

And now — ashes. First I heard zongdian11/4 burned; now that most is gone.

I’m so sad.Here are my boys,two years ago, in the Old Town.

A Bengali expat, ecotourism specialist whom Mooney quotes: “How many old towns on the way to Lhasa are still intact? If we don’t save this, the last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone.”

zongdian door

Like most tourists,we came from Lijiang and Dali  — (we blogged about highway and power grid development, how suspect and demeaning our yearning for “Old” felt, finally, although we treasured meeting legendary herbalist Dr. Ho). But I came to this blog to remember Zhongdian–and it wasn’t here. So here it is.

Was.

Some pictures below are the massive Ganden Sumtsaling monastery there — but not in the fire’s path, that I know of.

zongdian women
This is part of the old Kham. These Khampa women were finishing a morning visit to a temple above the Old Town.

zongidan monastery
The Ganden Sumtsaling monastery, which looks a bit like a miniature Potala.

zongdian monatery middledistance
The monastery, Qing era, being restored now for tourism – huge Chinese cranes on the horizon.

zongdian2

zongdian ethanzongdian monast curtains

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

(Some) Coplans (Soon) in China

QingdaoNightThis is Qingdao at night. Beer lovers, yes: Tsingtao. It was once controlled for a few years (was a “concession”) by Germans. It’s on the ocean, about between Shanghai and Beijing, in the prosperous province of Shandong. The air is good, for China.

In our 10 months back in the U.S., we felt a bit guilty calling this blog Coplans IN China. But now (visas in hand as of an hour ago) we can safety say half of our family is returning to China  for a bit more than a month (in July). Kenny and I will be living in Qingdao at China University of Petroleum (CUP) .

I will teach business students international communications. Kenny, my young translator, will be kindly provided with a Mandarin tutor, and he also hopes to improve his ping pong and pick-up basketball.

He also wants to do week-end visits to cities we missed: Hangzhou and Nanjing (and possibly also Suzhou; our visit was so brief it almost wasn’t).

Other goals: Reconnecting & reaffirming bonds with friends and colleagues, especially while passing through Beijing, to set up the basis for future collaborative teaching. And (for Kenny) to — during the last 5ish days — get to Wudang Shan, the holy mountain most powerfully pulling on him, where we never made it.

More news when we’ve got it.

Meanwhile here is a picture of Kenny last year this time, giving a farewell speech, in Mandarin, to my students at a reception organized by my then-supervisor who runs the MA program in communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, the wonderful Qiao Mu.

MVI_8229

An American Boy in China (watch video)

Adventures of a third grader in Beijing for a year. All about having fun in China, the land and its geography, history and politics, and visiting China’s different regions and peoples. Do shadow puppetry, ride a camel in the Gobi, make dumplings on a farm, and cheer for the Guoan (World Peace) soccer team.

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.

Lower E. Side Jewish/Chinese


My Jewish ancestors started in America on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Now it’s Chinese.

Kenny heard no Mandarin on the street during our day there, but “heavy Southern accents”–Fujianese, as NYC is home to many from Fujian province, down the coast by Taiwan. Yet we saw two Lanzhou beef noodle places, a dish from China’s west (yet loved everywhere) — flavored with 20 spices, including cinnamon.

My great-grandpa had a candy pushcart here (my father’s side were in nearby Williamsburg). We easily found 5 old schuls. Glorious highlight: the Eldridge Street Synagogue, 1852, an exquisitely restored gem, reopened 2007.

Outside the synagogue, it’s reasonably priced Chinese food, Buddhist temples, and grocers selling 2-foot long beans, plus rambutans and lychees. For the half century the Eldgridge synagogue was locked and disintegrating, nothing was stolen, the docent said. Good relations. Next year we want to come for “Egg Creams & Egg Rolls,” a street fair celebrating Jewish-Chinese community friendship.

It’s also very Puerto Rican, Hispanic, on the LES, and (this being NYC) other ethnicities, too.

Hipsters among them. (I guess I’m guilty of being a predecessor; like many 20somethings, I hung out at Max Fish on Ludlow St. in the early-’90s. And I lived briefly on a heroin-infested Suffolk St. midway thru Brown.)

Around 1973, mom took me here for great prices on blouses, suits & sweaters (she also shopped for upholstery, drapes), from the last Orchard Street garmentos. We got my brother’s tallis here. Now dumpling makers (pork & leek) sell to students from Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School, while an African American monk lights incense at the Buddhist Association, an active temple.

Eldridge has a proper museum on the ground floor, with these old neighborhood signs.

We also found these synagogues:
[1] the old Norfolk St. Synagogue/Ansche Chesed, 1849, now Angel Orensanz Cultural Foundation, a performance space thanks to a wowwing Spanish sculptor;

[2] Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, sad-looking all boarded up and overgrown with weeds, though preservationists are trying to raise funds;

[3] on Broome St., Kehilat Kadosha Janina, the only Greek (Romaniote) schul in the Western hemisphere, open sometimes;

[4] one we weren’t even looking for, Chasam Sofer, the longest continuously operating synagogue, built by Polish Jews in the 1940s.

In China, we often lamented the loss of culture to modernization, the Cultural Revolution. Our own material heritage is disappearing, here. You can see Streit’s Matzoh, but go quickly. Schapiro’s Wine closed only a few years ago.

And this isn’t on the preservationists’ list, just background. Soon it will be gone.

Doorway diagonally across from Streit’s Matzoh.