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.

JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Tibetan Buddhism (Ate My Children)

I should’ve seen it coming. Kenny’s pre-teen rebellion, Ethan’s inherent spirituality, the human draw of the novel, colorful, mysterious. The children are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism. They began praying, behind my back, at temples during our trip to southwestern China (Chengdu, Sichuan and Eastern Tibet, Kham in the Garze Autonomous Prefecture). While I wasn’t looking, they got our guide Tenpa to teach them the motions.

I allow it. It’s all one god, Adonay or Avalokiteshvara (1,000-armed manifestation of the future Buddha). Getting them to stay seated in Beijing’s lovely synogogue, or to do Hebrew homeschool with me (though they finally do), is harder.

Trek past stupas, Kham (E. Tibet)

Tenpa, our 28-year-old guide/driver, drove to patriotic Tibetan rap. Tenpa walked to Lhasa and over the Himalayas to Nepal at 15, in 2 pairs of crappy shoes. It took 55 days to escape China, to attend school. Tibetan-area schools (as throughout rural China) are terrible, and China won’t grant passports or he would’ve flown. He slept in one blanket and a plastic sheet. His group of a dozen, with guide, walked at night to avoid being shot or arrested. His friend lost all his toes.

Once in Nepal, UNHCR and Tibetan government-in-exile flew them to Dharmasala. He stayed 7 years and (atypically) returned to China, to see his dying father. Parents who send their kids out for education are subject to Chinese punishment.


Up above 12,000 feet in the Tibetan grasslands, brown now in winter, we were surrounded by yaks and wild horses. Thousands of prayer flags flapped beside mani stones on roadsides. Every moment unveiled robed monks, tradtionally dressed herders in fur wraps, old women prostrating on the road on 1,000-mile pilgrimages, kids making murmuring rounds of the many sets of prayer wheels at surprisingly big monasteries in tiny villages. At the legendary (cold, oxygen-deprived) top of the world, first you marvel that anyone can survive. Then you try to digest the decorative, and natural, beauty.

Below this paragraph, what looks like several buildings, is an important monastery in Tagong, built to honor the 7th century King Songtsen Gampo, whose conquests created a Tibetan empire on the high plateau (and nearby parts of China and India), spreading Buddhism with conquest. (It didn’t, as I’d naively imagined, simply flow naturally from here like water downhill.) I believe Songsten married a Chinese princess. Mongol rulers loved and patronized lamas. Tibetan Buddhism ‘ate’ China’s ancient dynasties, too, serving as their spiritual leaders, until the 20th century.

Tibetan Buddhism: Born in splendid geographic isolation. Nurtured by sophisticated monastic education at large universities. Gifted with astonishing aesthetics. Now led by a man with rock-star charisma and Nobel-prize winning politics of nonviolent resistance.

Lower down (around 9,000′) in Kham, homes clung almost to cliffsides and terraces (walnut orchards, at the home where we stayed) were so steep, only ladders could connect them.

When we got to China last August, one of my first thoughts–seeing Beijing’s masses, the power-crazed immensity of the Forbidden City and Great Wall, the grim determination of the sharp-elbowed old ladies forcing their way through packed subways, likely survivors of horrors I can’t imagine–the thought was, ‘There is no hope for Tibet.’ The boys’ beloved nanny for about 6 years in Brooklyn is Tibetan, from a Kathmandu refugee community, educated (like Tenpa) in Dharmasala, her father one of the 80,000 or so who escaped over the Himalayas, on foot, in the years after Chinese annexation, from 1959 through the ’70s. She has a distant cousin in Garze, where we were, a Khampa. The Kham accent, clothing, and other cultural aspects, are slightly different. Once there were three kingdoms, then three historic areas. Today there’s a jigsaw puzzle of designations, but of course, it’s all Tibet.

The Tibetan diaspora has more of almost everything than the Khampas: Education. Money. Medical care (traditional and modern). Freedom. But they face language and culture loss. In these more remote Chinese Tibetan areas–far from Lhasa (Lhasa is now only minority Tibetan, resettled by Chinese using the highway and rail line)–education levels are “some of the lowest in the world” … but they still live, while enduring repression and hardship, Tibetan lives. The herders are some of the last nomads on earth.

The reasons Westerners love Tibetans, in their (I’m sorry) exquisite victimhood, are compelling and familiar. The Dalai Lama is our era’s Dr. King, our Gandhi, our precious sane voice of compassionate interfaith understanding. (“One religion obviously cannot satisfy all of humanity… therefore the only sensible thing is that all different religions work together and live harmoniously, helping one another.” The Power of Compassion by the Dalai Lama.) But these intellectual, political, and (yes) ‘radical chic’ elements, and the anti-China sentiment embodied in much Tibet-love, are all absent in my innocent kids.

Tibetan Buddhism: Vajrayana, “diamond” –- precious, changeless, pure, clear, able to cut anything without being be cut. It’s part Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion (magic, shamanism, nature worship); part Tantrism (Indian metaphysics of ‘interwovenness,’ that mystical Oneness of all things). It involves the senses: visual (intricate, symbolic mandalas); muscular (the hand gestures, the moving of prostration and wheel spinning); verbal (sacred syllables, Om Mani Padme Hum).

Do they get that? We’ve talked about it a little but… no. They simply loved, without complication, and were moved to pray, in the mountains and under the blueness.

Kenny suffered, on our second night at altitude, a serious form of illness called high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), a potentially fatal condition, especially among climbers marooned way up high (who deny the symptoms, so invested are they in the climb). But I recognized it quickly–thanks to printouts from the Everest Base Camp Clinic I had, and we had Tenpa and his SUV to race us down to a Chinese county hospital, in time. With rapid descent, and oxygen, and the car (always a lynchpin in the whole Tibet plan, for safety), he was fine. The edema was mild, caught early. (Our Beijing doc pronounced his lungs unharmed.) So the children were not really eaten. But I was provoked, profoundly, to consider the draw of the place for me, and for them, and for all of us.

The trip was so intense that I am, for the moment, going to leave it at that.

Kenny

Next post: “Green energy” hydropower development desecrating Eastern Tibet.