Temples

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Since this is a “holiday”* weekend in China, I took the opportunity to visit temples in a part of Beijing I rarely go to.

I’d had an excellent time in the morning’s yiquan class; we covered new material, including the use of the voice to generate power. We also did a bit of staff work. In the tui shou session, I tried to apply the ideas I was talking about before (generating power from the kua) and it seemed to work. I also tried to use more footwork – switching angles relative to my ‘opponent’; that also worked pretty well. I think I might finally be getting somewhere!

For the afternoon, I decided it was time to finally visit the White Cloud Temple, outside the old city walls to the southwest. It was a beautiful sunny day, and it took me perhaps forty minutes to cycle there. As I got close, the path became unclear, as I got caught up in a tangle of curving roads coming down from the second ring road, which at that point is elevated and not open to bicycles. This took me out of my way, and as I cycled back towards the Temple I spotted a pagoda rising on the skyline.

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At first I thought it was the White Cloud Temple, but it became clear that it had to be something else, not marked on my map. I decided to take a look.

It turned out to be the thousand-year old Tianning Temple. It’s small, in terms of area; there are few courtyards. In fact, there really isn’t much there at all, except the pagoda.

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I found that this actually added to its charm. Outside the gate were shady trees with locals passing the day chatting or playing chess beneath them. Inside, there were very few visitors, almost equal in number to the guards and assistants, who seemed to be a small community in themselves. Maybe it was the sunny weather, but the temple seemed to have a sleepy, unhurried charm – but unlike other, busier, temples that I’ve visited in China, it seemed to be loved by the people who cared for it. For example, it’s one of the few temples I’ve been to where the carers have taken the trouble to polish the bells:

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The pagoda is, of course, the focus.

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It’s beautiful and must have been even more so before it was damaged, presumable during the Cultural Revolution. There are guardian figures on each side, but almost all of them are very severely damaged, and some are completely destroyed.

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The people there were really friendly. As I walked around the pagoda, the security guard – who was stretched out full length in the shade – called me over. At first I thought there was a problem, but he just invited me to sit down on the temple steps and pass a little time. We chatted to each other for a while about the usual things, and then he took me over to the temple shop to chat to the ladies in the temple shop. After a while, I tore myself away, as I still wanted to get to the White Cloud Temple! I left with regret, though; I was charmed by this tiny little temple, dwarfed by the factory and smokestack next door, and yet seemingly happy and peaceful within its walls.

So, I moved on. The White Cloud Temple probably needs no introduction; it’s a famous Daoist Temple where TCM, qigong, and martial arts are still practiced. Frank Allen and Tina Zhang, for example, always take students there to study during their annual trip to Beijing.

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This temple seemed almost TARDIS-like – much bigger on the inside than it appeared from the outside! There are many small courtyards, most with one or more shrines to gods of the Daoist pantheon.

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There didn’t seem to be many areas that were closed to the public, and I walked past many buildings which were clearly living areas; some perhaps for the Daoist monks, and others for lay people, some of whom I suppose may be staying for treatment at the TCM clinic.

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Each small shrine had a monk attendant in charge. Most of these were reading, studying texts of one kind or another. One, however, was without any doubt practicing yiquan! I watched him for a while, thinking that perhaps he was just engaged in some other form of zhan zhuang, but after seeing how he was moving his weight, and the movements of his hands, I’m convinced that it was yiquan. I did actually ask him, but he didn’t acknowledge me.

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Soon afterwards, I took a while to sit down in a small garden, and watched a sparrow as he perched on a tap, while rival birds squabbled in the trees overhead. It was one of the few peaceful spots I found in this temple. Even on a quiet day like yesterday, there were lots of people passing around; the monks all seemed very business-like. Of the two temples, if I get a free day with good weather, I think I would be much more inclined to return to the Tianning Temple to doze in the shade, knowing that this temple is a real part of the neighbourhood community.

In any case, after that, I cycled up to the Drum and Bell bar at Houhai, for a couple of much-needed cold beers. On the way, I passed some things you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see…

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Sitting on the bar’s rooftop, I watched the flocks of pigeons circling, returning to their roosts on the roofs of hutong homes, and remembered how people apparently used to train them to fly into the imperial granaries, returning home with their crops full of grain…

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It was a good day, yesterday. Beijing is changing dramatically, but it’s still possible to feel a connection to the life of the city that stretches back to the Liao, and to Genghis Khan….

* I put “holiday” in quotes because in China, when a public holiday falls on a Thursday, Friday also becomes a ‘day off’. However, Friday’s work duties are moved to the following Sunday, which becomes a normal work day. Thus, we get three days off in a row, but the next working week becomes six days long. No doubt there is a logic to this, but it isn’t clear to me.

2 responses

  1. Emlyn says:

    The White Cloud Temple is mentioned in Eva Wong’s book, ‘Seven Taoist Masters’ (http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Taoist-Masters-Shambhala-Classics/dp/1590301765/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1243756078&sr=8-1)

    I was given a copy of this last year by H when she left for the UK the first time. According to this legend, the White Cloud Temple was originally a Buddhist Monastery, with Zen Master Bai Yun as Abbot. Bai Yun entered into a wager with the Daoist Master Ch’iu Ch’ang Ch’un. The Empress was pregnant; Bai Yun predicted a daughter; Ch’iu, a son. The Emperor witnessed the wager; if the child was indeed male, the monastery would be given to the Daoists. If not, Ch’iu would be beheaded.

    The child was born, and was a girl – a fact promptly reported to the Emperor by the midwife. Before he could be summoned for execution, Ch’iu conjured up a spirit, whom he commanded to change the baby’s gender. Then, when confronted by the Emperor, Ch’iu insisted that the baby be checked again – and, indeed, it was found to be male. Thus, the White Cloud Temple was handed over to the Daoists, and the Buddhist monks were dispersed. (Later in the story, a new monastery was built for them by Imperial Decree, so it all ended happily for everyone).

  2. […] an effective martial art. The monk is from the White Cloud Temple, in south-west Beijing, which I visited back in 2009  – and saw monks practising zhan zhuang. Right now, zhan zhuang and taijiquan (with qigong […]

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