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Saturday, March 06, 2004

There are two sides to every coin, and I suppose today that I have seen the other side of the yuan. Money has come to mean everything in China, and in this cold and harsh world, you either have it or you don't. Now one would expect there to be exceptions to this rule, and the first place in which I would expect to find an exception would be at the religious institutions upon which the country's populace has historically based their faith. Unfortunately, today my theory quickly faded as I was introduced to the crowning glory of Chengde's Eight outer Temples -- Puning Si. Seeing the Temple from a distance, it looked ancient, majestic, and breath taking. The buildings of the complex became larger and grander as my bus approached its final destination. As the bus came to a halt, I quickly exited the door and stood in amazement at this marvelous feat of architecture. Walking towards the temple, I was quickly approached by the normal group of merchants who set up shop outside of the temple. I had become used to this as every temple had its normal group of peddlers. I ignored there attempts to cajole me away from the complex and quickly found my way to the ticket office. Stepping up to the counter, I expected to pay the normal 20 yuan to get in as that is only two dollars, but this admission fee was a wapping forty yuan which seemed a little extreme, but I also realized that this was still an active Buddhist temple with Monks, and I figured that they were simply trying to support themselves. I paid the price and quickly made my way into the complex. It was as stunning as all the other temples which I had went into, and I was elated to see such beauty. As I wandered around, I quickly found the Bell Tower which was unguarded at the time. Hurrying up the narrow stares, I squeezed my way to the top. Oh how grand. There sat the largest bell that I had ever seen. Confounded by its size, I was also drawn to the enormous log which was used to strike the Bell. Feeling the urge, I quickly pulled back and slammed the log into the bell. A beautiful sound rang out across the temple and everyone stopped and listened to the tone in amazement. Soon, I was accompanied by several other visitors who were wanting to give it a try. By this time, I was feeling a little crowded, so I exited the bell tower just as the Monks were starting to make there way over. As I made my way onto the next level of buildings, I could hear the monks playing their instruments, and it was simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the smell of the incense as visitors and worshipers burned their offerings in huge pyers set up in front of the different sanctuaries. The scene was truly majestic and inspiring, but still there was something in the air which seemed to bother me. At the time, I was unsure what it was, but it did not take long for me to figure it out. As I entered the first of two side galleries, I expected to pay homage to the different Gods enshrined in the area, but as I approached, it was not the Gods which caught my eye, but all of the small statues and incense sticks which they were selling to the sides of the building for a small fortune. I was somewhat turned off, but once again, I figured that they were trying to make money to help support their congregation. I ignored the stands and simply looked at the religious shrines. There were some very unique pieces in several of the buildings which these monks had created. They brought to life the scenes on many of the old tapestries. The statues seemed almost cartoon like though, but I thought that it was a unique and modern take on the stories of Buddhism. I knew the scenes well as Bright had told me many of the tales on my last trip to a temple. I left that area, and approached, the main shrine. The Monks all played there instruments on the main stairwell as worshipers approached the Buddha. I was ready to take this route as well, until I saw a ten yuan fee and decided to forego the ordeal. It was not that I did not have the money, as it was extremely cheap, it was that they would charge someone in the temple to worship. At that moment, several of Bright's words came flooding back to me. She said that these were not real Monks. She said that they do not do this to honor Buddha, but they do it to make Money. She said that they would never be like the Monks in Tibet. They were simply slaves to the wage trying to earn a living instead of living for the knowledge that comes with sacrifice. I chose to enter the main shrine through the side gate. As I approached, it was simply stunning. The Buddha was aver 150 feet tall and carved out of five different woods. This Buddha was the incarnation of Guianyan the Goddess of Mercy. Hundreds of hands stretched out in every direction as this goddess looked as if she could calm the restless souls of millions of believers. As I approached the alter, I watched as visitors lined up for a chance to pray to the statue. It was an incredible scene, but one which was diminished as I continued to watch the people as they prayed. Looking at them as they worshiped, there form was all wrong. They prayed with there palms to the ground, and as they got up each time, they forgot to recite and perform the Om Ah Hong ritual of the prayer. I decided to let it slide, as I figured that they were probably just curious seekers searching for something greater. I approached the alter in absolute astonishment. The statue was an incredible sight, so in an effort to honor the local Buddhism customs, I did my prayer as I had been taught. On my way out, I was complimented by a Monk on my form. I left the area and progressed to the next layer of buildings. On my way there, I made sure that I spun all of the prayer wheels that I could. On the next level, I was greeted by a curious site which still continuous to confound me. A huge iron chain ran along the stares which had been carved into the rock. Attached to this chain were thousands upon thousands of Master Locks which were attached to each individual link. For a hefty price, you could by a lock yourself and perform this ritual. I once again decided to forgo the process. I decided to rest and sat on a rock as I watched visitors above paying homage to Buddha. It was a site to behold. From there posture, I could tell that these were real Buddhists. With there sticks of incense in hand, they stood and prayed in front of the large metal pyre then prayed to each of the four directional points moving in a clockwise direction. It was an interesting sight to behold. I eventually climbed up the stares and found my way to the top of the complex. It was beautiful, and I admired the entire area. After being there for several hours, I decided to leave. I attempted to exit from the way in which I came, but a guard pointed me in another direction, so I turned and followed the sign to what I thought would be an exit. At that time, I was taken to another part of the complex in which I was cajoled by aggressive peddlers who nearly forced me into there shops. After seeing there exorbitant prices, I simply turned and walked away to which I had more items thrust in my face. I simply shook my head only to be grabbed by the next store. At this point, I was ready to say please leave me the hell alone, but I kept my posture and simply ignored there gestures and attempts to grab my arms. After ignoring around forty different shopkeepers, I made it back to the street. I breathed a sigh of relief as I was not used to such aggressive tactics. I left there and went in search of one of the other temples that was located near by, but not being able to find it, I decided to climb to the top of a nearby Mountain to see if I could spot it from the top. As I made my way up the narrow and windy road, I quickly discovered that I was making my way into a graveyard. Curious, I continued to climb, and as I looked around me and through the tress, I could see large mounds of dirt in every direction. In front of the mounds were grave markers or small pyers in which the families could make offerings. On top of each mound was a stack of hand written prayers that were covered with a rock to keep them from blowing away. It was very beautiful, and I sat for a minute to reflect on the scene. As I rose, I scouted the scene below, but once again, I did not see the temple. I rushed down to the bottom and started my search again. I went further into the nearby village, and as I did, I found the shell of what used to be an old temple. It was surrounded by small little hobbles and stables. The homes were made out of great logs and reminded me of Americas early pioneer homes. I wondered around the complex down narrow and small dusty alleys where children were playing and grownup tended to there gardens. It was very serene. I wondered all throughout the villages and marveled at the stone roofs and the native architecture. The alleys where the homes were located were barley wide enough for two people to walk side by side. Many of the buildings were simply hobbles that looked as if a strong wind could knock them over. The scene was somewhat disheartening, but many of my students words came rushing back to me. A large number of my students were from small little villages that looked just like this one, and every single one of them said that it may not be much to look at, but for them, it was the perfect place because for them, it was home. As I walked down the street, I smiled and captured as many glances of the small village as I could. For me, the village became the embodiment of many of my students. Like them, it was struggling to come to terms with the realities of an ever-changing China, and I wanted to remember it as it was as my students now know it to be. For with the best of there intentions, my students will return, and like many before them, they will fashion it into whatever they want it to be. Leaving the village and returning to the bus stop, I was once again brought to the temple. Hurrying my way though another crowd of aggressive peddlers, I found the main street. As I looked down the alleyway, I began to see China through a multitude of gazes. Each lens showing a different picture. As I boarded the bus and started home, I saw a China as diverse as any nation on the Earth. There, at the corner, stood a temple rooted in the past with one hand in the moneyjar and the other on the shrine. Further down the street loomed the small village. Forgotten by the monks and passed over by development, it awaited its glass slipper. I guess the only question is how or when will it come? In their rush to accumulate the almighty yuan, will the Chinese forget about their fellow Chinamen? In a land where religion is practically dead and Communism is on the way out, will China follow all the other Capitalist whores? Will her countrymen be forsaken to the dollar at the expense of their community ties. With no larger religious institutions to catch the poor as they slip through the cracks, what will happen to the people if Communism falls? In some ways, the future of China seems bleak, but on the other side, I have seen the future of China. My students sit ready to proclaim themselves as the new leaders of their society. With a profound sense of place and an unparalleled dedication to their families and villages, I believe that they are the light in China's future. With this hope, I believe that China;s possibilities are wide open. The only thing left to do is to wait and watch.

Christopher

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