April 27, 2010

CHINA: Teahouse and truths about life

. SHANGHAI, China / The Shanghai Daily / Living in Shanghai / April 27, 2010 By Wang Yong A piece of fallen wood is not dead. "String" it, and its life springs back in the form of music. I had heard the Buddhist expression ku mu feng chun (spring breezes life back into withered wood) in archaic Chinese literature, but never before had I understood melodies from a fallen piece of wood with strings as a living thing. I gained this enlightening perception of life in a trip last month to a Buddhist monastery in the wooded hills in Hangzhou, a bucolic city just about an hour from Shanghai by bullet train. Visitors relax at the Fuquan Teahouse and terrace on the grounds of Yongfu Monastery. Photo: Shanghai Daily My wife and I were taking a leisurely walk and appreciating the scenery, as we often do in Hangzhou, when we chanced upon a lecture on guqin music and Buddhism in the Pathaka Hall of Yongfu Monastery. It was almost dusk when we found ourselves in this graceful Buddhist music hall, where master Nian Shun happened to be playing guqin, a seven-stringed traditional instrument. The performance was part of a lecture to visiting scholars of Buddhism from Shanghai. Guqin has a history of more than 3,000 years; there is no comparable instrument in the West (the closest may be a zither). It came into vogue in Confucius' lifetime (551?479 BC), and has since become a musical carrier of Confucian values for its soft, solemn and soothing tunes. Confucius himself was a great guqin player and composer. Over time, with increased interaction between Confucian scholars, Buddhist monks and Taoist thinkers, guqin became a favorite of all. Master Nian Shun played two songs: "Gui Qu Lai Ci" ("Away From the Crowd") and "Jing Guan Yin" ("Observation in Peace"). The first is about retiring from the hustle and bustle of mundane politics into the quiet of farmland, while the second is about the merits of a tranquil mind. As master Nian Shun played, I marveled at how close Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism could be - you couldn't tell whether these two songs were actually Confucian, Buddhist or Taoist. They both produce peace in the hall and in the heart. At that moment, any distinction between "isms" would be meaningless. All that mattered was a sudden revelation that life in a different shape was still life. A piece of fallen wood, as master Nian Shun explained before his performance, was not dead. It could be turned into a guqin. Without the casual encounter with master Nian Shun, we might have taken Yongfu Monastery as another tranquil Buddhist temple where you normally would just bow, burn incense, pray and listen to Buddhist chants. In Yongfu, you bow, pray and listen - not just to chanting, but also to guqin music that transcends "isms" in its delivery of peace. A few days later, I told my guqin teacher in Shanghai that we had met a monk who plays guqin very well. She asked: "Was it master Nian Shun?" Surprised, I asked how she knew. She said he had invited her to perform in the monastery some time before. She praised him as both a master player and a master craftsman of guqin. Entranced, my wife and I visited Yongfu Monastery again on April 3. The music hall was closed that day and I felt a stab of loss in my heart. But then, imagine this - we found master Nian Shun in the Hall for Three Saints of the West. Many people were gathered there in prayer to celebrate the birth of Avalokiteshvara, a Buddha who is said to deliver people from misery. Was it luck or fate? Or was it rather guqin that brought us together twice in a fortnight? On spotting master Nian Shun in the crowd, my wife was delighted but hung back. I decided to strike up a conversation. "Are you master Nian Shun?" I approached and asked. "Yes," he said, beaming. "I listened to your guqin music on March 20," I continued, beaming back. "Really?" his smile became broader. "And my teacher said she knows you. She said you play very well." "Your teacher is?" "Qiao Shan." "Ah, she is really a guqin master. She is professional. How can I compare to her?" he said modestly, his ever-shier smile attesting to his sincere modesty. After a few more polite words our first brief conversation ended. As I tried to shake hands before parting, he folded his hands before his chest in the typical Buddhist gesture of farewell, and of greeting. I withdrew my hand, a bit embarrassed at my lack of knowledge about Buddhist rituals. He graciously overlooked my awkwardness, bidding me farewell with a delicate bow and beaming smile. Rituals, like "isms," are indeed secondary to a good soul, a soul searching for peace through understanding. I haven't learned to play "Gui Qu Lai Ci" or "Jing Guan Yin" yet, but it doesn't matter. As long as I understand the transformation of a fallen piece of wood, master Nian Shun would love to hear any guqin music flowing from my heart and that wonderful piece of wood. Certainly you don't have to be a guqin player to appreciate the beauty of 1,600-year-old Yongfu Monastery. Most first-time visitors are impressed by its garden-style landscape. The monastery is unlike most others in which buildings are strictly symmetrical and placed close together in a compact setting. In Yongfu, temples and other buildings are scattered about the scenery, like hermit poets. "It's more like prose," master Nian Shun said in his lecture last month. "People in different buildings do not disturb each other." Prose indeed. Prose on hills. One place in the "prose-monastery" one must visit is the Fuquan Teahouse on a hilltop near the Pathaka Hall ("Fuquan" means "spring of fortune" in Chinese). A large terrace, shaded by lush trees and overlooking mountains near and far, assures a cool and quiet place to relax on a weekend trip. As you sip tea in this beautiful tea garden and appreciate nature all around you, the trees, the birds, the flowers, bear in mind that these are not the only living things. Consider the stones beneath your feet, the soil itself and the fallen wooden branches and leaves. [rc] The newly opened Yangzhou Buddhist Culture Museum, so far China's biggest museum of its kind, is a combination of the magnificent Tianning and Chongning temples. Photo: Shanghai Daily Copyright © 2001-2010 Shanghai Daily Publishing House