From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Longevity Mountain (4)—Always the Southern Entrance

[a] Temple view  RL
During the last two weeks of July and into early August I will be posting segments from my project dealing with five Chinese mountains that are often referred to as "the sacred mountains of China." They represent each of the "five directions" found in early Chinese thought (think of the ones you know and then add the middle as the fifth); they have figured prominently in Chinese political culture, travel, and religion for 3,000 years. I have spent almost 400 days on the mountains, and am working on a series of books that detail the mountains and their "home" areas. Mountains were said to connect earth (thought to be "square") with heaven (thought to be "round"). The entire project is called—this may or may not surprise you—Round and Square.

One volume is planned for each mountain, beginning with the southern peak, Mt. Heng, in Hunan province. The reasoning behind this choice of a starting place took me months to develop, but suffice it to say that these books will take the reader up and down each of the five sacred (sometimes called "Daoist") mountains and around the lunar calendar in an exploration of Chinese life and culture. As an introduction to the series, I have included an introduction that is based on a recent book proposal and a full "sample" table of contents. These are followed by nine "scenes" from Longevity Mountain that are meant to give readers a sense of the project as a whole. Photographs used in this series were taken during my travels, unless otherwise indicated. My photos are marked "RL."

Scene Four
Always the Southern Entrance

It is mid-afternoon. I unpack quickly and cross the street to the Southern Peak Temple. I purchase my ticket and—as a result of years of practice and attention to cosmological ordering—walk straight “back” the front. Like all of the great mountain temples, the Southern Peak Temple is built on an axis line with the mountain itself. The first gate is “in town,” and the temple's exit opens onto the mountain—the 北後門, Rear North Gate. The practical problem with the Southern Peak Temple is that almost everyone enters it “from the back.” 

          Practicality 1 Cosmology 0. 

[b] Gates
The mountain faces south, and that little cosmological “fact” will not go away. According to millennia of interpretations, mountains face south (like a great god on a throne, looking down on the city) and open to the north for the incense-bearing traveler. The serious pilgrim should never walk into the temple and then walk away from the mountain; it goes against all cosmological sense. Yet that is what well over ninety percent of pilgrims do at the Southern Peak Temple. The mountain begins its upward trajectory right across the street, and all transportation is geared toward bringing pilgrims to the “efficient” location between the temple's rear gate and the mountain's entrance. 

I am determined to follow the path, the Way, of both temple and mountain, so although I buy my ticket "at the back," I walk all of the way around the sizable grounds—through alleys selling incense, firecrackers, and beverages—go to “the other” gate, and give my ticket (now a little moist from the afternoon heat) to the attendant. I begin my trip, in proper and perhaps somewhat pedantic fashion, at the 櫺星門 Lattice Star Gate. I will do it “right,” even if no one seems to care anymore, except a few living historians and Dong Zhongshu (179-104 BCE), rolling in his tomb several hundred kilometers north of here.

The Lattice Star Gate opens onto a quiet transition from the street. Relatively few people enter here and the architectural organization of the temple, in any case, creates a calming effect, as it is meant to do. It is structured to begin slowly, in ways that invite contemplation before the frenzied religiosity to come many steps from here. Facing north, I see ponds, pavilions, cedars marked with special designations for their age, a shrouded glimpse of a large cluster of buildings in the distance, and barely tamed summer vegetation all around me. To my right is a quiet pool of green water surrounded by faux marble railings and willow trees. A small set of steps lead to the thick, green water highlighted by darting lines of goldfish orange. To my left is an identical pool in terms of structure, but my friend Marcel Granet would find it completely different. Few people even look at the other pond, yet this one bustles with social activity, gathering, and movement. There are fish in bowls, birds in cages, turtles in low-brimmed plastic containers and attendants on duty to help you release them—for a fee.
[c] Pool  RL
This is the 放生池, “Release Life Pool,” and the idea—pervasive in Buddhist temples—is that life is released from bondage by another life. This is not, properly speaking, a Buddhist mountain, yet it feels like one, and that says everything about this place. As for the wildlife, that is another question. How it is “caught” in the first place is a matter that might be too cynical for the doctrine of the pool. I have my suspicions that the little turtle for which I might pay will be snatched right back for the next pilgrim. I stifle such thoughts, at least for the moment.

Metaphysical catch and release. The sign says:
Releasing Life—A Public Spirit Without Compare
What is releasing life? It is giving living things a chance, and also giving yourself a chance. Releasing ten thousand lives [verbs] the eight difficulties; releasing fifty thousand, avoids….; releasing a hundred thousand, and happiness and a “round” life is attained. Releasing a million, and things change; releasing several million, and the circle returns, everlastingly unbroken. Hurry, hurry and release life—fish, shrimp, turtles, birds, and so forth. All can be given release.

Yesterday’s release of life today will bring good luck and positive karma.
Releasing life is saving life.
Releasing life is extinguishing disaster.
Releasing life is gaining longevity.
Releasing life is a kind of responsibility.
Releasing life is fortunate and good.
Releasing life is compassionate and caring.
[d] Rubbing

Walking straight ahead, I encounter a distinctive edifice in the very center of the path—the 奎星閤, the Kui Star Pavilion. The building is raised about seven feet from the ground, and the narrowed temple path reaches an intersection in its center. Here, the paths cross under the building in a perfect directional schema. Due north, south, east, and west. Perfect. People walk about in each direction, rubbing with their bare hands the red, varnished beams just above their heads. They also rub the rough stone on the walls, specifically the objects that have a round and square appearance. I ask several people what they are doing, in my continuing fieldwork style of asking the “same” question over and over to many people. If the question is important—as this one is—I ask it hundreds, maybe thousands, of times.

—Why are you rubbing the beams and stone?

Some answer forthrightly—“It is called “rubbing money” (moqian); it gives me luck.” Others say almost the same thing, but couch it with various levels of embarrassment—“It is old culture” or “It’s a little bit superstitious.” The beam rubbing, called hongyun dangtou, is related to the money rubbing. Rubbing and magic; this theme is persistent. It is a kind of tactile religiosity that never goes away, and is also a great deal more prevalent in the West (think of beads and charms and ritual) than most people realize.
***  ***
There are two more elements to this architectural mix of luck, cosmology, and literary reference. To the left and right are small buildings with large objects, and the point is to take a physical, tactile, and economic responsibility for attracting fortune. To the left, I enter the drumming pavilion, give the attendant five yuan, and get two large drumsticks covered with red cloth tassels. I bang the drum slowly, then build to a crescendo. I quietly hand the sticks back to the attendant, who has been sitting impassively, reading a newspaper. She looks up and says, “most people drum longer.”
[e] Sounding  RL
Across the way, walking under the 正南門, Precise South Gate, and rubbing both beams and “money” as I proceed, I come to the other building, which contains a great green iron bell and a log suspended by ropes for sounding it. The end of the log is frayed from contact with the bell.

          Five yuan per person
I am told that I must sound the bell six times. I do so, six times in succession, each time letting the echo fade before swinging the log hard, back into the metal. Each strike carries a different meaning.
          Spiritual Compassion Vast and Unending
          Virtue Swamping Multitudes of Life
          ——Strike the Bell of Auspicious Luck Successful Dreams Will Come ‘round
           One life of peace and calm, ten thousand of auspicious luck
           Two dragons play the pearl, a famous name will be attained early
           Three stars shine on high, wealth and fame, health and peacefulness
           Four season bring wealth, the hundred occupations rise brightly
           Five lucks enter the gate, the heart reflects work completed
           Six roads are great and smooth, wealth and longevity unfurl like a brocade.
It is not lost upon me that the rubbing, drumming, and sounding are profoundly social activities for most visitors, who arrive in groups and share the experience. I feel the oddness of sounding the bell alone, but it is equally true that such “magical” practices—especially log and money rubbing—are personal, individual. The quest for fortune is a complex blend of solitary and social. I think about this, and suspect that the issue will follow me up and down all five mountains.
[f] Pathway  RL
Longevity Mountain 5          Longevity Mountain 6          Longevity Mountain 7          Longevity Mountain 8

Furnace Talk
Pilgrims concentrate in the heart of the temple—the burning furnaces where incense sticks, "hell money," and firecrackers go. It is a place of religious intensity, confusion, and a little discussion.

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