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.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Longevity Mountain (11)—Carvings and Caverns

[a] Backlook  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 Eleven
Caves and Carvings

[b] Wild RL
I use my notebook to create a bridge to safety for a brown spider that has attached itself to the strap of my backpack. The little guy is in more danger from being crushed by the weight of notebooks, towels, and tea than I am from a well-positioned bite. It takes the ramp and is crawling on a leaf a few seconds later. It does make me think about the varieties of wildlife I see on the mountains. Here on the southern mountain—in the lush Hunan countryside—I would have expected to see much more. The beaten path, however, is not a place where species much larger than spiders and butterflies want to go. Salamanders will sometimes dart under rocks, and there is the occasional stretch in well-traveled areas with chickens and an odd goat, but that is the mark of domestication. I have often been amused at mountainside restaurant signs boasting of “wild” animal meat. The reality has long been that such wild things come in cages and pens.
[c] Steep  RL
My little spider is about as wild as the day has been, and I start up the path again. Carved out of the crumbling dirt of the slope, the moss-covered trees are the only thing securing the path to the ground, which looks as though it could tumble down the hill with a little bit of rain, like a children’s holiday train track on a shaky sofa. The path covers several steep sections here, and the turns are reminiscent of those on the blacktop road. A car could not handle this grade, however, and I am beginning to imagine that this might be a place where, had I been going up the mountain twenty centuries ago, I might well have to tether my horse for the rest of the climb.
[d] Natural  RL
Reaching the road again—it twists and turns—I come to my favorite rock on the entire mountain. It is nothing particularly special, but it struck me from my first hike here years ago that it was a kind of natural mini-altar, complete with weathered "map" and what looks (by chance) to be the outline of an ancient character form. It has a flat top, and is about half the size of a manufactured longevity mountain altar, where people worship, rest, and sell refreshments. Its natural "true form" character adjoins several pockets of moss, as well as a chip on the side. To my mind, it is to altars on Mt. Heng what the famous “flawed cup” of Japan is to teacups. It is natural perfection, flawed just enough to be supremely real and aesthetically perfect—the very definition of this mountain. It is a natural altar looking down and over the ridge. Its background over the centuries was dense forest, and today it is a stone path meeting a paved road.

The rock carvings on this stretch of path are formidable, and I take my time, wanting to savor each section of this beautiful mountain, all but forgotten by the buses, motorcycles, and cars that race up the road. There are temples and carvings and little places for rest that I have come to enjoy. This is my favorite stretch in the entire climb—from about 800-1000 meters. I will reach the South Heaven Gate by 4:00 p.m., and there will be plenty of time to gain the summit from there. 

Gaining the summit.
[d] Daylight  RL
The phrase makes me smile as I stand on the stone path and admire stone carved by poets many centuries ago. To be sure, the logistics are different from what they might be on K2, where the right timing for gaining the summit can mean the difference between life and death. The stakes are a good deal lower on pilgrimage mountains, but their cultural equivalents are worthy of consideration. Having enough daylight truly to enjoy—and ponder—the mountains is as important to the cultural historian as the mountain climber, and it takes both planning and experience to know how to appreciate a “whole mountain” perspective in the limited hours of daylight. It is a stroke of luck, calendar, and cosmology that the mountain taking the longest time to hike—the horizontal and the vertical—is the mountain of the summer season, and that I am climbing it within a week of the summer solstice. I have milked daylight effectively thus far, and have given myself an hour or more to examine the caves and rock carvings on the way to the South Heaven Gate.

If this area could hardly be called a poetry forest, I still like to think of it as at least a thicket of verse. The first text is carved into a boulder the size of a small kitchen, and reading it requires a little bit more perspective than the path can provide. I step to the edge of the stone on the path and, keeping one foot steady, feel around behind me for secure footing on the other side. As often as not, there is nothing much to feel but cliff—or at least ridge. In many cases, overgrowth gives the appearance of extra room, the way one might imagine solid ground when stepping onto a thick canopy of maple leaves.
[e] Nanmomituofo  RL
Hard rock eases in a few meters of brush to utter void…and drop. I do not plan to make history by being a headline in a Hunan newspaper (Foreigner Falls to Death Reading Rock Calligraphy). I decide to do my best with the solid structure I have under me and barely miss the wide-angle picture that would not have eluded me had I stepped another foot back. The text is long and wide, and I err on the other side of avoiding the evening news.

Right next to that small-font text, on the same boulder, is a phrase that needs no particular perspective. I would want to say that it is shouting, but for the larger context. No single translation can possibly do justice to the ideas on the big rock, but I like to think of it along these lines.

          Glory and peace in the calming Pureland Buddha

[e] Compassion  RL
Around a corner, and still on the flats of this area, I see on my left a weathered and moss covered set of characters, the uppermost of which seems to be growing into a cloud of green furze. It is the 大慈洞, Great Compassion Cave, and it is an intriguing spot. There are no vendors, no temples—no structures of any kind, except for a literal hole in the wall of rock. In the summer heat its mossy exterior gives just enough moisture and “soil” to encourage the growth of grasses right out of its side, like turf on a tailback's helmet after being tackled on a wet field. Shrouding it in green are ferns, vines, and dripping branches hanging to prevent even a hint of its location—save for the stone path making a right angle to it from across the trail. It is not much of a secret; the true secrets of the mountain will have to await more forest and just a little bit less trail.

The humid rock betrays real moisture within, and I make out a small altar and red ribbons in the wet darkness. Long-spent incense sticks jut out of the rock in the center that looks like a cork about a third of the way out of a bottle. I am heartened as I look to the very back walls to see that the rock seems to be of the same kind as the natural stone altar rock just down the ridge. In the front is a humped tangle of incense sticks, wrappers, and ashes. It is the size and shape of a new grave—about six feet long and three wide—and it crosses my mind that it might be… No, it couldn’t be. Could it?

Staring at a large stick that would work well for digging potatoes, I hesitate. At length, I decide to leave this gravest of questions to a different kind of anthropologist, noting instead the way that humanity—most likely living humanity—has shaped all of these various just-off-the-trail sites. I take my leave of the Great Compassion Cave and its inhabitants, and continue on my way.
[g] Onward  RL
Longevity Mountain 5          Longevity Mountain 6          Longevity Mountain 7          Longevity Mountain 8

Up to South Heaven Gate
Just short of the South Heaven Gate—something of a checkpoint signaling another hour or so to go to the peak—I have along conversation with a vendor about stone, writing, and culture.

1 comment:

  1. This is very interesting Round and Square although thought to be opposites Square with time becomes Round through errosion and wearing from wind and the other elements so there really isnt much difference between Round and Square in laws of nature According to me anyway I will follow this for the next few months to see where it goes