Chinese Pilgrimage Leads to Temple in Sky

I was abducted last year. It wasn't your typical crime, for the kidnappers were three elderly Buddhist pilgrims and I was their more-than-willing victim.

These tiny women had been able to seize me, a gawking six-foot westerner, perhaps because of my initial shock at having arrived at a functioning religious centre. Before my visit, I'd conceived of China as a repressive Communist state, a place where grey-clad party cadres repressed the slightest echo of faith. Religion, after all, was the opiate of the masses, was it not?

Yet there I sat, in a bus in the middle of Qingyang county in Anhui province, surrounded by steadfast pilgrims. Anhui is the poorest of China's eastern provinces. It showed. We rolled past dogs, bikes, and tin-roofed shacks, all framed against garbage-strewn red earth. Rice paddies stretched for kilometres, irrigated fields blending with the ubiquitous blue construction trucks that haul cement bags and stones, the building blocks of the new China.

On the bus, honks signified blind corners and passing cars; we plowed through tire-high streams and an endless number of potholes. The bus was crammed; I was near the front and the three pilgrims were on a bench seat at the back. We headed for Jiuhua Shan, one of China's four holy Buddhist peaks, and arrived at nightfall at the base of what Tang dynasty poet Li Bai called the Mountain of the Nine Lotuses.

I checked in with the local Public Security Bureau to alert the authorities of my presence in the region. I then shared a meal with the three women from the bus. We ate spicy tofu and rice, and the eldest ensured I was given a warm bed at a fair price. At 6:45 the next morning, I awoke to pounding on my bedroom door. I rose and went outside, only to be ushered back into my room, my adopted grandmothers gesturing at me to pack my bag. In minutes I was hiking in the rain, a thin drizzle that covered the 99 peaks of the mountain.

Sacred mountains in China are beaded by stone steps, massive slate blocks marking the route of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. As I mounted the first of the smooth grey steps, a fog set in, melding with the billows of incense that rose from iron beacons at the trail's sides.

BEGINNING IN 1953, religious practice in China was subjected to official scrutiny and surveillance through the Party's Religious Affairs Bureau. The bureau extended its reach across all levels of government and used its network to monitor religious affairs and track the finances of various religious groups. This surveillance system has spread into the daily lives of the Chinese faithful, from rural temples to cities, and is more apparent in some places--such as the highly politicized Tibetan Autonomous Region--than others.

At Jiuhua Shan, as far as I could tell, the path to the peak was clear of spies. Instead, baseball-capped members of tour groups, each identified by a colour--red or green or orange--crammed the stone steps. Between snapshots, the three women led me up the mountain, pausing at different prayer stations to offer incense or prostrate themselves before tiny stone shrines.

During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, many religious sites in China were destroyed because they were considered examples of counterrevolutionary traditions. Now, the party denounces those actions and state law protects religious buildings. This policy did not appear to have affected many of Jiuhua Shan's monuments, as their wind- and rain-blasted sides appear to have been chiselled by nature alone.

We soon reached the first temple. The staircase to the arch-roofed building was adorned with padlocks, all rusting and chained to its sides. Bald monks circumambulated the main prayer hall. The three women ushered me inside the main temple, where I was escorted through a crowd and brought before a huge statue of the Buddha. My companions spoke to some of the monks, and I waited as they handed over 10- and 20-yuan notes. A red-robed priest made his way down the padlocked staircase, shielded from the rain by a bright red umbrella. We trailed behind him up the mountain.

Along the route, vendors in tiny stalls sold incense and prayer beads. Porters carried loads of Coke bottles, vegetables, rice, rocks, and cement on bamboo poles as a cable car high above ferried wealthy pilgrims. Some of these porters chanted the Pure Land mantra as they climbed: "Amituofo, Amituofo." Along with vegetables and cement, they hauled up middle-aged tourists like suit-clad emperors on coolie-type seats.

The proliferation of such tourists, myself included, reflects a trend throughout China. Although many areas in the country seem to have undergone an authentic resurgence of religious tradition, many activities are commissioned for the benefit of tourists. Instead of burgeoning temples and fluttering prayer flags, some areas are characterized by international tourists, costumed monks, and staged chants. Professionalized songs and dances illustrate China as a multi-ethnic state.

Jiuhua Shan seemed to contradict this trend; it was clearly a functioning religious centre, with practising monks and hundred-year-old monasteries. We soon reached one such monastery, a crumbling yellow-walled building. A tiny 17-year-old monk welcomed us. I sat in silence as my companions listened to the abbot speak, and though I couldn't understand his words, his intonation held me spellbound.

Eventually I was led into the main prayer hall, where I discovered I was to participate in one of the monastery's rituals. As the monks chanted, we bowed and offered incense. I learned the prayer of benevolence, the mantra of Amitabha Buddha that I first heard from the porters: "Amituofo." The room was filled with smiles, no doubt bemusement with the blond Lao Wei's participation.

The inside of the monastery was barren. The shorn teenage monks shared rooms that were decorated with a few hand-drawn geometric designs and faded pictures on the walls. Beds were like hospital cots, though I was given a bright, hand-stitched red and yellow quilt to insulate me against the night. As the three pilgrims met with the monks, I followed the monastery's strict regimen. I was periodically sent to my room to "rest", and was fed vegetables, tofu, and rice--all devoid of any spice or seasoning--and water-based soup. The monks were busy, cleaning and chanting and serving food. They ranged in age--12, 17, 26--and all seemed happy, singing and laughing as they worked.

I arose the next morning at 6:30. Breakfast was unsweetened rice pudding, pickles, and spicy fermented tofu. I left my three guardians and explored some of Jiuhua's peaks alone, surrounded by rice terraces and sheer cliff faces with tiny pockets of trees and intermittent waterfalls. I constantly passed monasteries and temples. (There are more than 60 on the mountain.) I visited a 1,000 Buddha hall, my breath blowing cold past the statues. I saw the Phoenix Tree, which is said to be 1,600 years old and has been called the most perfect tree in the world.

The Chinese government also draws a distinction between permitted religious activities and so-called superstitions (such as Falun Gong), which are said to recall feudal beliefs and so are detrimental to peasant well-being. Historically, these kinds of beliefs proliferated before the fall of a dynasty, as populations turned to supernatural means to dethrone corrupt governments. Such superstitious activities as soothsaying and using witch doctors are strictly banned. Jiuhua Shan, however, was considered to exemplify "proper" religious activity--the observance of traditional Chinese Buddhist customs--thus, within the context of the government's rules, monasteries such as the one I visited have been allowed to flourish.

As night fell, I returned to the monastery to find the doors had been locked. Panicked, I knocked on the heavy doors and waited until someone let me in, laughing. I was fed and promptly sent to bed.

That was to be my last night at the monastery. A massive thunderstorm kept me up, lightning flashing outside the tiny window in my room. I imagined the monks of 500 years ago, seated in caves, chanting. The thunderclaps were amazingly loud and blasted through the monastery. The sound melded with drips of rain and chanting, which moved inside and lulled me with intermittent bells and drum slaps as the storm raged.

I was again awoken at 6 and fed the gruel-like rice. I packed my bags as the grandmothers received their blessings and prayed. I was restless, anxious to move on to Huang Shan, the famed Yellow Mountain, which is immortalized in a thousand scroll paintings. We left the monastery, the tiny monks carrying our bags on their backs, and climbed onto our bus. They waved as we rode from sight.

ACCESS: The easiest way to get to Jiuhua Shan is from Shanghai. Check Air Canada for flight information (www.aircanada.com/; 1-888-247-2262).

From Shanghai, head northwest to Nanjing via train from the main Shanghai train station (about a four-hour journey). After arrival in Nanjing, catch a direct bus to Jiuhua Shan from the Hanfu Jie bus station. Buses leave intermittently, and the length of the journey varies, depending on road conditions. (The countryside is prone to flooding.) Expect at least a seven-hour trip.

After paying the entry fee to enter the Lotus Land (about $10), you disembark in Jiuhua Shan village. Because the bus often arrives late at night, you can stay the night in the village at one of many hostels or hotels. Longquan Binguan (phone 05-66-501-1412) is one option.

The mountain can be explored from Jiuhua Shan village. There is plenty of accommodation around the trails, from monasteries to hostels and hotels. Trailside food stands and restaurants are also readily available.

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