A Wayfarer in China/Chapter 9

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A Wayfarer in China by Elizabeth Kimball Kendall
Chapter IX

CHAPTER IX

OMEI SHAN, THE SACRED

THE rose-red city of Chia-ting lives in my memory as a vision of beauty, the most charming (at a distance) of the many charming (always at a distance) Chinese towns that I have seen. Built on a sandstone ledge at the junction of the Ta Tu and Ya with the Min, its crenellated red walls rise almost directly from the water, which, when in flood, dashes high against the foundations. On the northwest the city rises to nearly three hundred feet above the level, and standing on the wall one looks down upon a sea of living green from which rise temple and pagoda, or west across Chia-ting plain, perhaps the loveliest and most fertile spot in the Chinese Eden, and then farther west still to where on the horizon towers Omei Shan, the Holy of Holies of Buddhist China, often, alas, shrouded in mist from base to summit, for this is a land of clouds and rain and floods.

Looking across the river to the great cliffs opposite the town, one discerns dimly, carved on the face of the rock, the wonder of the region, a colossal Buddha more than three hundred feet in height, sitting serenely with his hands on his knees, and his feet, or what ought to be his feet, laved by the rushing water of the Ta Fo Rapid. As the tale runs, this was the work of a good monk of the eighth century, who spent his life over the undertaking in the hope that by this pious act he might avert the terrible floods that devastated the region. A mighty task boldly conceived and patiently carried out, but still the rain pours down, and still the rivers rise and drown the land.

Baber tells the dramatic story of one of the greatest of the floods. It occurred in 1786 when the fall of a cliff in the Ta Tu dammed the river completely for a time. Warnings were sent to the villages along the banks, and many fled to the hills, but the people of Chia-ting, trusting to their open plain over which the water could spread itself, scouted the warning, and the cry, "Shui lai-la" ("The water is coming"), became the catchword of the hour. Let Baber tell the rest: "It was holiday in Chia-ting some days after the receipt of the notice, and the light hearted crowds which gathered on such occasions were chiefly attracted by a theatrical representation on the flat by the water-side. One of the actors suddenly stopped in the middle of his rôle, and gazing up the river, screamed out the now familiar by-word, 'Shui lai-la!' This repetition of the stock jest, with well-simulated terror, as it seemed to the merry-makers, drew shouts of laughter; but the echoes of the laugh were drowned in the roar of a deluge. I was told how the gleeful faces turned to horror as the flood swept on like a moving wall, and overwhelmed twelve thousand souls."

While in Chia-ting I crossed the river one day to see the great Buddha from near by, but it is very difficult to get a good view of the image. The river runs at the foot of the cliff at such a rate that it was all the boatmen could do to keep us off the rocks, and looking down from above, the overhanging shrubs and grasses almost hide it from sight. There is an interesting monastery on the summit of the hill, called the "Monastery of the Voice of the Waters." Here I spent a delightful hour wandering through the neglected garden and looking over the treasures of the place, a rather remarkable collection of drawings and inscriptions engraved on slate, the work of distinguished visitors of past times, some dating back even to the Sung period. There were landscapes extremely well done, others were merely a flower or branch of a blooming shrub, but all bore some classic quotation in ornamental Chinese character. I bought of the priest for a dollar a bundle of really fine rubbings of these engravings. At another monastery a gallery full of images of the "Lo-han," the worthiest of Buddha's disciples, was being tidied up. The variety of pose and expression in these fifty-odd life-size images was extraordinary, and some of them were wonderfully good, but the workmen handled them without respect as they cleaned and painted. It is a Chinese proverb that says, "The image-maker does not worship the gods; he knows what they are made of."

There is one drawback to the delights of Chia-ting, and that is the climate. To live and work in the damp heat that prevails much of the time must test the strength, and I imagine the Europeans stationed here find it so. Chia-ting boasts two strong Protestant missions, American Baptist and Canadian Methodist, well equipped with schools and a hospital, and they are hard at work making Chia-ting over, body and soul. At the time of my visit they were engaged in a strenuous contest with the representatives of the British American Tobacco Company, and both sides were placarding the town with posters setting forth the evils or the benefits of cigarette-smoking.

Chia-ting is the great point of departure for Mount Omei, thirty miles away, and I stayed only long enough to rearrange my kit and hire coolies for the trip. Again I had a chance to see the strength that the Chinese have through organization. Each quarter of Chia-ting has its coolie hong, and woe betide you if you fall out with your own; you will have difficulty in getting served elsewhere. Fortunately my host was on good terms with his proper hong, and after a good-humored, long-drawn-out discussion I secured the men I wanted.

It was raining when we started from Chia-ting and it kept on all day. Nevertheless, as soon as I was outside the West Gate of the city I exchanged my closed chair for one specially devised for the mountain climb, simply a bamboo chair furnished with a swinging board for a foot-rest. It gave of course no protection against sun or rain, but there was nothing to cut off the view. The closed chair affected by the Chinese seemed to me intolerable, a stuffy box half closed in front, and with mere loopholes on the sides. But fifteen years ago no European woman could ride in anything else without danger of being mobbed.

All the first day we were crossing the beautiful Chia-ting plain, seamed and watered by many rivers and streams. The path wound in and out among splendid fields of maize and fine fruit orchards, and the comfortable looking villages were densely shaded with oak and mulberry trees. It ought to be a prosperous district, for not only is it rich in natural resources, but the throngs of pilgrims that pass through here on their way to the Sacred Mountain must bring a lot of money into the towns.

At the start we kept above the Ta Tu, but later we crossed the Ya, now a strong-flowing tranquil river, and farther along still at the little town of Süchi ("Joyous Stream"), famous for its silk, we came to the Omei, which has its sources on the lower slopes of the Great Mountain. After this the country was more broken, but everywhere there was the same careful cultivation, and on all sides we heard the plash of falling water and the soft whirr of the great Persian wheels busily at work bringing water to the thirsty land; and occasionally we saw men working with the foot a smaller wheel by which the next higher levels were irrigated.

Chen Chia Ch'ang, a small market-town a few miles east of Omei-hsien, made a charming picture, its walls shining white against the dark background of the mountain as we approached it across the green rice-fields. Entering its broad, crowded street we found a theatrical performance going on in an open hall opposite the temple. While my coolies were drinking tea I joined the crowd in front of the stage, which was raised several feet above the street. The play, which was in honour of the village idol, was beyond my comprehension, but the pantomime of the actors was very good. This sort of thing is dearly liked by the Chinese. The players are usually maintained by the village, and a good deal of the unpopularity of the Christian converts arises, I am told, from their unwillingness to contribute because of the so-called idolatrous character of the performance.

The town of Omei where we spent the night seems to exist chiefly for the sake of the thousands of pilgrims who make a last halt here before they begin the ascent of the mountain. Mindful of the many Tibetans who pass through here in the spring, I made a raid upon the shops, but in vain; all that I found was two good pieces of Chinese bronze. The owner and I could not agree on a price, so I left him to think it over until I came by again, and then he was away and his wife did not dare unlock his cases, although I offered her what he had asked. The rain poured down, but a crowd gathered to offer sympathy and suggestions, while my men and I argued with her. Would she not fare worse if her husband found she had missed a sale than if she disobeyed orders? All to no purpose, so I went away emptyhanded. That evening it rained brass pots, but alas, nothing that I wanted.

Usually in these small places the woman seems a very active member of the establishment, and I am told that a man often wishes to consult his wife before making a large deal. The Chinese woman, perhaps, lacks the charm of the Japanese or Indian, but in spite of her many handicaps she impresses the outsider with her native good sense and forcefulness, and I should expect that even more than the other two she would play a great part in the development of her people when her chance came.

It was again raining when we started the next morning; indeed, it seemed a long time since I had felt really dry, but the grey day harmonized perfectly with the soft English beauty of the country that lies between Omei-hsien and the foot of the mountain, wooded lanes and glens, little brooks rippling between flowery banks, fine stone bridges spanning the swift green Omei, red temples overhung by splendid banyan trees, and over all the dark mysterious mountain, lifting its crown ten thousand feet above our heads. Did ever pilgrim tread a more beautiful path to the Delectable Mountains? And there were so many pilgrims, men and women, all clad in their best, and with the joy of a holiday shining in their faces. There were few children, but some quite old people, and many were women hobbling pluckily along on their tiny feet; the majority, however, were young men, chosen perhaps as the most able to perform the duty for the whole family. They seemed mostly of a comfortable farmer class; the very poor cannot afford the journey; and as for the rich—does wealth ever go on a pilgrimage nowadays? All carried on the back a yellow bag (yellow is Buddha's colour) containing bundles of tapers to burn before the shrines, and in their girdles were strings of cash to pay their way; priests and beggars alike must be appeased.

After an hour or so we left behind the cultivation of the valley, and entered the wild gorge of the Omei, and after this our path led upwards through fine forests of ash and oak and pine. The road grew steeper and steeper, often just a rough staircase of several hundred steps, over which we slipped and scrambled. Rain dripped from the branches, brooks dashed down the mountain-side. We had left behind the great heat of the plain, but within the walls of the forest the air was warm and heavy. But nothing could damp the ardour of the pilgrim horde. A few were in chairs; I had long since jumped out of mine, although as Liu complained, "Why does the Ku Niang hire one if she will not use it?" He dearly loved his ease, but had scruples about riding if I walked, or perhaps his bearers had. Some of the wayfarers, old men and women, were carried pick-a-back on a board seat fastened to the coolie's shoulders. It looked horribly insecure and I much preferred trusting to my own feet, but after all I never saw an accident, while I fell many times coming down the mountain.

The beginnings of Mount Omei's story go back to the days before writing was, and of myth and legend there is a great store, and naturally enough. This marvel of beauty and grandeur rising stark from the plain must have filled the man of the lowlands with awe and fear, and his fancy would readily people these inaccessible heights and gloomy forests with the marvels of primitive imagination. On the north the mountain rises by gentle wooded slopes to a height of nearly ten thousand feet above the plain, while on the south the summit ends in a tremendous precipice almost a mile up and down as though slashed off by the sword of a Titan. Perhaps in earliest times the Lolos worshipped here, and the mountain still figures in their legends. But Chinese tradition goes back four thousand years when pious hermits made their home on Omei. And there is a story of how the Yellow Emperor, seeking immortality, came to one of them. But Buddha now reigns supreme on Omei; of all the many temples, one only is Taoist. According to the legend, at the very beginning of Buddhist influence in China, P'u-hsien Bodhisattva revealed himself to a wandering official in that wonderful thing known as "Buddha's Glory," and from this time on, Mount Omei became the centre from which the light of Buddhist teaching was spread abroad over the entire country.

The land now belongs to the Church, and there are not many people on the mountain besides the two thousand monks scattered about in the different monasteries which occupy every point where a flat spur or buttress offers a foothold. Each has its objects of interest or veneration, and I believe that to do one's duty by Omei, one must burn offerings before sixty-two shrines. Judging by the determined look on some of the pilgrims' faces, they were bent on making the grand tour in the shortest time possible; in fact, they almost raced up the breakneck staircases. To save expense, some make the whole ascent of one hundred and twenty li from Omei-hsien in a day. Even women on their bound feet sometimes do this, I am told. I would not believe it on any authority had I not seen for myself the tramps these poor crippled creatures often take.

As I was in no hurry, we stopped for the night at Wan-nien Ssu, or the "Monastery of Ten Thousand Years," one of the largest on the mountain and with a recorded history that goes back more than fifteen hundred years. We were made very welcome, for the days have passed when foreigners were turned from the door. Their patronage is eagerly sought and also their contributions. After inspecting our quarters, which opened out of an inner court and were spacious and fairly clean, I started out at once to see the sights of the place, for daylight dies early in these dense woods. Like all the rest Wan-nien Ssu is plainly built of timbers, and cannot compare with the picturesque curly-roofed buildings one sees in the plains below. Indeed, it reminded me of the Tibetan lamasseries about Tachienlu, and it is true that thousands of Tibetans find their way hither each spring, and the hillsides reëcho their mystic spell, " Om mani padme hum," only less often than the Chinese, " Omi to fo."

Behind the building where I was quartered is another, forming part of the same monastery, and within is concealed rather than displayed the treasure of the place, and indeed the most wonderful monument on the mountain, a huge image of P'u-hsien enthroned on the back of a life-size elephant, all admirably cast in bronze. Although dating from the ninth century, the wonderful creation remained unknown to the "outside barbarian" until Baber came this way a generation ago. He speaks of it as probably the "most ancient bronze casting of any great size in existence." It is a sad pity that no one has succeeded in getting a good picture of this notable work, but not merely is it railed about with a stone palisade, but the whole is enclosed in a small building of heavy brick and masonry with walls twelve feet thick, which secure it against wind and rain, but also keep out most of the light.

Wan-nien Ssu boasts another treasure more readily displayed, a so-called tooth of Buddha weighing about eighteen pounds. The simple pilgrims looked on reverently as the priests held it before me, but the latter had a knowing look when I expressed my wonder at the stature of the being who had teeth of such size. Probably they knew as well as I that it was an elephant's molar, but they were not above playing on the credulity of the ignorant folk.

Out of respect for the feelings of the monks I had brought up no fresh meat, and of course there is none to be obtained on the mountain, so I dined rather meagrely. Although the people generally do not hesitate to eat meat when they can get it, the priests hold stiffly to the Buddhist discipline which forbids the taking of life, and it is only unwillingly that they have acquiesced in foreigners' bringing meat into the monastic precincts or even onto the mountain. But at least they did their best to make good any lack by sending in dishes of Chinese sweetmeats, candied seeds, ginger, dried fruits. After dinner one of the younger priests sat for a long time by my brazier, amusing himself with Jack, the like of whom he had never seen before, and asking many simple questions. What was I writing? How did I live? Where would I go when I went away? Where was my husband?——the same questions asked everywhere by the untutored, be it in the mountains of Kentucky or on the sacred heights of Mount Omei.

On leaving the next morning the "Yuanpu," or "Subscription Book of the Temple," a substantial volume in which one writes one's name and donation, was duly put before me. Being warned beforehand I knew what to give, and I was not to be moved even though my attention was called to much larger sums given by other visitors; but I had also been told of the trick practised here of altering the figures as served their purpose, so I was not moved even by this appeal.

The next day brought us to the summit after a wearying pull up interminable rock staircases as steep as the steepest attic stairs, and hundreds of feet high. Most of the time we were in thick woods, only occasionally coming out into a little clearing, but even when the trees fell away, and there ought to have been a view, nothing was to be seen, for the thick mists shut out all above and below. We passed by innumerable monasteries, most of them looking prosperous and well patronized; they must reap a rich harvest in cash from the countless pilgrims. Everywhere building was going on, indicating hopeful fortunes, or, more likely, recent disaster, for it is the prevailing dampness alone that saves the whole mountainside from being swept by fires, and they are all too frequent as it is.

It is one of the many topsy-turvy things in topsy-turvy China that this prosaic people is so addicted to picturesque and significant terms. I found the names of some of the monasteries quite as interesting as anything else about them. From the "Pinnacle of Contemplation" you ascend to the "Monastery of the White Clouds," stopping to rest in the "Hall of the Tranquil Heart," and passing the "Gate to Heaven" you enter the "Monastery of Everlasting Joy."

Toward the summit the forest dwindled until there was little save scrub pine and oak, a kind of dwarf bamboo, and masses of rhododendron. At last we came out into a large clearing just as the sun burst from the clouds, lighting up the gilded ball that surmounts the monastery where I hoped to find shelter, the Chin Tien, or "Golden Hall of the True Summit," a group of low timbered buildings, quite without architectural pretensions. Entering the open doorway I faced a large shrine before which worshippers were bending undisturbed by our noisy entrance. Stairs on either hand of the shrine led to a large grassy court surrounded on all four sides by one-story buildings, connected by a broad corridor or verandah, and back of this, steep steps led to a temple perched on the very edge of the great cliff.

A young priest came to meet me and very courteously showed me the guest-rooms, allowing me to choose two in the most retired corner, one for myself and another for the interpreter and cook, while the coolies found comfortable quarters near by. View there was none, for my room, though adorned with real glazed windows, looked out on a steep bank, but at least it had an outside door through which I might come and go at will. The furniture was of the usual sort, only in better condition than ordinarily; heavy beds, chairs, tables, but everything was surprisingly clean and sweet-smelling.

Here in this Buddhist monastery on the lofty summit of China's most sacred mountain I spent three peaceful days, happy in having a part in the simple life about me. Chin Tien is one of the largest and most prosperous of Omei's monasteries, and it is also one of the best conducted. Everything was orderly and quiet. Discipline seemed well maintained, and there was no unseemly begging for contributions as at Wan-nien Ssu. It boasts an abbot and some twenty-five full-fledged monks and acolytes. All day long pilgrims, lay and monastic, were coming and going, and the little bell that is rung to warn the god of the presence of a worshipper tinkled incessantly. Some were monks who had come long distances, perhaps from farthermost Tibet, making the great pilgrimage to "gain merit" for themselves and for their monastery. Many of the houses on Omei gave to these visitors crude maps or plans of the mountain, duly stamped with the monastery seal, as proof that the journey had been made, and on my departure one such, properly sealed with the Chin Tien stamp, was given to me.

One day was like another, and all were peaceful and full of interest. I expect the weather was as good as one could look for at this season of the year; although the mists rolled in early in the forenoon shutting out the plain, yet there was little rain, and the night and dawn were glorious. Each morning I was out before sunrise, and standing on the steps of the upper temple saw the whole western horizon revealed before my enchanted eyes. A hundred miles away stretched the long line of the Tibetan snow-peaks, their tops piercing the sky. It seemed but a step from earth to heaven, and how many turn away from the wonderful sight to take that step. Two strides back and you are standing awestruck on the edge of the stupendous precipice. The fascination of the place is overpowering, whether you gaze straight down into the black depths or whether the mists, rolling up like great waves of foam, woo you gently to certain death. No wonder the place is called "The Rejection of the Body," and that men and women longing to free themselves from the weary Wheel of Life, seek the "Peace of the Great Release" with one wild leap into the abyss below.

At every hour of the day pilgrims were standing at the railed-in edge of the cliff, straining their eyes to see into the uttermost depths below, or looking skywards for a sight of "Buddha's Glory," that strange phenomenon which has never been quite explained; it may be akin to the Spectre of the Brocken, but to the devout Buddhist pilgrim it is the crowning marvel of Mount Omei.

Looking off to the north and east one saw stretched out, nearly ten thousand feet below, the green plains and silver rivers of Szechuan. Southward rose the black peaks and ranges of Lololand, buttressed on the north by the great, table-shaped Wa Shan, second only to Omei in height and sacredness.

Before the first day was past every one had become accustomed to my presence, and I attracted no attention as I came and went. My wants were looked after, and one or the other of the little acolytes spent

A Wayfarer in China fp 196.jpg

THE "REJECTION OF THE BODY"

Cliff a mile high. Mount Omei, West Szechuan

many hours in my room, tending the fire in the brazier, or playing with Jack, or munching the sweetmeats with which I was kept supplied. They were nice little lads and did not bother me, and rarely did any one else disturb my quiet; it was such a comfort after the living in public of the last month.

The second morning of my stay I attended an early service in the lower temple near my room. Some twelve monks took part; one, the abbot, was a large, fine-looking man, and all had rather agreeable faces, quite unlike the brutal, vicious look of the lamas of Tachienlu. There was much that recalled the ritual of the Roman Catholic Church,—processions, genuflexions, chanting, burning of incense, lighting of candles, tinkling of bells,—all centring round a great figure of Sakyamuni. The words I could not understand, but the reverent expression on the monks' faces, their orderly bearing as they circled slowly round, keeping always the bared right shoulder toward the image, made the service very impressive in spite of the pranks of the little acolytes and the loud talk of passing men and women.

In turn I visited the near-by temples, but few were of any special interest. The hilltop has been burnt over several times, the last time within a generation, and all the buildings on the summit are of recent date. The most famous of all, the great bronze temple dating from the fifteenth century, which after being struck by lightning several times was finally destroyed, has never been restored, thus giving the lie to the popular belief that what the lightning destroys the gods will replace. The fragments of castings that are left are really fine, and it is a marvel how they ever were brought from Chengtu where they were made, for many are of great weight. A little below the trail by which we came was the pewter-roofed monastery, very appropriate here, as pewter is the only metal the Buddhist pilgrim is supposed to use or possess.

But after all, the charm of the place lay not in this or that building or relic, but in the beauty of the surroundings and in the peace of spirit that seemed to abide here. No need to cast one's self over the precipice to secure freedom from the body. Here on the high mountain-top among these simple minds, the cares and bothers of the life of the plain seemed to fall off. If I came as a sight-seer I went away in the mood of a pilgrim. Turning my back upon the crowded paths I spent long hours of quiet under the pines on the western slope, facing always toward the mountains. Sometimes the clouds concealed them wholly, at other times just one peak emerged, and then perhaps for a moment the mists rolled away, and the whole snowy line stood revealed like the ramparts of a great city, the city of God.

And the best of all was not the day, but the night. The monastery went early to bed, and by ten o'clock bells had ceased to ring, the lights were out. Then came my time. Slipping out of my room I stole up the slope to the overhanging brow of the cliff. The wind had died down, the birds were still, not a sound broke the great silence. At my feet were the depths, to the west rose height on height, and on all lay the white light of the moon. Close by hundreds of weary pilgrims were sleeping heavily on their hard beds. Day after day and year after year they climbed these steeps seeking peace and help, pinning their hopes to burning joss stick and tinkling bell and mystic words, and in Western lands were other pilgrims entangled likewise in the mazes of dogma and form. But here among the stars, in the empty, soundless space of the white night, the gods that man has created seemed to vanish, and there stood out clear the hope that when time has ceased,—

"When whelmed are altar, priest, and creed;
   When all the faiths have passed;
Perhaps, from darkening incense freed,
   God may emerge at last."

Finally the day came when I was forced to turn away from the miracles of Omei. Our stores were almost gone, and the coolies had burnt their last joss sticks; so I took farewell of the kindly monks of Chin Tien and started down the mountain. The sun shone as we set off, but as we descended, the clouds gathered and the rain fell in torrents. Each steep, straight staircase was a snare to our feet. Sprawling and slithering we made our way down. No one escaped, and the woods resounded with gay cries, "Have a care, Omi to fo! Hold on tight, Omi to fo! Now, go ahead, Omi to fo!" There was no going slowly, you stood still or went with a rush. Women tottering along on crippled feet pointed cheerily at my big shoes. I dare say the difference in size consoled them for all their aches and pains.

It was almost dark when we reached Omei-hsien, soaked to the skin. I had a big fire made for the coolies and we all gathered round in companionable fashion for the last time. The return journey the next day across the plain was as charming as ever, but the steamy heat of the low level was very depressing, and we were all glad to take to a boat for the last twenty-two li.

I had one more day in Chia-ting, visiting one or two temples and making the last arrangements for the trip down the river to Chung-king. Wisely helped by one of the American missionaries I secured a very comfortable wu-pan, for which I paid twenty-five dollars Mexican. It was well fitted out, and equipped with a crew of seven, including the captain's wife, and a small dog known as the "tailless one." We started down the river late in the afternoon. There was just time for one look at the Great Buddha as the current hurled us almost under his feet, then a last glance at the beautiful town, all rose and green, and a wonderful chapter in my journeying had come to an end. Only three months later and Chia-ting was aflame with the fires of revolution, for it was the first city in all Szechuan to declare for the Republic, and there was many a fierce contest in its narrow, winding streets.