Lifelike figure at Tibetan Temple.
There’s a Tibetan Temple down the street from my hutong in Beijing. This is less incongruous than you might thing. Yonks ago a Lama built the temple. The Emperor and modern government has interpreted it as a tribute (implying that Tibet is a dominion of China) and kept it preserved ever since. I went there to try and meditate, which was actually a bad idea.
Most Buddhist temples are difficult places to meditate in, especially if they’re popular. Here people were constantly moving about and bowing with incense, so there wasn’t really a single spot to sit, let alone a spot that was quiet.
People offering incense
I’ve been reading Confessions Of A Buddhist Atheist wherein a monk recounts his journey from Mahayana (Tibetan) to Theravada (Sri Lanka, Burma) Buddhism. He said that, as a Mahayana monk, he’d begin the day by meditating that he was a rather violent/sexual female God. Mahayana can be… intense like that. There’s a whole system of gods and demons and worlds and realms.
Mahayana Tibetan statue
As per here, in this rather interesting and exotic statue. I’ve been seeing this theme everywhere, of a god with its foot on someone, usually a child. At the entrance to the temple there’s a statue of a lion doing the same. You get a similar motif in Hinduism, but I’ve seen this in multiple forms in China, in both modern and ancient art. It communicates something interesting, to me at least. I’ll return to that theme, let’s call it the Big Foot Theme.
Also down the street there’s a Confucian Temple, and the old Imperial College. This space I found amazing, and could actually meditate in. Confucianism is a religion of sorts, but really more a philosophy. Very sage advice and a dedication to study, which paired well with the Imperial system of examinations and a largely meritocratic civil service. The philosopher and teacher Confucius had the work of him and his disciples accepted and venerated by successive emperors, and the temple built to honor him was one sign of regard.
It’s a beautiful space. Quiet, impeccably manicured, and literally heavy with history. In the courtyard there are these giant stone tablets on top of giant turtles or dragons, they look like big stone feet. These are inscribed with, well, inscriptions. Some are mundane – the Emperor ordered regular tiles to be replaced with glazed tiles. Some are historic – this Confucian Temple was ordered to be built. The plurality, however, seem to be along the lines of – this tablet was inscribed to commemorate the suppression of riots in X province.
In that context the significance is heavy. It really is a foot, come stomping down. I was at dinner last night (consisting of beef, oysters, snails, some vegetables, fish, tofu and this hideous Baijiu alcohol) and this girl told me about some art in 798. She said she was an image of this giant toad surrounded by little toads. Apparently the story was that the little toads were trying to bury the big toad but they were all digging their own holes, not working together. In that way, they could never win.
There is this almost constant idea of a monolithic higher power, on this earth.
Hall of tablets
Literal monoliths really. These are Confucian tablets in a hall. Really amazing, serene stuff. I read through some of the analects. Great wisdom. There was one story about a student. The student was at home weeding melons when he ruined one. The father was angry and beat him unconscious. The next day the son greeted the father happily and played music, thinking he was being a good obedient son. When he came back to school, Confucius was unhappy and refused to see him for a few days. When he did, Confucius said that there is duty of the father to the son and son to the father. If the father were to kill the son, he would be jailed. The son’s duty is to guide the father away from this ill act and consequence, not to mindlessly obey. Interesting thought, I thought.
Statue in the hall of tablets
As much as Confucianism was assimilated by the state, it seems not necessarily conservative. There was a story that he used to stand watching a river, reflecting that all things change, committing to devote himself to study. Confucianism in that sense seems deeply rational and adaptable.
Yet the Confucian temple was largely empty, such that I could meditate in it without disturbance. Meanwhile the Tibetan Buddhist temple was thronged.