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Day 95 – No Lamas in This Lamasery

June 6, 2010

Dateline: Beijing, China – Sunday, June 6, 2010

When you hear about something called the Lama Temple, what comes to mind? Me, I think llamas. Those hairy, long necked, spitting, hooved animals that nimbly climb mountains. The temple was probably made to venerate the noble beast, which is probably revered here like the turtle is in Vietnam.

This is incorrect. Apparently, in China lama has to do with the Dalai Lama and a particular sect of Buddhism practiced in Tibet. Who knew?

Today I visited the Lama Temple, which is apparently the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It used to be the emperor’s residence, but was converted to a “lamasery” in 1744. If you’d asked me to define “lamasery” before today, I’d have said, “A place where humans raise baby llamas.”

I wasn’t planning on visiting the lamasery. I’ve been a little templed out and, left to my own devices, I’d have figured it was just another place where Buddhists burned incense and bowed a lot. Max recommended it, so I forked over the 25 rmb ($3.85) admission and ambled in.

The entrance is a tree-lined walkway, so right off the bat my relationship with the lamas was off on the right foot. I contend that there aren’t enough tree-lined anythings on earth. The more things we can line with trees, the happier I think we’d be. There’s something about the shade, the rustle of leaves, and the green roof supported by pillars of trees that speaks to me.

The temple is arranged on a north-south axis and has large buildings in the center surrounded by a series of smaller buildings. The place is quite lovely, though signs ask that you “Please do not burn incense or film inside.” I had no intention of burning film inside or out.

First up was a big bellied Buddha (that’s what the sign said) then three depictions of Buddha, two of which represented the past Buddha and the future Buddha. Everywhere, people were lighting incense and bowing, sometimes kneeling and sometimes standing.

There as a giant, cloaked Buddha in the next pavilion. Staring up at the ceiling, I saw intricate drawings of Buddha in various scenes, probably depictions of events in his life. Off to the right, an older woman did a hardcore version of the bow. She’d laid down a mat and would stand, raise her arms, then bend at the waist, place her hands on the ground and kneel, then lay down prostrate, arms outstretched. Then she would stand up and repeat the process.

Every time she went into the prostrated position, she would bang her head against the ground hard enough that, standing 10 feet away, there was an audible thud as her head hit the stone. She had a mat and a small pad where her forehead made contact, but I can’t imagine it was painless. When I circled back 45 minutes later after exploring the temple, she was still at it. She was getting an NFL season’s worth of head collisions in a very short span. I’m not sure if she was doing penance, but if she was, I’d have to suggest she switch to Catholicism—5,000 Hail Marys has to be less mind numbing.

The surprise of the visit were two buildings on the east and west sides of the complex. These held many effigies of various Buddhist characters. The Lord of Hell and the Mahakala featured prominently. One of my favorites was the White (or Green?) Tara, which had an eye staring out of the palm of its hand. Looking through the images, you can see where Bayonetta and Guillermo Del Toro got the ideas for much of their bizarre imagery. Pan’s Labyrinth has heavy lama influence. The Tibetan lama, mind you.

It took me a moment, but I started to realize that the statues might have a bit of a prurient bent to them. At first, I thought the images depicted characters with heads and torsos protruding from their chests. Many of the effigies depicted creatures with many arms and it was hard to tell where one creature started and ended. Some of the less bizarre depictions had me doing a double take. It wasn’t one creature with two heads, it was two creatures with two heads, one straddling the other. The statues didn’t move, of course, but it seemed pretty clear they were straddling each other quite vigorously. Reading my guidebook, I realized that these were tantric statues, which I gather is Buddhism’s form of kama sutra. Who knew monks were so kinky.

It was just statues having many-armed sex, either. There was clothing from various costumes, crowns, and other sacred objects. A series of conch shells were quite remarkable. Some had been carved with images of Buddha. Another two conch horns had been incorporated into brass handles. One statue looked like it was eating brain out of someone’s skull. For a brief moment, I wished I’d sprung the extra $3 for the audio tour. Then I got over it. My version was much better.

One thing I found fascinating was the offering of incense. Signs indicated that incense was not to be burned inside the buildings. People, however, still went through the ritual of bowing while clutching incense in their prayer folded hands. The unlit incense sticks were then laid down on a table in front of the sacred effigy. Who wants to bet that these get recycled? I guess it’s the thought that counts and not the use of the lighting of the incense.

A big attraction here was an 18 meter tall Buddha carved out of a single tree. It was massive. A sign said the tree was a sandalwood, but I had no idea any tree got so big besides Sequoias. Perhaps it’s not one solid piece of wood. Maybe all the wood just came from one tree. I wasn’t able to run any tests on the wood fibers so I can’t be sure.

As I sat on a bench trying to plan where to eat, I got a small reminder that I’m not in Kansas anymore. A little kid pulled down his pants, squatted down on a planter, and proceeded to take a dump, all under the watchful eye of his father. No one paid them any attention except me. When his son was done, the dad wiped his bottom and picked up the poop with a plastic bag like his kid was a dog. Again, no one seemed to think was out of the ordinary. I was fascinated.

For dinner I headed over to Ritan Park and a leisurely meal at Xiao Wwang’s Home Restaurant. Beijing attempted to thwart my attempt to find the restaurant. First, the city set the exit to the subway under an overpass with few features or signs. The big blocks made it difficult to determine what street was coming next. I got turned around, found a river that was in the opposite direction of where I meant to be, then wandered around a group of foreign embassies while I tried to find the park. I must have walked 3 miles. I know I walked for at least an hour.

By the time I found my destination, I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day and it was late afternoon. I scarfed down a meal of spicy fried chicken wings and fried string beans with ground pork. The portions were huge, apparently intended for family style eating. The chicken wings were decent, but they didn’t hold a candle to San Tung’s version in San Francisco. The string beans were limp and overcooked for my taste. I wanted to have dessert, but by the time I got a waiters attention, I was full. I sprung an extra 2 rmb for two takeaway containers so I didn’t waste half of what I’d ordered.

I walked back through the park and stumbled on an impressive outdoor climbing wall. A little kid, in the smallest harness I’ve ever seen, managed to climb 10 feet off the ground. In adult proportions it probably equaled 20 feet or so. I bet his tiny hands are stronger than my violin-playing. girly digits. Not hatin’, just sayin’.

I’ll have to come back to Ritan Park. It was a breath of fresh air after the past two days of Beijing’s concrete jungle. Wandering the city got me thinking that Beijing has more in common with parts of Tokyo than Hanoi or even Bangkok. It feels manufactured in a way. You can feel the planning. Even less so than Tokyo, it’s not meant for walkers. It’s just big expanses of concrete and asphalt. Very little in the way of life at the street level. All of the energy and activity is far from the road, somewhere behind the 200 foot setbacks, hidden behinds walls and gates, tucked in buildings and sheltered in invisible alleys.

It’s too bad, really. It makes the city less approachable. A few more narrow streets and chaotic, haphazard boulevards might do the city some good. Give it some character. For now, I’ll have to settle for a park or two and the occasional lama.

GALLERY: Click through to today’s gallery to see more brass statutes, pictures of temples, pictures of food, and a holy blue effigy that looks like it stumbled out of a cartoon.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. sally permalink
    June 9, 2010 2:11 pm

    omg, pooping in public. i thought only homeless people at cvs did that. at least the dad picked up after him.

    • June 11, 2010 3:14 am

      The kid actually tried to get up and run away before the dad had a chance to wipe him. Guess that makes the kid a bit different from a dog.

  2. June 10, 2010 1:15 pm

    hey i see you are still nomanding. it seems like the perfect profession for people who are tired of corporate life… excellent writing and pitcures.

    • June 11, 2010 3:16 am

      Unfortunately, I think you have to make money for something to be called a “profession.” 🙂

      Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoy.

    • June 11, 2010 3:19 am

      By the way, is the littlekitchenthatcould blog yours? If so, I totally dig it. I swear I saw that grill on the street in Hanoi. 🙂

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