Words capture so little of the truth about extraordinary events, and to be honest, I hesitate to dilute how I feel from our retreat in a mountain Temple of Wutai Shan, China. Yes, I’m used to coming home stirred and happily out-of-sorts from deep ceremony, but this time, having taken a plunge into the refuge of temples, sacred chants, and boundless tea, I feel like a puzzle piece still assembling unknown mysteries.
How do you capture the fragrance and unfurling plume of fine sandalwood incense, or the taste of rare puer tea that causes your heart to float in heavenly realms? How can you remember being locked into the fathomless depth of a teacher’s eyes? Perhaps we do keep memory imprints of such times, and maybe we bury moments of peace and love into the soil of our minds so we can recognize certain vibrations and water these frequencies until they bloom on their own again and again.
There’s such a jumble of feelings: sad and jolted from leaving those holy mountains, afraid I may not remember the timbre of Shifu’s voice, inexplicably upset about not understanding so many things, missing the warm yak morning tea, wondering if I’ll forget everything (my teacher Angela would say ‘Good!’), and somehow astonished and thoroughly grateful that we were blessed to have such an opportunity in this lifetime. Really, I feel like an ant that was brushed briefly with magic dust that’s designed to rub off on the journey home.
So I’m sharing this in the hope that as I write I’ll remember even more from the stream of precious teachings that came from this adventure.
In the first days of our trip, our Tibetan Shifu* said, ‘Cherish every moment you are here. Push your self more and you will go further. ’ And so I did.
It is said* that Wen Shu Buddha actually visited these mountains, and to this day, from the feel of the place, makes regular appearances. The story, as it was told to me, is that Wenshu Buddha came to Mount Wutai in the form of a poor old woman with a dog. At a charity gathering she asked for food form a wealthy gentleman, but after she was given bread she asked for more. The businessman balked, saying ‘I gave you enough, why do you ask for more?’ The old lady said, ‘You must give me more, for I am with child.’ And then she cut off a lock of her hair, her dog turned into a lion and they ascended into the sky to form the four sacred peaks of Wutai Shan.
We stayed in a small village where versions of OM MANI PADME HUM play from shops along the stone streets day and night, and where monks clad in grey, brown or maroon robes are as common as jeans in America. At least we didn’t feel strange twirling a string of mala beads walking through the town. At the same time, being the only blond, blue-eyed women, it was hard to go far before being asked to pose in someone’s I phone photo.
On one of our walks Angela Yan says ‘American students are the best to bring here because they’re an empty canvass, they don’t have as many concepts to undo.’ Indeed, this retreat was happily devoid of too many concepts; it was about letting go, refraining from asking and analyzing. It was about being open, feeling more and continuously experiencing what was occurring.
In the first couple of days I tried using my brain and my mouth in it’s typical way, but I soon gave up as most of my questions were either ignored or answered with a kind of story that prevents the mind from even remembering the question. Even this was a teaching, as it seems, good questions are occasionally rewarded with tales you must let simmer in your mind to reap their meaning. Sifu said his teachers told these kinds of stories all the time when he was very young, and this morning they came rolling out over laughter and many hours of tea. The conversation was of course in Chinese, and this is the translation as I remember it:
A master told his student to ‘watch the door’ after he left for the day. So the student faithfully watched the door all day long as robbers came and left removing every single thing from the master’s house. When the master returned upset that everything was gone, he asked the student what happened. The student says, I never took my eyes off the door. I watched these men come and go all day long.
An owner told the shepherd to watch the sheep because the wolf will eat the sheep. When the owner returned all the sheep were gone and asks ‘what happened?’. Of course the shepherd says, ‘I watched the wolf eat all the sheep.’
Who is wrong? The owner is wrong. ‘you have to watch what you say.’
Angela says ‘when something happens. Open. Feel it. Keep it. When language comes, it’s gone.’
A master gives a monk one piece of bread. The monk eats half. The master comes back and says ‘where’s the other half?’
The monk picks up the bread and says ‘here it is.”
The master says ‘where’s the other half?’
The monk picks up the bread and says again, ‘here, here is the other half.”
Angela says, ‘Why is the monk tricky? Because the master has not asked the right question.’
Another day, in the private room of another Shifu, noticing that each of the monks we met seemed to specialize in certain things such as calligraphy, healing, or empowering statues, I asked, ‘what do you specialize in?’ He grinned wide and said ‘chanting!’ It was yet another teaching, as all the monks chant all day long. And he added, ‘I wish to become Buddha.”.’
I will never know how much is simply lost in translation. Many times during the retreat I felt entirely stupid as I could neither understand nor add to any conversation. After I let my frustration go I figured it was probably better this way. We got to watch stunning gestures of calm beauty, listen to pure laughter, and look into kind eyes. This is enough.
As I return to my life, where I, like everyone else must attend to all manner of things, I wonder how I will ever be able to operate in such a relaxed, spontaneous and open way. Hopefully, the memory of this precious time and certain practices will gradually sink in until we are able to return one day.
When remarkable experiences change everything, sometimes it’s impossible to return. And for now, that’s quite fine.
*The word *Shifu is one of about five words in Chinese I know. But I was surprised when a woman on our way back to Beijing kept calling the bus driver ‘Sifu’ as he was smoking, talking on the phone and making seemingly arbitrary stops the whole way back. Apparently, ‘Sifu’ not only means a spiritual teacher and master, the title is also used to respect someone who has ‘mastered’ a trade, such as bus driving.
* From Wiki: Sifu (Cantonese Chinese) or shifu (Mandarin Chinese) is an accomplished teacher who oversees apprentices in certain traditions and philosophies.
It is written with the Chinese characters: ?? and ??. The character ? means “teacher”, while the meaning of ? is “tutor” and the meaning of ? is “father”. Both characters are read fu with the same tones in Cantonese and Mandarin, creating some ambiguity. A similar term often used in Chinese is ?? (Cantonese Chinese pronunciation: lou5 si1; Mandarin Chinese pronunciation: l?osh?), meaning “teacher”.
Though pronounced identically and bearing similar meanings, the two terms are distinct and usage is different. The former term (??) bears only the meaning of “master”, and is used to express the speaker’s general respect for the addressee’s skills and experience. Thus, for example, a customer may address a motor mechanic as such. The latter term (??) bears the dual meaning of “master” and “father”, and thus connotes a linearity in a teacher-student relationship. As such, when addressing a tradesperson, it would only be used to address the speaker’s own teacher or master. In the preceding example, the motor mechanic’s apprentice would address his or her master as such, but the customer would not. On the other hand, a religious personality, and by extension, experts of Chinese martial arts, can be addressed as “master-father” (??) in all contexts.