China: a potentially magnificent country whose splendor is clouded by too thick air, asphyxiating air which colors even the most resplendent hotels, temples and skyscrapers grey. Of course, many people consider China to be tenacious in its allure, breathtakingly beautiful as opposed to just breath-taking, but after three days of suffocating, I have reasoned that China is simply not for me, that my lungs will surely collapse if my escape weren't as soon as it is. And it is clear that I am not the only sufferer, as a number of other tragedies have befallen our tightly knit American clan since our arrival, adding to the leadenness of the grim air, and this slow decay brings us to Beijing's Temple of Heaven.
Awaiting our departure for the temple on a bus, we receive the devastating news of our lost comrade, Kurt Leswing, and our inert wake-up-at-six-am-every-day lethargy quickly pours out of us in violent tears, streaming from hotel to Xuanwu. As the mourners hobble off the bus, heads bowed, arms find their ways into the arms of others, wrapping themselves up in another's seeking warmth, seeking solace, seeking peace. We arrange ourselves in a circle—which, as it happens, coincides with the Chinese representation of Heaven as a circle—and have a moment of silence for Kurt, during which we hear the playful chirps of Chinese men and women capering over the temple gates.
Not knowing the extent to which it is necessary to pay my respects to a deceased friend, I resolve to remain doleful throughout, at least, the day, to demonstrate how deeply his death has affected me, but it's difficult here. I have been told that Taoism, in addition to other eastern religions, focuses heavily on familial piety, especially after death. It has been emphasized, more specifically, that the practice of mourning is incredibly important; if not genuine in heart, it should at least be believable in semblance. But in either case, great attention is paid to lamentation, be it sharp memory, an expensive funeral, or keening wildly at the committal. But I don't know what to do—haven't learned the rules of mourning in America—so I allow myself to cry, silently and behind sunglasses, good for nothing in this sunless country except to hide behind.
As we file through the temple's gates, I sense that the air hanging over Temple of Heaven land is vastly different from that outside; it carries music, dancing, singing, laughing—absolute vitality. It grows increasingly tiring to retain my cynical attitude as I watch small and sprightly men chasing after badminton birdies, couples gamboling about in a choreographed social waltz, chain smokers snickering on each side of a mah-jong or chess board as crowds watch over their shoulders, and music everywhere, emanating throughout the area without ever giving away its origin. This energy urges me to drop my stubborn will, to give up everything and let life run its natural course without propelling myself into despair, or angst, or otherwise not-quite-authentic responses. Cry if pressure builds behind the eyes; laugh if enlivened bubbles rise at the base of the throat; smile when instinct naturally lifts the corners of the mouth; don't force anything. How appropriate, for this Taoist temple; I am being pulled into that natural harmony known as wu wei, the effortless one-step-will-follow-the-other mindset that reigns in any passive yet receptive mind.
As we continue on through the temple, it seems that the same adjustments are occurring within my classmates; those whose eyes had drained themselves of fluid are now being wiped dry, and some are even smiling, taking pictures, jumping into hackeysack circles with strangers. It is clear that our natures, as humans, are prone toward happiness, or are, at least, desiring happiness, and even a great disaster can be subdued when a person wholly sheds his will and gives himself over to the spontaneous external world. And Taoism seems to be designed for such dispositions, especially in contrast with Buddhism, the religion with a marketing scheme appealing to anyone who believes that the world revolves around suffering. Taoism may incorporate some similar concepts—such as emptiness and detachment—but it does not carry the same severity on which Buddhism seems to pride itself; rather, there seems to be more trust in the positive, natural flow of organic energy that will minister to everyone willing to open himself to it. While both "religions" may be working to cure the same illness, the two work from opposite sides of the attitudinal outlook line.
Though Taoism as a religion is somewhat hidden amid the busy crowd, it is obvious that there is something much deeper going on: first, I have to remember that Taoism is as much a cultural tradition as it is a religious one, incorporating philosophy and ethics which ordain "the way" life should be lived. As such, this temple feels unexpectedly inviting and lacks the strictness inherent in many religious institutions I've visited, particularly Western Christian influenced churches, but also Buddhist temples in the countries before China. And Taoist emphasis on health is particularly obvious here, with circles of fluent dancers and squares devoted to tai chi—every participant balanced and natural in his movements. It is remarkable to see Taoist votaries gathering in masses for this productive custom, all braving the cold to meet and exercise together; I can't say that I have ever seen any religious practice so easily applied and integrated into ordinary life.
After passing through the first surge of tai chi-ers, we see a few more groups scattered throughout the area, but the focus is now shifting to the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, given the nature of Semester at Sea excursions—to check as many sights off the tourist list as possible in the least amount of time—the Temple of Heaven is subject to strict time restrictions; thus, only one building of the three fit into our itinerary, this one being the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests.
Sitting atop an expansive, raised square—the Chinese representation of earth—with thirty some stairs leading up to the platform, the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is splayed out like a Victorian ball gown, delicately embroidered and king-sized. Though I never see the other buildings, it is difficult to believe that they could outshine this three-tiered colossus, tastefully dressed with classic golds and blues and pinks over a coat of heavenly blue at the top and red toward the base. Under each tier are whipped cream-textured ridges, lifting up the skirts like tulle under a dress which give the circular—Heaven—hall a very full appearance. This arrangement symbolizes the relationship between Heaven and Earth—the round building positioned augustly atop the square—and the building itself is capped with a golden ball atop a rod as if to attract lightning or penetrate the heavens.
After having visited the Disney influenced temples in Malaysia, it is almost confusing to see such a simply ornamented edifice. The bareness of color—a coat of blue and red to cover the whole structure—is perplexing, and the uniformity of the accents is unexpected. It is clear that the designer knew his palette well, knew which details fit where; he hid the more complicated carvings in the shadows of the tiers, veiled the detailed paintings beneath those. The spareness is striking, and the size of the building does most of the bragging.
What I don't entirely understand, however, is why such a tremendous building was built for the purpose of praying specifically for good harvest—wouldn't a less imposing, more natural looking tower have been more fitting? I do suppose, though, that the three-gabled circle design is relevant, as it encompasses the Chinese depiction of Heaven. First, as I have already mentioned, by the circle shape, and also by the three tiers that, as I learned from Professor Groner himself, are symbolic given their likeness to the Chinese character for king: (王) three horizontal lines (Heaven, humans and earth) intersected by one longer vertical line (the emperor, who maintains the harmony between the three). So beyond the architects constructing a beautiful building, they were also smart in considering Chinese language and culture in its design.
At this juncture, it seems that everyone has found this temple to be a suitable distraction from the news; students stand, arms akimbo, mouths and eyes wide, staring up at the sublime structure before them; others poke each other on the shoulder urging them to take a closer look at this carving or that stroke of paint; everyone is smiling, amazed, and happy, at least temporarily.
After a few photos, I start back down the stairs and see my classmates gazing up at the Temple of Heaven, as if they are considering heaven now that it feels oddly within reach. Or at least this is what I am thinking as I leave, whether I should have vetoed the photography session for a more useful prayer service and appeal to whatever god is responsible for me. But I wouldn't even begin to know what to ask for, because anything regarding Heaven assumes that I will, someday, be removed from the earth and deposited elsewhere, which is a thought I wholeheartedly dread and would prefer to ignore until any time that cannot be called "now." I suppose I could wish for immortality, sought for by religious Taoists, but the thought of eternal aging has never appealed to me. I have often been told—by friends and professionals alike—that I think about death more often than the average my-ager, which has probably accounted for some peculiar facets of my personality and overall perspective, but this is the first time anyone close to me—in age, in life path, in physical proximity—has passed. It's not that I want to think about death now—I have to.
Wu wei has diverged down another road, and I am on the trail of tenacity, vulnerable to bad weather, ill omen, and an agitated mind.
The sky, which has been mostly eclipsed by the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, is now visibly grey and murky again as I walk back through crowds of lively Chinese exercisers. It's as if they are in Heaven here, gods playing checkers and smoking cigarettes and tossing balls around, so far from death that playing games seems a good way to spend a life. But I know that they are all subject to the same rules, that they are just trying to follow the Tao and let life come at them without swimming against the natural flow. I am reminded of an essay by Chinese poet Li Young Lee who explained the difference between Eastern and Western perspectives: Americans always talk about walking forward into the future and leaving the past behind; the Chinese see and know the past which lies ahead of them as they walk backwards into the future. Perhaps this fundamental belief is what allows them to give themselves up to the unknowable future, as using one's will to fight it is futile. They are not stifled by the air like I am; granted, they were born into it, but I still feel as if it may be because of my outlook, a persistent anxiety about what will happen in my future that was there even before Kurt.
I re-board the mega bus, thus returning to the tragedies let loose within its doors. I am thankful for its air filtration system which aids me in regaining a clear mind, then notice the number of friends hugging each other in the rows before my seat in the back of the bus. Despite having spent months living among these people, I have never seen such compassion, moderation and humility—the three jewels of the Tao—shared between them, and I am so moved by the sight that I realize I want a hug, too, even though I am not the kind of person who generally seeks physical consolation. I think that, maybe, I need to reconsider my way of living—open up, stop dwelling on the future, hug people more. And re-read the Tao of Pooh.
[The above is an essay written for Zen, which was featured (along with the Dakshina Chitra essay) in Semester at Sea's "Academic Gallery" that nobody went to! Hurray!]
[The photo was found on the internet, and I presume that it was heavily photoshopped, possible alterations including the color of the sky (brightened) and clouds (superimposed, of course)].
I think that about sums up my entire China experience. A few overlooked but important details include:
A brief stop at Tiananmen Square where the phrase "boo-yao" often escaped from my mouth; five-star hotels; being feverish and sore throat-ed the whole time while Kristin selflessly took it upon herself to follow my "but I'm sick…" demands; Peking duck which was tasty enough the first time but not so much the fourth and fifth; delicious hot pot; reserving the whole back seat of the bus for Kristin and myself, and sometimes Per (a curious, rich New York boy who drank much too much); spicy noodles; soy bean popsicles; Mao's face on every wall, t-shirt and deck of cards; climbing the great wall with Drew and skipping all the way down; riding in a dragon boat at the Emperor's summer palace; seeing the Bird's Nest from our a foggy bus window as we sped down the highway; our (me, Scott, and Drew's) leisurely walk back to the ship from town, during which we watched rubber pigs and rats being thrown against the ground so hard they spread a foot around, dolls manipulated by hidden remote controls, calligraphy, and an Asian Woody Allen who effortlessly cut Scott's profile out of a piece of paper and unknowingly inspired my computer's taking on the identity of Scott Rollins.
I liked China just fine but was very ready to leave when I did, as was everyone else, I think.
Plus, Japan is next! Oh, goody.