Hong Fa Temple

Shenzhen bus drivers drive like New York cabbies. So you can imagine what it’s like taking a taxi—but that’s another story. I hopped a bus to the train station, sat back and enjoyed the ride. We almost hit a few people, but the driver honked soon enough for them to jump out of the way. I was going to the Hong Fa Buddhist temple in Luoho, twenty-five stops away once I boarded the train. Pretty far, but I liked getting out of Shekou, away from the foreigner-filled city, and into the China countryside.

monk-by-pond

I started the day angry, frustrated for some reason. A few years ago I read the book Anger, written by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He said that if you eat an angry chicken you’ll become angry. I think he was referring to a larger societal issue and the mistreatment of animals, but I did wonder about the steamed dumplings I’d had for breakfast. I haven’t had much concern for my diet since I’ve been in China. I eat more vegetables than ever, and I’m thinner than I’ve been in years. I just don’t really consider where the food comes from. Does that make me a hypocrite? Or was I a hypocrite in convenient America, acting like I cared? Was I a hypocrite going to a monastery when I was angry, or just noting the irony? The train took me east away from my home and family to a temple, to meditate on my madness.

Transferring from the train to another bus, I eventually made it to Xian Hu Park, a botanical garden covering 590 hectares, where the monastery is protected, and visited by busloads of Chinese tourists.

My stride is a bit longer than your average Chinaman, like I’m riding a moving walkway you see in airports. It felt like I was hustling up the two-mile hike to the monastery, passing the tourists. I stand out in Shekou, but once I leave the city I really stand out, practically head and shoulders above the rest. While I’ve found some anonymity in China, I’m still noticed.

I was a little discouraged with the number of people coming and going. I’d hoped to find some peace. The people seemed in good spirits, though, so I decided to make the most of it. They say if you want to make God laugh, make plans. I guess the same could be said about expectations.

At the entrance to the monastery a young lady approached me with her camera. “Excuse me,” she said. I assumed she wanted me to take a picture of her and a friend, but instead she asked in broken English if she could take a picture of me with her friend. I said yes—I didn’t really know what else to do—and before I could ask if she was going to count to three, the camera flashed. “Thank you, thank you,” they said, then hurried off. The stone lions guarding the entrance of the temple were smiling.

Inside the walls I was given three stems of incense. I found later that people burned them while bowing to a statue of Buddha or other mythical figures. The scented smoke drifted throughout, eventually up the mountain. I put the sticks I was given in my bag. I didn’t know if it was allowed, like I was taking a handful of potential sacred ashes, instead of scattering them about.

Another woman approached me. “Excuse me,” she said . . .

I ended up posing for five different photos. I didn’t know whether to smile, smirk, or do my best Liam Neeson impersonation. I couldn’t say no, and I can’t help but wonder what they’d say when sharing the pictures. “Yeah, yeah,” they’d say, “the Hong Fa Temple is okay, but get a load of this guy!”

The trip was certainly worth taking. I didn’t accomplish the goals I’d set. But all too often what’s most elusive is found by mistake. On the way down the mountain I saw a monk beside a pond. He seemed content amidst all I’d seen, making a conscious decision to be at peace through practice. I decided to follow in kind, down the escalator, and back to my family.

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