Clamor: Your DIY Guide to Everyday Revolution.

Clamor ceased publication in December 2006. This website contains information for your reference and archival purposes only.

In Search of The Living Buddha
By Michelle Chen

Shovels ground into the four-foot high mound of mud in the road. Several cars were piled either on top or in front of the lump, freshly formed by a sudden landslide following a rainstorm. This was only a minor obstacle in our two-day journey through Sichuan Province to Da Ze Temple ("Temple of the Great Rule"), a small monastery in a remote region bordering Tibet. Our group consisted of over 20 people, mostly educated young or middle-aged professionals from Shanghai and Sichuan, all devout followers of a Living Buddha, or Huo Fo, whom they called "master."

They represented a growing contingent of people in Chinese society who have both the resources and the will to pursue something beyond material existence. Overwhelmed or disappointed with the influx of material wealth, people who came of age in the Reform Era are moving away from the drive toward wealth and toward another type of success, in which the profit margin is serenity and the chief asset is contained not in a bank but in a spiritual vision.

From a Western pop cultural perspective, something about Buddhism imbues it with a sort of grace that lets it rise above Western doctrines whose public images are tainted by fanaticism. My Western peers, particularly the "crunchy granola" variety abundant on college campuses, seem fascinated by Buddhism's ancient mysticism and seemingly precocious progressivism. Perhaps what attracts people from the developed world to Buddhism is that Buddhism doesn't seek them out. At least on the surface, florid monasteries, archaic scriptures, and esoteric mantras are things to be discovered. Maybe, I thought, as we flew along the mountain road past pine forests and sprawling croplands, it was the passion of searching that fueled belief.

As we climbed higher, the air began to thin and our lungs swelled steadily with the anticipation of our reaching the destination. When our three cars stopped for a rest, one of the group leaders, a real estate developer from Sichuan, got out of his car to check up on the others. He looked over at me and smiled. "This kid from America really knows how to chi ku," he said, referring to the idiom of "eating bitter," the Chinese virtue of being able to suffer for a goal.

One of the reasons I came, admittedly, was to see if I could really take the bitterness. To an extent, my motivations were not so different from those of my companions. One of the key principles of Tibetan Buddhism is "refuge." The stark, isolated life of religious contemplation provides sanctuary from base human impulses. Seekers of Buddhist salvation must find refuge in moral teachings and shut out "worldly deities."
Our common destination provided another type of refuge - that of the religious community. I was asked by the other travelers whether I was a "follower." Trying to sound as un-tourist-like as possible, I told them no, I'm just here to "tiyan" - for the experience. But I suppose I was a "follower," in the sense that my main purpose in this journey was to follow, and like them, I was unsure exactly what it was I was following.

Though we were mostly strangers to each other, the warmth of siblings imbued people's conversations and interactions as we talked and ate together on the road. The aloofness that I had frequently encountered among other urban dwellers during my time living in Shanghai had dissolved. The urban cynicism and instinctive defensiveness were temporarily forgotten. It was assumed that (with one exception), everyone was on a quest for spiritual gain.

Four kilometers in the air, the pain that was beginning to seep through our temples felt like our worldly deities trying to claw us back into the ordinary world. The China we were coming from was a China of cranes and steamrollers, Big Macs and karaoke bars, white collars, dirty hands, and clenched fists. The "bitter" we were consuming was something of an indulgence - to taste it was to realize a fantasy of self-sacrifice.

At the last turn, the empty plains that had flanked the bumpy road burst into a bustling oasis. We saw a field of grazing yaks, dotted with white square tents or zang peng. Though the sky was now gray and the road slick with rain, the mood was buoyant as we were led by smiling locals through a red arc supported by ropes and decorated with prayer flags. We followed the lamas up a steep, creaking wooden staircase into an attic housing four compact rooms, the largest of which was painted with Tibetan patterns and contained a long narrow table which was soon piled for us with wrinkled fruit, plates of candy, and simple dishes that were catered specifically for us (the lamas figured we would not be able to stomach their diet of yak meat and dairy and greasy porridge). The mood of celebration was dampened by the collapse of several of our members on the long couch that ran along the wall. A young man trained in Chinese medicine had brought a small oxygen tank and went around plugging people with a breathing tube.

After our humble feast, we sat in the small living room adjacent to the dining room, sipping cloudy hot water (which they had to truck over from a neighboring region) from paper cups. I sat beside a fellow Shanghai pilgrim, a Taiwanese expatriate businessman named Steven. He showed me a young, bespectacled lama with a moustache and a lavish gold and maroon robe. This was Huo Fo, the Living Buddha. The object of our journey.

"This is our American friend," said Steven. I stood and shook his hand, somewhat underwhelmed by the sight of the Buddha reincarnate. I thought he looked remarkably graceful, his smooth countenance distinguishing him from his gaunt, wind-burnt non-Buddha colleagues.

With the Huo Fo in our midst, the pilgrims seemed finally to feel safe in the harsh surroundings. I retired to a heap of blankets in a small square room, beside the rhythmic bowing of a girl about my age, lost in intense prayer.

In the morning, we walked about 100 meters to the monastery, a cubic red brick building. The inside was almost completely dark except for beams of silver daylight threading through the tiny square windows. Rows of monks sat on raggedy carpets before small, low wooden benches, which held bowls of food and served as prayer altars. In muted primary colors and gold, paintings, statues, prayer flags, and incense crowded into every available space, almost messy, slightly gaudy. The place felt like an attic that had for centuries been accumulating worn, beautiful things that would not fit anywhere else. In two elevated thrones draped in green and red brocade cloth presided two Living Buddhas - the younger Huo Fo, my group's leader, and another Huo Fo of about fifty.

The scent of damp wood hung in the sedate atmosphere of the room. The oddly musical guttural chanting of mantras in trance-like, blurred unison alternated with stretches of pregnant silence. What we were witnessing, I realized, was the ritual that formed the center of the monastic life. The sole mission of the monks was to cultivate their mind through meditation and the study of scriptures. The room we had entered as observers - clumsily heaped against a back wall - was their place of refuge, a sanctuary that had opened, momentarily, for us.

I hesitated as I wondered whether taking pictures would disturb them. When I saw that others were using digital cameras to record the event, including a lama in his thirties, I guiltily decided that no one would object if I joined in. Some younger monks smiled and gathered behind people's cameras, intrigued by the glowing viewfinders. It became clear that suddenly we were the spectacle.

To read the rest of this piece and other great Clamor features, please pick up a copy of the new issue, or subscribe now.

Go to Top

Clamor Magazine (a project of Become the Media) P.O. Box 20128, Toledo, OH, 43610, USA.
Website by amphibian | Header graphic by Monkey Bubble Media