I decided to strike out on my own today for the first time. I wanted to visit Wenshu Monastery, the oldest in Chengdu, and one of the major centers for the Chan (Zen) Buddhist sect in Sichuan. I also wanted to eat at the monastery’s famous vegetarian restaurant.
I did my homework, carefully writing out both the English spelling and the Chinese characters for “Wenshu Yuan” and “UESTC.” That way I could show a taxi driver my destination, and be assured of getting back to campus again. I walked quite a ways, exploring new areas and a large home furnishings shopping area, before I caught a taxi. I considered taking a bicycle taxi, but the humidity was already getting to me.
The taxi driver let me out at a distance from Wenshu, because of construction. I picked my way through road, sidewalk, and building construction (no safety considerations or barriers here) to a huge group of buildings. They were built in “traditional” temple style, meticulously crafted, yet obviously brand-new. I was confused; this couldn’t be the monastery. I followed a sign that I thought looked like the Chinese characters for Wenshu, and entered a beautiful building. I was in the wrong place; it was the headquarters for the “new” traditional building complex, and a helpful woman thought I was an investor who wanted to open a restaurant in the complex. She started to take me on a tour, but I finally said “All I want to do is visit the Monastery.” “Oh, well, it’s that way,” she replied dismissively. I walked around more street construction, and was almost skewered by a worker wheeling some long plumbing pipes down the road. The Wenshu Monastery’s red wall led to its entrance, where I paid the 5 yuan entry fee.
If not for the stifling humidity, and my foggy mind from my allergies, I would have been entranced by the fairy-tale complex of buildings. This was my first real Chinese temple. Here’s an excerpt from Travel China Guide online:
Wenshu Monastery … is the best-preserved Buddhist temple in Chengdu. It is the home of the Buddhist Association of Sichuan Province and Chengdu City. Initially built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Wenshu Monastery was once called Xinxiang Temple. In 1681, during the reign of Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Cidu, an accomplished Buddhist monk, came to the monastery. He built a simple hut between two trees and for several years lived an ascetic life there. Legend has it when Cidu was being cremated; the statue of Wensu (Bodhisattva Manjusri in Sanskrit) appeared in the flames, staying for a long time. So people regarded Cidu as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri. Thereafter, Xinxiang Temple became Wenshu Monastery.
I walked around the monastery, marveling at the quiet and the background sounds of chirping crickets. Pathways led through a green oasis of trees, with pavilions, ponds, and fountains. I came to a huge building which appeared to be the main assembly or meditation hall for the monks, its floor littered with round meditation cushions. I sat in the relative dim coolness of the hall, and then found that if I stood in the main door I could get a slight breeze to cool me off.
Large Assembly Hall, Wenshu Monastery
I wandered back to the main complex, and found the Vegetarian Hall. After waiting for about 15 minutes, I was ushered inside, where it was mercifully semi-air-conditioned. I ordered myself a vegetarian feast. I started with a glass of fresh juice that was supposedly gooseberry but tasted like fresh cold watermelon. It was ambrosia. I then had a plate of braised eggplant swimming in oil, Sichuan chilis, and garlic, one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted. The chili, however, made me start sweating profusely again, and the restaurant was starting to fill with people, which made it hotter. I didn’t finish all of my next course, giant “meatballs” (bean curd and other vegetable matter) with mushrooms, also quite tasty. The restaurant prides itself on creations that look and taste like meat, chicken, and seafood, but aren’t. I paid my bill – about 40 yuan – and handed the waitress 4 yuan. Her eyes grew wide with surprise and shock as she thanked me. I still haven’t figured out the tipping etiquette in this country. I actually had a taxi driver hand a tip back to me once.
I left the temple, negotiating the treacherous construction sites, and stopped at one of the many religious shops lining the street to buy some incense to take home. I caught a taxi back to UESTC. Funniest event of the day: as the air-conditioned taxi sped down the street, the radio blared “Don’t Want No Short Dick Man.” I thought of trying to explain the song to the driver, but it would have involved some very personal pantomime movements.
I returned to the apartment, where I collapsed on my bed under the air conditioner, stunned from the humidity and heat.
Later, about 7:30 pm, I went for a long walk through the neighborhood, where I saw my first “Hot Pot” restaurants, open-front spaces with tables inside and on the sidewalk. In a hole in the center of each table was a large pot of boiling water and oil, into which diners put their food selections to cook. The restaurants all had their raw food spread on uncovered tables in the open air. I finally found a shop that had a (used) map of Chengdu, and bought it for 4 yuan, even though it was all in Chinese. I took it home and studied it. At last I’m beginning to orient myself.
Went to bed at 10, woke up at 4 am. I guess that’s my sleep for the night. I started writing an entry for my blog at 5, listening to June Christy singing “Something Cool.” HA!! Not in this town!
I have a meeting at 8:30 am this morning (Sunday), a very unusual time, for the orientation for the summer English camp. I’m meeting my assistant at the school gate on the other side of the bridge at 8.