Serenity and Strength through Quiet Contemplation
On the tail end of a solemn, exhaustive and grief-filled trip to witness my grandfather’s passing, Dad and I made a stop in Hangzhou, a city in Zhejian Province, a quaint and naturally scenic spot southwest of Shanghai. We thought that a quiet diversion would cox our battered spirits into better shape place before returning to New York City. When we arrived, the sky was an even gray, the air awash with a light and cool breeze typical of the region’s spring. The bus dropped us off near West Lake, a sprawling expanse of water whose temperament ranges from that of a demure, crystalline portrait glass to that of a tempestuous, roaring stream. In fact, standing under an open, three-tiered Chinese gazebo, I was unsure if the lake even had an end were it not for the soft undulating hills obscured by clouds in the distance.
We strolled for a while along the stone-paved shore, crossing a small arched bridge while admiring the willow tendrils strumming the air. Our minds absorbed the calm of the water and we escaped our recent loss by assuming the form of two small specks submerged in nature. Dad suggested we take a guided boat to learn more about the culture of the place. While the lake was lined with smaller rowboats, some built with rectangular dwellings covered by wood-thatched awings, ours was a modern double-decker engine with floor to ceiling windows. Once on, the guide began to explain the legend of Leifeng Pagoda, a five story high octagonal tower considered the defining feature of the West Lake estate. Like all great monuments, the Pagoda has now been built and rebuilt several times. The cause of one instance of damage can be explained by a myth claiming that the pagoda’s bricks could would cure miscarriages. The tower has been raided and burnt by Japanese invaders and even struck by lightning. I stare at the lofty structure, contemplating the layers of history that had transpired in its place, as the boat hums past.
Later in the day, we travel to Linyin Monastery, an oasis of tranquility and spiritualism among an otherwise dense patch of wooden, residential homes. As we walked from the bus toward the opening of the monastic grounds, we passed several middle-aged women roasting freshly picked tea leaves in open air woks. The sights and smells of the stirred, charred tea leaves set the mood for the impending introspection and meaning that awaited. Before stepping through the monastery’s gate, our minds were tested by two disfigured people, beggars cumbered by melon-sized tumors, laying dirty and ill in tattered clothes – living reminders of the ubiquitous suffering the Buddha embraced as inevitable to life. I make a donation and proceed through the red, wooden archway under the words “Linyin Monastery,” written in forceful calligraphy by a now-retired president.
An instant wave of serenity and peace break in my mind as I enter the hallowed Buddhist grounds. The air smells of the moss covering the gray precipices that lines the walkway. The outside world loosens its grip on as I indulge in the never-ending here and now – the plants, the stones, and the sentiments of the Buddhas carved into the side of the mountain. As we walk onward, we pass several gazebos – engraved wood covered in red paint, roofs lined with lacquered logs, their curved ends pointing toward the sky they worship. I separate from Dad and take a short side trail, climbing higher until I reached an open clearing containing a small five story pagoda. I can see the grounds of the monastery and beyond, open clear and full of possibility.
After my descent, I rejoin Dad in the main courtyard, a space lined with tall pine trees and iron incense alters – large vats weighted by sand and adorned with burning incense that permeates the yard with smoke. People stream into and out of the temple; a single word “Buddha” hangs on pink parchment, blessing travelers and reminding them of the religion’s purpose. Though I am not Buddhist, I swing my legs over the high entrance barrier into the temple’s main hall, stare at the golden statues reposed in meditation, close my eyes and take deep breaths. As I enjoy the air flowing through my lungs – the same air that grandfather could no longer lift his chest to take in – I start praying softly and earnestly ‘may my family be well, may my family be well.’ Dad does the same and we both find some strength to face the future.
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