Monday, 15 February 2016

The Nanputuo Tour: a Buddhist Temple jam packed with Chinese tourists

Nanputuo Temple is a large and internationally significant Buddhist temple in Xiamen, South East China. It is both very old and, at the same time, disconcertingly modern; it originated over 1000 years ago with a monk holing up in a cave, has grown over the years and today  features a great deal of more recent construction. My guide was a temple volunteer who offered visitors free tours. She gave the tour in Mandarin, which was racing away far quicker than I could ever hope to hold onto, so I was fortunate to have translation. My last proper visit to a Buddhist temple was a weeklong stay at a Tibetan retreat incongrously located in Pocklington, a village outside of York. That was some twenty years ago and ended badly. It marked the end of my flirtation with Buddhism and also precipitated a split with my girlfriend who I went with and who was having a spiritual experience there. Was karma finally bringing me back round to them today or was I going to be just another tourist looking at the exotic statues and intricate pavilions?  

Because it was the spring festival week, a national holiday throughout China, the tourists were out in force. It was shoulder to should stuff through much of the tour as Xiamen is a top internal tourist destination and Nanputuo one of the city's principal attractions. Here two tourists have stopped to listen to the guide explain the history of a pavilion and take a good look at the tall pale foreigner at the same time. 

She led us around in a clockwise direction. She explained that you should always visit the temple in this way as to go anti-clockwise was against the natural order. I rather liked the fact that the form of the tour was, at least in part, shaped by Buddhist beliefs. Another one of these was that we were not to walk on any of the portals, we had to step over them instead. The contents of her tour were mostly a mix of stories about the history of the site, some Buddhist beliefs and the lives of the monks and masters. A few times I asked her questions and she notionally answered them but in her own way and quickly brought us back to the script she had prepared. She was going to give the tour she wanted to give and not an open-ended enquiry into the life, culture and politics of the site that I might have wished for.

My partner, Sophie, was translating the tour for me and there was a big difference in the way the guide regarded her to how she addressed me. It often happens that when I take tours in China and I am accompanied by a translator, the guide speaks directly to me and the translator then repeats the information in English. Here, the guide concentrated her attention on Sophie and I was mostly a witness to this exchange, which got paused from time to time so that I could get the highlights. 

When we came to the original Nanputuo cave where a monk once lived, our guide showed us how to pray and how to bow. These involved a very specific series of hand gestures, each of which had a significance, and which together made an elegant chain of movements bringing you to the ground and back up. Here I came to feel that perhaps the main purpose the guide put on the tour was that it might serve as a vehicle to rekindle the faith in visitors. She didn't seem so concerned about me as I was foreigner which, strangely, I was quite relived by. I was free to make of the whole thing whatever I wished.

This was one of the more interesting places we stopped at. The guide explained that during the cultural revolution of the 60s and 70s, the temple was closed but believers would walk up the mountain to a concrete barrier that had been put up behind which was this giant rock carving. Beside the barrier visitors would say a silent prayer and then move on, a way of discretely practicing their faith during a period when it was prohibited. Nowadays the temple is not suppressed, on the contrary it is flourishing, although I did notice a large police presence. When I asked the guide why they were here she told us their presence was due to the site being of national significance and being so popular with visitors.

We finished up in the newer and much quieter study centre and charity foundation wing of the temple. Here, Buddhist monks made there way around the fragrant gardens lined with osmanthus bushes. They walked in an unhurried manner that was in complete contrast to the tourist scrum taking place a few hundred meters away. Looking at them, I thought, if I were going to choose a place to be a monk I'd probably chose here rather than up some remote frozen mountain, their life looked rather good. 

With a smile, our guide bid us farewell and disappeared back into the swell of people and clouds of incense hovering around the front gate. She made no appeal for a donation, the tour existed as something in its own right and this leant her tour greater weight as the words and practice really were in line with one another. She did not make too hard an effort to translate the site's world to us, which is what most tours do, she simply offered us an hour-long sample of it while slotting us through the crowds point to point. I've noticed that Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland offers tours that similarly extend the idea of a tour into including Buddhist practices such as meditation, so it is quite possible there is a pattern here. If I compare these with most tours of Christian churches that I have been on, the church tends to take a more touristic point of view and accepts that people might well be more interested in the stained glass windows than God.

1 comment: