Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Mt Taishan

Taishan: 9/25-26/2007

[ Please read the intro to Taoist Mtns in China if you have not already ]

From the city of Nanjing, we traveled by air (very cheap in China, and much easier and cleaner than the train) to Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. From there we taxied to Tai'an where we stayed in the peaceful and clean Yuzuo Hotel (probably the best hotel we stayed in in China), set inside the beautiful grounds of the Dai Temple.
The morning of our ascent of Taishan, we went to breakfast at the hotel's buffet, but we limited ourselves to steamed buns and hot milk because other choices included insect cocoons in chili sauce, and pan fried scorpions... yikes! Interestingly, in China we have become very lethargic (I wonder if the MSG loaded food is the cause?), and we got a late start. It is too bad, because it is popular to be on the summit for sunrise. In ancient Chinese tradition, it was believed that the sun rose from Taishan.

When the taxi dropped us off at the trailhead (the First Gate of Heaven), we walked with eyes popping at all the souvenir and prayer stands, up to the Guandi Temple (Guandi is the Taoist god of war). It is crowded and smoky, but also more mystical than anything we have seen in China so far. As we continue up the canyon, the rock walls and boulders are covered with calligraphic art dating from who knows how far back; all sorts of prayers and poems. It is like an outdoor Chinese calligraphy museum.
The mountain Taishan is deeply rooted in China's most ancient creation myth, the story of Pan Gu. In the beginning, all was chaos. Heaven and earth were swirling together. Pan Gu was born and started to separate the ground and the sky. Each day he grew taller; thus the sky grew higher and the earth grew thicker. After 18,000 years, the earth and sky were fully separated and Pan Gu died of exhaustion. His eyes became the sun and moon, his blood became the rivers, his sweat the rain. His head and limbs became five sacred peaks... Taishan is his head.
His head is 7.5 km of endless stone stairs. It is said that 6660 steps lead up to the Midway Gate to Heaven, but I didn't count. The climb is hot and uncomfortably sweaty. And, as we soon began to expect in China, it was stinky and very crowded with people. People who were extremely loud (you really wouldn't believe it), and often seen/heard hacking phlegm and spitting it anywhere.

Only 5 of China's emperors ever climbed Tai Shan, although Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty scaled it 11 times. (note- climbing it for an emperor means riding in a sedan chair up and having resting houses built for you as you go. ) Legend has it that when Confucius was on the summit he uttered the dictum "The world is small." And when Chairman Mao lumbered up, he declared "The east is Red."

Along the way we visited and past many temples and shrines. Many of these were dedicated to the goddess Bixia, the Princess of the Azure Clouds. She is a powerful cult figure for the rural women of Shandong and beyond. We saw many little packs of grandmothers (it is said that if you climb Taishan, you will live to be 100) stumping their way up, stopping to pray at the shrines, and eagerly heading to the cluster of temples at the summit where they burn money and incense, praying for their progeny.

To reach the summit area, Rod and I walked hand in hand through the Archway to Immortality. We took the lock we carried up and put in onto the chain of locks at the temple there. By this time a thick mist had begun to gather. We passed through the South Gate to Heaven on our way to visit the Azure Clouds Temple, then followed an uncrowded, longer path up to the Jade Emperor Temple (1545m). Having a little isolation allowed our imaginations to peer through the mist and see the true nature of this ancient sacred summit.

The Jade Emperor Temple is the place where Imperial sacrifices to heaven and earth were offered (don't know what was sacrificed... animals probably... and people?). Along the stone pathway to it, the steep cliffs dropped off into the mist below us, the deciduous trees were beginning to show orange and red, and the smell of wild flowering marijuana filled our noses. After visiting the temple, we sat on the rocks outside and made our offering to Bixia. After some rest and people watching, we walked back down to the Archway to Immortality. There we got a yummy snack of thin flat bread, spread with plum sauce, and wrapped around a green onion, before heading to the cable car (!) to ride down through the clouds.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Mt Maoshan

Mao Shan: 9/23/2007 (Autumn Equinox)

[ Please read the intro to Taoist Mtns in China if you have not already ]

After a few days in Shanghai, we caught a train to the city of Nanjing, capital of the Jiangsu Province. We were startled by the overall size of every city in China, even the little towns are big cities with skyscrapers and pollution. We got a shabby room in a big hotel on a big street in the big city. After a yummy dinner on a crowded pedestrian-only street, lined with restaurants and snack stands, we found a taxi to take us to Maoshan the next morning.

The taxi driver was absolutely on time, and very friendly, despite that he did not speak a word of English, and we knew only one word in Chinese (hello). We drove East out of town through some agricultural land to the village at the base of Maoshan. We stopped at an odd communist memorial to some violent man on a horse. As we climbed up, the police/military men who sold us the tickets to see the memorial set off a racket of fireworks at the bottom. After this strange and somewhat disturbing visit, the taxi driver took us on to the real Maoshan starting point, a temple on the opposite side of the mountain.
Maoshan is the "first land of blessing", and the "eighth world of caves" for Taoism. It has been a Taoist center since the beginning of formal Taoism during the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). The mountain used to be covered with temples, hermitage sites, and shrines, but much was destroyed and some has since been rebuilt. Giuliano Bertueciolo, an Italian Academic who studied Taoism, visited Maoshan in 1974 studying its critical role in the history of Taoism. He published an article "the Memory of Mt. Maoshan" in the Journal of Oriental Studies describing the prosperity and history of the Temples on Maoshan. In 1985, he returned to Maoshan and published another article depicting the decline of Maoshan and Taoism during China's Cultural Revolution.

The Temple at the bottom of the pilgrimage path has been newly rebuilt (by the Cable Car Company!), and felt rather plastic, even Disneyland-ish. Like each of the sacred mountains we visited in China, it was almost more oriented toward the Chinese tourist, rather than to anyone coming for religious or spiritual purpose. We visited the temple, then started up the mountain on foot (we did not take the cable car).

The trail through the dense underbrush was hot, humid, and devoid of other hikers. We were just getting uncomfortably sweaty when the trail forked. On the left was the trail down to the caves! Despite the purpose of going up, we had to go down... it got spooky. We passed a few shrines, and then a big, new, statue of an Ox coming out of a cave stopped us. Whatever had been the 8th world of caves was now more like the "It's a small world after all" ride. We headed back up to the main trail.

Soon, we noticed lines of embedded pebbles in the cement pathway. Ah, yes, these are the various line combinations that make up the I Ching or "Book of Changes", the ancient Chinese oracle. We followed the path of the I Ching until it brought us to another Temple. This one was the most religiously genuine place on the mountain. A monk greeted us at the door, and led us in to where we bowed as he struck a musical bowl. Then he walked us through the building to some beautiful gardens and pond where the trail to the summit continued.

Just up from the temple, is a parking lot where everyone else drives to to begin the walk. We walked through and up a long set of stairs to another temple, stopping to examine a set of sculptures; the animals of the Chinese zodiac. At this temple, a group of Taoist monks were playing traditional music and singing.
After this, the mountain trail was mostly stone stairs. It was interrupted by a newly built, and horrible, wax museum of various forms of torture and demons. We practically ran through it to get to the trail again. The stone steps became wooden planks on wobbly chains until we arrived at a small pagoda. Here two people were playing cards and smoking cigarettes and selling small heart shaped locks for couples or family to lock onto the chains. We bought one, engraved "R+S", and locked it on.
At the summit was another temple, but we did not go into it. We sat in another small pagoda and watched other tourists and people at the souvenir stands through the swirling mountaintop mist.

During this day, our first sacred mountain climb in China, I only caught glimpses of the real history and power of this place. I want to give this "first land of blessing" a blessing. I hope that the power of this historical sacred site can be recovered from the anti-religious drape of Communist China. Blessings to Maoshan.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Taoist Mtns of China - Intro

Sacred Taoist Mountains: 9/19/2007 - 10/13/2007


As a focus for sacred mountains in China (there are many of them), we put our efforts into the Taoist mountains. Taoism (Tao, or "the way") is one of the three historical religious systems of China; Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. It originated in China from the philosophical system of Lao-tse老子(604?-531 BC). Who's written work, the Da De Jing (the Way of Power; written often as Tao De Ching) is its main doctrine. It has 81 chapters dealing with many topics, like "Nature", "Hypocrisy", "Indulgence", and "Harmony" for example. An excerpt from the chapter "Experience" follows:

"Experience is a riverbed,
Its source hidden, forever flowing:
Its entrance, the root of the world,
The Way moves within it:
Draw upon it; it will not run dry."

And from the chapter "Beneath Abstraction":

"The mother of nature.
It has no name, but I call it "the Way";
It has no limit, but I call it "limitless".

Being limitless, it flows away forever;
Flowing away forever, it returns to my self:

The Way is limitless,
So nature is limitless,
So the world is limitless,
And so I am limitless."

The ideas in the Da De Jing came into a formal religious form around the 2nd century AD, through the founding work of Zhang Daoling张道陵(AD 34-156). By the 14th century AD, Taoism had been divided into many sects. It developed into two main philosophies: Quanzhen Tao, emphasizing self-cultivation to attain immortality or enlightenment, and Zhengyi Tao, which involves beliefs in charms and spells.

After some research, we concluded that the mountains China officially claims as "The Five Taoist Mountains of China" are not the ones most worthy of focus. Writing in Pilgrims and Sacred Sites in China, John Lagerwey comments: "A note on what is meant by "Taoist mountain" is perhaps in order here. It is traditional to regard the Five Peaks (wu-yueh) as Taoist, in contrast with the "four most famous (Buddhist) mountains" (ssu-ta ming shan). While both history and cosmology can be called on to justify this identification of the Five Peaks with Taoism, these mountains already constituted a distinct group in the Former Han dynasty before Taoism had taken on an organized ecclesiastical form, and it is only from the late sixth century on that Taoists made a concerted effort to claim these mountains as theirs. The Taoists were never entirely successful in pressing this claim, and of the five only Hua Shan and T'ai Shan, albeit in a very different manner, play a significant and ongoing role in Taoist religious history. Perhaps even more to the point, even these two mountains are nowhere near as important to Taoist history as are such mountains as Mao Shan and LungHu Shan, centers, respectively, of Shang-ch'ing and Cheng-i Taoism. Together with Ko-tsao Shan (in Kiangsi), the ordination center of Ling-pao Taoism, these mountains constituted the "tripod" on which officially recognized forms of Taoism rested from the early twelfth century on."

So, in our exploration of Taoist sacred mountains in china, we will visit and climb four (it is interesting, the Chinese phrase for pilgrimage - ch' ao-shan chin-hsiang - means 'paying one's respect to a mountain'): Mao Shan, T'ai Shan, Hua Shan, and LungHu Shan.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blogging in China

My apologies folks...
We are in China until Nov 4th, and somehow, viewing this blog and accessing the photos are blocked to me. I am publishing the text still (at least i think it's working), but the photos will have to wait. Please come back to see!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mt Dewa Sanzen

Dewa Sanzen: 9/12-13/2007
Mt Haguro, Mt Gassan, Mt Yodono

Japan has a rich history of mountain worship, one intertwined with later spiritual ideas that came into the area. Many ideas of Shinto, the native beliefs of Japan, were mixed with Buddhism when it arrived. A major event in this, are the Ideas of Prince Hachico. He believed that Buddha had come to Japan in the forms of Shinto Deities. And many of these deities were/are mountains. The practice of Shugendo Buddhism developed, let by the Yamabushi. Yamabushi literally means, "one who lies in the mountains". These devoted mountain ascetics practice severe austerities in search of personal transformation and supernatural power.

In 7th century, the imperial Prince Hachiko renounced his title and position, took the name Kokai, and became a wandering mountain hermit. While on a beach, he saw an enormous black bird with three legs who led him first to Mt Haguro, and then to the other peaks of the Dewa Sanzen. Kokai stayed the rest of his life upon Haguro-san, where his imperial grave is maintained to this day. Haguro-san is the seat of one of the two main Shugendo orders. On the summit are a massive and beautiful temple, a great bell, and a sematary, among other things, and along the path up are many shrines and standing stones.

The three sacred mountains that make up the Dewa Sanzan, in the Yamagata prefecture of northern Honshu, are Haguro San (419 m), Gassan (1980m), and Yudono san (1504 m).

The traditional foot path to the summit of Haguro san passes through forest of ancient cedars and cryptomerias and ascending 2446 stone steps. On the top is the shrine of Gassai-den which houses the deities of the tree mountains: Tsukiyomi-no-Mikoto, Oyamatsumi-no-Mikoto, and Ideha-no-Mikoto. The deity of Yudono lives, not in a building, but in a hot water fall. Pilgrims take off their shoes and bathe in the sacred water.

It is said that white clad pilgrims with wooden staffs, sandals, and straw hats can be seen climbing these mountains. And, they say you can occasionally come across a Yamabushi, with conch shell, check jacket, and white pantaloons, sitting under icy waterfall or doing other exercises intended to train both body and spirit, but we didn't see any of this. We did see some old ladies carrying wooden staffs with flags on the top, but that is as far as it went.
From the town of Tsuruoka, in the Yamagata-Ken prefecture, we caught a morning bus to the base of Haguro-san. We had a cup of tea, then passed through the first Torii and into the peaceful forest staircase. Beautiful old Cedar trees lined the granite steps up the slope. We passed a waterfall, and stopped to pour the cold water over our heads, before continuing up. Soon we came to the Go-Jyu-No-To, a wooden five-storied pagoda built in 931 to 937 AD. Starting to get used to the idea of climbing stairs (so many more to go!), we kept moving through the forest. We (well, I, really) couldn't help but take a short detour to visit the Minami-Dani (southern valley), the site of a temple built in 1662. Here, the famous haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, stayed while climbing Haguro-san and wrote several haiku. About Minami-Dani, he wrote:
So holy a place
The snow itself is scented
At southern valley

Before reaching the summit (414m), we stopped for green tea, and some weird sweet rice goop, at a small tea house on the trail. At the summit, we were awed by the peaceful elegance of the thatched roofed Sanjin Gosaiden. This shrine joins together the three Dewa Sanzen dieties. It is a magnificent structure; the 2.1m thick thatched roof supported by a wooden structure is one of a kind. Also on the summit is a monastery, the Kotakuji Temple, a huge bell (from 1275), various other structures, and a very interesting graveyard. We explored the summit area before walking down a bit to our lodging, the Saikan. This building used to be a temple called Kozoin, where priests held divine service. Now it is used to provide pilgrims to Dewa Sanzan with accommodation and meals. We were shown our room, a simple grass mat floor room with a low table for tea, and two futon mats on the floor. Our meals there were great, we sat on the floor and were served traditional Japanese food on low tables by the monks who lived there.

The next morning, after an early morning walk and a great breakfast, we caught a taxi to the trail head of Gas-san. Gas-san is the highest peak of the Dewa Sanzen, 1984m. It is worshiped as a mountain where our ancestors sleep, and a mountain of fertility that brings rich waters. This hike is not stairs, it is a beautiful trail through brush, scattered with peaceful ponds. At the summit is the Gas-san Jinja shrine. To enter the shrine we had to be purified. We had to bow our heads before the Priest for a blessing, then rub our shoulders, arms, body, legs and feet with sacred paper. Then we dropped the paper in a fountain. We visited the shrine in a foggy mist, then continued down the other side of the mountain toward Yudono-san.

We reached the summit of Yudono-san (1504), and continued down the trail until it became a slippery stream bed. Here a series of ladders and chains helped us descend the final stretch to the Yudono-san Jinja. Again here, i was blessed and purified with sacred paper, then instructed to take my shoes off and follow the priest through the shrine. In front of me was a huge orange rock with a hot (and i mean HOT) spring bubbling from pools at it's top. The whole rock was continuously lapped by water from the spring. I am guessing that the rock was formed from precipitates as the hot mineral water bubbled up and over. The rock itself is said to be an embodied deity. The monk told me to walk, clockwise, up the side of the rock, over it's top and back down. The hot water burned my feet as i walked the circle and tried not to slip. At the bottom, the monk rinsed my feet with more of the water, then let me out. Yudono-san Jinja has the strictest rituals of the three mountains.

When I came out of the shrine, Rod was getting frantic... we were late for the last bus back to Tsuruoka. We hiked the last part of the trail to where the parking lot is, and found that yes, we did miss the last bus. What are we going to do?

Presently, the monks from the shrine appear, they have closed up the shrine gate, and are going to drive home. We were so thankful when one of the monks offered us a ride back to the city. We piled into the back of his tiny blue Rav4, and enjoyed talking about mountain biking and listening to Japanese hip-hop the whole ride back. -------
That night we stopped in a sushi bar for dinner. Everyone in the bar was so excited to meet some foreigners and practice their English, that pretty soon the whole place was buying sake for each other and toasting the Dewa Sanzen. When we left, we had to shake hands with each person in the restaurant, including the couple who owns it.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Mt Fuji

Mt Fuji: 9/8-9/2007

Before leaving the states for this expedition, I was talking with my Akido sensei, Yoshi (he is from Japan) about going to Japan. I told him I planned to climb Mt Fuji. He looked at me in astonishment and reprimand... "Why? Fuji-san is a most sacred mountain. The most sacred place. How could you put your feet on it?"

"Hmm... Shelly," I thought, "you better have a good answer to this question before you go to that mountain." When I thought about it more, I realized that most people, when talking about climbing a mountain, come from the point of view of "conquering the mountain", or "overcoming the obstacle", or other testosterone driven points of view. I certainly don't think of climbing a mountain in that way. It is much more like a dance or training, I get to go to the summit if the mountain lets me, if the mountain thinks that my heart and intention is true, it will permit me to reach its summit. And if I am lucky, it may give me teachings, the lessons I need to learn, along the way. One thing I know for certain is that I am absolutely nothing when related to the power of a mountain. Especially one as powerful as Fuji-san. It is like training with Yoshi sensei, he may permit me to throw or pin him, to teach me the lesson. Yet we both know that I am only a novice, and nothing compared to him. Before climbing any peak, I bow to the mountain, introducing myself, that I am coming in true humility, that I am asking the mountain for teachings, and thanking the mountain for the opportunity to practice with it. If I come with humble intention, I can only put my feet on Fuji-san if it permits me to do so. And if it does, I am thankful for the teaching.

We arrived in Tokyo after a 20 hour layover in Bangkok. We got ourselves organized, and went to the bus station the next day to get tickets to Fuji Go-ko, on the north side of Mt Fuji. At the station, they informed us that the bus was canceled due to an incoming Typhoon. Stuck in a Tokyo Typhoon! We treated ourselves to a night in the Hyatt hotel and watched the trees blow and tear, the water gust in sheets across the streets below, from a room in the 27th floor. It was very cool!

The next day we were able to get the bus, and spent the night in Kawaguchi-ko. We headed to the town of Fuji-Yoshida in the morning and began our traditional assent of the mountain by first walking under the Torii (gate arch) in the middle of town that designates the entrance to the spiritual world from the physical world. Then we walked through another Torii and along the towering cryptomeria trees, peppered with old stone lanterns, to the Sengen-jinja shrine. It is traditional to climb Fuji-san from the bottom, at the Sengen-jinja shrine, and up the Yoshidaguchi trail. We paid homage to the gods at the shrine, then began the 19 km assent. Yoshidaguchi trail is the oldest path up the mountain. We passed through lush forests that we had almost entirely to ourselves (most people take the bus to the Kawaguchi-ko 5th station, and start there) . We passed Nakanochaya, an ancient site marked by carved stones left by previous climbers/pilgrims. We walked through the Torii, with monkeys on either side, that marks the formal entrance to the sacred area of the mountain. Then past the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd stations to the Nyonin Tenjo (women's holy ground) which until 1832 was as far up as women were allowed to go. On we went until we arrived at the 5th station hut on the Yoshidaguchi trail (2305 m). We had reserved space in the hut, so when we arrived, we were warmly greeted, shown our bed space, then washed up before being served dinner.
Before bed we admired some cool photos on the walls of Japanese mountaineers climbing Fuji-san in the winter. The mountain's 35-40 degree constant angle would make a fine 5000 vertical foot ski decent from the summit. One day we should come back with skis!

The next morning, at 3:30 am, we scarfed down some rice balls they had left us for breakfast (one with salmon inside!), drank a cup of green tea, and started up the mountain trail. The trail was very quiet until we reached the intersection with the trail coming from the Kawaguchi-ko 5th station. And it was still relatively uncrowded as we passed the 6th, and maybe 7th, stations. We got a bit confused as to which of the seemingly continuous string of buildings, cafes, and hotels, was officially which station.

We paused to watch a golden sunrise over the low clouds, hills, and lakes East Fuji-san. Later, as our trail started to fill with other climbers, we noticed the decent trail absolutely crowed with climbers who were at the summit for sunrise. Around the same time, a thick fog began to accumulate around the summit. When we walked under a small Torii, and up to a plateau with cafes selling hot tea, we thought we were at station 8. We took a rest, put on our cold weather gear (we were inside a cold blowing cloud by this time), and asked a group of climbers where the trail continuing to the summit was. They said "this IS the summit!" (oops- we didn't even know that we made it to the top :}) . It took 3.5 hours to climb the 1500 m from 5th station.

We walked over to the Torii at the 9th station (that is the summit station), and took the obligatory summit photos. We then continued on, to circumnavigate the summit cone ridge clockwise. We stopped at the weather station, which is the true highest point (3776m/12,388ft), and continued to a nice rounded open area were we paused to rest and reflect.

This summit has seen many wise and clear people. According to early Shugendo myths, the mountain was first climbed by the wizard/sage En No Gyoja around 700 AD. And from the 15th century onward it became a popular pilgrimage destination. They say that this crater is the home of the fire goddess, the dwelling of the Shinto goddess of flowing trees, and the abode of Dainichi Nyorai (the Buddha of all-illuminating wisdom).

As we sat there, magically, the clouds suddenly opened up. We basked thankfully in some warm rays before completing the circumnavigation and heading down. The decent route was hellish; just a long set of steep gravel switchback, switchback, switchback, switchbacks. Our knees were aching by the time we made it back to the 5th station hut where we had left our sleeping bags and toothbrushes. We had a snack there, and asked the hut owner, "how far is the bus down to Fuji-Yoshida?". And he said, "20 meters". Since our bus, the last one, left at 3:30, we thought we would leave the hut around 3:15, with plenty of time to spare. We settled down on the grass mat floor to watch a marathon race on TV. The owner kept reminding us what time the bus left, getting more nervous each time. We kept looking at each other thinking, "what's the big deal? We have plenty of time." When finally at 3:15, he grabs our bags and motions us to follow him to his jeep. We get in, not quite sure why we have to drive the 20 meters to the bus pick up, but we kept driving and driving. Soon, we arrived at the bus with only a couple minutes to spare. It turns out that he was telling us 20 minutes, not 20 meters! Ooops.

That night we went to a small local Izakaya (the Japanese equivalent of a Pub) for dinner. The couple who owned and ran it were so excited to have some foreigners there, and we were so incapable of telling them in Japaneese what we wanted to eat, that they called their daughter and her husband (who speaks English) to come and join us for dinner. We ate the specialties of the house and drank plenty of sake to the great Fuji-san.