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April 17, 2006  |  China -- Friday  |  5614 hit(s)

When you go visit someplace, you go have a look at their big religious architecture -- cathedrals, temples, pyramids. Short of tombs, perhaps, and maybe the Taj Mahal, people have historically put their best efforts into religious buildings, which explains why so many of them are so spectacular.

Today's goal was to visit the Lama Temple, which is the best-known Buddhist temple in Beijing. It's also where Buddhist monks -- lamas -- live, and therefore is also known as a lamasery, a word I find unaccountably delightful.

I never quite got clear on whether the Lama Temple was spared by or simply recovered from the Cultural Revolution, a period that was hard on religious architecture. In either event, it is a beautiful, well-kept compound that houses a succession of elaborate Buddha statues, including a giant, 60-foot representation that -- as is inevitably pointed out -- was carved from a single tree.

(No photos of the Buddhas allowed, but this is what the compound looks like.)

I don't know much about Buddhism, so when I read that the temple is part of the Yellow Hat sect of that religion, I think "Huh, I wonder what that means." But it occurred to me later that if I were to visit a major shrine of, say, the Methodists, I wouldn't know significantly more about that particular sect, either. So my ignorance of theology is cross-cultural, at least.

The temple is a working facility. We saw monks, or at least, guys walking around in monkish robes. And the temple still functions actively as a place of worship. People bring or buy incense, and in front of each of the five halls, there are stands with a fire going and a place to offer incense and pray. People were doing this as tourists strolled around, which was just as incongruous to me as wandering around a cathedral while people are kneeling and praying.[1]

The drill seemed to be a kind of stations-of-the-cross thing where people would repeat their offering at each of the altars, that is, at each of the five halls housing a Buddha statue. It would have been interesting to hear someone explain this and to ask why people do the ritual -- is it something they do, say, every week, or when they want to pray for a specific outcome, or what?

In any event, most of the tourists took a spin on the prayer wheel:

After the temple, we wandered around looking for lunch. We ended up in a hot-pot restaurant (another hole in the middle of the table, this one filled with boiling broth). I'd thought that the pictures-on-the-menu strategy would work, but not this time; although we could point to pictures of beef or vegetables, the waitress kept insistently pointing to a set of Chinese characters on the menu, and when we clearly didn't get it, she circled them with her pencil for emphasis. Once again we employed the mobile phone to get Bob to do some translating, apparently interrupting a meeting. I think in the end she was trying to tell us that the first order of business was to order the hot pot, and then you order the stuff that goes in it. Which is, may I note, another meal you cook yourself, heh.

Lunch accomplished, we wanted to make one more shopping excursion, as we figured this would be our last change in Beijing. We headed back to the Dazhalan hutong we'd been at the day before. I had secured from my daughter some measurements and I wanted to see if I could find a silk dress. Here we got a reminder about making culture-centric assumptions. I had had the foresight to convert the measurements from inches to centimeters. In the store, we somehow managed to convey to the clerk ladies that we needed to measure the dresses, and they produced a measuring tape with centimeters on one side and inch-things on the other. Using the inch-thing measures, we held the tape up to the dresses, which looked awfully narrow. When the clerk indicated that we should tell her what size we wanted, I showed her the inch measurement. She glanced at it and scoffed (in Chinese, but we got it) "Impossible!" Chastened, I reverted to centimeters and only then did I notice that the inch-things were not, in fact, inches; they're some other sort of measurement that's neither inches nor metric. We had just assumed that they were inches, oops. But we had the metric, so that worked. Mission accomplished.

The plan for Saturday was to get up early and head for the wall, so we turned down offers to go out. Instead we ate in and watched one of the many pirated movies available to us. What with the age range to accommodate, we choose King Kong. Jeez. After yet another of the endless perils-of-Pauline scenes on the island, Sarah summed it up for all of us: "One of the definitions of a B movie is that it's 90 minutes long!" But we did get some unique amusement out of our pirated copy -- at one point I turned on the English subtitles. I got the distinct impression that we were reading the output of a Babelfish translation, which leads one to wonder why they even bother. They were weirdly fascinating, but very distracting, since they had little relation to the actual dialog, so we had to turn them off. Bob assured us that the Chinese subtitles were similar, with the difference that the audience would not have the actual dialog as backup. God only knows what the Chinese think we're saying in those Hollywood movies.

Saturday, then, the Great Wall.

[1] I don't quite get the spiritual purpose of incense, though it seems popular in many religions. Unless there is some hidden pharmacological intent; as we got to the end of our visit, Sarah said "I think all this is incense is making me high."