Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Daoist Laws of the Universe

We went to Wudang Mountain in Hubei province this weekend because it's a sacred mountain, and we were promised tai chi and meditation with the monks on the slopes of this special place.

I think it's possible that the main lesson of the weekend, though, was one from Daoist philosophy: According to Lao Zi's book Tao Te Ching, considered by some to be the bible of Daoism, the law of the universe is to "be natural."

In our case, what this meant was that if you happened to visit Wudang Shan in August when the rains were frequent and the mountain was enveloped in a thick layer of fog, so be it. According to a book purchased by one woman on our tour, "the law of the universe is to be natural and not interfered." Or, in other words, it says, "let things take their own course."

Funny that. If we were pilgrims of sorts, coming to a place where various monks, scholars, and acolytes came for centuries to practice Daoism and study martial arts, we wanted that too. In our case, as we squinted through the fog as we rode a shuttle bus up the mountain, we felt we were moving through a cool sauna, so misty and mystical that it was hard to see 20 feet beyond us.

We had a congenial group on our tour, including an Italian woman whose Chinese was better than her English. We ended up having odd muddy-linguistic conversation that mixed French, English, Chinese, and a smattering of Italian. I would say things like, "Zai Beijing, you xia yue bu like this," pointing to the mist. "We have le deluge."

Anyway, we visited Zixiao Gong -- Purple Mist Palace -- on the first day, described as the place on the mountain with the best feng shui, and built in 1413. We arrived toward the end of the day as the mist was darkening and we felt the peacefulness of the place. And then we were to have dinner with the Daoist female priests.

We didn't seem especially welcome at dinner, though. One female priest glared at us when we tried to put two tables together and eat outside. No, go inside, she said, and pointed to a room with fluorescent light bulbs and about six simple vegetarian dishes waiting for us. We were instructed to finish what we ate, not to leave any leftovers, and to wash our dishes after we were done. We quietly ate our cauliflower and seaweed and greens, and took our dishes to a cold water sink to rinse.

After dinner, we watched a group from Singapore chanting and praying in the nearby temple, and then went to meet a tai chi master to learn some meditation. Just let the thoughts flow, he told us. Don't try to fight them. My stomach grumbled.

The next day our meditation teacher brought us through some tai chi moves, as we stood in a misty drizzle on a stone terrace. He took us through the slow movements, and even though my breakfast that day consisted of some lukewarm instant coffee in a bowl, a banana, and two slices of raisin bread, I felt calm and peaceful. Either that or I was lightheaded from the altitude, light meals, and lack of coffee.

After lunch, we climbed to Wudang's highest peak to visit Jin Dian, the Golden Hall, which sits on Tianzhu Feng, the highest of Wudang's 72 peaks. At least I think we did. We certainly climbed enough steps through the beautiful mist. We also visited Jia Ye, a wisened Daoist priest who lived on a mountainside in a little place with a tiny temple alongside living quarters. Volunteers prepared food for him, things like soft rice and vegetables that were easy to eat because he had no teeth.

We were told not to ask how old he was; Daoists do not believe in reincarnation so that you don't want to focus on the shortness of this life. Jia Ye handed out candies and moon cakes and said we could ask him anything. Bob, being a journalist, tried an end run around the question of age: How long had he been a priest? About 30 years, Jia Ye answered.

Remember, our guide said, religion was not allowed in China more than 30 years ago.

So what did you do before you became a priest, we asked.

He laughed. I was a farmer, he said.

Bob tried another question. Do you believe there is an afterlife? he asked.

"Ying gai you," he answered: there should be.

It was as good an answer as anyone could get, and it summed up the spirit of the weekend. Don't ask too many questions, don't try to struggle against the normal course of things, and don't do things like fight for personal gain.

Nanyan Gong
I could get behind that, if only there is coffee. I was told there would be coffee.
Climbing down from Jin Dian.
Slippery, dangerous, beautiful.
More steps down from Jin Dian.
Here's what we saw from the cable car.
Jia Ye offers candies and wisdom.
Our tai chi instructor.
Zixiao Gong
Love the lions.
Nanyan Gong


  1. beautiful place,beautiful misty photos Deb. I promise you coffee when you get back!