The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.
As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.
When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?
I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.
It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.
The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.
I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.
Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.
When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.