As a young graduate student of religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, I remember reading about how the ancient Silk Road created a way for several countries to exchange not only silk, but other goods, culture, mythologies, philosophies and spiritual traditions. One of those traditions Buddhism, brought to China by monks from India traveling the Silk Road established a strong center in the city of Luoyang. Considered to be one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, today Luoyang thrives as an industrial town. Nearby, the ancient Buddhist caves known as the Longmen Grottoes line the cliffs at the gate of the Yi River.
I had wrongly assumed that during the Cultural Revolution when many Buddhist artifacts were destroyed that the caves would have been included. With that in mind, I was surprised to learn that they had survived. With my interest in Buddhist history, reading that Luoyang was but a short journey from Xi’an, knew I was destined to go.
I asked Lily to set up a train trip from Xi’an.
Met by a driver and guide at the train station, we were driven to the site of the grottoes and dropped off.
A long path constructed of large, charcoal tiles some of which had been smoothed like glass by the soles of thousands of visitors led to the caves. I walked along luxuriating in the delicious weather, breathing in the healing energy coming off the river, and enjoying the sight of so many people absorbed with the grottoes. Suddenly in one of those out of nowhere accidents I slipped, feet went out from under me and I landed full weight on my upper left arm and my right knee. Ouch! The fall was bad enough, but when ten people flocked to my rescue, picked me up and helped me to a bench, my humiliation was complete.
When I saw the caves and carvings I understood why they had not been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Under construction from about 497 , the caves were continuously worked on into the twelfth century. Described as some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art 100,000 carvings, carved reliefs in the limestone hillside, carved statues, and over 2,000 caves cover the site. Buddha upon Buddha created over centuries in a Chinese art form that left a major impact on art throughout Asia
Today, the grottoes may not be the site of deep worship as in the past, but what must have been great devotion on the part of the artists who worked on them remains impressive. Some Buddhist devotees engaged in personal rituals, but mainly the visitors appeared to be curious tourists, perhaps some art historians among them. In spite of a painfully nagging knee the reality of the enlightened one portrayed so beautifully, consumed my attention.
My focus was suddenly disrupted when two groups of giggling tourists approached me. Could they take photos? At first, I wanted to say no, but the joyful enthusiasm that registered on their faces convinced me to concede. I felt like a celebrity. As to why they made the request, the only reason I could figure is that the siting of a Caucasian, must indeed be rare!
Completing the path along and through the caves, we walked the bridge that crossed the river. Viewing thousands of Buddha’s hanging along the cliff from the opposite side etched an image into my mind that has abided ever since.
The Longmen Caves were not the only sacred site in the region. I could not leave without visiting the nearby “number one temple under heaven.” We hopped in our car and headed toward Songhan Mountain, Dengfeng home of the Shaolin Temple. Our guide explained how Shaolin with its thirteen martial arts schools is the world center of Kung Fu. We would limit our visit to the number one school and temple at Shaolin where Kung Fu originated.
After an hour winding through hills and pastures we drove up to the temple and parked. Just beyond the parking lot I could see a large stage high above rows of occupied chairs. Our guide breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that we had arrived in time for the public performance given daily by the students.
Our guide led me toward the chairs. All occupied, she left me for a moment, went to the front row and spoke with some of the women waiting for the show. They moved over and made a spot for me in the center of the first row. A bit chagrined, I accepted their kindness. I noticed that my partner and I were the only westerners in the audience. He had been led to stand in back of the chairs along with our driver.
While we waited for the presentation some of the boys from the school practiced on the stage. Obviously beginners, they kept making errors, not fully achieving many of the moves and jumps. I was not impressed and mistakenly thought that the pre show antics were a way to get the students used to performing in front of an audience. One young performer looked about ten years old, was an exception.
Momentarily, the boys went silent, moved to the sides of the stage, donned their warrior garbs and moved into an amazing performance of Kung Fu. The pre-play moves and mistakes had been nothing but a ruse, a play on the mind of the audience. Now, the performers moved in tandem with precise precision. Nary a mistake to be found, I saw actions I had only read about in books. Breaking a block of wood with one’s bare hand as an example! They soared above us with the grace of swans, the guise of shamans and the strength of warriors. Another unforgettable scene entered my memory.
After the performance we made our way to the temple where several monks live and donate their lives to spiritual practice. They glided about as our guide led us through the various rooms devoted to deities that accompany the Buddha exercises performed therein.
All too soon, the day was coming to an end, but not before we walked through the Pagoda Forest on the way back to our car.
The forest of pagodas begun in the seven hundred’s and continued on through several dynasties house the tombs of monks who have attained moksha. When we had the good fortune to pass by the pagoda of Bodhidharma the monk that brought Buddhism from India to Japan in the seventh century I had a vision of walking along side of him on the Silk Road. What a perfect recall with which to end the day.
Our train left Xi’an at eight in the morning. It left Luoyang at eight in the evening. With no break for lunch it had been an exceptionally long day. Grateful for the quiet train ride I spent the hour reflecting on all I had seen while images of Buddha crossed through my thoughts. Back at the hotel, hunger calling, I was grateful that one restaurant remained open.