PILGRIMAGE LONG OVERDUE

Wong How Man
Zhongdian, Yunnan

Statue of Damuzong. It seems strange that I should be making my first pilgrimage to Damuzong’s meditation cave only after it was burnt down by fire last year. Damu was considered to be the First Patriarch Master who brought Buddhism from India to China. I’ve been looking up at this cave from far below, from some 1000 meters in elevation lower down at the foot of the mountain, for well over ten years. Every time, several times a year, we drove past the foot of this pinnacle peak rising west of the Yangtze River, on our way from our Zhongdian Center to the Golden Monkey/Lisu Hill Tribe site.

The renowned Ming Dynasty explorer Xu Xiake came this way on foot and horseback some 400 years ago. He came very close, arriving in Lijiang, but was turned back due to the political situation at the time. His ill health also prompted his return without achieving his goal, and he died soon after reaching home in Jiangsu at the age of 55.

Perhaps it was Damu’s kind consideration for an aging pilgrim explorer like me. Up until a month ago, it would have taken me up to five hours to hike that huge gradient, with inclines of up to forty-five degrees, to reach the cave temple, a trying endeavor for someone over 65 years of age. But recently, the situation has changed. A road, a cement-paved road, reaches the cave temple over a winding drive of 12 kilometers from the bottom. It was indeed a blessing for me.

Sacred Khawakarpo. On any usual day, there might be many pilgrims, but on today’s afternoon when I decided to venture to the temple, no one, not a single car, was on the road up or down the mountain. It seemed a huge relief, as I have heard of the huge crowds on some weekends or special festive days. For China today, it is indeed rare to be a single pilgrim to an important Buddhist site. Perhaps Damu was again giving his blessings to this singular supplicant.

Up and up, as the road winded up, the scenery opened up. Down and down, as I looked down, my eyes followed the Yangtze further down. It curved and meandered, before disappearing behind a hill, only to reappear momentarily, before fading again into the distant hills. With low hanging clouds, a Chinese scroll painting was in the making.

Near the top, there was an ensemble of houses, including a huge temple. But Damu’s cave was hidden around a corner precipice. I had no interest in grand buildings, but did turn a large prayer wheel inside a small old building, and went straight toward the meditation cave of the sage. A few more dilapidated buildings hugged the cliff face. The sound of drum momentarily started, as if welcoming my arrival. Tall steps brought me to a prayer chapel where a lone monk in saffron robe was attending to the oil lamps. I made a small offering in cash, commensurate with the small chapel. Tashi, a local Tibetan monk, pointed my way to the sacred site.

Damuzong Temple. A short stairway with railings over the rocks brought me to where hundreds of prayer flags were fluttering. The rocks were scarred and darkened from incense and oil lamp offerings. I bowed and touched the rock with my forehead, later only to find out that this rock is where pilgrims come to make wishes for fertility. At 65, I hope my posturing would not be answered. The real cave was still a couple hundred meters around the cliff.

Major construction was going on though all workers had left, it being late in the day. A new multi-story temple would be finished by end of this year, hugging the cliff-face and enclosing the open cave. It would be done in time for the biggest pilgrimage next year in May. The Year of the Monkey in the twelve-year zodiac is the most important for Damuzong Cave. They are expecting tens of thousands would arrive, especially during the month of May, on the First Day of the Fourth Moon. For now, the cave was exposed and seemed cleared of all previous statues and offerings, having been burnt out. I bowed and folded my hands with a simple prayer, hoping that I could return next year for that special occasion.

Nuns of Dongjulin nunnery. On my way down the hill, I stopped at the Buddhist college affiliated to Damuzong Cave. Gongjiu, a lama at 48 years of age, was teaching a dozen or so young monks. We sat down for tea and chatted. He had been ordained thirty years ago as a teenager. A local Tibetan but with acute Han features, he had been here for decades. I was interested in his private abode overhanging the cliff, steps away below Damu’s Cave. It had a courtyard overlooking the Yangtze below.

Could I stay there next May? He affirmed with a yes, and said it would be free. Free of charge only. As it may not be freed up in time by May. A solitary monk had been meditating inside for over three years, in one of the three rooms of the house. He would not want him disturbed. But if he should complete his meditation and exit by May, I would be most welcome to stay there. I prayed that the monk’s next cycle closing on nirvana would be completed shortly.

On this trip, I was on a circuit pilgrimage to several sites of various religions, all familiar to me except Damuzong Cave. While I was visiting the Cave, our summer interns were busy observing the Snub-nosed Monkeys. Then the Lisu Crossbow Festival we organized yearly came and went. Next stop, the Church of Qizhong, founded by priests of the French Foreign Mission in the late 19th Century and later operated by the Grand St Bernard Mission of Switzerland between 1931 and 1951.

Student monks of Damuzong. With my old friend Father Savioz’s passing away almost two years ago in Martigny, I brought along my memories as I attended a solemn Friday Mass in the evening. It was interrupted by electric stoppage, but it was quickly resuscitated by a small generator. Father Yao Fei, a China-trained priest, was known to be hot tempered. But he treated me with grace, even allowing my team to film inside the church during service, whereas posters on the wall prohibited even photography.

As we drove for a long stretch along the Mekong, something delighted me. From what used to be a raw river spanned only by cable or rope bridges, today there are many suspension bridges, making crossing by locals far safer and efficient. Many can even be crossed by cars or tractors.

But something else also bothered me. It seemed strange and illogical that several dams now cut across the mighty Mekong, providing electricity in abundance through hydro plants. Others are in process of being finished. Villages along the Mekong play host to these series of dams, with electricity generated and channeled into the power grid that supports entire big cities or is even exported to neighboring countries. Yet villagers have had to put up with electric shortage and outage regularly, every night, for ages, until even today. Something is gravely wrong.

Qizhong Church. An hour or so past Qizhong is CERS’ former clinic/teahouse. It was completed in 2003 to serve pilgrims during the special Year of the Sheep, when tens of thousands of Tibetans arrived from all over the plateau to circumambulate sacred Khawakarpo Mountain. During six months within that summer, our clinic served over 4,600 patients, and we offered thousands more cups of buttered tea. This year again is the Year of the Sheep, and pilgrims would arrive again in droves. But twelve years on, the teahouse is in a ruined state, having been taken over by the local villagers who did not care to maintain it; a case of poor custodianship.

I stopped for two nights at our former Tibetan Mastiff Kennel site. Guji is a pristine village with only five families, three of which are still practicing polyandry, looking directly at the spectacular Khawakarpo range. I had not stayed here for over five years, though I had passed through several times en route to or from Tibet. As if to welcome my return, Khawakarpo decided to show his face, a rarity during the summer rainy season. It is usually veiled in fog and clouds.

Friday Evening Mass. The Mastiff project had been suspended for several years due to the astronomical prices paid by speculators for such great canines. We felt a continued effort would be ineffective, as puppies handed out to Tibetans would be turned around and sold in the market. More recently, that fad had fizzled, and there were reports that breeders had even sold their now worthless mastiffs to butchers.

Today, our beautiful site with several well-situated lodges had just found a new custodian. Yang Mei, a successful entrepreneur turned devoted Buddhist, intends to turn it into an eco-lodge catering to Buddhist pilgrims, monks on meditation retreat, and a stopover for NGO’s keen on nature and culture conservation. We hope this would give this wonderful site a new lease on life.

My next stop was Dongjulin Nunnery. Here the CERS project was started in 1999 and lasted several years. Over that period, four dormitories were constructed for the nuns before another team could move in to restore the Assembly Hall, roof and all. Finally the ten walls of ancient murals were painstakingly cleaned and stabilized. Along the way, two books and one documentary film were made. At the time there was no road up the mountain and we had to hike for almost an hour to reach the nunnery.

Interns attending Mass. Today a fully paved road ends at a monumental gate as entrance into the nunnery. Many new buildings, big and decorative, had been built, thanks to more substantial funding from the government and newly successful Tibetan and Chinese supplicants. I feel gratified that, at the time of dire need, CERS was here to support and facilitate conservation efforts.

The nuns were totally surprised to see me showing up. After all, it had been years since my last visit. I could tell their joy was genuine, as they poured me bowl after bowl of buttered tea. Through a doctor-nun who spoke Chinese, the head nun told me that “I”, meaning my team, was like their parents giving them a rebirth. I felt very moved that they should remember those hardship days. Balaganzong, the sacred mountain facing the nunnery, seemed to concur. It gracefully revealed its pyramid peak as our parting gift.

As my last stop on this journey, I took another detour and went to visit our Yak Cheese Factory. It seemed necessary to deliver in person the great news that we had received just two weeks ago. A customer in Beijing, without our knowing, had entered our yak cheese at the annual cheese contest in France. We were nicely surprised that our cheese took a Gold Award, not an easy feat in the culinary capital of the world. The blooming wild flowers in the high country seemed to join in celebrating this good news, making this moment even sweeter with fragrance.

CERS site at Wudi Lake. As a finale to this pilgrimage, both to sacred sage cave and mountains, as well as to our many project sites, I decided to bring our most beloved mastiff back to our Zhongdian Center. Chili is now eleven years old, two years past the average age that Tibetan Mastiff are known to live. He had been retiring at our yak cheese site with his life-long partner Ah Yee. But Ah Yee passed away about six months ago, and Chili was left alone in his yard. I wanted Chili to live out his life with dignity. He joined CERS as a four-month old puppy at our Zhongdian Center, in 2004.

After all, he had been on a full page of the Wall Street Journal, and joined me on a front page story of that prestigious newspaper. He was on the face of a Chinese stamp. He appeared on CNN with anchor Richard Quest. Perhaps giving Chili, our flagship mastiff emeritus, a final home with happy ending may reflect on how I wish to find a worthy home for myself at old age.