CHICKEN FOOT SACRED MOUNTAIN

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But, but....I’ve been eating chicken feet, my favorite dim sum dish,” I stuttered a bit as I revealed this to Danchen, my close friend. Danchen, a very knowledgeable Rinpoche and retired Vice Party Secretary of Tibet, wrinkled his forehead a little in disgust. Then he continued to explain to me something I was totally ignorant about, despite having visited the Jizushan, or Chicken Foot Mountain, twice in the past.

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I first came here twelve years ago, during the last Year of the Rooster pilgrimage in 2005. Then I came again in 2007, escorting several Hump pilot friends when they were into their 90s. On that trip they saw on the ground, for the first time, the pagoda they had seen from the air uncounted times while flying during World War II. The pagoda was their check point, navigating them to Kunming after passing the high mountains of the Himalayas.

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Practically all Han Chinese pilgrims, or tourists like myself, would head straight for the temple and pagoda on the pinnacle of the mountain. In the past it might take a day or two to scale the top. Today a well-paved road followed by a cable car ride and a short hike will take visitors from the bottom of the hill to the 3248 meters top in slightly over an hour.

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We may be forgiven for using the pagoda and its adjacent temple as final destination since they are the most distinct objects observed from afar. But for all Tibetan pilgrims, they come here for something else, something quite hidden, deep inside a vertical cliff face of the mountain. It is not unusual for a Tibetan pilgrim to bypass the summit altogether.

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“Had it not been for Huashoumen, there would be no Jizushan,” Danchen repeated this remark several times during the three days we were together in the mountain. Of course he meant it figuratively rather than literally in geographic terms. The name Jizushan came from the mountain’s physical features, resembling the foot of a chicken with three toes protruding forward and one aft. But the fame of the mountain was derived from an ancient Tibetan belief that Jaiye (Mahakasyapa), one of the ten principal disciples of Buddha Sakyamuni, came here to preach, then took off his monk’s robe and meditated inside a precipitous cliff face of the mountain.
So with this notion Danchen led me the morning after my arrival to this Huashoumen (men meaning gate), some 150 meters below the peak of the mountain. It was only a little after 9am and we ran into many Tibetan pilgrims but few Han Chinese. Among Tibetans, most were monks and nuns in their saffron robes. They came from all regions of the plateau, Tibet, Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan.
A few Tibetan ladies were making offerings of yak butter, rubbing it onto the cliff face. There is a small niche at the bottom of the cliff. Inside there was a little water dripping. Tibetans - monks, nuns and lay people - dipped their fingers inside and brought out sacred droplets to rub over their eyes, supposedly most auspicious for their eye sights. Two nuns were trying to collect a few more droplets to take home for friends. I, with deteriorating eye sight, applied droplets generously to my eyes.
A thin and tall Chinese nun in a gray robe was prostrating continuously in front of the cliff. She was from nearby Dali old town and had been prostrating here everyday for over five years, returning each night to a small hut a bit down the hill. I asked her how the kharta, white ceremonial scarves used by Tibetans as offerings, were put high up on the perpendicular cliff, reaching over 20 meters up on this 40 meters high “gate”. Did they use a ladder or free-climb up there? “No, they simply wrap it with some barley grains or sand and swing the scarf upward. Somehow they would stick to the wall,” she answered with a calm and quiet tone. I am inclined to believe her, given her devotion.
It is said that pilgrims to Jizushan would be lucky if they were to see sacred clouds and other natural phenomena on display. So I too consider myself fortunate in viewing such majestic view while on top of the mountain as well as from Huashuomen.
In describing the sacred gate of Huashuomen, I would borrow the words of Xu Xiake of the late Ming Dynasty during the 17th Century. For us Chinese, Xu has been known as the most important travel writer throughout the centuries. Xu visited Jizushan twice, staying for months each time. His definitive written account, an Almanac on Jizushan, has long been lost. However in his opus work on his life-long travels, there are descriptions of his time in Yunnan, including his visit to Jizushan.
“...the path against the cliff becomes narrower and narrower; looking up shivering one cannot see the top, looking down is like peeking into hell without seeing its bottom. Like a painting of a ten thousand foot wall scroll hanging upon the cliff. Encompassed within this, its difficult to tell where the body belongs...The cliff appears in flight going upward, high with an eave extension, wrapping around downward... The wall face is like closing doors, with rock teeth above...with height of two hundred feet, above that are unmeasurable additional heights... this is Huashoumen.”
Driving back and forth from Thimphu to Trongsa for a lot of villagers cannot be a daily routine. Our pick-up truck stops momentarily as Surjaman unloads some of stuff to a shop or to a man waiting besides the road. I ask if he does that for free, and he shakes his head, using the Indian gesture for a YES. “It’s a favor I offer to everyone in these two provinces. Everyone here is my friend, alias informants. Sometimes, I need to provide them with phone card from my own pocket. Without them I cannot do my job” Surjaman says proudly.

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But for me, perhaps the most moving words are not from the description of the mountain, nor about all the temples, some 108 in all during the ancient days. It is about a deed that Xu Xiake performed on his long journey to Jizushan. Traveling with Xu were two other persons, his book-carrier boy and his dear friend Monk Jingwen. Meditating and praying for twenty years, Jingwen wrote a copy of the Buddhist Fahua Sutra in red by poking his finger to script it in blood, hoping someday to offer the manuscript at a temple in Jizushan. Together they made the journey from Jiangsu in the coast toward the mountain in Yunnan.

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But along the way, they were robbed three times. During the last episode, while in Hunan, Jingwen was critically injured by the robbers and died as a result of the incident. That evening, Xu lost sleep all night and wrote six poems in memory of his dear friend. He carried in the bottom of his bamboo pack the bone ash remains of Jingwen and traveled for over 5000 li, or 2,500 km, to reach their joint destiny of Jizushan. There he offered up the blood sutra of Jingwen at Xitan temple and buried the ash remains at Wenbi Peak.

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Such an act of friendship is immortalized in Jizushan by Xu Xiake, the most famous travel writer of China’s past. Perhaps for our generation as well as future generations, while making pilgrimage to a sacred Buddhist mountain, this story of faithfulness and friendship should also be remembered and become part of our tribute to the spiritual world.
朝遊雞足山,暮訪華首門, 日月伴星辰,迦葉在其間。