by Kim Ivy
Of all my souvenirs from China, a particular bag of tea is my favorite. Its green foil wrap has a picture of two cranes, one with its head tucked into its feathers and the other tall and reaching upward. Thick Chinese characters describe both the tea’s name and the region from which it is harvested, He Hing Shan - Crane Crook Mountain, the birthplace of Chinese Taoism. Under wraps, the tiny leaves are rough and gnarled, but touched with water they stretch out, long and supple. Infused, the water in turn becomes translucent amber and curls of steam carry the scent of jasmine upward. Both color and scent inspire a sense of immortality, but each sip beckons the body back, a glad surrender into the tea’s dense and silky texture. It was weeks after I returned that I opened the bag, afraid the tea, like the memories would be gone too soon.
The tea fields of He Hing Shan sit 3000 meters above Chengdu, a large capital city of Sichuan Province in the Western region of the Middle Kingdom. Chengdu is itself steeping in the changes of 21st century China. Wealth and poverty, hope and despair line the streets along with electronic gadget stores, Buddhist and Taoist Temples and any number of shops selling tea. This is a hard city to visit with anarchist traffic, unrelenting noise, and thick, lung burning pollution and it is a relief to drive a couple of hours to the green and quiet landscape of He Hing Shan.
Despite its significance in Taoist history, He Hing Shan is passed over by both locals and guidebooks in favor of the more glamorous neighboring sites such as Emei. Similarly, government money goes to repair the more active sites and so the mountain’s temple remains somewhat in disrepair. Though crude bamboo scaffolding embraces statues of Lao Tzu and other immortals, and the only money that comes to them is through small donations, the mountain’s dozen or so Taoist residents live a happy life. They wake at dawn, practice arts of internal cultivation, study and tend to the fields of lettuce, herbs and tea.
Born in the Year of the Dog, Master Yang is the head master of He Hing Gong (Crane Crook Temple). He is a small, lithe man whose twinkling eyes and infinite spirit betray what he endured during his past 79 years of life in China. I consider it the high point of my trip to have sat in the temple with him, at the black lacquer table eating oranges, sunflower seeds and drinking tea, like many more important guests before me. The message he gave me to take back was simple: “Please take back to the peace loving people in your country that we are also a peace loving people. This is our biggest hope for the future of our countries and for that of humanity.”
I had to pause for a moment as I was given this charge. A messenger for peace? I had been so skeptical about peace during much of this trip, walking through broken temples and grassed over graveyards. I had taken no solace in hearing stories of lives serrated by histories they could not control. I had gained no clear insight in seeing that across the great water, my own country, in its time of unparalleled abundance, still grapples with hate, rage, and greed. In that moment I saw myself not as a messenger, but cynical as I came to know the despair in my own heart.
As I drifted with those thoughts, a temple adept poured me a cup of tea. The fragrance of jasmine filled the room and Master Yang looked directly at me. He began to recall stories of his life, stories infused with details too intimate to tell a stranger. In that time I came to know a man whose friends, family and faith were destroyed but who nevertheless found ways to stay alive when other choices were both easier and perhaps more desirable. I came to know a 79 year old man who, once broken with grief and filled with cancer, now meditates by climbing down his mountain, walking across the valley and climbing up the next, taller mountain. And I came to know a man who welcomed an interloper into his home, the 2000 year old temple in which I was drinking tea.
In China, I came to know many people. Priests, scholars, mahjong players, Taiji masters and less prominent people living quiet, ordinary lives. Most of these people I will never see again, but as with Master Yang, they shared with me their history, their stories, their culture and their hopes for the future in open hearted and generous ways. I came to know these people not as shackled by their past nor their unknown future, but curious about today and eager to connect with those who they do not know. Each of these people, like Master Yang, gave me the unparalleled gift of remembering the deep and vibrant resiliency of the human spirit.
It was Master Yang, however, who trusted me to bring back the message of peace to my homeland. Since I have returned, I recognize and feel deeply fortunate to live in a community receptive to this message. I am grateful for the people I see on a daily basis who remind me that I do not have to travel to China to touch the spiritual elasticity with which we expand into our futures. Yet, there is a great task ahead, is there not?
In this new millennium, where might we journey? For many of us whose lives are as good as they ever have been, perhaps this is not a time to rest. Could we not travel more deeply into our own hearts, finding even greater opportunities for patience, compassion and understanding? For those of us whose lives are want for peace, could we not do more as well? There is always a chance to awaken from despair and hopelessness. Perhaps on this next journey peace is both the gift we will find and the souvenir we will bring home.