Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Temples of Shaolin

Text & Photos by Gregory Burns (all rights reserved)

Though the ancient structures were impressive, I felt frustrated Visiting Shaolin Temple. I had hoped to meditate with the monks and paint them while they practiced their martial arts.
Instead, I was overwhelmed by the commercialization of the place and the realization that the kung fu they still do is usually for international promotion tours or movie directors. For centuries, rulers of China have tried to subdue the powerful Temple with its famous martial arts monks. This was never an easy task and the Temple maintained its religious principals and military prowess. Today however, the Temple threatens nobody. Instead, it is permitted to rake in hundreds of millions of Yuan a year, tithing a good chunk to the local government. But what I did find satisfactory in the Shaolin area were the 72 other temples that are more peaceful and natural, lacking the tour groups with red hats and little flags.
Yong Tai Temple, the oldest nunnery in the region, is a contemplative place with female martial arts students and vegetarian meals. It has few guests but lots of years. Finding a quiet corner to sketch I was able to sink into the sanctity that is why we go to temples. For the next few days I toured around other temples offering up the ancient China that fuels my connection with that which has weathered time and adversity. The Shaolin area has developed a major industry teaching classes in martial arts. Though I did not have to enroll I was allowed to sketch and paint several authentic practitioners while performing their routines. I chose to capture their dramatic gestures and postures while trying to express inner strength and poise. While they practiced kung-fu, I did mine, hoping the spirit of the spaces and movements would fill my pages with energy.
Later, the monk who was showing me around posed for several hours as I man-handled a 5x20foot canvas, rolling it out and painting it on the ground below a 1,500 year old stupa. After I had finished painting and laughing with the locals, the 70 year old caretaker of the compound kindly invited me to stay with him in the Guan Yin temple which doubled as his home. Recalling the toilet at my cheap hotel which kept unseating every time I used it, I would have happily accepted had I been staying on. But it was time to return to the bustling city of Shanghai where temples and monks are hard to find and one rarely hears the rustling of leaves in the trees and the sounds of happy birds.
Hwang Shan Again
Text & Photos by Gregory Burns (all rights reserved)

In a Buick through a tunnel I go back in time to a mountain I climbed half a life ago. Hwang Shan, in China’s Anhui Province, waits at the end of the freeway as I return to a spot where I struggled to become a whole person after loosing love and innocence. A time of fog and stone stairs leading I knew not where but only up more into the clouds where the peaks poked out. Now the bamboo leans off the mountain towards me as a different man returns to see and paint stone. Last time I vomited on the local bus. This time a driver with toll roads. Before I had a strong body and weak heart.

Today this is reversed. But I still have the greed to see what nature breeds. “Life is precious- follow traffic rules” repeats fresh green signs along the road. Life is this precious moment and fully appreciating all the ones we experience makes for a life well lived.
Now, on top of Hwang Shan (Yellow Mountain), I sit in a chair with a stone railing for a table and paint the view of where I climbed two decades ago on this steep expanse of rock. Others now hike up to the tops of the peaks while I sit down below capturing the effort needed to go up against the odds. To push up from below with strength fueled by an almost blind quest to go higher. To touch the tops of all we are. Later, all is anything but quiet on the Western front.
Eating in the Yu Ping Lo canteen, I am surrounded by loud drinking hikers and I can not hear myself write. Smoke fills my nose as I finish my tofu and eggs. But I am not fazed as I once was. I think I have changed. I see we are all the same- seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Even while painting in a crowd today I talked and laughed with them and it was all a good game.
But sleeping in a dorm room with six strangers is not a good idea and my enthusiasm dissipated as the man next to me snored until it was time to clear his throat and watch the sunrise at 5am. I had slept not a minute and wanted to leave but little did I know my status on the mountain would soon change. A reporter from the Hwang Shan Daily had arrived to interview me. As soon as the hotel manager heard that there was a Paralympian on his watch, the first to ever climb the mountain, I was treated like royalty. A lavish lunch was spread before us as I was handed keys to the VIP suite.
Suddenly the world is upside down and that night I was between clean starched sheets with a view of the mountains to die for. The wheels of life had turned, merging Yin with Yang, and the universe was again laughing. In my suite I paint views and feelings from a new vantage point. With swallows darting in and out of the vista I stretch towards the distant finger-like peaks. These stones so slender and strong- not unlike my fingers. The hands that walk, paint and live for me resemble the stone spires that reach towards the heavens. Returning to these mountains brings me full circle. From my initial excursions as a stranger into a developing China to this place where I am treated with respect by these curious and industrious people who begin taking their baby steps towards a future world that will be determined very much by their actions. I feel fortunate to be ‘in’ with the soon to be ‘in crowd’.