In #microexploration manner, seeking to look closer and learn more, I returned to the Baoning Si Chan Buddhist temple this summer.
Given all the tourism development in Jiubujiang (my wife’s old hometown) and around its reservoir lake, the temple felt less off the map.
At least, there is a sign pointing towards it right from the road to the lake and its newly-modernized scenic area. One still has to follow the road alongside the lake all the way to its upper reaches to get to the temple.
An Over-View to Baoning Si
Still, the – or maybe I should say “this”, for it is overshadowed by its twin in Shanxi – Baoning Si lies deep in the Hunan countryside.
It is about as far from any place of importance, or even just anything that looks like a major pathway or attraction, as one can get.
No holy mountain, no major river, no old trade route…
And yet, there sits this temple. This time, for a true overview, I came with my DJI Spark again – and knew how to use it.
(The first time I had been here, I had only just bought the drone and didn’t quite know how to, or dare to, use it.)
It does make for a nice view. And in part, the little look around that I took with it only reinforces how this is a pretty remote place. The location at the foot of a hill is nice, but still.
Baoning Si People
On the way around the temple, first of all to be decent visitors and pray, my wife and I encountered the strangest set of people.
First, an old man. Old does not begin to describe it, though. He looked ancient, more than half blind, and spoke in dialect only, with slurred speech at that. Even for my wife, it was difficult to make out anything at all he was saying, except that he had been around for a long, long time.
Then, on the other hand, there was a middle-aged couple who looked quite well to-do. And definitely quite devout. From them, we got help with the incense and “hell money”… and when we saw that man again later, it turned out that he knew about the Japan connection.
Signs of Japan Connections
The grave marker/memorial that I had glimpsed the last time, but couldn’t find out more about, turned out to be the memorial to the Japanese monks who had studied Chan Buddhism, the forebear to Japanese Zen, there.
This time around, with a bit more time, I followed my curiosity and went exploring up the path there.
Strangely, this is all on the side, and arching around the back, of the Buddhist temple. Which makes it right off the Taoist temple that was built right by its side, for good measure. Quite an unusual location.
However that went, the path goes up a bit further… and leads to a few more memorial markers, just a few steps farther up. Plus, a tree that is marked as 1000-years old.
It is impressive… and all the more so to think that this still wouldn’t make the tree old enough to have grown there when the monks who are commemorated up there studied at the temple! All the memorial plaques for them speak of times around 700-800!
The Stupa That Wasn’t
The perhaps greatest find – and continuing puzzle: There was a sign up there pointing towards a Putong Stupa.
This may well be the structure that a Japanese delegation reportedly had built, in commemoration of their Zen sect’s ancestor having studied there.
At least they are said to have done so the second time they came around and managed to convince the locals that this relationship existed. The first time, it is said, they were laughed out and sent packing.
Attitudes towards Japan may still be basically unchanged.
The Japan connection finds mention at the temple’s description before the entrance. The path where the sign towards the stupa points was overgrown and blocked by fallen trees to such an extent, though, that I did not dare to follow it further.
With my wife around and always telling me of the snakes they do still have in those mountains, well, my curiosity does have its limits…
We took the way out through the buildings at the side, down from the Taoist temple. Someone we had met at its entrance gate told us to have a look… and a family turned out to live there.
Right down the first stairs, the old-style charcoal pellets I hadn’t seen in years were piled up. An old cooking stove for them was still around, as well.
The next courtyard, a cute child was playing with his toy gun, his mum preparing food nearby.
They didn’t look like they’d seen too many non-Chinese, but they weren’t fazed by our sudden appearance, either.
The boy just chatted with us a bit and showed me strange “uncle” and the “aunty” where we should go. Having had too many people point me out to others and stare at me, it was quite a relief.
Maybe I should not have been surprised to see people living there.
The last (and first) time I visited, some bai lajiao (white chilli) was blanching and drying right on the way in.
This time, some herbs – among them some variety of huajiao (Sichuan or flower pepper) – were drying in the temple’s inner courtyard…
Aside from that, two of Baoning Si’s special things are the Guanyin taro on its one side, which is said to have been growing there since ancient times…
… and the little spring on the other side which is, if I remember correctly, said to have never run dry.
When All the World’s Knowledge Doesn’t Help
Now, I have a bit more knowledge of this temple. A few images of the old memorial inscriptions and newer plaques that I added to my collection.
Still no certainty about its historical importance, though.
Some things, even in this time where the world’s knowledge is supposedly all just a web search away, remain shrouded in mystery…