Beijing: "Sunday in the Park with Jasmine"
People's Republic of China
Sunday, January 6, 2008
Dear Family and Friends,
In New York City, the exquisite white marble, Neo-Gothic St. Patrick's Cathedral sits on bustling and narrow Fifth Avenue and not in the middle of Central Park. The venerable French Gothic Notre Dame de Paris sits on the Île de la Cité and not in le jardin des Tuileries. But in Beijing where The Son of Heaven prayed for good harvests, the Temple of Heaven sits in the middle of a 267 hectare (660 acre) public park.
Just like a visit to the majestic cathedrals, a trip to the Temple of Heaven can be a spiritual encounter. But on a Sunday morning, like a romp though Central Park (843 acres) or a gambol though the Tuileries (63 acres), the approach to the Temple of Heaven through the Temple of Heaven Park is just plain fun!
Despite the early morning chill, the citizenry of Beijing are out of the house and enjoying a bright sunny day as they both entertain themselves and entertain us passersby. Older folks are seriously playing cards or board games. An energetic young woman leads an enthusiastic chorus. One woman is simply singing for everyone and uses a portable microphone and speakers. A few men and women hold a long stick in each hand and manage to twirl and balance a third. Others practice Tai Chi.
Small groups of women dance together with red flags while others twirl long, multicolored ribbons. There is an orchestra of traditional string instruments and another with a conductor who leads what looks like a pickup band of harmonicas and singers. A few uninhibited souls dance along with the band.
One soloist plays a wooden flute that has a red tassel hanging from the end. Artistic men paint drawings and Chinese characters on the floor of the open air pavilion. And one guy teaches me to play catch with a paddle and ball, but he is disappointed when I don't offer to buy a set.
Yes, it's Sunday in the Park, Beijing style. Jasmine and I are happy to join the fun as we stroll towards our destination. I thought I was just going to see a large temple, but like so much else in China, so much is surprising.
One big surprise is that this temple is not just a temple but a large complex of buildings including the Imperial Gate, the Imperial Altar, the Round Altar, the Imperial Vault of Heaven, the Echo Wall and the focal point, the Temple of Good Harvests.
Originally built in 1420, the Qinian Dian, or Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is where the Son of Heaven, the emperor, could intercede with the gods on behalf of his people and pray for good harvests.
The temple sits on a three-tiered circular marble platform 300 ft in diameter. The three-tiered circular roof is blue, the color of heaven. The lower exterior walls as well as the 28 decorated pillars are red, the imperial color. Dragon and phoenix motifs inside and out represent the emperor and the empress. The circular caisson ceiling has a gilded dragon and phoenix at its center. The hall is built entirely of wood without using a single nail. The golden finial is 125 ft (38 m.) high and prone to lightning strikes. *
Jasmine and I circle the Hall twice and climb the marble stairs for some lovely views of the surrounding buildings and clear views of the city. Then it is back to the city to continue our pious Sunday excursion.
"Beijing's most spectacular temple complex, The Lama Temple, was constructed during the 17th Century and converted into a Tibetan lamasery in 1744. Its five main halls are a stylistic blend of Han, Mongol, and Tibetan motifs . . . A plump laughing Buddha, Wei Tuo, the protector of Buddhist doctrine, the Four Heavenly Kings, and Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism, all share the temple grounds . . . ." *
"In the Wanfu Pavilion, the highlight is the 55 ft (17m) statue of Maitreya (the Future Buddha), carved from a single block of sandalwood." * Cinnamon-robed Monks are here today, chanting and praying in the be-ribboned, dark temple. Saffron-robed Thai Monks are my fellow tourists. I wai and we exchange "sawatdee krop."
Lama Temple is on my "To See Again" list. I must return to see the exhibition of Tibetan Buddhist objects and statuary and to admire the huge, incense-covered sandalwood Maitreya, the god of the Buddhist Monks, the future god who will achieve complete enlightenment.
Whether our G-d is carved in sandalwood or whether He is invisible, or whether He is carved in marble or gold, or whether our G-d is One, or none, or a Trinity, or a Pantheon, I am certain we are all encouraged by our Faith and by our Prophets to spend a Sabbath day as Jasmine and I did today. In a Cathedral or a Mosque, in a Synagogue or a Temple, we give thanks for our presence, we honor our heritage, and we pay respect to our neighbors' traditions and accomplishments. And then, we have fun.
Have faith my friends and have fun. Tomorrow is a "work" day.
* "China." Dorling Kindersley. London. 2005