And on the other hand...

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Sit-down Comedy: A Running Gag (Part 2)

Traveling back to someplace always makes you reference previous visits, and this latest to Wudang is no exception. Novelty is replaced by routine and ordinary, but no less wonderful.   I'm sure my companions got tired of my constant comments,  "When I was in Beijing in 1988..." and "This hotel used to be moldy..." and "When I broke the hermit's stool...".  That last reference has to do with my big western butt overwhelming a delicate wooden stool provided to me by the famous Bee Taoist. In the middle of a solemn little talk about Tao, my stool suddenly collapsed, put me on the ground in a big sudden shift in yin/yang, and provided the hermit with some new bits of firewood.

When one of our companions this trip was having some trouble getting a proper ticket from Beijing to Wudang with the rest of us in hard sleeper, he was encouraged to do what countless desperate Chinese must do: buy a little portable stool to sit on during the nearly 24-hour overnight journey in a crowded cattle car. (There are hawkers roaming the station selling stools for just this purpose.)  I joked about my stool adventure, and we decided that we would make a trek to present his little stool to the hermit as a kind of offering...assuming he would remember.
The stool became something of a sitting joke (as opposed to a running gag) for much of the journey. We never did deliver it to the Bee Taoist, who did remember me, but probably not because of the stool episode.   I gave him a copy of my Chinese-style ink portrait of him and a photo from our previous visit, and inadvertently left my Camelbak bottle on his little terrace, guaranteeing that I had to visit him one more time to retrieve it. (I was dropping and forgetting things all over the place on this trip; some practical lessons in attachment, or just paying attention.)
Bee Taoist Jia Ye (and a tiny Sufi), September 2013. 

I would like to know the story of this. This is like finding a statue of Lao Tzu in a mosque.
Later in Beijing, when I was alone after the last of the group had scattered, I spent an afternoon in the National Art Museum.  I never did find the shui-mo shan-shui scrolls I was looking for, but did stumble into some unusual modern installations, in particular, one involving...stools.  I guess I could call it an instoolation.

So the stool metaphor continued through the end of our trip and then some. If I can consider it a metaphor. (There were not a few stool jokes made related to the previous blog post. You can get very preoccupied with stool in China.)  The train stool purchaser and veritable art critic commented that the installation "represents the non-linearity of the journey of learning that we undertook interspersed by reminders of our humanity within the unfolding humanity of China.  I am glad I was sitting down on my stool at the time I opened these [photos] as I couldn't believe that someone could actually mutilate such objects of beauty..."  I couldn't have put it better.

Sit-Down Comedy: A Running Gag (Part One)

A couple of Wudang Tao study trips ago, in one of our little class sessions, our teacher made reference to the necessity of having "good intentions" in practice. (We've all heard this, especially among those pesky Buddhists.)  One of our group misheard this as "you must have good intestines."  No surprise, since most of us were having serious gastro-intestinal issues, blockages, and guts "being like water," all sorts of internal chaos.

Once again, this year in Wudang, I was initially suffering from blockages. Two years of office work, hours and hours cramped in planes and trains, and changed diet, left me quite constipated.  It's very hard to sit and meditate well with that kind of blockage.

I finally succumbed to a little artificial help to create genuine movement and suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to relieve myself when we were all gathered at a temple to do tai chi practice.
Wudang Tai Chi class in Nanyan Temple courtyard.
I wasn't really participating in that anyway, a little plantar's fasciitis and a gimpy hip from all that previous office and plane sitting,  rendering me the spitting image of Tie Guai Li, (Iron Crutch Li).  I would go nowhere without my trusty green Coleman walking stick and red Camelbak water bottle.  Still, I wanted to watch the tai chi practice, which was interrupted by a Hong Kong film crew who wanted to memorialize the foreigners paying respects in the temple and to film the master and his regular (in so many ways, I'm sure) students.

Good time to escape to a toilet. Cesuo zai nar?  I was directed back to the entrance to the temple, with fears of Yuan Dynasty squatters, but was pleasantly surprised to find renovation of the Temple facilities had resulted in perhaps the finest public restroom in China.  A huge flat screen television! A baby changing room! Sofas. And two rooms of toilets, one stall in which was clearly designated for me:
Disabled people, Tie Guai Li impersonators, and Westerners toilet.

Clean, comfortable, and only lacking toilet tissue.

I spent considerable time enjoying this facility, assuming that in Chinese, "disabled people" means "Westerners unable to squat."  I saw no one in wheelchairs at the temple, which otherwise was in no way handicapped accessible.  (Unless you hired porters with their bamboo sedan chairs.) The only thing missing in the stall was toilet tissue, an apparently precious commodity in China, so I completely used up one of my own precious portable packs of Wet Ones.

I felt bad throwing them into the wastebasket, which was decorated with a Wal-Mart happy face.  I had been advised back at our hotel to avoid putting toilet paper down the crapper, with vague reference to the use of night soil by the peasant farmers.  This was a very hard habit to break.  A few times, in a fit of ecological cooperation,  I actually retrieved my tissue from the toilet which barely filled with water, but my overall contribution to the fertilizer was probably not welcome. 

My hotel bathroom. I used that same towel for 18 days. Hotel policy.

This is not the first time I have been preoccupied with Chinese toilets, having had all sorts of primitive experiences over the past decades, in country latrines, restaurant stalls, and train potties. In cities, you develop a mental map of where the good toilets are.  You can google images of "Chinese toilets" for a hint of what I am not posting here: some things I don't photograph.  I did observe though, on our train journeys, the toilets, even in hard sleeper, were slightly improved.  You no longer could actually see the tracks rushing by below as you squatted over the hole. (You're not supposed to go when stopped in a station.)  This time however, on our return to Beijing, after having reluctantly visited the toilet in the middle of the night, I discovered in the morning that the sole of one of my shoes had peeled off.  I suspect the urine pool in the toilet dissolved the glue.  Ordinarily I would have taken them to my shoemaker, but couldn't bring myself to do that this time. 

But back to good intentions...I still laugh about the "good intestines."  But on reading a little booklet edited by one of the Tao teachers I have met on the mountain, I discovered the following tale about Zhang Sanfeng, legendary cultivator and alleged creator of Wudang Tai Chi Chuan, who behaved like an immortal.

"After hearing of his reputation, Emperor Chengzhu of the Ming Dynasty had a meeting with him. The emperor said, 'I would like to learn about Tao. What is the most enjoyable way?'  Zhang replied, 'Having a good appetite and smooth bowel movements is the most enjoyable way.'   The emperor regarded this reply as disrespectful and wanted to kill Zhang.  But at that point, the man disappeared all of a sudden.

"A few days later, Emperor Chengzu felt uncomfortable.  He was unable to eat and suffered from constipation.  Then he realized that what Zhang Sanfeng had said was correct.  Before long, Zhang met an envoy of the emperor on the road and asked the envoy to take a few Chinese alpine rushes to the emperor.  The emperor had them boiled down into a broth which he gulped down as Zhang suggested. All his troubles disappeared instantly.

"As Zhang had once lived on Mt. Wudang as a hermit, the imperial court began to build monasteries on this mountain.  Taoism on Mt. Wudang then began to flourish."

Which makes me begin to believe that what our teacher said was indeed, "You must have good intestines."  Tao cultivation is actually all about "gut feelings."

Lao Tzu recommends, "Take a load off."

So many meanings of "to sit."