by Vicki Sidley
“Are we still on?” I emailed Cecilia Damiani, the Italian organizer of the tour.
“We are in. Heartbroken, but we are in. This was Rinpoche’s wish.” she replied.
Just a week earlier we had been encouraged to hear that Rinpoche had made it to Italy to receive the Commander Order of Merit of the Italian Republic award. It gave me cause to hope that, having made this journey, he might also make it to China. But shortly afterwards came the announcement on September 16ththat the Master’s health was declining. Now we knew for certain he would not make it to Chengdu. Then through a Norbunet request we learned that Fabio Andrico was leaving China and returning to Merigar. Very quickly most participants booked on the China tour made other arrangements.
A day later Cecilia wrote me to say that we (those on the tour) were not a lot of people but we “can stay together.” At this point I imagined that there might be 8 or 10 people left, and I casually offered to teach a session or two of Harmonious Breathing. Cecilia was delighted.
The following day, the day before I was due to leave, she wrote again, “We are happy to announce that from 29 Sept. till 5 Oct. Yeshe Wangpo will be with us! He’s a really good teacher, chosen by Rinpoche to teach in China.”
This was good news indeed. Still, only 12 hours before my flight was due to leave, Cecilia let me know there were only 4 of us on tour, and that there would be no Vajra Dance. Now I had second thoughts about going. Was it possible to back out? Since almost everyone had cancelled, was it foolhardy for me to continue? But the momentum behind the many arrangements it took to go was like a large ship at sea. I was pre-determined to go, it seemed.
Arriving in Shanghai I was relieved to see that the airport signage was in English. After a little hiccup with the customs official who detaining me, objecting to my passport, and saying it was too new, (my old one had expired), I was waved through, and made my way to the gate for the plane bound for Chengdu. Luckily I had befriended a young American businessman on the international flight who was also flying to Chengdu. He alerted me to the fact that often the gate number as advertised may be changed, without announcement. He could speak some Chinese, and discovered that we were in fact, waiting in the wrong gate. And so we hustled down the length of the terminal and to another floor into a crowded waiting room. Our flight and a later flight had been combined into one, and so I would be arriving two hours late. The second piece of good luck was the fact that I already had the application “WeChat” set up on my phone, thanks to Patrizia setting up a chat group to include the Chinese teachers of Harmonious Breathing in China. Everyone in China, and in other places in Asia, uses the very powerful ‘WeChat’. ‘WhatsApp’, along a host of different applications, search engines, email services and websites are either restricted, or just not available in China. But with ‘WeChat’ I could let Lulu (my contact in Chengdu) know that I would be hours late.
My trepidations melted away as soon as I met Lulu and Oscar. Lulu was responsible for organizing the entire event in Chengdu, and immediately took me under her wing. They had waited patiently at the airport for me, and had ordered a car to take us to the hotel.
On the way there I got my first impression of a modern city; along the rooftop profile of the gigantic Global Center sweeping back and forth were curvaceous bands of deep violet and white light against a night sky. This would be the first of many architectural light animations on immense buildings that would delight me in the days to follow.
Chengdu is a modern “second tier” city with a population of about 13 million in the greater Chengdu area. It is situated in a huge fertile valley surrounded by mountains. The weather is in September is often overcast and muggy. I personally found the warmth and high humidity very pleasant. Chengdu has one of the lowest annual sunshine records in China. This, I learned, gives rise to the quaint saying, when referring to something rare, that it is like “a dog in Chengdu barking at the sun”. It used to have the reputation of being a very laid back place.
One of the many reasons the trip to China was so superb is that I felt completely taken care of, by Lulu, from beginning to end. Lulu had chosen a Holiday Inn in Chengdu with an attached business center. In the US the Holiday Inn is seen a decent hotel within the budget range. But the one we stayed at in Chengdu, was more like a 4-Star hotel, with a capacious marble lobby, a number of restaurants including one that offered a sumptuous feast for breakfast, and well-appointed rooms. It felt rather luxurious. From my room window I could see a large lake. For the most part it was not the noxious environment I had imagined. It was fairly quiet, largely insulated from traffic noise.
On my first evening Lulu ordered a car to take me downtown to the IFS center. She said “Meet us by the Panda Bear”. I looked around and could not see one. Finally I looked up to see the giant sculpture of the bear scrambling up to the top of the building. Over dinner that night I learned from Lulu that there would be over 100 Chinese students of Rinpoche attending the retreat the following week led by the Chinese monk Yeshe Wangpo. Now I realized that teaching Harmonious Breathing would be part of that retreat. I also learned that Chengdu is only about 500 kilometers from where Rinpoche was born.
The next day I went to meet Lulu downtown again at the Monastery of Manjushri, also know as Wenshu Monastery. The site dates back to circa 618 AD. I was surprised to learn that you come here to register as a Buddhist. In the US you might claim that title for yourself if you believe in the tenets of Buddhism, but in China you have to go through some formal process of study to be awarded that nomination, in this case by the Buddhist Association of Sichuan and Chengdu City. Here Lulu and I whiled away some time looking at the buildings, the gardens, and then having tea, a delightful and typical Chinese pastime.
Over tea I learned that as a rule, few urban Chinese carry cash. Nor do they sport credit cards. All payments are made through a cell phone banking system and QR codes (similar to a bar-code). Even at the top of a mountain a woman selling a root that tasted like a melon had the QR code on the basket that held her wares. I was starting to think of USA monetary modes as outdated.
While this works very well for Chinese people, please heed my word of warning to visitors to China. Neither my credit card nor my ATM card could be linked to the software. Only Chinese credit cards are accepted by vendors. The ATM machines did not recognize my ATM bank card. While I have had no trouble with these cards to access cash in Europe, Australia and South Africa, they did not work in China. So I was quite restricted in my spending. So for visitors it is best to bring plenty of cash with you. The hotels will change the money for you.
Shortly after tea we met Cecilia, Lushan and her husband and baby in the monastery restaurant. The menu was presented on a digital tablet. I ordered something only because it was beautiful. It was called “green pearls”, and I suspect it came from the sea. Dish after dish arrived. It was a feast to behold and in which to indulge. This was true of most of our meals in restaurants. Thanks to our host Lulu, there were always an abundant variety of dishes. Everything, to my palate, was delectable.
During the following four days Cecilia, Heidrun Goetsch from Austria, and I were treated to a spectacular tour of various important sites within a few hours drive of Chengdu. (The fourth tourist had cancelled at the last minute.)
I shall merely list, but not describe them, should you have the chance to go there yourself and experience them afresh. There was, in the order that they were presented to us by our wonderful guide Ken, a friend of Lulu’s; the Giant Panda Breeding Center, the ancient town of Luodai, the Great Buddha of Leshan, Dafo Monastery, Elephant City, a live acrobatic musical at a theater in E’mei City, Mount E’mei with its golden statue of Samantabhadra, and the Taoist mountain called Xingcheng with its many temples. I might say only that the Giant Pandas, who spend most of their time heavily draped over or between branches or slumped in slumber on man-made platforms, are the very epitome of relaxation, the theme of our tour.
Every single one of these venues provided an experience that was rich, unique and exotic. Ken both guided us and took care of all details, including the buying of tickets for various bus, cart and cable rides, and ordering food for lunch or dinner. Cecilia dubbed him “our superhero’ – and he was.
On the way to Leshan Ken told us to look out for clusters of white houses that could be seen from the freeway. If we saw a particular house with a large black circular graphic painted on the wall, it was a sign that announced that someone over ninety years of age was living in that house. Great age, in China is an achievement, rather than hidden away for the most part, as it is in the United States.
Back in the hotel, Chinese practitioners were gathering for the teaching by Yeshe Wangpo. He would be teaching Mandarava in the mornings of the coming week.
I was introduced to Ben, the Chinese teacher of Yantra Yoga, and using the translation talents of a Yantra Yoga practitioner Crystal Shi, we set a retreat agenda for Harmonious Breathing and Yantra Yoga for the afternoons.
Yeshe Wangpo was warmly welcomed by the 150 students. He had just had a teaching session with most of them a month earlier in Dali. I had learned that morning from Cecilia that Rinpoche has passed away. Did all the Chinese students know? How would Yeshe Wangpo announce this? He was very humble in his presentation of himself, saying that initially he did not think he could teach the Mandarava practice, but that Rinpoche had said he was ready, and that Rosa had asked him to teach this retreat. His approach to sharing the fact of Rinpoche’s passing was very subtle. It was both true for those students who did and those who did not yet know. At some point he simply said that Rinpoche could not physically be with us, but he was, in fact, present with us.
Teaching Harmonious Breathing to some eighty students was also a great opportunity and a pleasure. On stage with me was the lovely Crystal Shi who translated each sentence, giving me a few moments to think about what should be said next. The practitioners were at a distinct advantage, as their sitting posture, which compared with western students, was already quite open and stable. They were very attentive and diligent in their application of the exercises. One note of interest was that most all the Chinese practitioners kept their socks on. At first I thought it was a sign of respect, that is, not showing the teacher the soles of the feet, but I later learned from Crystal that this is a custom based more on the belief that a cold wind can enter through the soles and cause illness.
After Harmonious Breathing came the teaching by Ben of the Nine Purification Breathings and the Tsigjong series. He was very thorough in his explanations and very precise in his demonstrations. Even Ben kept his socks on, taking one off only briefly to show how the toes should bend in the first movement. Of course, I did not understand his words, but I picked up several cues from watching him demonstrate. For these sessions Crystal, Lily, another lovely Yantra Yoga practitioner, and I walked around the room watching and correcting people. People were very appreciative of these corrections.
Following the Yantra Yoga was a session of Khaita, taught by Cecilia and Lushan. I think that most people were not familiar with the particular Khaita songs but everyone was game to try. There were even a couple of very young girls in the group of Khaita dancers, and everyone was clearly having a great time.
On the third day of the retreat I recognized a face from Dzamling Gar. It was Anna Apraksina, a Vajra Dance instructor and she was there with Vince Li. Would she lead us in the Vajra Dance? All we needed was a mandala. So I asked Lulu, and just like magic, the next day a mandala was brought to the teaching room. And so we got to dance Vajra Dance after all. Anna gave us instructions, translated by Vince, on the 12 Ah’s, and then we danced on the mandala. There were many, many dancers who danced well, and very gracefully. I was surprised to see how many could dance both the Pawo and Pamo parts.
Learning from Yeshe Wangpo was extremely valuable. So was being around so many very knowledgeable and diligent practitioners. They were open and generous in spirit, and with their time. The feeling of friendship was as abundant as the food.
The Chinese have a culture that is very different from ours here in the west. Only one aspect of this was just how very polite and considerate they are. There are, I suppose, levels of subtlety to these manners I have yet to understand.
Thinking of Rinpoche, being close to where he was born, dreaming of him, practicing together, I felt a greater closeness with him throughout the entire time in China. And feel even now. Without doubt, regardless of place, across a broad swath of the planet, at this special time, I am not alone in this feeling.
Many thanks to Yeshe Wangpo for the teaching, Cecilia, Lulu and Oscar for the strength, tenacity and capability in pulling this trip together, to Lushan and Anna for teaching dance, to Ben for Yantra Yoga instruction, to Crystal, Wen, Kenand others who translated for us, to Fabio for Harmonious Breathing, and to the Chinese sangha as a whole.
Homage to the Master!