An excerpt from Veena’s intriguing latest book, ‘A Mountain in China’.
Panky and I were really fortunate that our trip to Song Mountain had co-incided with the visit of the Dutch kungfu students because, at our very excellent meal the following evening, Meilin told us that she had hired a vehicle to take her students to see the famous Longmen Caves near the city of Luoyang, about an hour’s journey from Dengfeng, and would we like to join them. As the Longmen Cave complex, a masterpiece of Buddhist rock carvings, is one of the most important tourist destinations in China, we of course jumped at the chance.
Crossing Song Mountain and going down the other side on a potholed, hairpin road filled with huge, scarcely road-worthy trucks carrying gravel and rocks was a pretty terrifying experience and I felt quite shattered when we got to the bottom of the pass. It reminded me of the pass on the western side of India crossing the Ghats between Mumbai and Pune. This was once labelled one of the most dangerous roads in the world. I think the statisticians didn’t know about this mountain road in China when they made their calculations.
The rest of the ride was relatively uneventful and we arrived safely at what looked like a very beautiful scenic area although it was covered in the kind of fog that so often blankets places in this area. This, however, gave it a rather mystical atmosphere which, it turned out, was really appropriate for what we were about to see.
Luoyang was one of the ancient capitals of China – at different times, depending on which dynasty was in power. When the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), which actively supported Buddhism, moved its capital to Luoyang, work commenced on an extraordinary project. Over a two-hundred-year period, more than one hundred thousand images and statues of Buddha were carved into a limestone cliff wall along the Yi River.
The word ‘longmen’ looks like an English surname but in actual fact it is Chinese for ‘Dragon’s Gate’. The word is in tribute to the Emperor Yu, who lived about two hundred years BC, and who is still famous for building checks on the Yellow River to prevent it from disastrously flooding the plains through which it flowed. The most famous of the ‘checks’ was originally called Dragon’s Gate.
Although now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, the damage by vandalism to these carvings is devastating. From the beginning of the twentieth century, particularly, the heads of statues, or sometimes whole statues, were removed by unscrupulous collectors and sold to museums and private individuals all over the world. During the Cultural Revolution and earlier periods of anti-Buddhist feeling, vandalism on a massive scale occurred.
It was painful to see so much evidence of mindless destruction, yet the treasures that remained were awe-inspiring. The passage ways along the cliff have been sensitively designed to make the exploration of the caves and their carvings easy and exciting and we meandered our way along the cliff almost overwhelmed at such a huge artistic endeavour. There were also a few signs in relatively good English conveniently placed so at times we were able to get some explanations of what we were seeing.
Then, about a third of the way along the cliff, I stopped, astonished. Outside a smallish cave there was a sign saying ‘The Ten Thousand Buddha Cave’ (Wanfo Dong). Indeed there must have been ten thousand buddhas – carved all over the walls and ceiling with most of the small, bas-relief statues being only about one and a half inches high. But this proliferation of buddhas was not what stunned me. It was the words. ‘Ten Thousand Buddhas’ was one of Osho’s most favourite phrases which he used over and over again. When we sat each evening in meditation around him in our Buddha Hall in Pune, he referred often to us being a gathering of ten thousand buddhas. As there were nowhere near ten thousand people there, I just thought he was being poetic and imaginative, but here was more evidence of his connections to China – he was using a phase already in use about fifteen hundred years before. In fact, when I later did research on the use of this concept, I found that it originated even before the time that the Longmen Caves were being carved.
I had to sit down for awhile and contemplate this discovery. Osho had spoken at length about Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, Lieh Tzu, Sengcan (Japanese name: Sosan) and other Chinese masters, but in this Song Mountain area I was finding physical places which bore out his knowledge of the ancient spiritual heritage here and his connection with it. Again, I felt encouraged that my own yearning to come to this area was not just a fanciful mind-game but something deeply important for me.
Silently happy I caught up with the others who were all standing in front of the magnificent seventeen-metre-high central Buddha statue called Losana, whose androgynous facial features are said to be modelled on the Tang empress, Wu Zetian, who funded the carving. This buddha statue touched me even more than my hitherto favourite, the Daibutsu in Kamakura in Japan.
The Losana Buddha was near the end of the two-kilometre-long cliff and we started our return journey by crossing the river over an attractive bridge which gave us a greater perspective of the cliff as it extended down the river. Picturesque small tourist barges painted red and gold slowly sailed up and down, adding bright touches of colour to the otherwise misty scene.
To get back to our vehicle we boarded the little tourist carts which we were amused to find had some of the best (in terms of quaintness) Chinese signs we had seen. We were instructed: Please do not frolic in the car or Please contain your body inside the car. While waiting for our vehicle which Meilin had summoned, we feasted on Chinese snacks – not chips and chocolate, but roasted corn cobs or sweet potatoes from heated barrows operated by charming, often toothless, old men or women.
A beautiful day. And my love for Song Mountain and my conviction that there was a mystery here for me to solve had just grown stronger.
Excerpt from Veena’s book
Read Dhiren’s review: A Mountain in China