Buddhism teaches that everyone may reach the perfected state and each person is a Bodhivisattva, or Buddha-to-be. In Chinese tradition, the symbolic figure of Buddha is Kwan Yin, a female dispensing compassion with a thousand arms. Every year, this religious entity has a special day dedicated directly to her. For those in China, March 15th (Sunday) was the day.
Read below to see how Pure Spring Temple, our small Buddhist worship place along the Yangtze, celebrated this special day.
The Day Before Kwan Yin Day
In the bright sunshine, our Kwan Yin Eve afternoon began.
Wa Yao Ba road filled with sellers of joss sticks (a type of incense stick) and huge red candles in celebration of Kwan Yin.
I along with Little Old (LF wasn’t in a mood to go out) carefully squeezed our way along the roadside to see what was going on at our little temple. No sidewalks make this a hazardous task as buses, taxis, construction trucks and cars zoom by.
My purpose was to take a look at the preparations everyone was making, getting ready for the next day’s crowds as those in Luzhou come out to worship. The highest numbers would be arriving Sunday to pay respects on this special Buddhist day. They’d fill this narrow roadway along the Yangtze with hundreds of people and cars. Our school gate entrance would be open for car parking to accommodate those who drove.
On Saturday afternoon, the disabled beggars and fortune tellers (the older-looking, the more decrepit, the blinder, the better) had staked their spots leading down the stairwell to the temple. There’d be more the next day, and thousands of visitors as well, but when you’re in business, “the early bird catches the worm” does ring true.
Even on Saturday, a few managed to snag the the slim number of visitors present.
Along the corridor route, our yearly squatters expect to get the most business, with sympathetic Chinese giving the poor a yuan or two and others looking to see what lies in their future.
Little Old, with his missing teeth and dragging tongue, drew a lot of interest from those we passed.
“How cute!” we heard.
“Foreigners like dogs,” one fortune teller said.
Another, perhaps in her 90s, shoved a stool my way.
“Sit down!” she encouraged. “I’ll tell your fortune.”
I smiled and shook my head.
“How about the dog?” she eagerly suggested.
Obviously it’s any ploy used for a buck, even among Buddhist spiritual readers.
If LO, a bit nervous and frightened among strangers, had been more cooperative, I might have taken her up on it.
Good Luck Traditions Followed For Kwan Yin Day
At the base of the stairwell, a huge character of happiness, “fu”, is displayed on the wall. The custom at this temple is to stand several feet away, close your eyes and walk toward the character. The objective is to land your hands directly on the fu. Then you run their hands along the character’s strokes. This will to bring you good luck.
At the temple’s doorway, I watched a few giggling visitors rub their hands over the cement lions that guard either side. Some were stuffing the mouths with money, another giver-of-luck tradition to those who do so.
The day before Kwan Yin Day, there were only a few lit candles to commemorate our Buddha of Compassion. But come Sunday, the place would be packed with those giving in to their Buddhist heritage, even though they don’t believe in it or openly practice it.
Sunday: Kwan Yin Day Arrives!
How interesting that my Sunday morning was spent in our Luzhou church, worshiping with those of my faith, and my afternoon was taken up in the Buddhist temple, observing others taking part in their religious traditions.
As I had thought, our Yangtze river road was overrun today with many Kwan Yin well-wishers making their way carefully to or from the temple. They stopped to buy necessary items from those selling incense and candles.
The fruit stands were likewise doing a great business. Offering fruit to the Buddha, even flowers, cans of beer or soft drinks, is a common practice. These are placed on the altar in front of the many Buddhist figures throughout the temple. When the altar is too cluttered with offerings, the volunteers carry them out to another area to make room for others’ gifts.
Our beggars had increased, some displaying open wounds or shocking deformities which filled their begging bowls with sympathetic bills. The fortune tellers and palm readers were likewise quite busy.
I wondered if the our elderly woman from yesterday would be so willing to tell the dog’s fortune today.
With the amount of traffic coming and going, the amount of burning going on was quite heavy.
In a huge concrete bin outside the temple, bundles of incense sticks and paper money were thrown into flames shooting upward.
Inside the courtyards, the elderly volunteers were busy scooping out wax from the water basins where the candles dripped into. The women were also responsible for discarding burned-down candles by carrying them away. I was amazed at the strength of these ladies, some in their 80s, who hoisted buckets of worship waste down stairwells and into courtyards for disposal.
Inside the temple, incense smoked and wound its way throughout every room. The use of incense clears the air of evil spirits and represents concentration for those sending their prayers to Buddha. Beautiful flowers, a reminder of morality, lay amidst fruit, unopened coke cans on the altar as well.
The Pure Spring Temple has numerous enclosed levels that climb up the river’s slope. It’s a very small temple with small rooms but it’s still quite impressive from my viewpoint. At every level, you can enter worship centers to visit the Buddha of your choice. At the very top level, overlooking the Yangtze, is our Kwan Yin with her thousands arms spread behind her like a peacock’s feathers.
Because so many candles are placed on her altar, many are moved outside during the day so it’s not too crowded. These were carefully placed on the outside platform where visitors could use them to light new candles.
Yet another level of the temple is where the nuns live. It’s a small area as there are only 7 or 8 who are full-time servants of Buddha living here. Their dormitories looked clean and tidy, a very peaceful place to live and work in dedication to your chosen faith.
Dinner is served!
The highlight of coming here on Kwan Yin Day is that you get a home-cooked meal for just 3 yuan (44 cents), as much as you can eat. The nuns and volunteers are all in charge of feeding lunch to the hundreds that pass through. How they can feed so many is beyond me. The cooking facilities are small but the prepared food just kept pouring out of the small window to the kitchen.
An adjacent courtyard was filled with families and others sitting at tables, shoveling in the many vegetarian dishes set before them. Rice was plentiful and no one was going hungry on this day.
For 44 cents, that was quite a bargain.
A Kwan Yin Surprise
Just as I was getting ready to leave the temple, I heard someone call out from the crowds, “Connie!”
Turning around, I couldn’t believe who it was.
It was Erika, a Chinese high school English teacher who used to call me years ago to talk about her troubles. One of our English teachers here at the college had introduced us when I first arrived in Luzhou and the friendship started from there.
I hadn’t seen or spoken to Erika in almost 4 years. She used to phone quite often with tales of woe about her teenage son.
In Britain, we’d call him a “rotter.”
He was in his late teens, had no desire to go to school, would play video games all night at local computer bars (stealing his mom’s money to do so), and was just plain mean to his mom.
(“Ah, the teenage years,” I hear some of you parents sigh.)
Erika was also divorced, which made things even harder for her as people labeled her as the divorcee. Yes, divorce in China is something that not many want to talk about or have happen. It reflects upon the person, especially when children are involved.
The son had grown up without a father. Erika often blamed herself for his behavior, that he hadn’t had a male influence in his life and she had somehow failed him. His father, too, wanted to have nothing to do with him. There again caused for a troubled young teen, feeling abandoned even though his mother cared so much for him.
The poor woman had no one to talk to so she’d call me. Sometimes, she’d let out her frustrations for over an hour, not knowing what to do and feeling helpless.
The only thing I could do was listen and hope that my small action gave her some comfort, that another person (who wasn’t going to tattle to all her friends) cared.
Then Erika stopped calling and we lost touch. After being away a year in Chengdu, I returned to Luzhou where I tried to contact her but the telephone number was disconnected. Thus her name just stayed forlornly on my telephone list among others who have long since gone from my life.
But here we were on Kwan Yin Day, reunited at the temple’s doorway between two cement lions which, I might add, I had just rubbed for good luck not more than 20 minutes before.
There were squeals of surprise and exchanges of greetings from both of us.
I was happy to learn her son, now 21, was in Xinjiang Province working in the oil fields. It was a steady job and brought him more money than her teaching job. From what I gathered, after his rebellious teenage years were behind him, he had become a better son and one who sent money home to his mom every month. He also called often to check up on her and keep her updated on life from his end.
Erika and I quickly made sure we had one another’s telephone numbers. We were definitely not losing touch again.
Eventually, the two of us made our way to Wa Yao Ba Road, where I saw Erika onto the city bus for her ride back home. She stood at the window, waving and smiling as it drove away. I did the same from the roadside, as dust and grit swirled up around me, before heading back to my apartment where lesson planning awaited me.
In Closing for the Day
What a fascinating and fortuitous Sunday it had been!
One does wonder if Kwan Yin is smiling at this Christian who visits the Buddhist temple for the afternoon and is then reunited with a very dear friend.
I know God must be, as I’m certain He put me right there in the place that was needed for a surprising blessing to occur.
From along the Yangtze River, here’s hoping your 3rd Sunday of Lent was just as wonderful as mine.
Ping An! (Peace)