He had a wind’s walk
the old man of the hills
the grotto dweller who was daft
they said – or drunk
from the more cynical.
On the air’s own nectar
I supposed, or the gushing streams
that fed the year-round flowers
in the unending spring
of the rain mountain’s life,
or the sunshafts through the holes
in crazy-paving mists
that coil like woolly snakes
from the loquacious sea.
One day rocks will fall
before his cave hiding
from the curious world the skeleton
of one who knew
there was no time
I came up to the mess after work and sat watching the slow falling of the night; distant sounds hung heavily in the breathless air; Chinese music in Heung Kong Chai; a drowsy generator’s mutter and the undertones of grasshoppers; pine trees with their thin candles in pointed parallelism reached for the sky, a scent of resin drifting past like incense; a cricket chirruped a song and, above the slowly rising mists, a pendant silence, like a half-fallen wing, held its breath, waiting.
Out at sea, dark islands rose in silhouette from the placid, white expanse of water. With soft footsteps the night was falling, an evening vapour disseminating from shadowy places, coming through the grasses, the foliage of the trees, out from the crannied rocks, seeping over the valley, which the night haze darkened first. The western faces of the hills went black against the sky and, one by one, the eastern faces too lost shape, trees, rocks, dwellings becoming dim, obscure and merging all the time. This was the hour when particulars are lost, the numina appear, a crouched tiger, a maiden’s breath passing like a sigh, the nodding hill, the threatening hill, the rolling sombre hill. At last the waters, too, copying the slowly changing sky, grew dark and dull, dying a little until, in some small corner between the rocks, a first star glimmered. Suddenly, I was bitten by the first gnat.
Down in the city the street was crowded, coolies trotting along with heavy loads slung across their shoulders. Stalls in obscure corners were poorly lit by irregular street lamps: small oil flames, guttering from the tops of old squash bottles protected from the breeze by glass shields, cast patches of light for the letter writers, fortune tellers, sweetmeat sellers, lucky money and paper offering stalls, vendors of quack medicines. On the evening before Ching Ming, there was little hurry in the street although the coolies, toiling to earn another cent, never slackened their pace. The street was gaudy with sound, especially from loud music up in a tenement where someone had died seven days before.
On the pavement outside the house stood a sombre iron incinerator, like a night watchman’s shelter, and, in front of it, a large paper house of two storeys and open balconies filled with furniture, tables, cupboards, beds and a maidservant. Next to the house lay two paper trunks and two paper bridges, four feet high and seven feet long, complete with paper lamps and paper people crossing over. Up on the second floor, revelry was in progress and outside the windows ‘spirit-calling’ signs rustled in the slightly moving air. Today a ghost was coming home to receive his heavenly inheritance.
Yannang and I watched as a paper horse went up in flames before us to become the old man’s spiritual steed. Soon the house, his heavenly home, the trunks, his heavenly belongings, would go the same way, the fine smoke drifting up over the roofs of the houses and around the eaves of the nearby Man Mo Temple. The bridge signified his kindness on earth for, in the old days, to donate a bridge to one’s village was the height of patronal piety. In heaven, the paper bridge would enable him to cross the river of Hell.
Beyond the Door Gods, it was dark inside the Man Mo Temple; some priests were lolling asleep in chairs near the door and someone was curled up on a mat. Moving around to the left of the hall, we passed a rather crude picture of a Bodhisattva floating on clouds, holding what appeared to be a pill of immortality. Yannang slowly translated a notice on a wall nearby, a list of commandments and advice for avoiding evil by doing good. Flickering oil lamps cast long shadows between the statues of the guardians near the central altar and, in dark corners, dim outlines of gods and tables of images were vaguely visible. Below the main altar a small, open oil lamp guttered, maintaining the health of the Earth God in his lowly position. Above us, among the beams of the deeply shadowed ceiling, something scuttled along the boards.
A curious mood came over us in that place. It seemed unbelievable to me that, out of all the countless places upon earth, I should be at that moment there in that temple with Yannang for company. His translation became slower as if it was no longer required. He faltered and there was a kind of tension in the air as if each of us had become aware of an unique moment. Among the strange shadows thrown by the lamp light, the special quality of our friendship, the miracle, Yannang had called it, this coming together from the ends of the earth and from such contrasting backgrounds and personal histories, seemed to strike us both. It was then that the magic came again and, afterwards, the evening remained unique in the same way. We seemed lost, walking the Chinese streets we cared not where, drunk with a kind of happiness. What are these moments, so rare and precious, so full of unsaid understanding, so all-sufficient, when nothing, other than their reality, is desired?
Suddenly the electric lights went up. Brilliant with colour as if taken from a Christmas tree, light bulbs blossomed on all sides of the altar before us. From his pedestal Pau Kung, a symbol of Chinese justice, looked down on us, black-faced, gorgeously robed, throned, crowned and surprisingly well dusted. The chief priest, or was he the chief cash collector, hurried forward.
We could now see that the Man Mo temple was considerably better off than the poor little Ting Hau temples along the beaches with their grubby little god dolls. Pau Kung, an ancient imperial minister, was really quite impressive. Behind the image, in a curtained recess, stood another figure, about four feet tall, said to be older than Hong Kong itself for it had stood in a village temple long before the British came. In front of Pau Kung stood a smaller copy of this old image evidently used in processions. On either side of Pau Kung stood two robed officials, his servants, and, in addition to an assembly of pewter joss-stick holders, candlesticks and bowls, there was an odd hand mirror with paper stuck across it as in a multiplication sign. The priest informed us that this symbolised the powers of yin and yang, the innate twin powers driving the universe. By carrying it, Pau Kung could enter Hell to discover the answer to any problem. We found a sinister wooden guillotine shaped like a hinged axe in the form of a yellow striped tiger. In olden times such an instrument in metal was used to cut off the heads of criminals.
The chief gods of the temple, Man and Mo, stood above the central altar, splendidly arrayed with numerous attendant godlings. Man is a god of literary skill, Mo is helpful to fighters and a promoter of honesty. Surrounding the two gods was a collection of carvings depicting the doings of the eight fairies, said to be ancient and made by a highly skilled craftsman.
We found another seven stars lamp. This one was not constructed like a pagoda, rather the seven lamps simply stood open upon a metal frame. The priest began to be useful.
“Once upon a time,” he told us, “there was a chief minister of the state of Shu [ad 181-234] whose name was Chukwa Liang. He was a skilled early scientist and military commander. When the king died, Chukwa Liang took control of the state and tried to conquer the state of Wei to the north. During the last of six attempts he became ill and, wishing to extend his life, he invented the magical lamp to ensure it. But one of his generals, on rushing into his room to bring news and ask for orders, blew out the lamp in his hurry. In a few days Chukwa Liang lay dead. Today this lamp symbolises the hopes of all of us for a prolonged life!”
On the walls near the Pau Kung altar hung a group of very old scrolls, paintings in beautiful detail of enthroned Bodhisattvas of which there were also a number of images in the building. We asked the priest why so many images of Buddhist origin were present in a Taoist temple. He told us it would enable a larger number of people of differing beliefs to use the temple. “And,” added Yannang, “so to pay more temple dues!”
Next door to the Man Mo temple is a similar building, housing a Chinese physical culture club. Inside it four men, two teachers and two pupils, were working in pairs. One pair seemed to be dancing, creating postures of poise and grace, followed by rapid movements and leaps with various whirlings of arms, each set of movements ending in a well-balanced, stable posture. The other pair, the teacher being an old man, were practising defensive postures, careful, balanced positions that could withstand attack from any direction. The old master would make movements which were at once copied by his pupil. Sometimes a stance would be held for many minutes to achieve stability and strength.
This sport is known as Chinese boxing which, however, also includes high kicks and judo-type throws as well as fisticuffs. It is not however like jujitsu, where the opponent’s misdirected energy is allowed to encompass his downfall, for here aggressive attacks are also allowed. The flaying arms are used to hit the opponent as well as to knock aside his blows.
The men were slightly built but extremely wiry and supple. There was no show of brute strength and animal ferocity but rather an obvious joy in poise, balance, speed and stance. It looked more like ballet than boxing. Yannang told me that such training today is mainly for physical exercise but that it was used formerly as a fighting skill and that many of the throws and blows were potentially fatal.
Back in the tenement we spent time translating Yannang’s favourite song. The music is romantic and the words lyrical. Chinese words are monosyllabic and tonal, capable of great subtlety when sung. Our version in English cannot capture the original feel but we enjoyed our attempt.
A Proposal – The song of a suitor at Khan Ding
Each year there is a horse race at Khan Ding. The track runs up the mountains and through clouds to an inland sea. Here everyone enjoys a night-time party with music, dance and lovemaking. It is very romantic in the mountains with the light of the moon on the snow. Everyone hums this song.
Mountain climbers are riding,
Grey mists Khan Ding are hiding,
Night on the hill in the star land
And dancing in the firelight’s glow.
The Moon, the Moon, shining –
There’s dancing in the firelight’s glow.
The maiden daughter from Lee
O see – how beautiful is she!
Watch her movement, how she dances
Son of Chang she quite entrances.
The Moon, the Moon, shining –
Son of Chang she quite entrances.
What delight see how she dances
How the starlight her grace enhances!
Wealthy lands her father holds
Hei Ding’s daughter, fall such chances!
The Moon, the Moon, shining –
Hei Ding’s daughter, fall such chances.
Maidens all the world delight,
Young men’s hearts are set alight.
The gay pursuit, the sweet desire
This globe itself seems set afire.
The Moon, the Moon, shining –
This globe itself seems set afire.
The Indian community of Hong Kong had invited Swami Yogi, a famous Hindu practitioner, to stop off in the colony, on his way to a World Religious Conference in Japan. Many Indians live in Hong Kong, forming a small but thriving business community. I attended his lecture on world unity in the rooms of the University Alumni Association in Queens Buildings and found myself the sole European present. Most of the audience, of around a hundred people, were Indian, large men with huge introspective eyes, long Aryan heads and often a fine physique even when tending to corpulence. Most of them were wealthy traders and a few appeared artistic or intellectual. They had an earnest air about them which I liked. A few Chinese had also joined the throng.
When the lecturer arrived, everyone rose in silent respect. His Holiness was dressed in a huge mauve turban, flowing fawn and mauve robes and, on his forehead, sat the scarlet mark of the Hindu faith. He was a short, thickset man with a square face, aquiline nose, a thin-lipped mouth running in a straight line above a determined jaw. His narrow eyes were so deeply set it was difficult to make out their expression. His flesh had a womanly appearance and his age may have been anything between sixty and one hundred! In repose he seemed remarkably expressionless, blank yet contemplative. There was a certain power latent in his curious face. When he spoke it was with a rich, commanding voice impelling attention.
In introduction we were told he had begun life as a chemist and before the war he had studied in Germany. In later life he became dissatisfied and joined the priesthood, soon making his name as a religious leader. In recent years he had felt increasingly estranged from ordinary people, sensing that religious feeling was disappearing in India. He retired to the Himalayas, where he meditated for long periods in the silence of the great peaks. Returning with new confidence, he taught his doctrinal viewpoint directly to ordinary people, avoiding the old sanctuaries of Brahminical thought.
A bowl of joss sticks was placed before him and, while he was being presented with a garland of paper flowers, the room filled with the sweet tang of Indian incense. When he rose to speak he closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate for a minute. At first he spoke slowly but, gradually, the speech came faster and faster until a great flow of words flooded the room. He smiled as he talked and his dynamic diction held attention.
It was a strange lecture, difficult to follow because of the noise of cars outside and his pronunciation. From time to time he lapsed into Hindi or gave Sanskrit quotations from scripture. I gathered the following to have been his viewpoint.
Astrology has revealed that world and cosmos move in great cycles of many thousands of years. History is a great flux of events often influenced by hidden currents of human thought and feeling rather than specifically by the deeds or sayings of leaders who, nonetheless, may mould such currents into social movements. We are currently reaching the end of an astrological period and there will be a great change in human life which may be either catastrophic, leading to a breakdown in civilisation or a rekindling of human life into a new world of brotherhood never known before. The latent forces in the world may bring us terror and destruction or an age of sensitivity and creativity.
At the physical level the world is dependent upon American money. America, under the sign of Mercury, is a new civilisation, uncultured, unstable, full of new ideas, goodwill, extreme lack of tact and diplomatic subtlety and generally immature. Its civilisation could swing in any direction. “Let us hope that great county is never led astray from its high ideals!”
Great Britain provides the world with an example in good government, diplomacy and security. She is a land of democracy but also deeply conservative, clinging to old ideas and romantic notions of her past imperialism. This is a country to be studied and for which the world should be grateful but from which leadership at the present time could not be expected.
Russia, under the cold malevolence of Saturn, is an unfeeling state, static, solid, rigid, inflexible, a repository of heartlessness.
India is a spiritual country suffering seriously from quarrels with Pakistan, internal poverty and nationalism. Yet India is also a storehouse of spiritual insight and feeling that can bring much hope to the world. India may stand as a peacemaker between opposing forces.
The only hope for the world lies in a renewal of spiritual feeling not from any specific religion, be it Hinduism, Christianity or Buddhism, but a resurgence of a psychological empathy for one’s neighbours, be they of the same race or different, and a contemplative ethos directed towards life itself.
Ahimsa, the doctrine of non-harming, provides the clue which should be applied in all the affairs of people. Only this spiritual insight and love for humanity without regard for doctrine and ideology can bring about a brotherhood of all. Acts and ideas that increase the divisions between mankind need to be rooted out and replaced by kindliness.
Although many people express a desire for peace, their nature remains warlike. The policies of such people spread the seeds of war. This is also true of each one of us individually. Examine yourselves to find those seeds and destroy them. Ahimsa, hurt nothing, fill your life with love for humanity and contemplation of this wondrous world.
All very well, I thought, as I walked back through the refugee-crowded streets with their brothels and petty crime without which so many could not live. A little too easy, maybe, too global a prescription. The world was a trickier place than perhaps the yogi knew.