Let me start of by saying, I am a Bible believing Christian, and don’t believe in the spirituality or practices of Buddhism. However, I still think there is a lot to admire and learn from the self discipline, peacefulness, and dedication found in these devout Buddhist monks. Heres my story of following Chian Bon on his once in a life time sacred pilgrimage to Chinas most religious sites, Wu Tai Shan.
Photographing a monk is very hit or miss. First it is very intimidating to approach them with a camera because they seem to take everything very serious and as soon as they see a camera, they hide their face to remain anonymous. However, there are a good number of monks that, when asked, really enjoy the moment in the spotlight, and yet others are completely indifferent. For Chian Bon, it made his special trip just a little bit more memorable as he got to share it with an American and it created an experience that I couldn’t easily replicate.
I started the morning off exploring and hiking around the massive temple complex of Wu Tai in the valley of the mountains. Temples are practically built one on top of the other with tiny little alleyways and staircases in between. In one such alley, I saw the frame for the perfect shot of an entrance of a temple that just needed a monk to walk by it. As I saw Chian Bon approach I got brave and asked for him to pose right in the doorframe for me. He agreed but hardly had a smile for me. We happened to continue walking in the same direction up the stairs. I thought that would be the end of our relationship, yet as I was about to pass by the next temple, he ushered me in with him, inviting me to be a part of this very sacred journey. It was an opportunity, that I knew would slow down my day a lot, there were a lot of mountains I wanted to climb, but I knew it would give me an inside glimpse into one individual monks experience at Wu Tai. Best decision I ever made.
As I followed him, I got excited at his curiosity, and his inspiration. Ever turnI could see the anticipation on his face about what was around the next corner. Every temple he entered he slowly looked at all of the statues and read every sign. Every prayer wheel he saw, he slowly waddled over to it and gave it a twirl. He would peak his head in every door, and explore every back alley. All along the way he would beckon me to follow, to have me experience this once in a lifetime journey with him. He bought birds to free at the temple, he also bought me birds. He had a photo taken at a photo booth, he had me stand there right next to him. He would ask me which direction to go at turns, to make sure that I was still interested. I was! One time he went in a temple, as I waited out side I saw an awesome tower to climb and get a great view. As he left the temple, I saw the distress in his confused face as he couldn’t find where I was. I saw him and yelled down his name. He looked around for a second and then saw me in a tower. With a huge smile, he gestured that he too would come up the tower. He showed the direction he walks around each temple. At the stalls he would show the prayer beads he liked, and the ones he didn’t. He taught me to step into the temples with my right foot first. He showed me his care for children by blessing each one we passed. I saw others respect this mans dedication by bowing to him and giving him alms. We were the most unlikely pair in the eyes of the onlookers, but we were both learning and enjoying each others company.
The final goal of this mans pilgrimage and my tourist experience was to reach the highest temple on this little mountain. However, with the maze of temples built on top of each other, this proved to be a harder task than one would think. We never spoke a word of the same language to each other, but I could tell in his gesturing and interaction with others that this was his first time here, and exciting pilgrimage for him, and he kept pointing up the mountain, to which others would gesture a bunch of points and directions to get us to the top.
Most times I try to get a broad variety of people on a trip, trying to cover a vast scope of the type of people in a place. However, with this experience, I got to witness every detail of this mans day. I saw his consistent behavior, rather than just a fleeting moment. His experience was mine and mine was his. An experience I will never forget.