In normal years, to attend the Asia for Animals Conference – which is always lively and dynamic – you’ll need to spend several thousand dollars and around 15 hours flying across the Pacific.
This year however, due to the pandemic, you can stay in your armchair and pay $20 to be part of the virtual two-day AfA Conference – which is a good deal.
Well, it’s really a two-night conference, from the U.S., due to the time differences.
Jane Goodall will give the keynote address. Other speakers will be well-known animal activists from China, Nepal, India, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, and other Asian countries. The conference will be in English.
The 2021 Conference will be put on jointly by Blue Cross of India and FIAPO (the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations). Dr. Chinny Krishna, one of the founders of these two organizations will give the opening address.
Around twenty sessions and panel discussions will take up highly relevant topics.
One session will focus on building an Asian movement to end live animal markets and the wildlife trade.
A panel discussion on Spirituality and Animal Protection will include Dr. Nanditha Krishna, well-known author of many books on animals, the world of nature, and Hinduism – along with Manoj Gautam from Nepal, Wolf Gordon Clifton of the Animal People Forum, and others. The traditions of many Asian countries go back 5,000 years or longer – so there’s quite a lot to cover.
Jill Robinson, of the Animals Asia Foundation, who has led the struggle to free bears from bear bile farms, will speak about the cat and dog meat trade.
Other sessions will feature – fading out the use of animals in tourism, the role of a plant-based movement, and the role of children in animal rights advocacy. Sessions will also focus on farm animals, wild animals, and companion animals.
Asia for Animal Conferences have been held every year and a half since they began in 2001, twenty years ago, in the Philippines. Animal advocacy in Asia faces challenges – as is the case everywhere in the world. The animal movement in Asia is led by remarkable people, who set an amazing example, marked by a high level of energy, enthusiasm, courage, and perseverance.
Scroll down until you see the schedule. You can see the times in the left margin. “IST” is Indian time.
The time difference between U.S. Mountain time (Utah time) and IST (Indian Standard Time) is 11 and a half hours.
This means that, for U.S. attendees, the conference does not start on April 24, instead it starts this coming Friday – in the evening of April 23, at 10 pm, Utah time – or 12 midnight EST.
To convert Indian time (IST) to Utah time, subtract 11 and a half hours.
If you’re not much of a night owl, you may still want just to stay up for one or two events – or if you’re a morning songbird, you may want to wake up for two or three early morning events, starting at around 5 am. Or, you may be completely captivated and want to watch the entire conference – for all of both nights.
In any case, whatever you can watch, it will be fascinating. It will give you an insight into the dynamic work of Asian animal advocates, who stand up for the animals in Asia – and it will be a lot easier than flying across the Pacific for 15 hours!
But first do this: Before registering, you are advised to call your credit card company and notify them that you are about to make a foreign purchase. These days, credit card companies may block your card for making an “unusual” (i.e. foreign) purchase. If you call them in advance, there will be no problem.
Registration for the two-day conference is $20.
Relevance to wild lands
All efforts to save the earth’s animals (both wild and domestic animals – and ourselves too) depend on the continued existence of wild habitat, which means wild lands – which means renewing the earth. We all live on the same earth – one earth.
We look forward to seeing you at the AfA Conference this Friday evening!
Quang Thien bounds across the grass of Animals Asia’s sanctuary in Vietnam.
Authorities were able to confiscate her from a bile bear farm because she had not been microchipped, which is required by law. Her front left paw is missing, so it’s likely that she was illegally trapped in the wild and then sold. Her life at the sanctuary is a far cry from her existence in the tiny cage where she was kept imprisoned at the bile bear farm. She loves being free to run and play with her bear friends. But the Sanctuary and her newly found happy life are now in danger.
104 bears rescued from bile bear farms and the wildlife trade, who were given sanctuary seven years ago, in 2005, at the Tam Dao national park in northern Vietnam, at a beautiful center run by Animals Asia, are now under threat of eviction by Vietnamese authorities.
You can help by writing a letter to the Prime Minister of Vietnam, asking him to intervene on behalf of the bears. The link is below.
Maple first arrived at the sanctuary almost a year ago, in December 2011, after a long trip from a bile bear farm in South Vietnam. Her many years in a cage and a horrible diet had left her badly overweight, and she had infected teeth. Still traumatized from her treatment at the bile bear farm, she cried non-stop. When she was moved into a den at the sanctuary, and given lots of space to move around in, over time, she became calmer and stopped crying. Now she’s gotten back into shape, has made friends, and is regaining her health and her enjoyment of life.
Animals Asia, the Hong Kong based organization founded by Jill Robinson that has a reputation as one of the best-run wildlife centers anywhere in the world, expanded their operations from China to Vietnam in 2005, with the generous cooperation of the Vietnamese government, who provided 12 hectares (29 acres) of the Tam Dao national park to be used as a sanctuary for 200 rescued bears.
Animals Asia also worked with authorities to have the extraction of bile from bears declared illegal in Vietnam, which was a major step. Due to a loophole in the law, however, which allows bears to be kept on the farms as tourist attractions, the use of bears for bile, which is part of traditional Chinese medicine, still persists. (Many practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine have also condemned the practice.) The process of extracting bile from bears is, in itself, extremely cruel, and means long-term suffering for the bears.
So far, in ongoing rescue operations, 104 bears like Maple and Quang Thien, have been rescued from Vietnamese bile bear farms and now live and play at the sanctuary.
Rescuing these bears has been an ongoing process, undertaken with the help of authorities, and it is only possible for bears to be confiscated if there is a place where they can go and be cared for. So the closing of the bear sanctuary would also be a severe blow to future efforts to save the 4,000 bears still being kept on bear farms. Bears who have been on bile bear farms can be rehabilitated to enjoy a good quality of life, but they always require lifetime care and cannot be released back to the wild.
Luca arrived at the sanctuary in 2010, with a large group of rescued bears. He suffered from repetitive head-swaying, which is a form of the kind of stereotypical movement that can be observed in animals in confinement, sometimes in zoos. It’s a bit like PTSD in people. Even after he was housed in a roomy den with two bear companions, the head-swaying didn’t stop.
Earlier this year, Luca was moved to a new enclosure where he found a new bear pal, a wrestling buddy, and now that he’s relaxed and at ease, the head-swaying is nearly all gone.
It’s important for all these bears, who’ve spent months or years in rehabilitation and who’ve begun to enjoy life again, that they be able to stay in the sanctuary that is their home, and it’s important for Vietnam to continue the humane course of action that they embarked on, of saving and protecting the bears. It is essential for any government to honor their commitments and to protect the wildlife of their country.
To speak up on behalf of the bears, please email the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung. To do this and to see a sample email, click here.
Brian Greene’s “The Illusion of Time, part of the series “The Fabric of the Cosmos” aired Sunday evening, July 22, 2012, on “Nova” on PBS. Here’s a summary, followed by a couple of thoughts.
“Time is not what it seems…There may be no distinction between the past, present, and future.” Discoveries in quantum physics suggest that time is entirely different from how we perceive it to be in our daily lives.
All cultures, including very ancient ones, have found time fascinating. The Maya for example calculated time with three different, interrelated calendars; for the sun, the moon, and Venus.
In our search to measure time, the rotation of the earth and its revolution around the sun became our first clock.
Today, instead of measuring the earth’s rotation, the atomic clock measures the frequency of the cesium atom, which, in one second ticks 9 billion, 192 million times.
Asking the question, “Time is a mystery. What is it we’re actually measuring?” Brian Greene recalled the work of Einstein.
For Newton, time had been absolute and immutable. But with Einstein, time is experienced differently by each of us, and is affected by motion through space and time. Time and space are linked, and one person’s time is not the same as another’s. Although time moves more slowly for a person in motion, this is not something that we can observe in our everyday lives, but scientific experiments have proven that this is true.
By an experiment in which a jet plane circled the earth and time was measured by atomic clocks on the plane and on the ground, it was demonstrated that time moved more slowly on the plane, which was in motion, than it did on the earth.
The sharp differentiation that we make between past, present and future is an illusion because, Brien Greene explained, according to Einstein, “Time and space are fused together as space/time.”
In a different galaxy thousands of light years distant, an alien who is riding on a bicycle away from us, would not (assuming that he could look at us through his telescope) see us as we are in the present; instead he would see us in the past – perhaps during the time of Beethoven. If the same alien were riding towards us on his bicycle, he would see us, not in the present, but in the future – perhaps as we will be 200 years from now. So, says Brian Greene, “Past, present, and future are all equally real….the future is not non-existent….Einstein shattered the distinction between past, present, and future.”
Just as, in a movie, every frame already exists on film, the flow of time, from a past that exists to a future that does not yet exist, is an illusion.
Though we think of wormholes as something belonging to science fiction, Einstein’s equations actually predict them, and they would provide gateways through both space and time. Perhaps even if we don’t jump into them, we might just peer through them as a window to view what is far, far away, what has been, or what will be.
One of the most puzzling aspects of time is that it is one directional, though there is theoretically no reason why time should not flow in both directions. There is simply the fact that it doesn’t. The laws of physics do say in fact that time could go backwards, so the question asked is “Why doesn’t it?” If one drops a wine glass and it shatters, one can’t reverse the action and have all the pieces streaming back together again. Our lives go irreversibly in one direction, which leads to the question, “What is responsible for the arrow of time?”
Entropy is randomness, meaning that everything has a tendency to move toward disorder, like the pages of a book that fall apart, but do not fall back together again.
Billowing smoke becomes disordered. Degrees of messiness increase.
This problem of the directionality of time seems to be solved by taking entropy into account. The arrow of time comes from the tendency of nature to move towards increasing disorder. If one goes all the way back to the Big Bang, one arrives at a highly ordered situation.
At a single moment at the beginning, all matter was compressed neatly into one single point, all precisely ordered. After that came the beginning of disorder. The universe expanded and spread out. It can’t be put back, like the genie can’t be put back into the lamp. So, at the Big Bang, the arrow of time was given its direction toward disorder. “Time is a 13.7 billion year old drive toward disorder.”
Scientists, who used to assume that the expansion of the universe was slowing over time, had a rude awakening a few years ago, with the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating – going faster and faster, and the galaxies are hurtling away from each other. One day, our descendants will see no other galaxies, and the cosmic past will be out of reach. Eventually there will be no movement and no time. Brian Greene summed it up by saying, “The flow of time is an illusion…We are part of a far richer and far stranger reality.”
A thought or two
“The Illusion of Time” is very fascinating and brilliantly presented, though it does come to a rather grim ending. (We can’t, of course, hold scientists responsible for how the universe ends.)
However, interestingly, the idea that time and space are illusory is not new at all. It is at least 5,000 years old – maybe 10,000 – maybe it is a timeless concept that has always been there.
The ancient texts of India describe time and space as illusory, as maya, having the appearance of reality, but not having the quality of ultimate reality. We do not see the world as it truly is because of the veil of maya, just as, on a cloudy day, we do not see the sun hidden behind the cloud cover. We do not see the true nature of time and space, until the veil is removed from our eyes.
Concerning the concept of entropy, long ago Hindu seers wrote that there are four ages – each on a lower, baser level than the last, until one arrives at the fourth, last age, the Kali Yuga, the age where we find ourselves now—an age of dishonesty, corruption, and negativity. This is an example of entropy – of traveling inexorably from order to disorder.
The concept of time as linear is, by and large, a western concept. In eastern thought, time tends to be not linear, but cyclical. The four ages, the yugas, are one day in the life of Brahma, the Creator. At the end of this day, Brahma goes to sleep, and then at dawn he awakens, ready to start a new day composed of another four ages. Of course it’s somewhat more complicated, but that is a rough outline of what happens. The four ages are one day in the life of Brahma.
This concept has a few things to be said for it – for one, it is not grim; for another, it has not only a poetic quality, but also a truthful quality. And it transcends the problem of being stuck in a purely physical reality.
Brian Greene is a brilliant physicist who has taken us on an amazing journey into a strange world, a very thought-provoking journey.
Physicists of today are by no means limiting themselves to a linear view, quite the contrary. There is the concept of multiverses. (Brian Greene examines this in other programs, as part of the “Fabric of the Cosmos” series.) This is the idea that there may not be just one universe, but countless or infinite parallel worlds; and one individual may exist in many of these at the same time or different times. Have you ever felt that you were in more than one place?
A book that takes a look at this possibility is “2012” by Whitney Strieber.
It’s basically a horror novel, but if you don’t mind the horror bits too much (I did actually mind, but found the book intriguing anyway), it is fascinating reading.
Then, from another angle altogether, there is the legend of the Chinese general who lost a very important battle. It is said that the reason he lost the battle is that many years later, mistakes were made in the liturgy of his funeral. The mistakes caused his life to be less auspicious and therefore led to the loss of the battle. I suppose, if we are not too confused already, we could meditate on this as an alternate view of time and destiny.
In all societies of the past, ancient spiritual traditions recognized many levels of reality. There is the material level of everyday life where we walk along on our journey from day to day, but there are also the broader, more sunlit levels above, of mystical or magical realities from which we see with different eyes – seeing farther and more clearly—beyond the bounds of time and space. The things we cannot see from this earthly level, can be seen from other levels, as if we are looking out the window of an airplane or riding on a magic bird that flies above the clouds.
Top photo: Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration / A star-forming region known as N90, on the outskirts of the Small Magellanic Cloud.
Second photo: NASA, ESA and Allison Loll/Jeff Hester (Arizona State University). Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin (ESA/Hubble) / The Crab Nebula. Observers in China and Japan recorded the supernova nearly 1,000 years ago, in 1054
Third photo: Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team / The Orion Nebula
Fourth photo: Credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI) / The Carina Nebula: The Mystic Mountain
For more Hubble images and information, click here.
For more on the Nova series, “The Fabric of Time”, click here.
Isis – Long ago in Egypt, the mother of all nature and magic was Isis. Her religion spread all the way to Greece and beyond. Compassionate and devoted to her family, she was frequently depicted with her son on her knee. Her most famous story involves putting her husband back together after he’s been torn to pieces by an enemy. There was sometimes both a sensual side to her worship (because of her role as a wife and partner) and an entreating side to her worship (because of her gentleness and compassion as a mother.) She had by far the strongest magical powers of all of the Egyptian deities, and was summoned the most often in people’s magic spells. Her temples from Egypt to Italy to Iraq continued to be places of worship well into the first several centuries AD. But in the end, decrees were put out to destroy them all, and a huge number of them met that fate. Here’s a portion of “The Song of Isis” by the incomparable David Heath. Click here.
Brigid – She’s been both a Celtic goddess and an Irish Catholic saint. The goddess named Brigid was a goddess of poetry, and a keeper of all things “high” (from high thoughts to high flames to high mountains.) When Celtic lands were converted to Catholicism, a Saint Brigid emerged who is thought by many to be a new version of the Goddess, Brigid. High priestesses tending sacred flames was a long-standing Celtic tradition. And today, Saint Brigid is often honored by the keeping of never-extinguished flames. In one spot in Ireland, nuns tend the flames of St. Brigid full-time. Here is a song to Brigid (pronounced “Breed” in Gaelic) by Beverly Frederick: Click here.
Kwan Yin – She’s either a Chinese goddess or a Buddhist boddhisatva or a Taoist Immortal, depending on your religious beliefs. No matter which she is, Kwan Yin (or Guanyin) represents compassion. She’s the one who “hears the cries of the world.” She feels for us all and has mercy. Her legend began in China, but today, she is also popular throughout East Asia. Because of her deep kindness, she is often associated with vegetarianism, and some think that she particularly looks after women and children. Here’s a nice song about her by the silky-voiced Lisa Thiel. Click here.
Top photo: Arrivée en bateau au temple de Philaé, Assouan, Égypte; arriving by boat at the Philae Temple, Aswan, Egypt. / Image taken by Gilles RENAULT /Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 France license. / Wikimedia Commons
Second photo: Fuzzypeg / Early Celtic La Tène style in Britain. Date: 50 BC – AD 50. 36 cm diameter. British Museum highlights /Wikimedia Commons / British Museum / Public Domain
Third photo: Statue of Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty, by Chaozhong He, photographed by Mountain at the Shanghai Museum. / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. / Wikimedia Commons
Aleksandrov Red Army Choir: This is the official choir of the Russian armed forces, and possibly the most successful military choir in the world. Russia considers this group to be a national treasure, and I agree. They formed during Stalin’s rule, as sort of a fusion between traditional Russian music and an attempt to express the passion of the Red Army of that age, which seemed nearly undefeatable during World War II (in large part because of its sheer size!) When the Iron Curtain fell, some might have thought that would be the end of the Red Army Choir. But it seems that music is bigger than politics, because they did nothing but continue to thrive as the years went on. People continue to come out in droves to watch their shows, and you don’t have to be Russian to enjoy them anymore. You can buy their albums from anywhere in the world. Many young Russians dream of growing up and joining this famous choir: Click here.
Xiu Yue (composer) – There’s a religion in China called Falun Gong (Sometimes called Falun dafa) which combines Taoism, Buddhism and traditional Chinese qigong. As far as I can tell, it’s a peaceful religion which emphasizes soft, gentle living, tolerance, and a series of spiritually-based movements (like yoga, but more about moving chi around the body.) Apparently, tens of millions of people joined Falun Gong in China in the early 1990s. And then apparently, in 1999, it was declared a crime to practice it… I’ve seen photographs that were thrust at me during a visit to Taiwan … photos of what is being done to people who are caught practicing this wide-spread religion. And I won’t describe them. But I will say that my heart goes out to all of those imprisoned, and I hope and pray for them that this law goes away. This is a song written by a member of Falun Gong named Xiu Yue. I don’t know anything about her except that she wrote the song. But it’s just a beautiful, and a wonderful thing to listen to, while sending out hope that anyone being mistreated will be sent home soon: Click here.
On the same topic, this is an opera singer, Jiansheng Yang singing “Song from a prison cell” for those who practice Falun Dafa in China: Click here.
Yoshida Brothers – The shamisen is an old Japanese instrument (a three-stringed instrument, held like a guitar.) But for anyone who thinks that Japanese music must be tranquil, the Yoshida Brothers are here to demonstrate that a musical tradition which has expressed subtle emotion for centuries can just as easily express the more urgent emotions that are popular in music today. In fact, the shamisen, which has been evolving into its modern form since the 16th century began being played with speed and fancy finger work during first half of the 20th century, making it one of the instruments of choice for Japanese musicians who want to play both traditional and modern music simultaneously. And the Yoshida Brothers have taken that power-playing to a whole new level. The word on the street is that the Yoshida Brothers have been shocked by their musical success. But I’m not shocked! And I don’t think you will be either when you watch them play: Click here.
Whispers of the Jade Emperor began during China’s Han Dynasty.
In Taoism, the gods may sometimes seem a little more like saints. They’re often historical figures who are thought to have become very powerful when they died. (I’m not sure whether all of them really lived or not. Some almost definitely did. Others may be legends.) It’s important in Taoism that the most powerful force in the universe, the Tao, is not anthropomorphic. It’s something that can’t be described. It’s what existed before, before, before – to infinity. So their anthropomorphic gods, to my understanding, are just great followers of the Tao who are thought to have become something spectacular when they passed.
The Jade Emperor would be at the top. (Although sometimes he’s placed below the Three Pure Ones.) He’s the distributor of justice. He rules over heaven, the underworld, and earth, distributing rewards and punishments via his elaborate court system, very much like court systems on earth. There’s something very culturally Chinese about the precision with which he operates. (In fact, he was a god in Chinese folklore even before he was embraced by the Taoists.) And on the surface, from an outsider’s perspective, there can seem to be something a little un-Taoist about him. Lao Tzu, Taoism’s founder, did not seem excited about superimposing iron-fisted rules onto the natural flow of life. His writings show him as a proponent of living softly and gently walking the path of the Tao.
But upon closer inspection, there’s more Tao in the Jade Emperor than an outsider might think at first glance. He’s a vegetarian. (You can make offerings of meat to him – but only because he insists on being polite to guests – and he may have guests over sometimes who eat meat.) And in his real life, it’s thought that he was born to a great emperor and empress within China, and did himself inherit the throne. But soon, he left his throne in order to pursue the light of the Tao. He focused his life on good deeds toward all humans and animals. That’s why, after his death, he achieved immortality. Then, millions of years later, after his continuing good deeds as an Immortal, he became the Jade Emperor, who enforces the laws of the universe. All of our good and bad thoughts and actions are reported to him once a year.
Some believe that he’s in line to rise even higher someday – to become formlessness itself – that which cannot be described. And that the next god in line will then take his place.
The Jade Emperor is traditionally celebrated nine days after the Chinese New Year. That’s his birthday. Anyone who would like to make an offering might choose to do so on that day. Sugarcane and incense are both good, traditional offerings – though enormous temples in his honor are even better, and there are still some gorgeous ones in mainland China.
The Qingyang Temple in the northwestern section of Chengdu is a peaceful setting, one of the most well-known Taoist temples in China. First built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), not much is left from that period, and the buildings one sees there now are from much later in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
In front of Sanqing Hall are two amazing bronze goats. It is said that touching them will bring good luck. They are lovely goats, and one can see how that might be true.
There seems to be a connection between goats and the founder of Taoism, Laotzu, who, according to one legend, is said to have remarked as he was leaving, never to reappear in public again, that his disciples might find him at the “Green Goat Market.” It is not known whether or not they ever did find him there—or where the Green Goat Market might be.
There are several halls in the temple with many paintings and statues of gods and goddesses. In the courtyards are large incense burners, with devotees lighting incense. Temple officials, unlike the Chinese people generally seen in the streets who dress in western clothes, are wearing long, graceful, traditional Chinese clothes. They seem to be all men, and they look, not so much like monks, as like officials, concerned with the running of the temple.
One young official, whose hair is piled on his head in a traditional style, kindly agrees to have his photo taken. He speaks not a word of English. He reads words from a paper, lights some incense, and seems all the while very bemused at our presence.
After the photo, and the blessing, we assume it was a blessing, we give him a tip, which he accepts. However, he seems not so much interested in the tip as he is amused by the encounter. We are amused as well, and no one is quite sure who is more amused by whom.
The really most intriguing aspect of the temple is the inscriptions beside the buildings. Apparently, there are two kinds of Taoism, philosophical Taoism, which westerners tend to be more familiar with, and then there is also what is called “religious Taoism”. It turns out that there are lots of deities in Taoism—who knew?
Their names and titles are extraordinarily fascinating and mysterious. Where did these gods come from and how did they arise? Were they local Chinese gods? Did they arrive via Buddhism, and then become absorbed into Taoism subsequently?
There is a bookstore at the temple, with hundreds of books—all look immensely intriguing. Unfortunately, not one book is in English. I guess I should have learned Chinese. The inscriptions outside the buildings are bilingual, in English and Chinese, so they will have to do. Really, they are trilingual, but I’m not sure what the third script is.
The Eight Trigram Pavilion is three stories high, with a square base and a round room above—like the Chinese concept of the universe, with the earth being square and heaven round. In the building and on the pillars that support it can be found 81 dragons. Inside is a statue of Laotsu who is riding on a green ox and is traveling toward the Hangu Pass.
The Main Hall is the Hall of the Three Purities, first constructed in the Tang Dynasty and later rebuilt. The Three Purities are enshrined as statues in the hall. The central statue is the Primeval Lord of Heaven, who rules over the Jade Clarity Realm. This, to the uninitiated, is kind of like a fairy tale—where is the Jade Clarity Realm? It sounds lovely. To the left is the Heavenly Lord of the Numinous Treasure—and he lives in the Highest Clarity Realm. There is also a Supreme Clarity Realm, and in that realm dwells the Heavenly Lord of Tao and Virtue.
There are cultural relics mentioned too on the inscription. One is called the “single-horned copper coat;” another is “the bell of the World of Darkness.” This really is a fairy tale. What could sound more spell-binding than “the bell of the World of Darkness”? There is also a “ghost money burner.” Does the money belong to the ghost—or is the money ghostly? — and why is it being burned?
My amusement is not meant at all in any unkind way—there is something truly intriguing about all this, and I do wish there were a way to understand it. I feel that if the spell is broken though, that I may turn into a pumpkin at any moment.
Further along, we come to the Hall of the Goddess Doumu, who is the Mother of the Big Dipper. I hadn’t known that the Big Dipper had a mother. There is another figure with four heads and eight arms, who is the Pure Vital Breath Primordial Sovereign of the Big Dipper in Middle Heaven.
This somehow evokes an extraordinary sense of being in two worlds at the same time—there is the mundane world of earth, which one is used to, and somewhere floating above there is another enchanted world, entirely mythical, inhabited with dragons, and mothers of the west, and stars of the big dipper–with angels, fairies and immortals. All seem to be flying from realm to realm.
The outer edges of the temple roofs turn upwards, and dragons sit on top of them, guarding the temple. An extraordinary stone tortoise holds a tall stele—or maybe that is the world—on his back. Is the tortoise’s expression a smile or a grimace—or both?
It is an entirely charming and very peaceful temple. Along with the incense drifting upwards, one catches a glimpse of unseen spirits smiling enigmatically.
One day a strange red light appeared at the site where the Miaoyuan Pagoda Temple (later known as XinXiang Temple) used to stand in Sichuan Province until it was destroyed during a war. It was during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), in the seventeenth century, that the red light appeared.
Investigators were dispatched to find out the cause of the light, and the image of the Bodhisattva Manjusri (Wen Shu) was seen to appear within the light. This was a clear sign that the ruined temple needed to be rebuilt, so funds were raised in 1697, and the new temple came to be known as the Wenshu Temple.
It stands there today in Chengdu—a very modern Chinese city with a 2,000 year old history—a large temple with a broad footpath leading through several impressive gates.
Placed near the entranceway to the temple, the Peace Pagoda of a Thousand Buddhas stands, the highest iron pagoda in China.
Underneath a stone elephant, a stone boy is seated holding leaves toward the elephant’s trunk for him to eat.
In the courtyards stand huge incense burners, with many lit incense sticks that worshippers have placed there burning, their smoke filling the air.
Off to one side, down an alleyway, there is suspended a long carved wood fish. This is Matsya, the fish, the first avatar of Vishnu.
Wenshu Temple holds around 300 statues; as is normal in temples, the interior of the buildings and the sacred figures of the deities, out of respect and reverence for them, cannot be photographed. Taking photos from the outside and in the courtyards is allowed. A nineteenth century six-foot tall, very elaborate copper statue of Veda Bodhisattva, stands near a doorway. His job is to protect the Dharma and to ward off evil spirits, which sounds like a good thing to do, and though the guardian doesn’t look entirely battle-ready, maybe it’s the thought that counts.
In the Wenshu Temple, the statues and sculptures of earlier times and of the more central Boddhisattvas and Buddhas are stronger, simpler, more profound figures.
Buddhism, which originated in India, was carried by monks over many centuries throughout Asia—to southeast Asia, westwards to Afghanistan, to Nepal, to central and northern Asia, to Tibet, to China, and on to Korea and Japan. It took hold in all these lands and grew, even as Hinduism was being re-established in India, to a large extent replacing Buddhism there.
Buddhism was not disowned by India though, and today it is the general view among Hindus that Buddhism is really a part of Hinduism, with the Buddha being the ninth avatar of the Supreme Being, Lord Vishnu. Buddhists themselves have a rather different view though.
As Indian Buddhist monks undertook their journeys across Asia, they traveled in peace, and unlike their western missionary counterparts in later centuries, they did not collaborate with the colonial aspirations of their home country, India, since India had no colonial aspirations.
Indian ships did not set sail in order to set up an empire or seek dominion over other peoples and nations. They did not burn books, destroy cultures, commit massacres, steal land, or enslave anyone. Instead, Indian merchants established a far-reaching peaceful network of trade-routes throughout Asia that was mutually beneficial to them and to the peoples they encountered.
Known as Wenshu or Wen Shu Shih-Li to the Chinese, to Indian Buddhists, the primary Boddhisattva of the Wenshu Temple is Manjusri Boddhisattva, the embodiment of transcendent wisdom. While Sanskrit concepts do not lend themselves easily to translation into English, “manju” may be taken to mean “gentle” or “kind,” and “shri” to mean “glory,” “radiance” or “power.” So Manjusri may be said to mean “gentle glory.”
The Manjusri Boddhisattva is one of the principle figures of Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism. He holds in his right hand a flaming sword (this, by the way, is an image that is echoed in the Christian Bible), which represents the light that cuts through darkness, revealing truth and clarity. His left hand holds a lotus flower in full bloom, on which lies the sutra, or scriptures, of Great Wisdom. And in this book is the promise of a blessed future for all those who truly follow his teachings.
His mount is a lion with a golden mane, standing for the majesty of great wisdom. When the lion is blue or green, the animal represents the mind, transformed and enlightened by meditation.
Photos one through five: Sharon St Joan
Top photo: Wenshu Temple: a stone elephant
Second photo: The Iron Pillar of One Thousand Buddhas
Third photo: A Wenshu incense burner
Fourth photo: Matsya, the fish avatar
Fifth photo: Veda Boddhisattva
Sixth photo / Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain / Manjusri Boddhisattva