“How was China?” people keep asking me.
3 weeks on Wundangshan, the holiest of mountains, home of Taiji, home of Daoism, studying at the school of Master Chen Li Sheng, really can not be summed up with a blyth “great, thanks.” But that’s really all I tend to say.
When people asked me why I was going, I had two answers. One was “to find a quiet mind.” And the other was because I had always wondered what it would be like to have absolutely nothing to do but taiji. The luxury of total immersion in details of form, hand or sword, of practising bagua until I wore away the floor, of having time to go through all the qigong forms I’ve learnt is virtually impossible for any length of time at home. Bookending all this with a bit of meditation at the beginning and end of the day in an inspiring setting was to be the cream on the cake.
So how was China?
Anyone who has travelled to a country where the alphabet is so different that you look at a word and see abstract art instead of text, where everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes and where hardly anyone can make the slightest attempt at your language, will understand how much one needs to adjust to survive. The air is different, the food is different, the toilets are different…
I went with a group from Master Gordon Faulkner’s and Tina Faulkner Elders’ schools in Inverness and Aberdeen. Having met and trained with Master Chen during his visits to Scotland I was happy that the work would be interesting. I was also glad that the three weeks on the mountain were not to be interrupted by sightseeing and that I could go for the total immersion approach in order to reset my habits and focus.
Two groups took part, six of us forming the first group and another eight who came for just one week at the end. Although we didn’t all know each other we quickly gelled into a self supporting unit, helped by some previous experience from three of the group.
The school itself catered for 8 or so semi-permanent residential students, boys of school age who fitted a normal-ish school curriculum around gongfu training and girls who undertook office work in exchange for board, lodging and some training. In addition there was our group and other groups or individuals who could ‘book in’ for a weekend or up to 6 months.
Wudangshan is a World Heritage Site, a place of great beauty and cultural history. To protect it from pollution, only electric buses are allowed on the mountain, on two roads that go to either Nanyan or Qiongtai, from where a cable car ascends to the Golden Summit temple, home of the God Zhenwu, protector of Wudang and of the whole of China.
Master Chen has the use of the third floor of one of the hotels at Qiongtai. He also has a kitchen above the row of shops where visitors bought incense and souvenirs. The boys ate there all the time but we ate in the hotel cafeteria for breakfast and evening meal to give us more variety.
Training began with standing meditation at 6.30 a.m. During the winter timetable, which we caught the end of, this took place in the hotel corridor. Although our rooms were heated comfortably, the corridor was cold, so we wore jackets, hats and gloves. At the end of the hour, Master Chen’s alarm would go off and a lovely piece of music, which we later enquired about and copied, was used for a warm-down. Not everyone managed the full hour and various alarms would go off from time to time. Workmen and cleaners tramped up and down. This was mainly a period of strength training, building up qi and expelling stagnant qi (or, as you and I would say, farting!).
After breakfast we returned to our rooms to clean and tidy them before going up to the school for practice. Our first week consisted of an hour of sitting meditation and an hour of walking meditation before lunch. We could also go up early and do our own practice, running through forms we had learnt previously, or bagua.
After lunch there was time to rest or wander about and a favourite walk was to the local temple, still lived in by Daoist monks. One of these is a master flute player so Andrew bought a flute and took lessons. When I say bought a flute, his teacher cuts down bamboo to make flutes and sell them. He is a famous player who is in demand in all the temples on the mountain. If you went to visit while Andrew was having his lesson, no end of tea had to be drunk, often sweetened with red dates and accompanied by water melon seeds. (The monks were given the offerings left by visitors. Nothing is wasted in this climate.)
We were invariably stared at as the only westerners with white, brown, red or blonde hair and people wanted to be photographed with us as though we were celebrities. As long as we wore our suits when we walked round the shops, we were relatively safe from the shop keepers’ attentions. They would let us go, knowing we were not just there for the day.
After lunch we had an hour of standing meditation and another hour of walking before evening meal. Practice finished with a final hour of standing meditation in the corridor at 7.00 p.m.
So our day did not offer quite the variety of movement that I had anticipated. It was what Master Chen called Basic Training. If I was a little disappointed it wasn’t for long. I came to love that opportunity to recover from the journey, adjust our body clocks and find the stillness.
The second week, basic training progressed to the beginning of the 18 step Form which we would learn when the others arrived, but only in place of walking. For these two weeks, our teacher was Shaohai (not sure how to spell that, sorry) a quiet, modest, ever smiling mature student who seemed to be at the beck and call not only of Master Chen but of any other student who needed to know something. On the higher terrace the boys were taught by another senior student who scowled and scolded them through their energetic drills.
Occasionally we would be marched down the street to the temple to train. If there was a service we could listen to the music. There was a lovely atmosphere and it offered a bit of publicity for the school. The boys would carry cushions and warm meditation cloaks for us.
The third week saw the arrival of the rest of our party and Master Chen himself took over, with the help of Tina and her student Matthew. Shaohai was assigned to another group. There wasn’t room for us all now on the terraces of the school, so for anything other than meditation, we would go down to the terrace outside the hotel or the large square outside the access to the cable car. This of course attracted the curious Chinese, who had no qualms about squeezing in to copy us and get themselves photographed in the process. Master Chen chased them away when he wanted Shaohai to take photographs and videos for his website, but otherwise he welcomed them with a smile and even taught them as much as they wanted.
A highlight of the trip was Tina’s birthday. It proved to be a very special occasion which was a great honour to attend. Everyone attending the school was invited. We crammed in to the classroom, where cushions were placed round the room behind tables with fruit, seeds and packets of nuts. At a special table in the middle Tina and her father Gordon sat. I should explain that Gordon is of the same lineage as Master Chen, a 15th Generation Disciple of Wudang Xuanwu and student of Master You Xuande. Tina had studied with various teachers throughout her career but if there was any expectation of where she would go next it was probably as her father’s successor. Nevertheless, after respectful discussions, it was announced that she was to become Master Chen’s 16th generation disciple. It was a very emotional moment for a very proud father as Tina accepted the scroll with her new Chinese name.
Several people played instruments or sang songs, a huge birthday cake was cut and we finished with a Wudang wave. This took several attempts before everyone caught on when it was their turn but it was the best fun ever and Master Chen sat and giggled merrily as he joined in. I wonder if it will become a ‘thing’ for them.
Those of us who had been there for three weeks were particularly sorry to leave. We had got used to climbing up and down stairs to class, to meals, to practice, to meditation, passing the boys scurrying between their lessons, their meals and their practice, with sabres, cushions, food bowls or whatever was required. By the third week we had progressed to smiling and saying Nǐ hǎo , while they would grin and say Hel lo, a brave attempt at cultural exchange. I have no idea what they made of us weird westerners. They seemed very happily dedicated but we couldn’t speak with them to ask how long they were staying, whether they had asked to come or been sent by their parents. Some of the girls could manage a few words and there was of course Ellie, who had come as translator while we were there.
Wudangshan is a quite magical place. Twice, members of the group got up at 3 a.m. to walk up the path to the Golden Summit temple to see the sun rise. (I confess I preferred to go at my own pace and during daylight.)
Standing on the terrace looking across the valley towards the mountain, riddled with caves, was an amazing experience. During the last week, it was mild enough to do our final meditation out of doors. For two evenings, we stood around in the dark after we had finished, watching a light, clearly a torch of some kind, on the mountainside. The first night it was away to our left, the second night it was almost straight in front of us. Master Chen said there were still monks who lived in the caves for periods of time. He himself had stayed for 2 months in one on the other side of the mountain. This must have been someone on his way to the big cave along the valley. We never saw it again so assume whoever it was arrived safely.
We were also treated to displays of shooting stars and on two occasions, thunder and lightning that rolled and flashed around the mountain.
When I arrived, I had barely attempted any standing meditation. Now it is part of my daily routine. I rise at 6 and begin at 6.30, sometimes imagining myself lined up in the hotel corridor, with Shaohai knocking on the doors of those who hadn’t appeared then checking our posture before Master Chen emerged from his room to inspect us. Sometimes picturing our group members in their homes, also trying to maintain an important new structure to their day. Sometimes just doing it.
Did I find the quiet mind that I hoped for? It wasn’t hard. It was always there. What has surprised me is that I found a stronger mind and that was probably what I meant.
So that’s how China was.