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A Visit to the Palace of Supreme Purity, China 1982.

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The Palace of Supreme Purity, Qingcheng Mountain


I meet a young Daoist nun with delicate fair skin and a beautiful face. The graceful person beneath the loose Daoist robe exudes dignity and freshness. She installs me in the guest room in the temple hall in the side courtyard off the main hall. The unvarnished floorboards which clearly show the grain and colour of the timber are spotlessly clean and the bedding smells as if it has just been washed. I am staying in the Palace of Supreme Purity.


Each morning the nun brings hot water in a washbasin for me to wash my face, then makes tea and stays to chat for a while. Her voice rings with a clear purity like the first picking of the green tea that I am drinking and she talks and laughs in an open manner. She says she finished high school and voluntarily took the examinations to become a Daoist nun, but I don't ask why she made this decision.


They enlisted ten other young men and women along with her and all have at least primary school education. The head Daoist is a master. He is over eighty but has a clear voice and walks with a spritely stride. He doesn't shirk hard work and it was only after spending several years liaising with the local government and various levels of the establishment, then convening a meeting with the few old Daoists on the mountain, that he was able to re-establish the Palace of Supreme Purity on Qingcheng Mountain. Both the old and the young chat freely with me and, to use her words, everyone likes you. She says everybody, but doesn't say she herself.


She says you can stay as long as you like, Zhang Daqian the painter live here for many years. I saw a portrait of Zhang Daqian's father engraved on stone in the temple of the three legendary rulers – Fuxi, Shennong and the Yellow Emperor – situated alongside the Palace of Supreme Purity. Afterwards I also learn that Fan Changsheng of the Jin Dynasty and Du Tingguang of the Tang Dynasty lived here as recluses in order to write. I am not a recluse and still want to eat from the stoves of human society. I can't say that I am staying because of the charming spontaneity of her movements and her unaffected gracefulness, I am simply saying that I like the tranquillity here.


My room leads out onto the temple hall with its ancient colours and ancient smells. Inside is a long table made of nanmu hardwood and some square chairs with armrests and small low tables. Calligraphy is hanging on the walls and the friezes of the horizontal central tablet and the pillars are early wood carvings which have luckily been preserved. She says you can do some reading and writing here and when you get tired you can go for a stroll in the courtyard at the back of the hall.


Ancient cypresses and ink-green indigo plants grow in the square courtyard and the artificial stone mountains in the pond are completely covered in thick green moss. Early in the morning and at night the talk and laughter of the nuns can be heard coming through the lattice windows. Here, the oppressive and prohibitive harshness of the Buddhist monasteries doesn't exist. Instead there is tranquillity and fragrance.


After dusk when the few tourists have all gone, I like the solitude and austerity of the lower courtyard of the Palace of Three Purities. I sit alone on the stone threshold at the centre of the palace gate and look at the big rooster of inlaid ceramic tiles directly in front of me. The four round pillars in the centre of the palace hall are each inscribed with couplets. The outer couplet is:


The Way gives birth to one, one gives birth to two,

two gives birth to three, three gives birth to the myriad things


           Man follows earth, earth follows heaven,

           heaven follows the Way, the Way follows Nature


This is the source of what I had heard from the old botanist in the primitive forest. The inner couplet is:


              Invisible and inaudible, mystical indeed is its imperceptibility,

              joining the trinity of jade purity, superior purity and supreme purity


              Know its workings, observe its profundity, pure indeed is its tranquillity,

              forming the principle of the Way of heaven, the Way of earth and the Way of man


The old head Daoist tells me about the two couplets. "The Way is both the source and the law of the myriad things, when there is mutual respect of both subject and object there is oneness. This source gives birth to existence from non-existence, and to non-existence from existence. The union of the two is innate and with the union of heaven and man there is the attainment of unity in one's view of the cosmos and of human life. For Daoists, purity is the principle, non-action is the essence and spontaneity the application; it is a life of truth and a life requiring absence of self. To put it simply, this is the general meaning of Daoism."


As he is expounding the Way to me, the young disciples, men and women, crowd around to listen and sit all huddled together. One of the young nuns even puts her arm on the shoulders of one of the young men as she listens intently and wholeheartedly. I doubt that I would be able to attain this realm of purity where there is an absence lust.


One evening after dinner the men and women, old and young alike, all come into the lower courtyard to see who can make the porcelain frog in the hall whistle by blowing into it. It is bigger than a dog and some get it to whistle while others don't. They amuse themselves doing this for quite some time and then disband to do their evening studies. I am left on my own and again sit on the stone threshold, looking at the temple rooftop with its intricate decorations of benevolent dragons, snakes, turtles and fish.


The flying eaves curling upwards are lines of pure simplicity and the majestic forests on the mountain behind soundlessly sway in the night breeze. Suddenly the myriad things turn silent and the sound of pure pipes can be heard, serene and flowing, then abruptly vanishing. Then, beyond the gates of the temple complex, the noisy surging of the river under the stone bridge and the soughing of the night wind all seem to be flowing from my heart.



(Extract from Soul Mountain by novelist, playwright and Nobel laureate, Gao Xingjian. Soul Mountain is a long, rambling epic voyage of discovery recounting Gao’s fifteen thousand kilometres of wanderings across China in 1982, undertaken to flee the repressive cultural regime in Beijing and the threat of a spell in prison for subversive writing.)

Edited by Yueya
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