Sariras in the Mist

The mist has descended again, which means I can’t actually see Ox-Head Mountain, even as we’re driving up it. The pagoda swirls into existence out of the fog, next to a vast lotus-shaped dome that looks like a planetarium crossed with an airport. This is the resting place of a holy relic, a fragment of Buddha’s skull, embedded with gem-like sarira crystals. It was found inside the Porcelain Tower, but has been moved here, an hour outside Nanjing, for political reasons that nobody can really explain.

The Skull Relic Palace is not a temple. The guides keep telling us this, and the guy from Propaganda keeps telling us this, along with exhortations not to talk about Buddhism or film any Buddhists. Buddhists, however, are difficult to spot, because all the staff wear robes designed to evoke the Buddhist priesthood, many of them are glum tour guides who march sulkily with their hands clasped together, as if they would rather be doing jazz hands. Our liaison pouts all the way through lunch because we choose the Buddhist (vegetarian) canteen rather than the place where she can have nuggets. She gets me the Arhat noodles, having decided on very little evidence that I am a Buddhist who disapproves of eating in the meat-eaters’ canteen. I’m not, of course, it’s just that when visiting a Buddhist temple, I tend to go for the vegetarian option because I am curious what they do with tofu and mushrooms.

Ox-Head Mountain is a “Tourist Park” where people can experience Buddhist culture, architecture and iconography, although the visitors seem oddly divided between clueless, racist pig farmers in a coach party (“It’s Thursday so it must be Buddhist relics”) and super-devout, actual Buddhists. This, of course, is not my first Buddhist rodeo, so I know how to flash gang-signs to passing monks, and not to get in the way of pilgrim processions.

The inner sanctum is amazing, and the closest thing I have ever seen to a Buddhist cathedral, a “Thousand-Buddha Hall” chased in gold, with apsara nymphs curling through the heavens while various boddhisatvas sit on lotuses and do whatever it is that boddhisatvas do.

The director tells me to do a piece to camera, and I immediately observe that I find it ironic that, in Nanjing, the very city where Bodhidharma began to argue that material attachments were all bollocks, and that there were no scriptures, and no Buddhas, the very beginnings of what we now call Zen, that something so material, and so worldly should have been created.

This is not, she scolds, the place to start talking about Zen. I argue that it was literally the place to start talking about Zen, but some tourist board has snatched Buddha’s skull from the Porcelain Tower, driven it to a theme park in the middle of the mountains, and is now charging God knows how much to make visitors walk around it in circles before leaving through the gift shop. Where, incidentally, I found nothing worth buying, even though I am well aware of the ready market back home for scarves with swastikas on them, little Buddhist statues, big Buddhist statues, and other such paraphernalia.

Instead, I have to walk a delicate line between ridiculing the place for selling the chance to almost see a bit of bone, and ridiculing the builders for missing the point of Buddhism by a mile, but it was ever thus. Instead i focus on something that both Party and devout can agree on — the immense, game-changing influence that Buddhist culture has had on Chinese history for two thousand years. Denying it would be historical madness.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E06 (2019).

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