Thursday, June 14, 2012

scale and meaning

In May, I visited two well-known locations in Xi'an, China.

The first is the Grand Mosque in the old muslim quarter of downtown Xi'an, a city at the end of the silk road with thousands of years of history behind it. The link has a photo essay of my visit.

The second location is Famen temple in Xi’an, China, a famous Buddhist location which has undergone considerable change over the last five years. Again, click the link for the photo essay.

This second site, home to a purported relic of the Buddha (a piece of his bone) has been a well-established place of pilgrimage since the Tang Dynasty. The bone, accompanied by numerous truly remarkable pieces of devotional treasure, was concealed in a crypt under the original temple for many centuries. During the cultural revolution, a monk immolated himself rather than open the crypt. The treasures, astonishingly, weren't looted. The crypt (or "underground palace") was finally opened in 1987, and the contents removed, where they are now on display.

A Chinese architect from Taipei, C. Y. Lee, was enlisted to create a massive, in fact staggering, building complex in order to popularize the site and draw more tourists. What we have ended up with is a very modern version of the enormously popular sites of pilgrimage from the Middle Ages, such as Chartres Cathedral. 

The building complex itself is actually rather elegant. Both the scale and the stark simplicity of the style work well. Despite its size and the attendant crowds, it somehow, against all odds, manages to convey an atmosphere of serenity, and it incorporates traditional Buddhist iconography and style with modern architecture in a surprisingly effective manner. This is a considerable feat, when one contemplates the fact that it might well have turned out to be a monstrosity. The scale is designed to remind us of how small we are, and inspire awe; its minimalism evokes an economy of style and a comprehensively elegant austerity. It does, on the other hand, seem in some ways to represent an aggressive commercialization of spiritual practice.

Is it right or wrong? One can't say. (I heard conflicting opinions from my fellow travelers.) It must exist in its own right and be judged for what it is, not what we wish it would be. Almost despite myself (the place was ostentatious, after all) I enjoyed the visit; the impressions were unique. They stood in stark contrast to my visit to the old temple in the Muslim quarters the day before, a small, unusually intimate temple complex, steeped in antiquity and atmosphere.

The temple at Famen may have been built by human beings, but it is hardly on a human scale. On the one hand, one could easily complain that it overwhelms us; on the other, one could argue that its expansive vision represents something vast which we are meant to be reaching for. Both of those elements were present in the impressions one took away. One might furthermore object to its sheer newness; the appeal of the old temple (a replica of which still stands on the site, the original having suffered catastrophic damage over the centuries) lay above all in its age, and the mystery of the crypt — which was preserved, and certainly hasn't been changed much from its original state. But newness has always been an essential element of ground-floor popular and folk traditions; the perception that things which look old have a special aesthetic quality is a distinctly western idea, and a very recent one at that.

The temple in the old Muslim quarter, on the other hand, is on a completely human scale, and there’s nothing new about it. It speaks to an intimacy of practice which is mostly absent in the huge new Temple complex at Famen. Somehow, this modest old mosque strikes me as being all about what it is to be human. And perhaps this contrast represents exactly what has Islamic fundamentalists up in arms in today's world: the loss of human values to something of a scale which overwhelms us, takes away what we are and turns us even more into corporate machines than living organisms. (It must be noted, of course, that ironies abound here; the Hajj to Mecca has been commercialized on a scale that dwarfs the massive temple at Famen. One wonders how long it may be before Islam finds itself in reaction against itself because of situations like this.)

Human nature will probably always find itself torn between these two extremes: the outward, demanding huge displays of wealth, power, and ritual; the inward, demanding an intimate, contemplative understanding of who we are and where we are. 

In the midst of these currents, a man must make a choice about who he is, and what he wants to be.

Esoteric traditions have always taught us that man must make this choice first in an inner sense, and not an outward one. No matter how large the sites of pilgrimage we build are, they mean nothing if we don’t have a sense of ourselves. And it’s only the sense of the intimate — of that which lies within — that can bring us to that. Huge buildings may inspire us, but no matter what we may think, they can't change us. Only we can change ourselves; and that change is an incremental change, that takes place in the tiny cracks and crevices, the concealed places of our being, the ones we can't touch directly without risk of damage.

I respectfully hope you will take good care.