Omei Shan

All the old books and the old sages assure us that Mt. Omei is one of the most sacred of all the sacred places in the Far East. Indeed we were constantly being overtaken by bands of serious pilgrims as we dawdled around on its slopes. Often these were black-gowned, shorn-headed monks and nuns who struggled purposefully up the mountain paths, wielding long, wooden staffs to help them on their way. Later, we even had a whole coachful on our train going down to Chengtu and later flying back to Japan or Singapore, rather reminding me of the mountain peak that ''flew over from India'' a long time ago, by less material means than the 20th-century airplane. That was in Hangchow, another place sacred to Buddhists. In 328 an Indian monk visiting the Hangchow monasteries remarked that a certain hill looked like a famous peak in India, and he wondered out loud , ''When did it fly over from India?'' Nobody appears to have been the least surprised or to have doubted that mountains could be removed, and, from that day to this, the hill has been called Fei Lai Feng (the Peak That Flew Over). It has its caves, its images and painted pavilions, and its grand Monastery of the Soul's Retreat. It is a sacred hill, but tiny compared with the vastness and grandeur of Omei Shan.

A mountain like Fujiyama has a smooth, lovely slope up this side to the peak and another neat slope down that side, beautifully symmetrical and finished. You can capture it in paint, on your film, in your memory, on a bamboo screen, on the window blinds, everywhere. It's satisfying. But Omei Shan is so elusive you never really see it. We lived on its lower slopes for 12 early-summer days and during that time it only peeped modestly out of its blankets of cloud for two brief half-hours. I saw its summit then and I can still see it in my mind's eye. Our Chinese friends who live there told us that it is always like this. There were many more peaks, too, that we didn't see, and it soon became apparent that Mount Omei was not one peak but a rugged mountain mass.

One traveler who climbed the slopes exactly 80 years before we did left a record that every peak there has its flowers of romance and every moss-grown boulder is the center of some old-world legend. But he says that if you remember that the giant bulk of Omei is seldom or never bathed from peak to base in clear sunshine, and if you remember, too, how strangely sights and sounds may be affected by mountain mists, you will not be so amused at human credulity. The visions and legends the mountain has engendered date back as far as 29 BC. Perhaps the most well-known ones are about Ch'ien Sui Ho Shang, a Buddhist monk who came from India to one of the many monasteries on Omei and lived to the ripe old age of precisely 1,071.

The earliest religious buildings on Omei must have been solitary hermitages built by recluses whose religious enthusiasm impelled them to find, in the deep recesses of its forests and gorges, a welcome retreat from the noise and vanity of a world they despised. But, as time went on, richly endowed monasteries rose in its silent ravines and by the side of its sparkling rivers. These opened their doors to men longing for a life of philosophic contemplation or for a shorter time of reflection and meditation. For me, the mountain became a pattern of country walks up peaceful valleys among trees, bushes, grass, and wildflowers , with birds singing, but always quietly, and always with a river trickling its way down over the pebbles. I liked to sit on a sun-warmed boulder in the middle of a river while tiny fish swirled past in the cool, crystal ripples of the water. Or I would sit on the bank under the shade of some sweet-smelling bush that became entangled in my hair as I gazed up the higher slopes of the mountain.

This was my Omei Shan. But I have to admit, now that we are back in Jiangsu, a thousand miles away from Szechuan, when any one of us mentions Omei we have to smile. A sacred mountain the cause of broad grins? I will tell you why.

When climbing Omei seriously, the approved plan is this: Climb one day, then eat and sleep at a monastery halfway up; continue up the second day and reach the summit. Eat and sleep there. To see the sunrise reflected on layers of cloud is the most extraordinary spectacle. The third day is spent descending. Before we made the climb, we were first shown a film of the mountain and were warned about the monkeys that live in the trees at a certain point on the way up.

Our friends were all in the academic line and some naturally fell into the absent-minded-professor category. One of these is nicknamed Shu Daize, meaning Bookworm. When Bookworm arrived somewhat ahead of the rest at the zone where the clever Omei monkeys live, he was an easy prey. The lovely, fluffy, totally spoiled little highwaymen descended on him, cleaned out his pockets, divested him of his bag containing toilet articles, his camera, and everything else detachable. Try getting anything back from Omei monkeys. It is impossible. They, not the Buddhist gods, are the bosses of the mountain. After you've been to Omei you begin to understand the popularity of the Monkey God, whose antics fascinate Chinese grown-ups and children alike, in operas, films, cartoons, and plays. If one took a poll, I'm sure one would find Monkey the most popular of all Chinese film stars. People outside China can also glimpse this in a recently made film of well-known episodes in the Cloud Kingdom which Monkey inhabits. It is quite beautiful. On Omei Shan you meet Monkey in his natural state descending from the clouds, full of fun and mischief; you are as clay in his hands unless you fill them with food fast. Everybody else had had the forethought to arm himself with handfuls of bread or some other thing edible, or attractive to the monkey mind, so they managed to pass through the monkey zone unscathed.

When Bookworm visits us, we have only to mention Omei for him to open his eyes wide in innocent and indignant surprise at the remembrance of the Omei monkeys' pillage. Then he laughs heartily at his total inability to deal with them. I remind him that they were clever enough to make him a nonsmoker for two days, and then I generally go off into speculations about the date at which the monkeys first chose this bit of Omei as their licensed hunting ground, knowing that no Buddhist would harm them. Unfortunately, nobody thought to record it among all the piles of misty legends.

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