The Temple of an Immortal

girl temple

(…continued from The Trauma of Being Different)

Back in 2007, I went back to Việt Nam to visit the northern areas and to see the sights.  During my three-week sojourn, I wandered through more temples and ancient structures and caves than I can remember off the top of my head, but I do remember wandering through the main gates of this temple.

Sadly, my photos are on another computer so I can’t show you my grinning monkey face standing like a funny American tourist in front of the temple.  However, thanks to the miracles of the internet, I found a picture of the temple that is exactly what I saw.  This is Đình Thổ Hà, a very famous temple located in the town of Thổ Hà.  

DinhThoHa

This is what you call a living, breathing, actively in-use museum.  The museum is the building itself and not just the artifacts contained within.  See that huge white urn in the center of the photo?  I actually stuck several incense sticks into that urn as a sign of respect before I entered the place.  I also had to leave my shoes outside the door where a small chú tiểu (young monk) of maybe five or six years old was standing to guard the shoes from being taken.  Since they were cheap flip-flops, I didn’t care, but it was nice to know that the young temple monks took good care of the visitors.

I remember walking into the temple, not really knowing what kind of temple it was.  Seriously, I had seen so many temples that had been erected in honor of one Budha or another, so I thought it was probably, yet another Budha temple.

But no…

This one was specifically built for the veneration of Lão Tử, Thái Thượng Lão Quân.  In other words, it’s for the guy we all know and love, Lao Tzu.

But that is not what’s special about this museum temple, oh no.

What makes this temple so very special is that it was the first place where Lao Tzu’s water buffalo went to after he left the northern regions near the city of Tây An (西安) Xi’an, in modern-day Thiểm Tây (陕西) Shaanxi Province.  Notice I said place and not building.  The original building has been rebuilt time and time again due to a variety of reasons.

B52 Bomb Damage, VietnamThe latest incarnation of this building occurred in 1685 under the direction of one of the Lê Kings.  That is barely 325 years…quite new and modern compared to the vast distance of approximately 2,260 years between the time Lao Tzu was found wandering around that area on his water buffalo and today.

This place has been refurbished over and over again due to the ravages of time, flooding, earth quakes, heavy storms, and all the various wars which had been fought in and around this area.  The bombings around here and the countryside are such that scars still show everywhere we look, even to this day.

I passed by so many perfectly round bomb craters by the side of the road during my visits there.  Most of those bomb craters are now local swimming pools where kids gather to swim and where animals go to drink and bathe.  Out of the horrors is reborn a new way of looking at things, a new way to take what is good out of what cannot possibly be good.  Vietnamese are resilient and that is why we are still here, after all these years through all these changes.

So here we are, thousands of years ago, all the way back into the era during the reign of King An Dương Vương.   This guy ruled in the years between 257 BC to 207 BC, where he managed to unite the two tribes Âu Việt andLạc Việt into one region called Âu Lạc, and although there is much about him that is historically significant, I’m going to skip over all that and just focus in on one small part of his activities that has to do with what we are discussing in this post.

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The story can actually be found in what has now somehow, inadvertently turned into one of my favorite books, the Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái ( 嶺南摘怪 ) Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Linh-nam., which talks about the Truyện Rùa Vàng, or The Story of the Golden Turtle:

In the telling, it states that King An Dương Vương had tried to build a citadel in the area of Cổ Loa many times, but no matter how many times he built it, it kept coming apart due to inclement weather, or fire, or flooding, or warfare between the neighboring areas.

So, he decides he is going to personally go to the temple himself and ask for divine help because obviously, this thing is a nightmare that regular humans can’t handle.

The temple that the King goes to is at the very same site of the Đình Thổ Hà that I was at, only back in circa 260 BC, it was a little bit differently constructed—much more modest, much more unassuming.  It was little more than a small pagoda that barely fit a handful of people.

On the seventh day of the third month (that would be March 7, except in the Lunar calendar) of that year, he was in the temple asking for help when an old man with white hair was seen coming from the west and heading towards the temple gate.  The old man said in a firm and commanding voice, “If you build it like that, there’s no telling when it will ever get done!”

Of course, you know—nobody talks to the King in that tone of voice, let alone a nobody old man from nowheresville who should not even know why the King was there in the first place.  Immediately, the king’s men surrounded the old man and demanded that he leave the area where the king was present or face cruel and unusual punishment.

King An Dương Vương, hearing the hoolabaloo decides he wants to meet this bold and boisterous old man, so the old man was led into the temple to be placed in front of the King to be questioned.  The King, upon hearing what the old man proclaimed at the front gate, asked the old man, “I have built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt this citadel many, many times but it continually falls down, costing me so much in energy and resources.  Why is this happening?”

The old man replied, “There will be an ambassador of Thanh Giang who will come to assist your kingdom to rebuild the new citadel.  Only then will you be successful.  Wait for him.”  After he said these words to the king, he said his goodbyes and left.

Sure enough, in a very short time, there was a golden turtle that rose up out of the river.  It called itself the Ambassador of Thanh Giang and the first thing it did was to eliminate all the bad spirits and strange beings that had previously kept the citadel from being built.  Then, it actively assisted the king using knowledge and various magics so that the citadel only took two weeks to build from the ground up.

It is still standing to this day.

thanh_co_loa
(…to be continued)

Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái ( 嶺南摘怪 ) Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Linh-nam.  14th century.  Trần Thế Pháp

The Trauma of Being Different

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(…continued from Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo)

This is my firm conviction.  We Vietnamese should not claim folks as our people if they refuse the claim, meaning if they insist that they are not Vietnamese, we should not place that honorific on them…even if it’s true.

I remember when I was younger, much younger, I dyed my hair blonde and pretended that I didn’t know Vietnamese at all because I didn’t want people to associate me with Vietnam.  It worked quite well because although I am Vietnamese, for some strange genetic reason, my skin is very fair and I don’t look like the typical Vietnamese girl.  Now, you may ask yourself, why would I think like this?  My answer to you would be, ‘Have you ever been in a typical American High school?’

The kids are vicious!

Growing up in America, I saw first-hand how kids picked on others who were different in the slightest way.  The rule of the day was…DON’T FUCKING STICK OUT!!!  If I just looked like everybody else, acted like everybody else, thought like everybody else, I would escape ridicule, prejudice, and persecution.

In any case, living in America, I could meld myself into society quite easily.  I could be whomever and whatever I wanted to be.  Nobody knew, and frankly nobody cared.  The only thing that tied me to my heritage was my name, but that was easily remedied.  I acquired a nickname and that was what I went by.  Since I no longer stuck out, I was able to go about my daily life with little traumatic disruptions.  As an aside, acquiring a nice strong boyfriend who knew martial arts helped too, but that’s another story for another day.

Applying it to this situation, I can see how this would play out more than two thousand years ago, in the time of Lao Tzu and Confucius (roughly between 722 BC and 481 BC, aka the Spring-Autumn Period).

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Imagine this.

The warm and fertile Great South has been settled by the one-hundred-tribal-Viet people for thousands of years, and all of a sudden, they are overrun by the fierce nomadic tribes from the north.  With no recourse, they have to try and fit in, all the while, maintaining as much normalcy as they can so they can get on with the daily chores of getting the plantings done on time and getting the community fed.  That’s not a small task, especially when there are overlords demanding taxes and harvesting in return for keeping one’s head securely on one’s shoulders.

Then imagine being born into a royal family of the Great South, and having to try to blend in to keep from being ambushed.  Obviously, that had to be a major balancing act.  Those who were able to completely eradicate their ties to Âu Việt and assimilate as quickly as possible to the Han Chinese from the north were the ones who were able to most effectively live to a ripe old age.  Those who insisted on maintaining their Việt heritage were more likely to have ‘things’ happen to them.

Imagine being a famous writer of a book that has survived thousands of years, and yet the name of the  author of that famous book is nowhere to be found.

Obviously, we are not talking about Confucius.  We know exactly when he was born (551 AD), when he died (479 AD).  We know where he was born (somewhere in the state of Sòng (宋國) north of the Yangtze) and what his birth name is (Kong Qiu).  We know he is a descendant of either the Shang kings or priests (more likely both sides) through the Dukes of Sòng.  In other words, he was a properly-documented Chinese of royal birth from the northern states.

But what happens to a royal person who was documented as having been born from the area south of the Yangtze river?  What if he had been born to a southern tribal king and lived in an area called Âu Việt?  What if he insisted on being considered a part of the Âu Việt population?

lao tzu painting

As has been exhaustively documented by historians, in subsequent assimilation attempts by the Han Chinese, most if not just about every vestige of known Vietnamese history was completely wiped out, leaving very little left for us to examine.

The ramification of that act is also the biggest reason why there would be so few records of such an important figure as Lao Tzu.  The only parts left untouched which would vouch to his existence on this Earth were the several documented conversations that he had with the more illustrious Confucius, who was younger than he was and had come asking for wisdom and knowledge.  After all, Confucius’ documented sayings and activities had to be preserved at all costs.  He was a direct link to the powerful, elite, technologically advanced civilization north of the Yangtze.

All I can say is, thank heavens for those documented meetings with Confucius or we would have never known anything about this man.

Chinese documents reveal that Lao Tzu’s final days on earth were obscured by the fact that he took a water buffalo and headed due west, to the dessert beyond.  Nobody knew where he went and what happened afterwards.

I have talked about this extensively in my previous post Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo, and I have detailed the reasons why he could not have gone into the desert.  Since he could not possibly go eastward (the Pacific Ocean is a wonderful deterrent to any excursions eastward that would completely obliterate a person’s existence from the annals of history), and since there were no water buffalo in the northern regions (which is why the Han Chinese had to exchange the water buffalo for the cow in the twelve animals of the zodiac…but more on that later, I promise…) the animal would not be wandering northward.

The only logical conclusion that we can come to is that the water buffalo went HOME, south of the area where he was sent to pick up the venerable old Lao Tzu.  Contrary to what little has been left in modern Chinese history, Lao Tzu’s story doesn’t end with the swishing of the buffalo’s tail and his slowly disappearing form into the distant hills.

If we follow the direction of his buffalo’s route, we find that his story continues onward.

(…continue to The Temple of an Immortal)

Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo!

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(…continued from Enigma of Lao Tzu)

You must be wondering why I am posting about water buffaloes.

The answer is simple.  I want to talk to you about the water buffalo because it is important to what I will be discussing.

To understand the water buffalo is to understand the inner workings of the Vietnamese agricultural industry.  Allow me to present a few points on this beast of burden.

Water Buffalo Facts:

1.  They are smart and can be trusted to do the work Water buffaloes will live to be 20 or 30 years old, and they are very smart and easily domesticated (if you know how to do it correctly).  Once they have been domesticated, it is so easy to take care of them that the work is mostly entrusted to children between the ages of five and ten because it is not hard work.

All the kids have to do is make sure the water buffalo is ‘walked’ to its grazing areas so that it can feed properly, watered thoroughly at its watering hole, and then penned into the barn safely.  The children usually ride on the water buffaloes’ backs as they go through their usual daily routine, and this usually occurs in the evenings after the kids have been let out of school.

Once water buffaloes have been taught how to do the work , they will willingly work hard in return for their simple needs, which is grass and water.  Very few animals will do this willingly.  The water buffalo is one that will consistently do so in a tropical environment where water is two-to-four feet deep.

2.  They have affection for those close to them, but are very wary of strangers –  Parents put five-year-olds on the backs of water buffaloes with huge dangerous horns because they know that the family water buffalo will protect the child on its backs against any dangers.  Approach a strange water buffalo head-on at your own risk.  It will, more than likely, gore you.

3.  Once entrenched with a pattern, they will adhere to the pattern only and will not deviate – This means that once they learn their route and routine, they can be trusted to do the same routine over, and over, and over, with no (or very little) supervision.

4.  They need water – Water buffalo can exist in an environment with little water, but they do not thrive.  If an area is lacking in water, they will either dig down to find water or wander off in search of water because they need it to live comfortably.

5.  They are tropical creatures and cannot live in cold climates –  Water buffalo do not do well in cold temperatures.  They cannot handle temperatures between 30 – 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why they are found only in the tropics.

6.  They have a set of working horns and will not hesitate to use them if they feel threatened – The horns on a water buffalo are real working horns.  They are not decorative, which means they will gore if they feel threatened.

Lao Tzu’s Famous Water Buffalo Ride:

Once we understand how the water buffalo thinks and acts, it is simple to deduce the story behind the image of an old man, sitting backwards, on a water buffalo, riding off into the distance.  It is a simple image, but it was recorded faithfully, so that at some point in the future, it can be deconstructed and understood for what it represents.

This is my own thoughts on Lao Tzu’s water buffalo ride.

Lao Tzu Bronze

 

Look over there, on the levee by the rice fields.  It is an old man.  He has white hair and is dressed in grey traveling clothes.  However, as simple as his garments are, he cannot hide the fact that he is of nobility because of the way he carries himself.  His back is straight, attesting to the life of the nobleman who has not been bent double from backbreaking labor.  His clothes, though simple, are cut of high quality fabrics, not torn, faded, or frayed.

What is he doing?  Oh look.  He is reading from a scroll.  No farmer would have the luxury of such an item, or even know how to read.  He travels alone, yet carries no weapons.  He is either a fool or he is a high-level martial arts master.  Best not mess with him though, because he sure does not look like a fool.  Besides, he is one of us.  He sits on the buffalo in that careless comfortable manner that shows he is intimately familiar with her.  Look there, she is carrying him with gentle affection, picking the gentle sloping areas of the levee to walk on so as not to jostle her passenger too much.  They are old friends.

So now that I have painted a picture for you to see, I am going to break that picture down into the parts that are important:

1.  Riding Backwards –  First of all, the idea of sitting backwards on a water buffalo may be laughable in a country where no one has ever seen a water buffalo before.  It is really not a big deal in an area where it is normal to see five-year-old kids napping or doing their school work on the backs of the buffaloes as the animals are grazing.

Furthermore, there is no need to face front.  If the water buffalo comes in contact with a stranger, it has horns to defend itself and will do so without qualms as it is wary of strangers.  The danger, if any, would come from behind, where the water buffalo’s horns are not pointed towards.  The best way to maintain a look out for any possible dangers would be to ride backwards as the buffalo will alert the rider of anything untoward coming from ahead, hence the real reason for Lao Tzu’s backward riding stance.

2. Tolerated Passenger –   We ride on the buffalo, not as fearless leaders of dumb animals, but rather, as a tolerated passengers on a rather boring trip, and ONLY if the water buffalo already has a relationship with the rider.  They are rather picky about those with whom they will allow to be ridden, and they are wary of strangers.  The trip is boring because the water buffalo will not take the passenger anywhere new.  It will only take the passenger on its daily routine circuit, the one that it knows very well.  To train it to go somewhere new takes a tremendous amount of work as it must be re-trained.  This brings up two separate but intertwined points:

Since Lao Tzu was riding on the buffalo, it means two things:  a.  The buffalo knows him very well.  b.  He is going to a place that is very familiar, on a route that is very familiar to the buffalo.

3.  Lots of water and warm temperatures –  Water buffaloes will not simply head out into the desert to the west, as some historical recountings have been known to state, UNLESS they actually live there and this is their daily normal route.  However, because of their constant need for water, and lots of it, no farmer would keep water buffalo in the dessert because these animals would die from thirst in a very short time.  They also cannot tolerate the cold.  They sicken and die rapidly if temperatures go much below 35 degrees Fahrenheit.  This is another reason why no farmer will keep water buffalo in desert conditions where temperatures approach freezing just about every night.  The idea of Lao Tzu riding a water buffalo into the western desert becomes less and less likely.

All this indicates several key points, the most important of which being:

We know where Lao Tzu was heading towards.

(to be continued)

Enigma of Lao Tzu

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I feel like a child who has inadvertently wandered into an old dilapidated castle where nothing but shadows of ghosts still haunt.  The glorious grandeur of the place is still evident—the large halls and high ceilings adorned still, with the remains of what must have been magnificent furnishings and fixtures, their colors faded and aged to various shades of greys and browns.  The walls are sagging and the floorboards are rotted through.  Dust and decay is thick, and the dank smell of long dead history stagnates about the place.

I find myself wandering into what must have been a magnificent library with shelves that go up to the ceiling and piled high with musty tomes of old forgotten lore.  I walk to the nearest book to read the name on the spine.  Unfortunately, it is written in an ancient language I cannot understand.  I run my fingers across the spines of the books directly in front of me, taking away centuries of grime and filth, revealing for the first time in ages, the true colors of the binding—bright reds, blues, yellows, greens.  All perfectly preserved and all written in the same cryptic language that I cannot decipher.  My soul cried out with anguish.  Such unapproachable treasures…

Such is what I face at this point in time.  I am within the proximity of a treasure trove, but because I cannot read the inscriptions, the treasure is useless to me.

So I pull out my handy dandy Star Trek universal translator and I am back in business!!!

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We Taobabes have power.  We Taobabes have the www force on our side.  We Taobabes rock!

We Taobabes also know that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  History can be found, not just in the written accounts but also in many other places.  But I can’t take credit for that thought.  I actually did a divination and asked about this, and to my surprise, I got Hexagram 21 – Biting Through.

Now, normally, I would go through an entire posting and delve into the meanings and the wordings behind the divination, but not this time.  This time, I am simply going to take the short cut and give you the divination in one sentence, and then I am going into the meat of this posting.  If I go into the details, it would take at least three postings to finish this train of thought, and I am trying to cut corners here.  This posting is about the enigma of Lao Tzu, so I am going to keep it as focused as I can.

In the interest of keeping things short, I have one thing going for me.

There is hardly anything to be found about the man at all.

This, in itself is very strange.  If there is one thing I know about the Chinese historians, it’s that they are real sticklers for historical details.  Their history goes back to the Shang Dynasty at least (circa 1700–1046 Bc), and is very well documented.  So well-documented in fact that even lesser figures are described and annotated quite clearly.

So—why is it then that one of the greatest, most influential men in Chinese history, one that actually held a position within a king’s court, would be relegated to such obscurity that he would be lacking in such basic details as birth date, real name, and even death date?  Why would the recounting of such a person be so shadowy as to cause a famous Japanese historian by the name of Sokichi Tsuda to throw up his hands and proclaim that the man is a mythological construct and cannot be a real human being?

Hmmmm…inquiring minds wanna know…

(Continue to Damn Stubborn Water Buffalo!)