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Xu Xiake's Adventure at Lingyin Temple

Xu Xiake, a distinguished traveller and geographer in Ming Dynasty, was from Jiangyin, Jiangsu Province. He was born in the 14th year of Emperor Wanli in Ming Dynasty (1586) and died in the 14th years of Emperor Chongzhen in Ming Dynasty (1641). His given name was Hongzu, courtesy name Zhenzhi, alternative courtesy name Xiake. Xu Xiake's Travel Notes had always been regarded as a unique literary and geographic book of the ages. Joseph Li, a British expert studying Chinese history of science and technology, spoke highly of Xu Xiake’s Travel Notes in his own book Chinese History of Science and Technology, “This book doesn’t seem to be written by a scholar from the 17th century. Instead, it seems to be a wild survey record of the 20th century”.

When he was a child, Xu Xiake had an ambitious dream to travel through the country and discover the mystery of nature. He read quite extensively and knew a lot about history, topography, maps and books of mountains and rivers. He was very fond of geography. He started to travel outside at the age of 22 to the end of his life for more than 30 years, leaving his footsteps on almost all parts of China.

In his trips, no matter how great the difficulty was and how harsh the condition was, Xu Xiake insisted recording his experience and writing down what he had learned as exhaustively as possible. Xu Xiake's Travel Notes was not only a masterpiece in geography of great scientific value, but also a renowned work of high literary value.

The exact time Xu Xiake spent on travelling in Zhejiang Province was the 9th year of Emperor Chongzhen (1636). He set off from his hometown Jiangyin, passed through Xiyi (now Wuxi City), Gusu, Kunshan, Qingpu and headed for Hangzhou, and then he travelled three caves of Jinhua via Yuhang, Lin’an, Xiatonglu, Lanxi… He went westbound to Quzhou, Changshan and then entered Jiangxi Province. He set out on the 19th of lunar September, but didn’t enter the boundary of Zhejiang until the 25th. It was a rushed trip. On the 1st of October in lunar calendar, he climbed Baoshi Mountain located on the north of the West Lake to travelled Feilai Peak, Lingyin Temple, Shang Tianzhu, Zhong Tianzhu, and Xia Tianzhu. On that day, although the weather was fair and clear, there was a chill in the air. Standing at the top of Baoshi Mountain along with Master Jingwen and looking down at the West Lake, he saw the lake surrounded by ridges and the scene was just like a beautiful ink and wash painting. He described the landscape with the following sentences: “Winding hills and protruding rocks are around the West Lake. Looking at the south, I saw the lake glittering with shine. Looking at the north, I saw mountains of Gaoting and Deqing. Turning my eyes to the east, I saw smoke rising from chimneys in thousands of households in Hangzhou clearly.”

He went downhill after lingering for about half a day. After five li ’s walk, he arrived at the tomb of Yue Fei and reached Feilai Peak for another ten li’s walk. He finished his meal downhill and then entered the caves. After a careful inspection, he recorded everything he saw: “It can be estimated that this mountain is part of the east Maple Ridge. It stands ahead of Lingyin where its whole image can be seen. Rocks of the mountain are formed exquisitely, which shape three paratactic caves. The caves are not deep but stretch in zigzags by roundabout ways with shared lanes. What was carved by Yang Kun has been ruined by travelling beggars now.”

Feilai Peak seemed to be a resting place for travelling beggars who sat near the scenic sites holding their sticks. If kind-hearted people passed by, they could fill themselves full. Those who went to Lingyin Temple were all generous to offer beggars food, so the beggars just sat there waiting. The moment Xu Xiake arrived at Feilai Peak, several beggars sat there silently and lonely. It was winter then. There was no disturbance of noises; it was so tranquil that even a drop of leaf could be heard. “It is just like the mountain washes its bones and the sky washes its appearance”. Under such circumstances, no one could add more peace to it. Xu Xiake climbed over Feilai Peak from bottom to top and surveyed the terrain at each crests. He came to such a conclusion: “At the top of the cave, various shapes of stones gather around, leaving some emptiness. Trees with intricate branches stretch over it and the beauty obscures the crests. The peak used to belong to Lingyin, but now it is owned by Zhang.”

He could not tear himself away from the peak. Crossing a gully, Xu Xiake arrived at Lingyin Temple. The scenes were entirely different: Feilai Peak was tranquil while Lingyin Temple was alive with lots of prayers. The end of Ming Dynasty witnessed great social upheaval and unrest, resulting in more and more people coming here to pray. The temple was packed with pilgrims, devout men and women jostled by the crowd, including some dressed women who were parading around. It was hard for a temple of sacredness and purity to avoid being stained by the dust from secular world.

What surprised Xu Xiake was an old monk who “sat silently with his hands tucked deep in the sleeves and turned his head up to feel the sunshine, completely motionless”. Seeing so many dressed women with heavy makeup, Xu Xiake was touched when he saw this scene for the monk immersed himself in deep meditation and kept himself away from crowd and hullabaloo. His body remained at the temple, yet his mind flew to another world. “Sitting there with nothing in mind”, “turning the head up to bath the sunshine”, “sitting still like a dead wood”---the scenes really touched and shocked Xu Xiake. The current situation was in a mess and everyone was jittery. The old monk was not influenced by the secular world at all. The Buddhist nature of peace was manifested on him. How could Xu Xiake not be impressed by such a pure mind and great refinement? He lingered over him for a long time and was not willing to leave. He took this anecdote into his journal and claimed “Amazing”!

On the same day, he visited Hall of the Wheel of the Dharma, at the east of which the Hall of the Arhats was being built, with half completed while another half on construction. In the afternoon, he climbed Maple Ridge from the west of Bao Park and then went to Shang Tianzhu, Zhong Tianzhu and Xia Tianzhu respectively. Following a path westbound behind Xia Tianzhu, he saw the legendary stone reflecting one’s pre-life, life and afterlife, rugged in clear color. The stone was not as old as people said. Xu Xiake estimated the location and found that it was exactly to the south of Lingyin Temple. After five li’s walk, the sun sank in the west when he took the ship at Mao Jia wharf. It was already dark when he arrived at Zhaoqing Temple.

Among his words and between the lines, we can imagine the following picture: tranquil Feilai Peak with silent peaks and silent beggars; devout prayers, flashy women and a meditating old monk. Travel-stained Xu Xiake stood in front of the monk with admiration of the monk’s clean heart and pure nature, and at the same time, sighed with emotion about his own errant experience. The darkness of the imperial court disappointed him and made him reluctant to be an official. He would rather spend his whole wife on travelling and have nature clean up his soul. But facing the old monk, he realized that with a peaceful mind, everything will be settled and smooth!

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