Giving Oneself to Place • Intimacy and Hong Kong Temples (Part I)

2017-11-17 Little Temple Tsz Tin Tuen Mun II

Temple at Tsz Tin Tsuen, Tuen Mun (2017)


The Shrine of the Earth

Tsz Tin Tsuen 紫田邨 is a small village in the north-western part of Tuen Mun. Its name means “purple fields” in Cantonese. Like virtually everywhere else in Hong Kong’s New Territories, Purple Fields is undergoing intensive “development” and has virtually completely lost its former identity as a farming community. As I made my way up a gentle slope to the entrance, I got a clearer view of new housing estates towering pristine over squat local buildings: the first one I encounter is called Luk Tin Lau 綠田邨 or “Green Fields Estate”, the name a painfully ironic reminder of what once existed where now only a geometrical conglomerate of concrete, glass, and metal stands.

Opposite, overcast in its deep shadow, sits a modest residence probably dating back to the 1950s and bearing the name of Chau Yun 秋園 (Autumn Garden). In this case, however, the name remains true to substance: some of the trees planted around the one-storey dwelling are beginning to shed their leaves, although on this particular day it still feels intensely like Summer. The contrast in design, in scale, in aspiration is simply overwhelming. I had come to Purple Fields primarily to track down a few rough paths (marked on my map with dotted lines) so as to get off the beaten track out to some remoter places, but with all the construction work in progress and the complete transformation of the terrain, finding any of them proved to be impossible.

I bowed my head, partly in resignation to progress, as I passed under the fine formal gate that marks the way in to the village proper, and meandered along the winding main street, lined with unassuming houses and a si do 士多 (“store”) or two which were yet to open for business. Before too long, on a corner block, something caught my eye: a neat, tiled building with couplets engraved in stone on either side of the open ground-floor recess. An altar was just visible through the gloom at the back, and on it were oil-burners, candles, a vase containing the long stems of luxuriant green-leafed lucky bamboo [富貴竹], and dishes piled with cumquats (from the Cantonese gam gat or “golden good luck”). Pink-sticked incense burned in a small bowl of sand just outside the entrance.

I was slightly puzzled by the fact that the temple did not appear to be dedicated to any particular god, but this did not really matter, because the four-character horizontal inscription on the lintel, marked with five pieces of fresh-looking red and gold lucky paper, bore the following remarkable message:

The Divine and the Human, Together in Delight

Without demeaning the supernatural powers, and without at the same time exalting the human beyond the limits of its station, this plain phrase assumes a wonderful intimacy between the two realms. There is undoubtedly reverence implicit in the physical appearance of the shrine — all is spotlessly clean and in perfect order — but there is no trace of the abject piety that so often infects our mortal response to the numinous. I recall to this day my shock and lingering pleasant surprise when I read a passage written by the great modern Chinese translator of Balzac Fu Lei 傅雷 in which he expresses his dislike of the grovelling element in the music of Bach. In this brief Chinese inscription, with its emphasis on mutuality and delight, we are transported to a realm that is so completely unlike that familiar scenario in which a sinful human being kneels in self-abasement before a wrathful deity. There is a hint here at a saner attitude, as well as a much more charming one, in which human pleasure is not necessarily contrary or offensive to the incomprehensible forces that shape this planet.

The whole Earth is our shrine, these four characters proclaim, and offers us the one place in the universe where the divine and the human can meet, in a communal setting. In The Great Work, Thomas Berry reminds us ― and it is a startling reminder ― that the contemporary (Western) world is one of NO ATTACHMENT, NO INTIMACY, and NO GENUINE FULFILMENT. He goes on to say that, while we expect our place to give itself to us, we have no sense of giving ourselves to our place, and this is a major reason for our lack of deep satisfaction with life as we have made it. But here in Purple Fields, as in many other parts of Hong Kong, people still do come to make offerings to their place in the form of incense, fruit, flowers, and quiet worship. Gods, of course, are worshipped to, and are usually the dominant presence at any temple, but nevertheless a discreet attention to place is always a factor.

In Western culture, there is a persistent desire for a world beyond this one where we finally escape Earth limitations and become holy and immortal. Hugo of Saint Victor, in a well-known quote, aspires, on the only planet he could ever be born on, to become a total stranger:

It is, therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be possible to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.

It is a quixotic attitude, and one that goes a long way to explaining so much about the current human predicament. But what if the reverse were true: that an intimate relationship with our particular locale, a tiny particle so much smaller than the homeland of “the tender beginner”, offered us a way out of, and an alternative to, our current commercial-frenetic self-destructive madness? What if healing lay close to hand, in acts of attention directed towards that part of the world in which we actually go about in our day to day lives?

Fo Tan 火碳, close to the centre of the New Territories (and the improbable Sha Tin Racecourse), is a kind of compact industrial suburb: it reminds me of places in mainland China where everyday life is forced into uncomfortable close proximity with the heavy-duty dust of manufacture. In fact, the place is not very life-friendly at all, and even getting from one side of the road to the other through the constant, choppy stream of traffic is made more difficult than it need be by a general absence of clearly marked crossings. To make things worse, a huge public housing development is currently (2017) underway at the top end of the town, and the track that I hoped to walk was impossible to find, since the starting point in San Chuk Street 新竹街 had been wiped off the map (at least for the time being). It was like being back in Purple Fields all over again.

Wong Cheuk Yeung Bridge, Fo Tan_17 NOV 2018

Wong Chuk Yeung 黃竹洋, Fo Tan (2017)

As a consolation prize, I hauled myself westwards up along steep Wong Chuk Yeung Street 黃竹洋街 instead: at least it aimed vaguely at the foothills. Porsches, Mercedes Benz’s and BMW’s whizzed past me as I went, giving me a pretty clear idea of the kind of people who lived out this way. I must have been noticeably out of breath as I walked because man driving a black Porsche offered to “car” me (the noun 車 che = “car” is also used as a verb in Cantonese) up the hill but, despite his genuine friendliness, I declined his offer: you cannot really see any of the fine detail from the front seat of a car moving at speed.

Details, for instance, such as the tiny bridge off to the left. This was unremarkable apart for the large sawn-off log-rounds of timber ― five or six in total ― that made a good substitute for low stools. I took the hint and sat my still breathless self down on one, tuning in to the voice of the slim creek and admiring the intricate ambient growth, the butterflies, and the comprehensive catalogue of stones, ranging from the sand-grains scattered at my feet to shack-sized boulders. I registered not even a hint of a breeze on my skin, but a Painted Jezabel butterfly (known as 優越斑粉蝴 in Cantonese) was spiral-gliding consummately in an air current, holding itself perfectly still as if to spare itself any unnecessary effort, and flapping weakly only to make some slight correction to its flight-path.

I had been there a while, also trying to save myself from extra exertion, when I noticed a small nondescript shrine on the path I had taken to get here. It was very low to the ground, and was a typical example of Hong Kong bricolage, making use of various discarded bits and pieces (too discoloured now by the elements to yield readily to identification). A ceramic image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Gwoon Yam 觀音, perhaps retrieved from one of the innumerable rubble heaps somewhere, was just visible under the shrine roof, and a glass jar containing more stems of lucky bamboo made it clear that the site had been recently visited. That was it, really: a simple response to this unnamed place which exerted an attraction with its neat, miniature version of mountains and rivers together with an indefinable quality consonant with genuine well-being. Here it was again, in other words: the divine and the human, together in delight.

There is a poem by one of the Brontë sisters (probably Emily, but perhaps Charlotte) that ends:

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

What I think these lines mean is that a heart-felt encounter with certain places can produce a profound sense of balance, of reconciliation. Heaven and Hell are twin extremes, like intense joy or sorrow. What even the simplest shrine offers us is this opportunity for a unimaginable feeling of balance and integration when we wake up a little from our tenacious self-centredness, and make a small offering of our affection and attention to the places we depend on utterly but spend most of our waking moments oblivious of.

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