Meetings with Hong Kong Buddhist Nuns

My only close encounter with a Hong Kong nun is something I have never forgotten. I saw her on two or three separate occasions at Tai Po Market MTR station in the late 1990s. She would stand in a corner of the concourse at peak hour, sounding at regular intervals a small metal bowl she held in the palm of one hand. It was a beautiful gesture: a timely reminder to slow down and pay a little more attention to where we were and what we were doing. I’d like to think that not a few of the people who rushed on past her at the time, later in a sudden flash of recollection and understanding, got to thinking about that almost invisible woman dressed in grey.

I was reminded of the nun by several recent encounters in the pages of my Hong Kong books. The first, dating from the early 1950s, is described by Martin Booth in Gweilo, and happened when he was only eight years old. The setting is Ngong Ping, on Lantau Island:

There came a soft shuffling sound from over my shoulder. I turned to find myself being observed by two Buddhist nuns. They wore grey, long-sleeved, ankle-length habits and their heads were shaven, so it was quite impossible to judge their ages. Around their necks hung simple necklaces of wooden beads. Not sure what to do, and heedful of Mr Borrie’s warning, I stood up and stepped back on the path. They watched me go, impassive looks upon their faces. I sensed that perhaps they were young and wanted to talk to me, this strange, small gweilo from the other world of which they occasionally heard talk but had not seen for many years, nor perhaps ever would again. (“Hiking to Buddha”)

The visit to Ngong Ping left a profound impression on Booth, and he returns to the episode in both his novel Hiroshima Joe (1985) and in a section of his Hong Kong notebook, The Dragon and the Pearl (1994), where he tries to reconcile his idyllic memories of his stay in the monastery — marked by austere accommodation and timeless ritual — with the changes time has brought, particularly the colossal Buddha statue, said to have cost some HK$60 million. However, in neither of these alternate accounts does he mention that pair of silent nuns.

G.S.P. Heywood came to Hong Kong in 1932 to work at the Royal Observatory. His book Rambles in Hong Kong (1938), is his very romantic love-letter to the countryside of the Territory. His encounter with nuns took place in Lam Tsuen, at the Ling Wan Nunnery near Kwun Yam Hill:

Some way to your left as you come down from the pass into the Pat Heung valley is a nunnery, standing in a wooded defile under the great rocky shoulder named Kwun Yam, the “Goddess of Mercy”. The white buildings, with their garden and lily-pond, were once hidden away amongst the trees, and had a wonderful air of quietness and serenity. One hot summer day, as I was passing by, the nuns courteously hailed me in, and provided me with water to wash in and tea to drink.

When I was refreshed they showed me round some of the buildings, of which they had good reason to be proud, for they were beautifully kept. I saw the temple, with its altar and images, and the reading room, and a belfry up in a tower, where an old nun sat with a great book open in front of her and every now and then chimed a deep-toned bell which hung from the roof above.

Many of the trees are now gone, and the belfry is only an empty shell; though some of the charm of the place has been lost, the nuns are still there, cheerful and kindly as ever.
(“Lam Tsun, Pat Heung, and Ping Shan”)

Here as in the Booth passage there is a quiet, nostalgic comparison being made between Heywood’s early visit to the nunnery sometime before the Japanese invasion in 1941 and a later one after the war, during which many of the sheltering trees had been cleared for firewood and the belfry had been damaged. Heywood himself had also suffered terribly during those difficult years as an internee in a Japanese prison camp, so those pre-war memories must have carried particularly poignant overtones for him.

An American, Christopher Rand first went to China in 1943 and later based himself in Hong Kong. By accounts, he was a great walker, and once wrote “I have theories about why one should do it — that it is good for the health, is conducive to thought, makes one able to observe things close at hand, etc. — and I think all these arguments are sound, but the main point is simply that I enjoy walking; I feel calm and happy while doing it.” His 1952 book Hong Kong: The Island Between focuses on the complex political issues concerning mainland China, but it ends with a light-hearted, lyrical sketch of Lantau Island where he spent a few months. He was actually staying in a place quite close to Ngong Ping when he had the following experience:

I never saw a wheeled conveyance on Lantao — not even a wheelbarrow. The fastest human you saw was a man or woman shuffling at the Chinese jogtrot, perhaps with a loaded shoulder-pole. Often you would see little figures like that far away on a hillside path. The paths were now level, now steep and flagstoned like dragons’ backs — gracefully curved, and at times appearing to hang out over thin air. Most people you met on the paths were good at walking downhill in the fast, bent-kneed fashion of mountaineers. Sometimes when going uphill you would overtake a little shaven-head nun or lay sister with two big bags of rice on her pole-ends. You could hear the hard breathing as you passed.

Sometimes it was so still you could hear water dripping hundreds of yards below. One of the nicest sounds was of nuns’ chatter combined with a splashing brook and wind in near-by trees. Most of the mountain’s convents were in a hillside area called Lok Wu, and when I walked on a slope that happened to face this, a mile or so away, I could often hear the nuns there talking intimately.
(“Lantao”)

These three encounters by a trio of writers quietly suggest that the Hong Kong Buddhist nun lives life at a slower speed than the rest of us, unobtrusive, and closer to the natural rhythms of the world, and consequently capable of an unexpected and powerful intimacy. Here, by way of a conclusion, is the tiny poem I wrote as a fragile tribute to my own encounter:

At Tai Po Market Station, the Buddhist nun
performs still-points with her gong
in the avalanche of peak hour
.

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