In China, there are four sacred mountains in Buddhism. The mountains are homes for Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas, according to Buddhist tradition, are enlightened individuals who refrain from attaining complete nirvana, in order to watch over the rest of us. They remain earthbound, helping others gain the boons of enlightenment. Wu Tai Shan is one of the four sacred mountains, situated in northern China, in Shanxi province. The name Wu Tai Shan means "five terraced mountain,"and in fact, there are five sacred peaks surrounding the central village of Taihuai in Wu Tai Shan. The monasteries in and near Taihuai escaped much of the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, due to their remote location and the fact that Wu Tai Shan was primarily a site for Mongolian and Tibetan practitioners of Buddhism, thus avoiding the destruction associated with the Han majority.
Wu Tai Shan is an amazing complex that once boasted hundreds of temples and monasteries, spread out across the mountains. There are still more than 50 temples for you to enjoy, located mostly in Taihuai. The highest peak is just north of the town, standing over 10,000 feet. It's an impressive region with a long history. While there, you can hike up the stone steps to the Pusa Ding Temple for a panorama of the town, and an excellent view of the massive Tayuan Si Stupa. After hiking back down, there are numerous pagodas, temples, courtyards, belltowers and wooden buildings for you to explore. The town is a maze of Buddhist art and culture. If you're lucky enough, and believe in Buddhist cosmology (at least a bit), then you might happen upon an old pilgrim while you explore the sites. There are many pilgrims mingling among the Tibetan and Mongolian monks living in Wu Tai Shan. On certain days, as the story goes, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjushri, takes the form of an ordinary mortal and walks among the people and the temples. Manjushri does this because these mountains are his home.
Early one morning, on my third day in Taihuai, I left my small hotel before dawn. There were many pilgrims already out, burning incense and preparing for their morning prayers. I wandered about the squares and temple complexes, amazed at the number of people awake and functioning at that hour. I'd already seen several temple ceremonies and a long procession of monks collecting their alms. I decided to visit some of the temples I hadn't seen, thus avoiding the gathering crowds as best as I could. While being steeped in 2000 years of history, I strolled along the streets and passages for hours. Eventually the tourist crowds caught up with me.
The day before, I'd gone hiking in the hills surrounding the town. My legs were still sore from tackling the mountainous terrain. After munching on some granola bars I'd stuck in my pockets, I found a temple I'd missed my first day there. I rested outside the temple and finished my snack, then went inside for a look. It was fairly dark inside, lit by candles and natural light coming in through the doors. There weren't any other tourists there, as far as I could tell. I moved through the temple, making sure to walk in a clockwise direction, a habit I'd picked up while circumambulating different stupas in the past. I'd just assumed that was the proper direction to take inside a temple as well. A few monks in dark corners lit incense, or else read from some large texts. In general, they went about their business and left me alone. I should mention at this time that I'd been in China for almost nine months, and hadn't cut my hair once in that time. I have thick, curly hair, and it reached down past my shoulders. I hadn't shaved in more than two weeks either, so my beard had grown thick.
As I examined the various sculptures and Tibetan thangkas (hanging scrolls depicting Buddhist scenes), a short and stout monk approached me from behind, waving his hands about erratically. I turned toward him, to see what he wanted. He made a brushing sweep with his arms, indicating that I should leave. When I asked him why, he stopped in his tracks and scrunched up his face. He stood there looking at me for a long time. "Nan de or Nu de" he finally asked me. He wanted to know if I was a man or a woman. I told him I was man, of course, a little offended by the question. Scrutinizing me some more, he asked me why my hair was so long. I explained to him that I hadn't cut it in months, but that I was planning to get a haircut soon. I pointed out to him that I had a fairly thick beard, stroking my chin several times as I said this. I would have made a pretty ugly girl. Then I noticed his coke-bottle glasses. The monk was nearly blind. I leaned toward him so he could see my beard stubble. Still, he wasn't convinced. Calling over one of his monk colleagues, they began a debate in Mongolian. I can only assume they were trying to deduce if I was a man or not. I don't know what the other monk had to offer as far as facts. His glasses were just as thick as the first monk's. After a lengthy discussion, and a few suspect glances in my direction, they decided that I was indeed a man. Relieved by this declaration, I asked them what the problem was. The first monk told me that it wasn't important. They just weren't used to Western faces and men with long hair. They must have seen Westerners before, I ventured. Tourists walked through the town every day. "True, true," the second monk replied, explaining that he wasn't accustomed to white faces. He was very old and his eyes were bad. So, why did they need to know my sex, I asked Suddenly the first monk started to laugh, telling me not to feel bad. That particular temple was barring women from entering that day. That was all. In fact, they were about to close their doors to the public in order to pray, but since I'd aced their test, he invited me to stay. I wound up being the only tourist spending time with those monks that day. After their prayers, we all had tea.