Rubbing Buddha’s belly for a long life in the trees

Every few months, while growing up, my family and I would make a pilgrimage after 11 a.m. church service to Shanghai Gardens. It was a local Chinese restaurant in front of the parking lot of a grocery store—or rather in the parking lot, the building an oasis surrounded by cement. Sunday lunches at Shanghai Gardens became something to look forward to. I daydreamed of my impending plate of cashews, chicken and broccoli during church. What I daydreamed about most, however, was rubbing Buddha’s belly.

An eight-foot bronze statue of a cross-legged naked, large Chinese man sat in front of the goldfish pond in the lobby of the restaurant. My younger sister and I would run up to Buddha, rubbing his belly for good luck. “Don’t take all his good blessing, kids,” my dad would say. “You have a fortune cookie to enjoy after your meal.”

What I failed to grasp but realize now was just how important Buddha is in Chinese culture. Coming in a close second are temples and trees associated with the portly fellow.

Enter TanZhe Temple outside Beijing and you hardly know it is a 1700 year-old building. You can’t order a plate of sesame chicken nor receive a fortune cookie, but you immediately sense calm and peace.

And that’s what Chinese temples were built for. Buddha, a real man born in 580 B.C., was a soul-searching youth full of pain, suffering and self-loathing. However, he was disciplined in meditation and desire to find meaning in life. What he found was enlightenment, a feeling freeing him from the cycle of life and death. He found how to appreciate the moment and be “one” with everything.

So temples were built in his name for all to find a sense of “oneness.”

TanZhe Temple has three main halls to wander through. But Panroamers choose this excursion for the color. The natural landscape changes with the season. When you visit in spring, enjoy the Scene of Qianfenggongcui, literally, “a world covered by verdant carpets” of tree blossoms blowing around you. In summer experience the Scene of Wanheduiyun, “a tidal cloud.” A dark cloud suddenly appears and blocks out the sun, creating an impressive view before rain falls. In autumn you view the amazing scene of Pingyuanhongye, “a sea of red leaves.” Mount Tanzhe is so red it looks like fire racing down the mountain. And in winter, JingpingXuelang, “a snowy wave” is, well, simply enchanting.

7 miles west of TanZhe Temple is JeiTai Temple, the second and final visit on this excursion. Most of its rooms were built only 350 years ago. But you aren’t coming for yet another display of old walls. Come for the pine trees.

“Trees? Really?” you sarcastically ask. “Why would I pay to see some trees?”

In American and Canadian culture, what earthly item holds meaning to all? Perhaps the metal made into cars, but a Honda is hardly sacred.

In China it’s trees. Trees represent life and longevity. Chinese plant trees on gravesites of loved ones who lived for many years. And those trees grow tall and strong for as many years to come.

Surrounding the main hall of JeiTai Temple are courtyards with twisted pine and cypress. The Temple is renowned for its pines—eccentric looking and growing in zigzag directions. One tree leans out at a steep angle, pushing over a pagoda on the terrace beneath. Other famous trees include the Nine Dragon Tree that has nine branches reaching toward the sky like flying dragons, and the Mobile Tree that trembles when only one branch is slightly touched.

Both temples can be visited during the full-day excursion. A local guide who knows when best to visit TanZhe and JeiTai Temples frees you from getting ripped off on bus fares and entrance fees. Panroamers have the Panrimo Coordinator for this—a Beijing local who speaks English. Regardless of who leads you off the beaten path and into history, these two temples are a “must” if you want to fuse Buddha, beautiful landscape, understanding of trees, and over 2500 years of seeking solace and “the moment.”

This is your moment.