The Zen Temple of Guanyin

Article By Nick Poppell

The Zen Temple of Guanyin, the goddess of compassion, was built around an ancient gingko tree and a natural spring. It can be found on the outskirts of Xi’an, among the Zhongnan Mountains. The journey can begin from Ti Yu Chang. Take bus 14, transfer to 916, then have a snooze through the next forty stops. The bus makes a brief stop near Phoenix Ridge, then guests trudge up the mountainside road.

4Around the temple, there are salespeople of all sorts; included among their wares are roosters, homemade wines and persimmons. The area has become a popular tourist destination in recent years. Amateur photographers arrive by the busload, all in secret competition to snap the most compelling photo of the Queen Gingko’s fresh blanket of fallen leaves. It’s hard to imagine a time when the designated walkway didn’t exist—when guides weren’t directing the crowd via megaphone.

5We circled the fourteen-hundred-year-old gingko as if it were a Buddhist’s Mecca. Every autumn, the tree sheds its leaves as they reach the palette of pure gold. The tree stretches up, as tall as a four-story building, and there’s a massive hornets’ nest melded to the uppermost branch. Two birds’ nests the size of large pizzas rest comfortably in their uptown lofts, one between the splitting trunk and the other farther up. When the tree dies, its trunk may be sliced and its rings may be counted. The readers will then glimpse back to the age of the Tang Dynasty, when the temple was all there was for miles around Phoenix Ridge. In the record of any tree, heavy droughts will correspond with space between the trees’ rings, allowing archeologists to accurately date historical famines. However, in the legible rings of this great gingko, it may be seen that the tree never lived a day without water.

6While approaching the Queen of Gingko Trees, tourists are funneled through the twisting temple paths, then past an alcove, home to the God of the Underworld and a red box for donations. On the walls of the cave, there are ceramic renditions of what Hell may hold for those unlucky ones—naked, bloody and impaled upon a barren tree, while green and blue demons guided others to a pit of fire. All men were suffering in the art; it smelled like incense and paper money.

The monks of the Linji Zen School can be seen operating booths or darting in and out of their old places of meditation. The walkways are stone, but home to a seasonally rising river of tourists, which waxes and wanes with the color of the leaves. Green to yellow, warm to cold. In some ways, the monks defend the sanctity of the tree and their temple. There is no doubt that the tourism has brought growth and wealth to the surrounding town, but there is no entrance fee to speak of. The railed path around the tree was built in order to keep safe the roots and the spring below. In one day, the temple can see up to 30,000 visitors—their trampling feet would salt the earth in the gingko’s fertile home.

7It is clearly a careful balance that the monks have maintained. Permissions for publishing photographs are granted by the master of the temple, a young monk who possesses a face aged by wisdom. He ensures that no drones are flown above the temple. His decisions are guided by the goddess after whom the temple was named, Guanyin. Her voice echoes through his actions, “Who could turn away a traveler who wants to see the old gingko?”

Though, it may be observed that the Buddhist monks protect the tree, there is a poem that states the contrary:

An ancient tree stands in an ancient temple,

An ancient spring runs beneath the ancient tree;

With the protection by both the tree and the spring since remote time,

The ancient temple has made Linji Zen.

Nick is a foreign teacher manager and English teacher. He studied writing in the U.S. and enjoys reading, martial arts and cooking.