Chengdu is damp, gray, and fresh with scent of running water this morning. Like the Pacific northwest, the green is pervasive, flora sprouts from sidewalk cracks and coats stone lions in a mossy patina. The city lies in the midst of the fertile Chengdu Plain, known as the Country of Heaven and ‘Land of Abundance’. For most of its history, this region has been the bread basket of China, providing a surplus of rice, grains, and Sichuan spices to more populous Eastern provinces and cities.
Recently, Chengdu has seen an incredible population and economic boom as families and companies relocated through the government’s ‘Go West’ programs and subsidies. The urban core is now home to 8 million, with over 15 million in the surrounding administrative area, making it roughly the size of New York City. According to a French couple I spoke with, when they were on university exchange here in 1996, traffic was still primarily bicycles, and none of the skyscrapers that dominate the central business district had been constructed. Despite the population doubling in the last twenty years, there are neighbourhoods that retain the quiet, cloistered feel of its recent past.
I head out from Mix Hostel, a subdued guesthouse on a quiet side street near the river, and walk across the bridge to the old quarter to experience a bit of the city’s history. My first stop is at the Aidao Nunnery for their Buddhist (vegetarian) lunch ceremony. There are no signs and certainly no one who speaks English to guide me in the right direction, so I wander in through the open gate and circle the luscious plant-strewn courtyard a few times before I spot a small pantry, where other visitors are collecting table ware. I mimic everyone else and take two bowls, one for rice and one for hot dishes, then find a matching pair of chopsticks in the large bamboo steamer.
At precisely 11:40, the fish gong is struck and the lunch ceremony begins. Nuns sit in the first two rows of benches that line the Five Vision Hall, and visitors quickly sort out spots in the back rows. The nuns, with shaved heads and unadorned jiāshā robes dyed in the familiar Buddhist shades of ochre, pale brown and bright saffrons, sit and say a few words, sing a short and strikingly beautiful hymn, and then food is served. Because it was neither the time nor the place for photography, touristic voyeurism would have been rude and disruptive as a guest in the temple, I will try and offer a vivid description of each plate.
The Mahayana school of Buddhists in China abstain from alcohol, meat, fish, eggs, garlic and onion, as part of the Brahma’s Net Sutra, a list of 10 major rules, and as result their cuisine is strikingly different from the Sichuan fare of Chengdu. One after the other, younger nuns circle the cafeteria and ladle scoops of subtle, yet refined dishes into our outstretched bowl, which flavour and accompany our steamed rice. First, we eat soy beans (黄豆 Huángdòu) braised in acidic tomato sauce; followed immediately by crunchy, lotus root (莲藕 Lián’ǒu) that has been wok-tossed with a generous amount of fresh, spicy ginger; the third dish consists of cubes of taro (芋头 Yùtou) jelly and steamed Chinese spinach (菠菜 Bōcài), the gelatinous root has an exquisite mouthfeel countered by the bitter, earthy green vegetable; next, a sharp, vinegar heavy, palate cleansing array of pickled vegetables that includes carrots and mustard root (芥菜根 Jiècài gēn); before a gentle finish, boiled sweet potato (甘薯 Gānshǔ), which most of us elect to have poured over the remaining rice, creating a sweet soupy, colourful rice pudding to finish.
While we are eating, each of the nun’s guests places a 5 yuan note on the table, which is collected during the meal. The meal is a pleasant surprise, filling and pungent if unadorned, layered with the delicious flavours of market-fresh bounty from this land of abundance. After lunch, everyone returns to the pantry to wash and put away their chopsticks and bowls. I walk away relaxed and sated, enjoying the rest of my afternoon dawdling around the old quarter.
Wenshu monastery is just up the street from the nunnery, no more than a five or ten minute walk. I saunter past old-style shops and a bevy of tourists eating the fiery dandan noodles, Chengdu is most commonly associated with, and through the old gates of the temple grounds. I pass through a serene, verdant sculpture garden and tea house with a courtyard full of chatter, wander away as the sound of voices trails off and quiet prevails on the many paths circling through bamboo reeds and past prayer halls and a rock garden. The Wenshu Monastery and its many winding paths are a delightful bit of calm, tucked away in a city the size of Manhattan, and I forget for a moment where I am, lost in the tranquility of the fish ponds and Buddhist reveries.