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Balancing Worlds

Life in the Temple


“Ōng mā nī bēi mēi hōng…Ōng mā nī bēi mēi hōng…Now that you are here, why don’t you calm your minds and I will lead you to walk three laps here and wish for good luck?”


Linfeng Zhou chants the six-syllable mantra of Tibetan Buddhism and invites tourists to join her in three laps around the sacred Mani pile on this sunny Saturday afternoon in Shenyang, an industrial city in northeast China. Unlike many dwellers of the region, she carries no trace of the local accent. “That’s because I make a conscious effort to speak standard Mandarin,” she says, “I actually have a very obvious northeast accent in normal life.”


Zhou is a middle-aged volunteer narrator and a librarian at the Imperial Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist temple built in the Qing Dynasty at the urban heart of Shenyang — a fitting geography since the Temple identifies itself as the center of a Mandala, protected and supported by four historic towers on the north, south, east, and west side of the city. In Tibetan Buddhism, a Mandala-shaped city is believed to construct an energy field that safeguards its development and growth, and as Zhou points out, the Imperial Temple is an essential piece for the energy field of Shenyang — the capital of Liaoning province.


The Temple also centers the Mandala of Zhou’s life, as Zhou calls the Temple her second home. She spends seven days a week, seven hours a day in the 300 m2 library that has been her personal office since a year and a half ago. She leads two groups of visitors each day to tour around and spends the rest of her time reading through collections of books and managing the bookshelves meant for in-house monks and volunteers. This has been her routine. “I used to study and practice broadcasting. I roamed around to see what was out there. After exploring extensive options, I am truly confident and satisfied with the choice I made to be here. Now I can finally focus on what I like the most — speaking and reading about Buddhism.”


Zhou proudly shares that she practices broadcasting-worthy standard Mandarin for the narration work. She doesn’t have to be loud to be heard — a trait usually found in trained broadcasters — with a clear and distinctive voice. And because she reads so extensively on Buddhism, she is able to add new bits of information to her script almost every day and share it with tourists.


“It’s not an easy commitment. Not everyone is qualified to narrate temples. I was invited by the Host and spent over five years learning and reading before I committed to the work here.”


As Zhou narrates the history and meaning of parts of the Temple, a tourist asks, “Is the Temple top-notch? There are five or six conspicuous animals on the roof – does that match the imperial standard?”


Zhou quickly responds by explaining the number of animal-shaped decorations on the roof and its implication for the prestige of the Temple. She was ready for the question even before it came.


“I am an enthusiast for ancient architecture. I love looking at the mortise and tenon structures in temples — they are the most interesting thing!” Zhou’s voice suddenly gets much louder, and her eyes are widened and lifted.


This wasn’t the tourists’ only doubt. This Temple claims itself to be more than 300 years old but looks so fresh — too fresh, with saturated colors of red, blue, green, and gold covering every surface of every structure, as if it’s just painted. Not to mention that it’s surrounded by one of the most vibrant night markets in Shenyang, with lined-up street food booths, a neon-lit elevated stage, and always a loud crowd. The Temple appears to be trapped by modernity in solitude. But Zhou seems centered and content in the Temple, not bothered by hints of worldly sophistication outside of the walls. She says she has found her purpose here.


“When I was in my 20s, I wasn’t sure what my passion was, but I knew what I disliked, so I cut them off, like whoop, whoop, whoop,” she waves her hands as if she was cutting branches off a tree. “It’s been a difficult journey. It’s all in the past and I must look forward.” She vaguely mentions her state of loneliness. She hints at personal sacrifice. “I don’t have many friends. Things are simple with my family, too, thanks to the protection of Buddhas. To be honest, I would rather be left alone — it makes me more productive and allows me to concentrate on my mission."


But then she added, brightening, "Sometimes I question the meaning of my work, but I see the impact of my work on passionate tourists. I am the luckiest volunteer to be entitled to this library, and I see it as a sign that I am spending my time on the right thing. I just have to stay.”


The sun is setting early as Shenyang goes into deep autumn. The Temple had already closed when she was ready to see the last visitors out.


“Don’t trust the fortune tellers or people giving you red ties outside”, she reminded a tourist, “they’re all scammers.”


“So I guessed,” the tourist said.


“Smart.” She nods with a smile and waves her exiting public back out into the real world.


Yawen (Lauren) Zheng

Yawen is a senior majoring in Economics at NYU Shanghai from Chengdu, China. She joined the Shenyang workshop to learn about the humanistic philosophy of slowing down from Paul while escaping from life as a graduating senior. While her daily academics consist of equations, statistics, and models (which she actually likes), she draws inspiration from real people in real life, whom she tries to capture in a natural state with her camera. Yawen also enjoys music and biking.

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