Hidden in a secluded area about 20 km from the city center – at the foot of Beijing’s Western Hills (西山) – lies the complex of monasteries of Badachu. The word (八大处) means Eight Temples and refers to the Buddhist cult constructions surrounding the mystical but fascinating area of natural beauty. Some of these sanctuaries date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and carry along a history of tradition and culture which was strongly damaged by the war outbursts of 1960.
The atmosphere of peace conveyed by the location can immediately be perceived by the myriad of red lanterns accompanying the way to reach the destination. In Chinese culture, they represent good luck and prosperity. Usually placed in front of houses to drive evil spirits away, they are believed to bring happiness and peace of mind to everything surrounding them.
That is the same feeling that I had when I first entered the scenario of Badachu. A sense of belonging that filled my heart and soul. The atmosphere of the temples, beauty of scenarios and culture of people – so physically close, but emotionally far away from the noise of the city – are a shock anyone can’t help but perceive. The entire valley seems to be wrapped in a mystical coat of respect and elegant reverence. Noise and restlessness do not get past the massive entrance wooden door. The only smoke is the one of incense sticks. A delicate but pungent smell fills the air. A thousand years old tradition connected to that smell and the very primordial communion of man with Buddha.
The price (10 RMB – about 1.30€) could not definitively buy the cultural and religious insight I gained from this experience. The Temple of Divine Light (灵光寺) is currently the only one construction on-site still hosting monks as residents. However, the only fact that these spiritual ambassadors are still an integrated part of the system creates a synergy between the Buddhist philosophy and the minds and souls of those who enter the sacred place.
I was lucky enough to experience first-hand a holy rite which particularly stroke me for its beauty and humbleness. Believers lit up incense sticks which then are held with both hands in front of their bodies. They performed several movements to then consequently place the burning tool in a bowl to bow down in prayers to Buddha. I appealed to the kindness of a woman which gladly explained to me the origin of this tradition and invited me to practice it with her.
In Buddhist religion, disciples focus their attention on detachment from the real world to reach a higher and deeper connection to god. Three are the most significant body parts showing faith in the Almighty while devoting prayers to him: the mind, the mouth, and the heart. The gentlewoman stated that, while attempting communication with Buddha, it is important to clarify that your mind is thinking of him, the words coming out of your mouth are searching for him and your heart is directed above, looking for the purest form of discourse with him. Therefore – while performing prayers – it was imperative to select three incense sticks to symbolize these three parts devoted to god.
Partially embarrassed, partially concentrated on not messing anything up and unleashing the anger of god knows which mystical creature of that place, I started to perform the ritual. Placed my hands together in front of the Temple of Divine Light (灵光寺). Slowly moved them toward my forehead, my mouth and finally my heart, to then at last bow down in a sign of respect. We both turned to the right side and started to clockwise repeat the process until coming back facing the Lingguang pagoda. We then proceded with something that I would closely relate to the Muslim rituals of morning prayers on their mat in the direction of the Mecca of Medina. Kneeling to touch the soft platform to become one with god’s earth creation and afterwards standing up facing the sky as a token of admiration and reverence.
As the ceremony came to an end and I went back to reality, a sense of fulfillment and peace of mind filled my body and my mind. For a while, I could truly experience what Buddhist were feeling while speaking with an open heart to their God. I belonged there, with those people and the peaceful melody of whispered prayers’ songs. For some time I remembered how it feels to believe in something bigger than you. To believe that there is a safe parachute ready to open in case of emergency. To have this parachute as the drive to achieve things in life with the awareness of never being alone and having someone walking with you throughout.
I was pleasantly surprised about the kindness and hospitality of the locals – which seemed to be predominant in comparison with tourists flooding the city. I was offered – together with my travel companion – not only help and friendly smiles but also food and drinks from people never seen before. Their affection was something I rarely experienced in Europe and which made me embrace the authenticity of the Badachu valley even more. I have to say – however – that China has a different approach toward foreigners. We are treated like mystical creatures: worshipped and adored superstars coming from a faraway land. It is not indeed uncommon to be stopped in the middle of the road by random people whose only desire is to take a picture with a ‘western man’.
Badachu – to me – has not only been a sacred place where to reconnect with religion and find some peace of mind. It was also a land of peculiar and unexpected situations which made me realize how different of a country China is. I discovered its true face by stepping out of the touristic areas to deep dive into the unknown of the true community life, which can be seen – and perceived – only with the right eyes of a person who is ready to embrace diversity. Only through these eyes, I was able to experience the kindness of the locals, the light in their faces and the purity of their hearts. I have seen it on several occasions like in one the most absurd situation happened to me so far. Me, Indiana-Jones crossing a construction site standing right in the middle of the path to the temple and having the workers help me overcome this heroic quest.
The temples complex has been altogether a pleasant discovery of a different side of China. That part which hides its true colours to the public to then show itself in all of its grace and beauty in the eyes of those who are worthy. I was lucky enough to have this opportunity and, together with the new cultural insights, I also discovered a part of me in those temples, that incense, and those prayers. I truly realized once more that, no matter how far you go, there will always be a place sparkling something in your heart which will make you almost feel like you never left home.
PS. I will leave you readers with some food for the eyes through some pictures of my experience. I hope they will be able to convey in the best possible way the idea of what that place was for me to you.