27 January 2013

Lost in a Hong Kong Cemetery

It wasn't ten thousand statues of Buddha that I encountered – which is what I had initially expected to see in the so-called Ten Thousand Buddha Temple isolated at the top of a hill in a forgotten town of the New Territories of Hong Kong – but the ash remains of ten thousand people. That was mainly because I mistook a cemetery for the temple. I must have taken gotten out at the wrong bus stop.

Faces of the dead, Hong Kong
Faces of the dead, Hong Kong

Faces of the dead, everywhere around me, depicted in black and white passport-size photographs. Faces of the dead staring at me as everything was silent except for the sound of the mopping by a temple attendant. Incense sticks were slowly burning in the mid-afternoon sun. I sat down on a bench to stare back at the portrait faces of people who were no more. I don't know how much time I sat there, lost in my thoughts, thinking of an old story.

Three people successively presented themselves before the emperor, each with a proposal to answer his desire to leave a legacy, in the shape of a mausoleum. The emperor wasn’t old yet, but he was no longer young either. While he certainly had made some mistakes he profoundly regretted, sadness had also befallen him. He had seen enough of the world to know which joys, but also which disappointments, to expect from it. A deep melancholia had in his heart made home, an inner sadness that didn’t manifest itself on the surface as he took decisions affecting the lives of his subjects. He was generally liked by the people, despite the difficult decisions he had had to take and the coldness that was thought to be perceived on his emotionless public face, a face which had shed its share of private tears.

Statue at the cemetery

First came the imperial architect:

“Sire, the mausoleum I would erect for you will last for centuries. It will be magnificent, more colourfoul than Ieyasu’s Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, more finely chiseled than Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal in Agra. Your name, engraved, will never be forgotten. People will remember the magnificence of your empire, the scope of your power, the breadth of your wealth, the sharpness of your aesthetic tastes.”

The mausoleum model presented before him was indeed glowing with beauty. It would truly become a new wonder of the world. Would that truly reflect his character and what he wanted to leave behind?, the emperor pondered. Was a cold, dead granite monument, however sumptuous, all there was to transmit?

Cemetery in Hong Kong

Second came the imperial gardener:

“Sire, the garden I would design for you will be alive for centuries. It will be a living organism, more delightful than Louis XIV’s gardens in Versailles, more inspiring than Pan Yunduan’s Yuyuan garden in Shanghai. Your body, buried, will become the earth from which every plant of this garden will grow. You will be part of every tree, which shade will remind people of your protective nature, of the care you put in building your empire”.

The miniature flowers and plants the gardener had brought with him had filled the palace room with their refreshing fragrance. Such a garden would undoubtedly become a marvel to anyone’s senses. The gardener had even partly answered the emperor’s inner questions, but the latter couldn’t suppress the feeling that something was amiss, something more fundamental, less connected to the perishable nature of plants, more humble.

Cemetery in Hong Kong

Third came an anonymous man, slightly older than the emperor himself:

“Sire, I come before you empty handed...”

The emperor felt his patience tested, the architect and gardener smirked at the unknown man.

“... but many years ago, you helped me.”

The emperor looked perplexed, but his attention was caught.

“You don’t remember but I have not forgotten it. What you did for me is irrelevant. Yet it had nothing to do with your power nor your status. You acted simply, as a human being, helping another out in need. Live each day, happy to be alive, knowing that your joy comes from the happiness you put in other people’s hearts. Their hearts will be your mausoleum. Your ashes, spread around, randomly, will merely be symbolic of the help you have given and the love you have spread, a love that will not be forgotten as it will make people passionate, in turn infecting other people and other generations with an always renewed passion, care, and attention to fellow beings. No enemy, no lightning will strike or bring them down.”

From this day on, the emperor’s sadness gradually disappeared. While he had not felt Prince Siddhartha’s urge to leave his palace, a prince that would later become the Buddha, the emperor found his own way to be simply contented, more serene when he could put a smile on some people’s faces, less tormented when he failed to make others happy. Increasing happiness, reducing pain, for himself and for others, had become his constant pursuit.

Cemetery in Hong Kong
Cemetery in Hong Kong

A couple passed by, lit some more incense sticks and prayed silently. Bell sounds could be faintly heard – a funerary ceremony was taking place in one of the cemetery’s buildings. The floors were already dry. The sun was slowly disappearing behind the hills. It was time for me to go back. Go back to my life – more humble, perhaps more serene.

Faces of the dead, Hong Kong
Faces of the dead, Hong Kong