This has been the first weekend where I have not felt burdened with homework from my Chinese class. Our last class for the summer is this Tuesday the 23rd, and, given our schedule, we were not asked to prepare anything special this weekend for tomorrow’s class. So, unlike some virtuous and studious folks who would relish such an opportunity to review the masses of information our wee brains have attempted to absorb, I took a day off yesterday and played a bit of a tourist role here in Taipei.
There are many things foreigners can and do see when they come to Taipei: many beautiful temples, an exquisite memorial hall for the first president of Taiwan, the world’s second tallest building, lively night markets, Dai’s House of Unique Stink, among many others (though, not sure about that last one.)
I have yet to visit these places, and most likely will give them a miss. That is, unless, any of you would like to come over for a visit; then, we’ll go together. Dai’s House of Stink first, of course; make sure you come on an empty stomach.
However, the one place I have wanted to visit I finally managed to get to yesterday: The National Palace Museum. This museum boasts one of the largest collections of Chinese artifacts in the world, totaling over 670,000 pieces. And, even though the museum is very large, it is only able to show 1% of its collection at any given time. So, given that the items are rotated every three months, it would take a person 12 years to see them all.
The story of the museum’s creation is about as fascinating as some of its tremendous pieces from China’s unique history. You can read most of the story here, but here’s a short version: Much of the collection is a part of what was saved from the Forbidden City’s Palace after the last emperor fled in 1925, and represents a large portion of what had been accumulated by China’s dynastic rulers for thousands of years. The collection had to be moved a number of times with the Japanese invasion of China in the early 1930s, and it finally was brought to Taiwan in 1948 to escape the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. They weren’t able to bring the entire collection over, so what made it to Taiwan was only a quarter of what was originally in Beijing; though, it evidently represented some of the best of the entire collection. Over the next few decades, the collection has expanded to its present size, and new pieces continue to be acquired. By all accounts, the National Palace Museum holds some of the best artifacts of China’s ancient history, some dating back 8,000 years.
I wanted to explore this museum alone, as I was most interested in seeing its Buddhist statuary, calligraphy from ancient poets and/or monks, as well as any rare Buddhist books. I didn’t really want to do the “tourist” thing; instead, I was interested in a quiet day out to witness some amazing craftsmanship and devotion inspired by the teachings of the Buddha.
However, going on a Saturday made this quiet day out impossible.
There were about a zillion people in the museum. And about a million of them seemed quite intent disregarding the patient and silent volunteers holding signs asking visitors to speak in quiet voices.
Even so, the museum was amazing. I don’t want to bore you talking about what is in the museum, plus I really don’t know very much. However, I will share some photos below of some of the highlights. You can’t take photos in the museum, so all the photos are from their website. They ask that these be clearly marked as belonging to the “Collection of the National Palace Museum.”
One of the impressions I was left with was of the outstanding and seemingly impossible talent it took (takes) to create just about all of the pieces I saw yesterday. Ceramics, embroidery, carvings, bronzes, paintings, calligraphy, carpentry, etc. It was all just amazing. (Mom, if you are reading this, you would really love this museum.)
For example, here is a tiny, one-and-a-half inch-long olive pit carved into a wee boat, replete with people, chairs, windows (that open and close!), and, evidently, tables with plates. Seriously.
The museum has over 12,000 pieces of jade, much of it carved. Some of it amazingly intricate, and others ancient enough to represent very primitive tools. I would like to find a photo of a 4,000 year-old jade pendant that I was very much enamored with, but haven’t been successful in the internet searches so far. Instead, here are two of the museum’s most famous pieces: a piece of jade carved into a Chinese cabbage with a grasshopper in its leaves, and a piece of red stone made to look like a piece of meat (to be honest, these did not make my top 30, although they are impressive).
As far as Buddhist works went, they did have a modest-sized room devoted to Buddhist statuary. Some of the pieces there were outstanding, both in their grace and in their antiquity. The one that struck me the most is this one of a seated Shakyamuni Buddha with the Seven Buddhas of the past encircling him.
For me, though, the most impressive part of this statue was what is on the back of the lotus-leaf-shaped aura surrounding the Buddha. This isn’t the best photo, but it is the best I can find:
It is hard to see, but the back shows at least four prominent scenes from the life of the Buddha, both historical and scriptural. At the bottom is his birth, with the first sermon after his enlightenment just above. Next you can see Manjushri Bodhisattva and Vimalakirti discussing the Dharma, a scene from the Vimalakirti Sutra. Finally, at the top, is an image of two Buddhas sitting side-by-side in a stupa. This is a very famous image from Chapter 11 of the Lotus Sutra, which is, for me, one of the most inspiring scenes in Buddhist religious writings. So, the whole back of the statue encompasses the entirety of the Buddhist Path: from birth, through the Four Noble Truths, to the profound truth of nonduality and emptiness in the Vimalakirti Sutra, to the ultimate universal vehicle of Buddhahood in the Lotus Sutra. Very moving and lovely. The piece dates from late 5th century, when Buddhism was still quite young in China.
I’ll leave it at this for now. Much more I could say about the whole experience of travelling to the museum (including meeting an old, flute-playing monk on the subway), but will refrain for the needed and upcoming sleep tonight.
I will be heading back up to Dharma Drum Mountain from Taipei later this week, as I hope to stay there until the next term of Chinese classes begins. I will also be changing schools, and will start attending National Taiwan University in what evidently is a very intensive Chinese course. It begins around the 26th of September. I also will be giving a twice-monthly English Dharma class here in Taipei at Dharma Drum’s office building starting around the same time. I’m pleased about that, as it may be a small way I can start to return some of the vast kindness and help Dharma Drum has given me since arriving here in Taiwan.
Next week, I hope to return to liturgical posts and offer something about the Four Bodhisattva Vows and how they are chanted in the liturgy at Dharma Drum Mountain. We’ll see.
As always, thanks for reading. I hope you are well.