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The Meditation Master of Shang Ri La

Want to read my story from the beginning?

The name Shang-Ri-La conjures up images of lush flowery jungle, sounds of birds tweeting pretty little songs and of hidden treasure waited to be discovered. Once a fictional location, China has stolen the name and used it to promote a small city high up on the mountains of Yunan; an ode to Tibet.

My friend had invited me to travel with him to Shang Ri La in Yunan province in China, and to stop off at Lijiang city on the way. He had been several times and the chance to travel to an excitingly named place, as well as to stay weith his friend, a former Buddhist monk of 24 years, was an opportunity not to be missed. I travelled light but took my guitar with me which had always been allowed to fly with me free of charge.

Yunan city had a very modern Chinese feel, as if built only the day before. it contained lots of tourist traps, and subsequently, lots of tourists. We hardly counted ourselves as tourists; we were travellers. We amused ourselves talking to local people; pretty girls and old men. My friend was impressed by my guitar playing and convinced me to go out busking. I had never played in public before, but we were all about breaking down boundaries and limitations at that time. We found a little island in a river, and with a hop I jumped over whilst my friend stayed on the other side with my hat so tyhat he could collect money. In just 10 minutes I had collected about 15RMB, which was the equivalent of five beers, or lunch.

“Yes, Rob! Very good! We should go out tonight into the town and find some bars or somewhere, we can make more money.”

“You mean I can make more money?” I laughed “Isn’t it me doing all the work?”

“I’ll be like your agent, I’ll do all the talking.”

That night we went out, guitar too, and sought out several bars but every bar that we ventured into seemed unwelcoming and uninspiring. Part of it was fear, of course, but my guts were telling me not to bother with these bars. My friend couldn’t hide his disappointment, but was accepting of my feelings. As we walked along, I suddenly spotted a drum shop. It was a small shop, much like a garage without the front door and filed with all kinds of drums. The owner and a worker there seemed very friendly and we darted in. I soon felt at home and asked the owner if I could play my guitar. He was delighted at the suggestion and soon I was playing the guitar and singing in the shop front whilst the boy who worked there played the drums. A large crowd gathered. They clapped and cheered and stared at me through video recordings on their phones and we left after a few songs in high spirits.

Th next day we took a bus ride for a few hours to Shang-Ri-La. We were staying with a friend who entered the monastery aged 7 and stayed there for 24 years. His English was poor but by now my Chinese was good enough that we could chat. I was initially shy to ask him questions. I had read some Buddhism and so I was not totally clueless, but I was still sceptical of its place in society and the practitioners’ of Buddhism’s place in society. He served us tea, introduced me to his wife (my friend was a good friend of hers already) and relaxed quietly for the evening. The next day my friend and I took a moped to a nearby mountain, parked at in the foothills and walked a couple of kilometres to a nearby temple.

“He only married her to save her,” my friend told me as we walked. “She was like suicidal. He was fed up of the monastery, so he quit, married her. he says that once she’s better then he’ll leave her and go and live out the rest of his days meditating. He’s told this to her directly. So honest. Kind of fucked up.”

We played basketball with some kids, 2 v 2. They beat us; we blamed the thinner air that we weren’t used to. We walked past a circle of women chattering away, all at the same time, like birds. We sneaked into the temple so we didn’t have to pay and my friend gave me a tour. It was big. beautiful. he told me which Bodhisattva was which, told me a few things about them. Monks on phones barely registered us walking by.

One of the buildings at the temple complex and my friend.

He told me about one Bodhisattva who stayed in a cave and every time he had a bad though, he drew a black mark, and every time he had a good thought, he drew a white mark. In the beginning all the marks were black, but slowly the colour of his thoughts transformed and one wall was pure white.

That night, the ex-monk told me how many monks took off their robes at the weekends; went to bars, paid for sex. When I questioned their hypocrisy , he looked at me carefully and said:

“This world, Samsara (the transition from life to death), is the same for them and me, the same for you. It is difficult for all of us. Everybody feels the same suffering. Do you understand?” This man had achieved a state of meditation said to be higher than the level of the Dalai Lama; he spoke with clarity and calm. “You cannot escape Samsara.”

It was difficult for me to understand what he meant. Samsara was not a new concept to me, I was aware of it’s presence but had struggled to appreciate it’s true form.

With time I come to understand. Like clouds over the sun, the truth cannot remain hidden for long.

Aaand action!

Chester called me back. That’s the guy that works for Dan Lok. I told him my three things. I told him that I felt confident. Excited. Audacious.

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Published by RJHughes

I am from the UK and spent 5+ years abroad. Read about my adventures here:

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