“It feels like we’re going to church,” my instructor Jesse said as we hiked the last stretch to shénpúbù (神瀑布), the holy waterfall. Above us, a jagged cliff shone obsidian black in the wet afternoon light. Ahead, a panorama of blue, green, white, yellow and red flags fluttered in the weighty breeze. The small Tibetan scripture on its fabric wavered like a mirage. Our guide Si Li Lao Su offered a kind Tashi-delay (hello in Tibetan) and a smile to old friends as we passed them on our journey.
For the next few hundred meters, we ducked under the lines of prayer flags as a flurry of colors overtook our vision. We walked in single-file and in silence, navigating the narrow path, oncoming people, and slippery stones. A small stream trickled in concert with the wind. When we emerged from the forest of flags, the waterfall’s misty funnel greeted us as it glided down from měilìxūeshān (梅丽雪山), the mountain we just trekked.
Now arrived, we shed our bags and prepared to approach the waterfall. We all put on an ensemble of rain gear, so I zipped up my jacket but chose to leave my hood down. I wanted to leave my head exposed. I followed Jesse as he led us towards the water’s base. At first I kept my head down to navigate the wet stones, but, as we got closer, my eyes began to wander towards towards the waterfall. Water vapor and wind forced my eyes closed.
Before we arrived, we briefly spoke with a yogi we met on the path, someone who was a master of Tibetan Buddhism. He said that, long ago, there was a monk who entered a nearby cave named Padmasambhava (莲花生大师). He meditated there for six years. When he emerged, the waterfall sprouted from the glacier and hasn’t stopped since. Now, if you meditate to his name or pass through the falls, he is supposed to wash your soul of sin and your spirit of weight. You can also make a wish. As we passed under the misty spout for the first time, I can say I felt like this legend had been fulfilled. A gust of cold water clung to my face and shocked my senses. A smile overtook my face. I felt cleansed.
We circumnavigated the waterfall three times, and on the third pass, I stepped down to pick up a small, white stone. You were allowed to make a wish as well, so, as I stepped through the shallow waters, I closed my eyes and made a prayer. While the group stopped after this pass, I decided to keep going. Odd numbers are considered appropriate since practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism believe if you go an odd number of times, you will return to even your count. So I walked under the waterfall two more times for a total of five, and, on the last round, continued my prayer.
In these moments, I felt connected to the land, to a spiritual force, and to China in a way that is almost indescribable. The visceral aspect of this experience took a removed, academic approach and made it deeply physical, emotional, and spiritual. As I sipped some of the holy water our guide had collected in her plastic Nongfu water bottle after finishing my fifth pass, I began to realize that, in this part of the world, there is a fundamentally different relationship between people, God(s), and the natural world. While in Christianity (the religion I was raised around), God is primarily found in the way we interact with other humans, in Buddhism, spiritual enlightenment is discovered in introspection, intention, and in nature. Padmasambhava did not find meaning on the streets or in homes like Jesus did; he found it in the dark hollows of a cave nearly 4,000 meters in the air.
This train of thought led me to realize that all the Tibetan centers of spirituality we’ve seen were organized in a similar way: high, hidden, and immersed in the natural world. The Sōng Zàn Lín Sì Monastary (松赞林寺) in Shangri-La rested on a large hill as the golden animals on their buildings stood up into the sky. The Bǎoxiāng Temple (宝相寺) nestled itself into a forest of trees, stone, and monkeys on Shíbǎoshān Mountain (石宝山). The spiritual nature of these places was intricately linked to the natural world, and, in turn, the natural world enhanced the spiritual nature of these places.
As we enter the village of Hóng Pó (红破) for a two-week rural home stay, I am still considering the relationship between spirituality and nature in China, particularly given the rapid pace of development I have witnessed firsthand. How does a country balance its momentous drive to modernize with its fundamental reverence for the natural world? On the hike down from Shén Pú Bù, this tension became apparent as I saw trash on the side of the path. The balance between man and nature was disrupted. Yet, here in Hóng Pó, the balance feels more stable. In the morning my family and I pray at their stupa at sunrise, feed the animals, then cut grass with hand tools. Later, we return to use washing machines, cook on electric burners, and watch basketball on a flat-screen TV. As I can tell from my host grandmother who still wakes up to walk around the stupa on crutches, the people here are still very much connected to the land and their spirituality. Yet, there is a subtle negotiation taking place, and their way of life is evolving.
Shén Pú Bù felt like church in every sense. And, in many places across China, the landscape still maintains a natural appearance. Yet, as we explore the more modern dimensions of this country, I am starting to sense that there is a new spiritual structure taking shape, one influenced by traditional spirituality, politics, and technology.