A country boy herds his parents' water buffalo and calf on the road to Dong Shan Temple.
A country boy herds his parents’ water buffalo and calf on the road to Dong Shan Temple.

The taxi brakes and swerves as I struggle to read the finely printed map in my Chinese “Communication and Tourist Atlas.” Dong Shan Temple is indicated, but the map shows no road that leads to it. We’re traveling west from Nanchang City in China’s Jiangxi Province. A hundred miles north from here, at Jiujiang City, the Yang-tse River is cresting at its highest recorded levels of this century. In this region, too, the effects of the ongoing monsoon are dramatic.

But today, the sun shines sporadically between low, water-heavy clouds. Taking advantage of the break in the weather, farmers are piling freshly cut rice paddy, wet from the heavy rains, on the highway to dry. They position wooden logs in the road to protect the rice stalks from the traffic. It’s against state regulations, says my driver, but they “mei you ban fa,” (They’ve got no choice).

According to the Complete Guide to Buddhist America, there are now more than 400 Mahayana meditation centers in the United States, most of them with roots in the Zen tradition. But despite this growing interest in Zen, the historiography of the tradition and its most famous existing Chinese landmarks remain unknown to the West. Dong Shan is the fountainhead of the Caodong (Japanese Soto) School. Yet I was unable to find direct evidence of any visits to Dong Shan by American practitioners. Even Chinese Buddhist sources about the temple’s location are sketchy.

On the road to Dong Shan, a confusion of cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, and small tractors weave, at different speeds, through a small army of obstacles. A pig wanders onto the narrowed roadway. We squeeze between it and a stack of bright red Jiangxi peppers. We stop as a peasant girl in pigtails appears amid the traffic, herding a buffalo. She coaxes its ageless saunter by lightly slapping its ribs with a bamboo rod.

The water buffaloes are magnificent animals. Their docile grace and good nature are a counterpoint to the brutish mechanization of the Chinese countryside. When not working, they often rest tethered to trees on the flanks of roads, where the uncultivated land and trees offer grass and shade. In Zen parable and poem, these beasts symbolize service to others.

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