A Photo Journal by: John Schettler
had the good fortune to visit Chinatown on the last weekend of February as they closed the Chinese New Year celebrations with a festive two day street faire and one of the world’s top ten parades. I was joined
by a companion, and nearly half a million others who came to the event, and the City, full of so much life and vigor on any normal day, shifted into a higher gear. We stayed in the Embarcadero district and took the
six block walk up California Street into the heart of Chinatown on Saturday morning, past St. Mary’s church and into the street faire on Grant. We were immediately greeted by a troupe of well dressed men
pushing a decorated cart to the beat of clashing symbols, flutes and clarinets at the ready to make music.
Before plunging into the sea of visitors and shoppers, and knowing of my Eastern leanings when it
comes to all things metaphysical, my companion wanted to show me one of the many Buddhist temples in the district. So we made our way to Norra’s temple, where an amiable old gentleman opened the gate and
welcomed us in. Unlike the dark, moody and often somber environs of a Christian cathedral, where the space is meant to convey a feeling of awe and quiet reverence, the temple, the oldest in Chinatown, was as festive
as the street faire outside, bright and colorful, with gilded altars depicting a crowned Buddha surrounded by offerings of fresh fruit and gay arrangements of flowers. There was a single kneeling stand, where one
could light incense and pay homage, and while we both knelt there briefly, it was only to pose for a photo in the setting. The Buddha is not a deity to be worshiped, nor did he ever make any such claim. In fact,
were he alive today he would have probably thought all the ornate depictions of his likeness to be a gross misunderstanding of his basic message, though I am certain he would have appreciated the fruit, and probably
enjoyed a nice ripe orange or two. I could not help but wonder who the fruit was really for. Would it sit there in offering until it withered away?
Well, knowing all too well the evolutions of
“religion,” I excused the fact that all the statues, incense and offerings were a complete misunderstanding of Buddhism, and picked up a free copy of the Diamond Sutra, wherein Buddha plainly dispelled
the notion that he, or anyone else, was leading any souls to nirvana or salvation.
To quote the man briefly, Buddha asserted in the Diamond Sutra:
“All minds are Buddha minds… Everything is
equal. Nothing is different. All are equally without self. Everything is included… So do not think that you should save people. There is no one to save… But yet, I say again, that all things are Buddhas,
and therefore we learn from all things…” So it was clear to him that there was no magical hierarchy of souls, no divinity, and nothing to revere or pay homage to, just a sublime equivalence of
all things. But by simply flipping the assertion to the other side of the coin, you can also say that all things are one and the same in the great divine harmony. Nothing greater, nothing less—only
The Sutra continues:
“You come to me thinking that Buddha knows the ‘good law.’ Buddha knows no good law. The nature of things is unknowable; no one can know this. And no matter
how much you strive to gain merit, no merit is ever gained and nothing is ever attained. And belief? Belief is a name. Belief can not be expressed. Who seeks belief?”
Clearly the visitors to
this temple, (myself humbly excluded), seek belief. Two other ladies visited while we were there, both lighting incense and kneeling in silent homage before the statue of Buddha. I simply decided it was OK not to
know what the man they were kneeling before was actually saying to the world. The temple was what it was. Their experience there was as authentic and valid as mine, or anyone else’s. Sublime
Yet for me, the very fact that I was drawn to this place underscored the importance of Buddha’s noble truths in my life. They aren’t something to be believed in, but simply
understood. And once grasped at their root, your view and experience of life is remarkably different. You know why this moment encompasses all that matters, and why the past and future, as well as the notion that
you are a being walking along this progressive rope of time, is such a egregious misstep of Western thinking. When I had my first moment of awakening to these realities, it was a deeply transformative experience in
my life. Yet I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I had not discovered anything at all! Instead I simply let go of misguided notions and false beliefs that had cluttered up my thinking prior to that moment.
tried to express this understanding in my novel Taklamakan, through the experience of the main character, Tando, who visits a stupa shrine secluded in the deep desert and discovers a copy of this very same Diamond
Sutra. Reading the words of Buddha, he is suddenly struck by their true meaning.
“It was as if every instinct that had guided him through all his days of learning, and striving and reaching for the
unattainable answers to the mysteries of life had come to naught. In a single moment the answers were revealed to him and then snatched away! Tando was filled with great elation and also with a strange sense of
bewilderment. Even the Buddha does not know, he thought with a sudden clarity! Even the Buddha knows nothing at all! No law, no truth, nothing to believe in. The words cut at his mind like the hard edge and cold
fire of a diamond. They struck at everything he had carried, for years and years, and made nothing of every whispered prayer and invocation he had ever uttered. They leveled in one blow a thousand temples, and
stupas, and holy shrines, effacing in a single swipe every gilded image of Buddhas, and aspara spirits and nagas of the underworld. They vanished in the twinkling light of the night sky, and were gone. The
Buddha’s words struck all this down in a single utterance, but yet they seemed to lift him up with the same stroke, making him more as they made him less. They crowned him with glory even as they swept away
every noble impulse he had ever attributed to himself. He sighed, his eyes filled with unaccountable tears as he raised his head and stared up at the diamond night of the sky above. Something inside him had come to
an awareness that he had never dreamed possible. He was bigger than the whole of the sky above; greater than the heavens in all their majesty, but yet, he was nothing at all, no one at all, and he had nothing to
believe in from this moment on.
He lowered his head, his face streaked with tears carried in the suddenness of the realization that had swept over him. How could he ever explain this to another? How could he
hold on to it even now as the sense of understanding and completeness began to ebb away from him, slipping up through the hole in the roof of his hut like smoke from the flame of his butter lamps. His eyes fell on
the last lines of the scroll, and he read them through thickening tears.
“Buddha said: This is how things should be viewed, without any idea of what they are! How can we explain what has no
explanation? Like stars in the night, like a lamp, a phantom, or dew; like a bubble, a dream, or lightening in the clouds. So should we view all the things of the world.”
“Thus spoke Buddha,
and the whole world rejoiced.”
And so that moment having been lived in Norras’s Chinatown temple, we moved on. Our next stop being a reverence of a more delectable nature—breakfast!
Wandering in the blocks between Stockton and Grant, we quickly found a small eatery and I enjoyed four of the best tasting pot stickers I have ever had to help fuel the day. One of the fun things in Chinatown,
particularly because my companion is a lovely Chinese woman, is getting to explore the culinary delights there. Foods are prepared in traditional home style methods that are much different than anything you will
find on the menus of typical Chinese restaurants catering to the Western palate. It’s amazing what the Chinese can do with a few simple meats and vegetables. A few hours later, after wandering amid the
galleries of street vendors and navigating the crowded streets, we would settle in for more food in a late lunch at the House of Nanking. The hot & sour soup was just outstanding, and we also had a dish of
wonderfully seasoned beef and rice, along with lightly breaded Calamari that was so tender it seemed to melt in your mouth. The tea that accompanied the meal was a wonderful new experience in itself. Called
“Blooming Lotus Tea” it was the infusion of a single lotus bud, which gracefully sunk to the bottom of an enormous glass mug and then slowly opened, like a blooming flower. The tea was wonderful, and
naturally sweetened by the flower, no sugar or honey required.
The food in Chinatown can take a lifetime to fully appreciate. I have only visited three times, but on each occasion I stumble into a different
restaurant and sample yet another dish to delight the senses. The eateries are mostly simple, no frills establishments, but the food is superb, including baked goods in the Chinese bakeries offering
sesame cookies, pastries stuffed with sweet bean paste, and other unusual culinary treats. I’ve had Tea Eggs, Moon Cakes and an assortment of other delights, and more Bok Choy than my belly can sometimes
tolerate. But it’s all so good that you look forward to a new discovery on each visit.
After lunch we set climbed another block up Nob Hill to Stockton, the real heart of Chinatown. Here the open
air markets offer a wide assortment of produce at bargain rate prices, so it was not long before we were both carrying numerous bags of goodies down the seven long blocks to our hotel in the Embarcadero for a well
deserved rest before the parade. My companion donned her traditional Chinese top, crimson and gold, and we set out again, climbing to Kearny to join thousands of others who lined the streets there for the parade.
It was three hours of marching bands, cheerleaders, flag wavers, dignitaries waving from passing cars, festooned floats with beauty queens, dancing lions and dragons, (one a full 200 feet long in the finale,
preceded by a fusillade of ear splitting firecrackers.) The year of the Tiger was well guarded by the auspicious and protective spirit of the dragon. It was quite a spectacle, though the constant motion and low
light made for very challenging photography.
After the parade, we turned our weary feet down Sacramento and thought to get a bowl of hot noodle soup. We found a nice Vietnamese restaurant, completely full
with others of like mind, and were seated at a table with another couple, Andres and his girl of two weeks, Rosa, who spoke no English. Andres was from Mexico, bilingual, and I could manage a little Spanish as well,
so we carried on a simple conversation over our soup. The shared meal was just another nice ripple in the stream of events that day, in a city that has so much to discover and experience.
After a good
night’s rest, we returned the next day, this time walking up Clay past the great green dragon mural on the wall next to the Oriental Pearl restaurant. We took one more tour of the stores on Stockton to pick up
a seasoned hanging duck and a few other things, making sure to visit yet another temple of sorts—this time a small little hideaway in an alley where two grey haired Chinese women made upwards of 40,000 fortune
cookies each day! The aroma of the batter was intoxicating, and we bought a few bags of the traditional cookie flats, sans fortunes. Then it was time to check out of our hotel and see what else the city had to
offer us that day.
We would make our way to Lombard Street and then on to Golden Gate Park for a long afternoon where I also indulged myself, and treated my companion, to an all too American favorite—A
New York style hot dog with all the trimmings. The King Tut Exhibit was underway there at the museum, but we thought the $30 per person price tag and the long, long lines were a bit intimidating, so we just enjoyed
the park. On the way out, however, fate and the kindness of a stranger changed our plan. We happened across a fellow who handed us two free tickets to the King Tut exhibit, VIP fast track entry! He said he
couldn’t attend and just wanted to have someone make use of them. So we thanked him for his generosity and made an abrupt about face to end our Chinese New Year celebrations immersed in the artifacts of
ancient Egypt, remarkably preserved after 3000 years in a crowded tour of the museum.
Still walking that rope of time and causality in my mind, I thought to myself that if we had not made each and every
stop, taken each turn, walked every block, and lived every moment exactly as we had that day, we would have never encountered the nice fellow and I would not be staring at the funeral mask of the boy king just now.
Then I realized the futility of that thinking, realizing that the line of causality would have to extend on through the whole of my life, and that if I had done any single thing differently I would not have
inherited those two free tickets. Ah well—the line snapped and I was simply back in the moment, tired at the end of a long full weekend, yet thankful to be there in the only place I was at liberty to be just
then—the here and now.
For lots more photos of the parade and Chinatown,