3 Concluding Thoughts from Chengdu
On the dream world
Industrious Chongqing showed us that travelling, spiritual institutions, and life, is but an opportunity to live and rejoice in our ideals. Classical Xi’an taught us that we can better live our ideals by constructing better realities with the right fundamental tools and intentions. Immense Tibet shed light on what exactly grounds all these ideals we fancy – a common appreciation for aesthetic complexity, where full aesthetic complexity is a world where all physical particles are harnessed to the best use, allowing for true meritocracy, lightspeed starships, and maybe Yetis. What new thoughts then, did our final stop in Chengdu offer us? Halcyon Chengdu painted the ultimate possibilities of ideal worlds, of what the end-product of human progress might look like. Wow!
At the foot of the Emeishan Mountain Range stands a plaque that proclaims: “Emeishan, China’s No. 1 mountain!!!”. After climbing down the entirety of its three thousand metres over three days, I think I understand why whoever made that plaque made it that way, for during those idyllic days plodding along umpteen steps, I became not so sure whether I was still in reality or in a simulated world – think virtual reality games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, or Journey. For to climb Emeishan, is to experience a most epic, yet pleasant adventure.
Epic – You know it’s epic, when on the first day at the bottom, you alight from the bus and wonder where the mountain is, only to be pointed at a faint, grey line high up in the sky. What then? Then comes three days of endless dirt paths & stone stairs, up the perky hills & down the sheltered valleys, through lush forests and ancient temples ~Spirited Away~, occasionally walking smack into a cloud of harmless flying bugs or emerging from the forest to a stunning vista of the rolling plains, all whilst wielding your trusty companion, the tall study bamboo pole that goes *THUD* while you implant it onto the earth, & swigging countless bottles of an invigorating orange soda satisfyingly called Orangeate + Snickers bars. And just when you still have a lingering doubt about whether you’ve been whisked into virtual reality (Zi Gi, are we still in Sichuan?), you reach a cliff overlooking an abandoned temple perched on a ridge down below, and in the centre of the temple square stands a solitary old hermit, who is staring straight up at you and then beckons you down with his hand – it is then you just know that he’s gonna deliver to you the next major quest. Emeishan Mountain will surely satisfy all the fetishes you may have for conquering the fabled mountains of Chinese legends. (Actually for me, I went in with zero expectations – I had never heard of Emeishan. I was just following Zi Gi around, you know, so Emeishan is good if you’re clueless as well.)
Pleasant – Fancy a peaceful stroll through nature, where the Sun illuminates the land at rozy brightness without causing beads of perspiration, where the cozy winds blow without simultaneously blowing over rain clouds, where you get the adrenaline kick from avoiding clouds of insects without the annoying itch that usually comes with it, where the rulers of the land have kindly laid sturdy stonework for you to tread a consistent walking experience on, and have magically conjured up identical stalls every 30 minutes or so for the entire stretch of the mountain range, satisfying all the nutritional and energetic needs you’ll ever have? Then travel not to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, but to Emeishan National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site! Travelling alone? That is covered as well. While still reaping the benefits of being all alone in the forest, every hour or so, travellers will emerge going in the opposite direction, each whom will cheer you up in their own unique way, from your amazement that elderly Chinese folk managed to get to wherever you are too, to chuckles from jolly, rotund, middle-aged men yelling “how long more is it??” and groaning in despair when you say hours, to giggling, ogling, teenage girls who ask in awe if you actually came down from the top, or a Chinese-American fitspo couple who ask how did life end you up here. If you’re lucky, you may even get an Olympe-Maxim look-alike to accompany you and point you in the right direction down the last leg of the mountain. Oh, and a functioning temple awaits you at the bottom for your good night’s rest, which is an experience right out of an ancient Chinese emperor palace drama.
Such was the experience on Emeishan that I finally could relate to those game creators and authors who say that their childhood exploring the hills of nature inspired the imaginary realities in their tales. It became crystal clear that when the physical environment and the fellow humans in it somehow synchronizes into an ideal harmonious backdrop, then we do live our dreams. The physical is fundamental for reality is entirely grounded in it. As such, urban environment and architecture in general should strive for grandness, beauty, to inspire awe, appreciation, curiosity, and be structured for a greater noble purpose, whilst providing for the fundamental living needs and comforts. Fellow humans – the sole external source to jointly create and bestow greater meaning onto the physical. We need fellow humans to dream with us, to express joy at the same silly things, define & fight for the same core values, and rejoice in sheer existence, for nothing else besides ourselves, mankind, can help us sustain & beautify our dreams. Oh, and one more thing, the larger purpose. The beauty of Emeishan was the simple pursuit we had – traverse the mountain. Life at large, unfortunately, offers no clear idea to what it might be about. Possibilities include Buddha’s teaching of reducing suffering for all living beings, science fiction dreams of expanding the reach of human civilization through the stars, or even secular humanism’s goal of simply maximising the faculties of the human mind to construct and rejoice in the Universe. With this holy trinity in place, might we successfully construct our ideal realities.
And so, Chengdu offered us a glimpse of heaven, of finding and living our still-imaginary ideal reality . As Lee Kuan Yew once said, we should: “look at the horizon, find that rainbow, go ride it.” What may the world of your dreams look like?
For me, I still feel like the bamboo-clutching hermit who descended from the fabled mountains. Afterall, when we finally reached the bottom, we never uttered any concluding or congratulatory words, for who said that the game was over?
– Ng Yi Ming
The idea that nothing is permanent is a concept fundamental to Buddhist philosophy, and one that is difficult to grasp. With my facile understanding of the concept, there was a period of time when I grappled with existential nihilism and constantly questioned the meaning and purpose behind everything I was doing: If everything – life, suffering, happiness – is impermanent, then they must ultimately be insignificant. And if all that is insignificant, why are we always striving so hard to advance technology, alleviate suffering, and improve standards of living when we can instead spend our short lifetimes just chilling, lazing around, doing whatever we want whenever we want? Why would we need to care about the suffering of others, why would we need to care about anything at all? I have since reconciled these thoughts with my own desire to find meaning to life, but this phase of my life has left an indelible impression on me.
In Chengdu, I was time and again reminded of the dangers of the idea of ‘impermanence’ and how, in a way, everything can be ‘permanent’ and meaningful. Although Chengdu is not as famous as Xi’an for its history, many sites we visited in Chengdu was rich with historical significance. In the Jinsha Site Museum, we witnessed the evolution of culture in the ancient Shu kingdom about 3000 years ago, and how it had shaped the Chinese civilisation – even today, an ornamental design from the ancient Shu kingdom has been adopted by the Chinese government as the symbol of China’s cultural heritage. The Dujiangyan irrigation system, meanwhile, is an ancient irrigation system built more than 2000 years ago that stopped the annual floods that plagued the people along the Min River. Remarkably, the irrigation took more than 10 years for construction and is still in use even today. Another site with over 2000 years of history is Mount Emei, which housed the first Buddhist temple built in China – it was at Mount Emei where Buddhism was first introduced into China from India, and today the Chinese account for almost 50% of the world’s Buddhist population. Even the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding delivered a touching story: China’s aggressive conservation efforts had successfully removed the giant panda from the endangered species list in 2016, increasing the number of giant pandas in the wild from around 1000 in the late 1970s to close to 2000 today. All these point to one simple idea: the actions of people from the distant past still impact us even today.
As a traveller today, I am able to witness and feel the effects of the painstaking effort of people that lived not just decades ago, but even thousands of years ago. It is thus difficult to imagine what our lives would be like today if just one person in the past had made a different choice. For example, what if the very first person who had brought Buddhism over to China from India had given up along the way? What if the Chinese had decided not to build the Dujiangyan because of the incredible amount of time and effort it required? Each and every decision made by the people of the past has undoubtedly created change in the world that we live in. Perhaps that is what “everything is impermanent” means: the endless chain in which one thing causes another to change, which then causes something else to change and so on, such that all things will always change (and thus is never in a permanent state) because they are conditioned by other (changing) things. Yet we can also choose to see this from another angle: everything is more permanent than we think, because all things will have an effect on something else that will also create an effect on another thing, and so on – in essence, a perpetual ripple effect is created that grants permanence to every action that we take. Realising the huge effect we can create with every action we take and personally being the beneficiaries (and victims) of our ancestors, how then can we say that everything is insignificant and life has no meaning?
In Thinking and Moral Considerations, philosopher Hannah Arendt says that “[…] nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking. But this danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results which would make further thinking unnecessary.” On this point, I cannot agree more. To say that life has no meaning is, I think, a lazy response to an unanswerable question – an answer that allows one to become passive and indifferent to the world, permitting one to act irresponsibly despite one’s power to impact others directly and/or indirectly. Instead, one should never stop actively thinking and acting in accordance to one’s thoughts. By doing so, one grows as a person – and this, I believe, is also in line with the Buddha’s reminder that “nothing is permanent”.
– RuiQi Yeo
If one ever searches “best things to do in Chengdu”, chances are that the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base will be one of the top sites listed. Chengdu is home to the largest panda sanctuary for the Giant Pandas, those cute cuddly bears with dark circles over their eyes.
I had actually been to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in June 2017. The first time I went there, I told my mum that if I ever had to be reborn, I wanted to be a Panda in my next life. Who wouldn’t want to live a life where you just eat, play and sleep? You even gain international fame for just being yourself.
But the grass is always greener on the other side.
This time, I visited the Research Base on the last day of the Travel Fellowship. I had significantly more time this round to browse around and learnt that while panda’s grow up in companionship, they lead solitary lives as adults due to competition over food. Panda mothers are also known to abandon the weaker child if she gave birth to twins (which occurs about 50% of the time). This made me think: would I want to live a solitary life if it meant that I could have all the comforts of the world? Humans are social creatures and we all need that human connection with others. We might think that it is a worthy trade off at the moment to trade human connections for our goals or resources, but is it?
The lyrics of Papa Money by Sam Willows sums it up:
What are weekends anymore?
Social circle’s down to four
Later, later, later
Swear I’m gonna call
You, later but I got things to
Do, promise I’ll make it up to
You, I’m telling the truth, I’m telling the truth
I’ll tell it you
Later, later, later
Man, I swear that
As I grow older, I grow increasingly aware of the need to slow down and treasure human connections in the moment. There is never a later when it comes to nurturing relationships as people might go before you manage to make an effort. It’s important to be firm about priorities but when you can, choose relationships over other things.
It’s worth it.