Author: Austris Mailītis
I have been interested in Oriental religions as a philosophical movement for quite some time now. Following the winding path of my thoughts and reflections, I have finally arrived at the Zen school of Buddhism as a world view close to my own outlook. The fundamental principles of Zen are contemplation, meditation and intuition. As far as I am concerned, it means creative reflection and an approach resulting in creative living. Understanding life through these principles is rooted in intuition, not so much in dogma.
As a result of a string of coincidences, life offered me an opportunity to travel to Shaolin, the actual birthplace of Zen; in many ways, it was really a certain kind of pilgrimage. The first abbot of the Shaolin Monastery, founded in 5th century, was Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen, who came to China from India to spread the teaching of Buddhism.
I had always wanted to travel while also working on a project, hoping that this would help me experience the world in close-up, as it were. Life has been very generous in this respect as well: my trip to Shaolin and China was defined by a professional objective.
As an architect, while designing the Latvian Pavilion for the 2010 World EXPO in Shanghai, I had the opportunity to meet people from Shaolin, also interested in a similar project.
And so it was in a completely different way - guided by a practical necessity, not through books and philosophical contemplation - that I came to visit the birthplace of Zen.
Never an ordinary travel, Shaolin is a pilgrimage for me.
If you keep an open mind and approach life creatively, it tends to guide you in right direction; life brought me to an incredibly beautiful and culturally wealthy place.
Song Shan, the Chinese central sacred mountain with its adjacent plains traversed by the Yellow River (Huang He), is the cradle of the ancient Chinese civilisation. Because of the unique geological heritage, Song Shan is now part of the Global Geoparks Network. In 2010, the cultural treasures of Shaolin and other locations at the foot of Mount Song were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the conceptual title of Centre of Heaven and Earth.
It is at the foot of Song Shan that the roots of the first Chinese dynasties can be found and the capitals of ancient China were built. It was here (in the province of Henan) that invaluable inventions like magnetic compass, gun powder and paper were made. It was here that Zen, Taoism and Chinese martial arts were born and levitation is explored.
The nature of Song Shan takes by surprise with its freezing waterfalls and mountain paths which lead to monasteries and idyllic pavilions hidden in thickets of trees. This is also where one of the most influential Taoist monasteries, one of the four ancient Confucianist universities, as well as thousand-year old observatories can be found.
One of the best-known treasures of the region is the Shaolin Monastery or Shaolin Temple. Interestingly, the sacred and the profane exist here side by side. One of the valleys has become an outdoor stage for a design-wise very impressive performance that tells the story of Zen. Staged by the same artist who was responsible for the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, the performance is frequently presented to a paying audience.
The new Kung Fu University, set up in a concrete factory, accommodates more than 10 000 students; these young men are sportsmen and meditation is only a secondary practice to them. They were even featured at the Olympic Games, although the martial art of Kung Fu is essentially derived from the religious teachings of Zen.
While the monastery is practically engulfed by the entertainment industry and commerce, it is not as easy as that to penetrate its depths.
Inspired by the powerful nature and culture of the place and working in association with Aerodium Latvia, I proposed an architectural concept entitled The Shaolin Temple of Flying Monks, a completely innovative kind of structure: a platform for levitation performances. It is reminiscent of an outdoor stage or an amphitheatre with seats for the audience, production rooms beneath it and a stage featuring a vertical wind tunnel in the centre.
The concept is partially based on the phenomenon of levitation explored by the Shaolin monks for centuries. Now they will all have an opportunity to try levitating. The idea is focused on growth, a spiritual and physical chance of making the next step towards solving the mystery of levitation.
Shaolin translates as 'mountain in the wood', hence the metaphor of a mountain and a forest incorporated in the project. The wind tunnel was designed as a forest while the building represents a mountain. On an intuitive level, the project was inspired by the concept of man's activities both in the horizontal plane of the earth and the spiritual vertical.
There is an idea of involving monks in the project, thus furthering the practice of merging the worldly and the spiritual.
While staying in the city of Dengfeng, you are enveloped by complete authenticity. Western people are rare visitors here, and it took me some time to find a place where you could buy some coffee.
Mining industry is seriously gathering speed in Shaolin, and the roads are always covered with stone dust. While looking for stones for the project, I visited a number of stone-quarries and workshops; I couldn't help but notice the striking contrast between the limo-riding owners of the mines and the dust-covered manual labourers in the dusty working-class neighbourhoods, living practically on the roadside. It was here, warming my hands over the burning coal by the half-levelled mountains side by side with the Chinese miners, that I was struck by a certain sensation of doom, prompted perhaps by the presence of a giant industry existing alongside primordiality, genuine high spirits and humaneness.
It was encounters like these that left me with a taste of the ultimate culture shock.
Keywords: Shaolin, Song Shan, China