I wasn’t a vegetarian when I went into the temple, but then I wasn’t really a Buddhist either. I had signed up for a tour of Buddhist sites in China partly based upon my sense of adventure, and partly because my aged father-in law was going, and he needed help.
We had spent the night before in Jiujiang, on the banks of the Yangtze river watching a pair of bartenders at our westernized hotel make the most labor intensive (and worst) Irish Coffee I have ever seen, involving a blowtorch, a French press coffee maker, and an industrial dairy mixer. I smiled at the thought, because I knew that the original Irish coffee had been invented at the Dublin airport for America tourists stuck in a foreign land.
A long bus ride along that river led us inland to a place I had never heard of before: Wuhan. I asked our government provided tour guide about it.
“I don’t know,” he said shrugging his shoulders.
“He’s the worst tour guide ever,” I said. “He never knows anything about the places we visit and all he ever wants to do is engage in political discussions.”
“He’s not our guide, he’s our guard,” said the tour director. He’s here to keep an eye on us.”
After that I avoided our guide for the rest of the trip. Lunch, we were informed, would be at a vegetarian restaurant in the basement of a Buddhist temple. It was a money generator for that temple, and that we could eat as much as we wanted.
We arrived in Wuhan just before lunch. In the news today, Wuhan is often characterized as being somewhat backwatery. It is not. It is a major industrial city with a population of 9 million people, and another 11 million in the surrounding environs. Making it about the same size of the greater Los Angeles area. Ironically that size only qualifies it as a sub provincial city (second tier) and it barely makes the Chinese top ten in size. Wuhan is the San Jose of China.
The bus dropped us off at the beginning of a long winding street. That street turned out to be one of the so-called “wet markets.” The venders were just setting up for the lunch rush and it was a beehive of activity. Literally, there was an actual beehive. There were also goats, chickens, cows, ducks, snakes, lizards, almost everything you could imagine. And all of it was crowded together bizarrely on a side street that could easily have been any side street in any financial district in any city in the US.
The noise was deafening, bees buzzing, ducks quacking, dogs barking, and people shouting over all of it, a deafening cacophony of noise. I wont even go into the smell.
Our motley crew made our way to the temple at the very end of the street. We were greeted by the Abbott, who led us inside away from the noise. A very large American Buddhist monk and I were sat at the same table.
“Eat as much as you want,” said the Abbott through an interpreter.
So, we did. We piled our plates high with bean thread noodles and bok choy and rice, some of which was the most delicious that I have ever had. Just because it is all vegetable doesn’t mean it has to be bland. Sichuan peppers and eight different types of soy sauce made sure of that.
We made it about halfway through our third plate when we finally stopped eating. Both he and I pushed our half-filled plates away and rubbed our full bellies. The monk who had been serving us walked up and pointed at our plates.
“You can take as much as you want,” said our guide/guard smiling malevolently. “But you must finish all that you take.”
We literally had to force down those last few bites, which seemed to please our guide/guard enormously.
After thanking the Abbott on the front steps, we said our goodbyes. It was then that I noticed the deafening silence. There were no animal sounds at all. I turned and saw that all the animals had been butchered and were now lying in steaming pieces on tables in that street. All of them, including the dogs.
Suffice it to say my lunch didn’t make it back to the bus.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
-Wuhan is 3500 years old, and has had wet markets for much of that time
-I became a vegetarian upon leaving Wuhan.
-We Americans are remarkably insulated from the processing of our food, especially our meat.
-Just because something seems alien, doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been going on somewhere else for centuries.