A Footprint on the Shore

On a trip to Kuan-yin’s sacred island, Sandy Boucher finds the Bodhisattva of Compassion not among the tourist-thronged monuments but within herself.

Sandy Boucher

Phyllis and I wander the island, where cicadas thrum in the trees, creating an umbrella of sound. We feel Kuan-yin’s presence in the warm, strong wind. The streets of the little village are paved with cobblestones and lined with open-air restaurants where fish, eels, and crabs swim in plastic tubs a few feet from the tables where they will be eaten—a truly blasphemous feature of Kuan-yin’s island, for she requires that her followers adopt a wholly vegetarian diet. But Putuo receives over a million tourists a year, and the majority come to swim off the long pale-sand beaches and eat fresh fish, visiting a temple now and then for amusement.

On our first morning, we set out for the Temple of Kuan-yin Who Refuses to Leave and the nearby Cave of Tidal Sound. In the courtyard of the yellow stucco temple, we buy the bright orange cotton pilgrim bags with their lotus decoration and large black characters. People take these bags with them to each temple to collect souvenirs, and receive a red-ink stamp to show they have been there. A sincere pilgrim will be buried with her bag on her chest. Phyllis and I buy candles and incense and offer them in the glassed-in stalls set up for this purpose. Inside the shrine, we encounter a stunning white marble Kuan-yin statue seated in meditation, holding a willow twig in her right hand. We then descend steps to the stone banister that borders the Cave of Tidal Sound. It is not a real cave but a huge vertical gash in the cliff face. Surf pounds below. Tourists line the banister, peering down into the abyss. Many people throughout the centuries have reported seeing Kuan-yin here, and some of them have reputedly received dharma instruction from the apparition. One theory for the visions—put forth by a Westerner—is that at certain times of year, under certain barometric conditions, sunlight falls through a hole in the top of the cave and illuminates the spray and haze produced by the pounding surf below, making a bright veil through which Kuan-yin may choose to show herself—or, viewed differently, through which a pious pilgrim may imagine her presence.

Next to the banister stands the Finger Burning Stele, an upright stone engraved with text forbidding pilgrims to burn their fingers in order to invoke Kuan-yin. Centuries ago, a foreign monk did just that, lighting his fingers like candles and letting them burn down, as an offering to Kuan-yin. When all ten had been reduced to stubs, the bodhisattva appeared to preach the dharma to the monk, and gave him a precious seven-colored stone. After that, people got the idea of flinging themselves from the cliff into the cave to drown in the surf, committing themselves to Kuan-yin as they committed suicide.

We have traveled to an island whose earliest location is not in this world but in the realm of scripture. The Hua-yen-ching (or Flower Garland Sutra) chronicles the travels of the pilgrim Sudhana (Shan ts’ai), who after a long search finds Kuan-yin on Mount Potalaka. There, in a clearing in the woods, seated on a diamond boulder, she instructs him in the dharma. Another scripture, the Sutra of the Thousand-hand-and-Thousand-eyed Kuan-yin Great Compassionate-heart Dharani, is set on Mount Potalaka, where Kuan-yin hosts the Buddha and teaches the dharani (magical invocation) to an assembly of bodhisattvas. (The Mount Potalaka of the scriptures also gave its name to the ancestral home of Tibet’s Dalai Lama, the Potala Palace, because the Dalai Lama is believed to be a reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara, or Kuan-yin.)

Putuo has endured a long, often stormy history, beginning before its transformation, in the tenth century, into a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. For centuries the island harbored Taoists who went there to conduct alchemical experiments, and it was an important maritime trading port. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Japanese pirates and “red barbarians” (Dutch traders) periodically ravaged the island, pillaging the population and destroying temples. Putuo Shan’s history is also one of patronage, with influential people such as the Wan-li emperor and his mother building structures and encouraging practice; and of monks and pilgrims having visions, erecting shrines, inscribing rocks with their revelations. Thousands flocked here for the observance of Kuan-yin’s birthday and enlightenment, when they held all-night vigils. In 1929 there were 88 small cloisters and 128 hermitages under the direction of the monasteries. Until 1949, about two thousand monks and nuns lived on the island, except at pilgrimage times, when six to seven thousand additional monastics came. During the Cultural Revolution, many of the structures on Putuo Shan were further devastated by the Red Guards. Three large temple-monasteries now dominate the island, which is only eight and a half miles long and three and a half miles across.

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