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.
As Phyllis and i walk the island, I have the feeling that we and this piece of land exist in parallel worlds: one the realm of the holy mountain floating between sea and sky, where Kuan-yin sits on a diamond throne, quietly speaking the dharma to Sudhana; the other this material Putuo of history and our own sensory experience of cliffs and muddy water, shrines and hotels noisy with tourists. As the days go on, the luminous world of Mount Potalaka begins to dim. I feel restless, disillusioned. Being with our translator, Helen, has brought home the secularization of Putuo Shan, and its dominant identity as a tourist spot. Helen’s rattling off of Buddhist history is just that—history, even while she recounts miracles and sacred visitations. Nowhere in the temples is it possible to sit and meditate, as the altars are roped off like museum exhibits.
At the Cave of the Brahma Voice, Phyllis and I sit on a bench looking out at the walls where visions are supposed to appear. Before us is a clutch of tourists eagerly scanning the rocks for a glimpse of the bodhisattva. A friendly old monk sits down with us. He points out the place on the cliff where Kuan-yin can be seen, and gives us each a medal. Although we stare at the rough wall, we see only rock.
Discouraged again, still I have hope for the nunnery, where we’ll go tomorrow and where I’ve heard the nuns are sincere in their spirituality. I’m hoping that they will share their chants with us and talk about their relationship with Kuan-yin Bodhisattva.
The next morning, we set off up the hill behind the hotel to the big rocks and the Meifu Nunnery. When we arrive, the nuns are conducting a service before eating. Mostly older nuns, with gray robes and shaved heads, they stand in an open chamber to chant. When they have finished, I try to talk with them, through Helen. They avoid my questions by saying, “I’m just a simple nun; I haven’t studied; I don’t know anything.” Helen explains that they are afraid of foreigners.
That night we eat watermelon for dinner in our room and then pay two yuan to go down a flight of steps to the beach. The sea wind cools a bit. The sky flames and then slowly darkens, revealing a canopy of bright stars that poke through in clusters. We sit without speaking on the damp sand.
But I have not given up the quest; I determine to pursue a stronger awareness of Kuan-yin, to uncover some sign from her that she is present.
In the early morning of our last day I go out to walk on the beach. I find a shelf of rock that is backed by bushes, so that when the sun rises high in the sky I will be shaded. I look up the beach to the Cave of Tidal Sound, the first place we visited on the island, then sit down cross-legged and begin to meditate. First I take refuge, then chant the Namo Guan Shih Yin Pusa that I have learned from a tape, then fall silent.
Cicadas buzz loudly in the bushes behind me; to my left, the surf murmurs. The breeze gently touches me, keeping me cool. Gradually I understand that each of these is the voice of Kuan-yin. And the rock, and the big brown bugs skittering about. And me, my own body/mind process sitting here. It’s all Guan Shih Yin. Which is what I already knew, didn’t I? And wouldn’t I have known that back in California? Yes, and no.
The few people down the beach keep their distance. I settle fully into the elements—ocean, rock, breeze, sun—knowing them to be Kuan-yin; that is to say: nothing, emptiness, suchness—spirit or truth so inherent in all the elements and their motion that it’s almost not worth remarking on. What a joke, then, to come here to find Kuan-yin, and to visualize her as a Chinese woman. I feel amused and at ease, and I stay sitting a long time.
Back in our room, I pull out an article by Chun-fang Yu, who writes of “the Ch’an tendency to dissolve place back to empty space. Indeed, from the enlightened perspective of shunyata—emptiness—Potalaka is nowhere as well as everywhere.” I think how that insight on the beach was not unlike my awareness, at home in my dim living room early one morning, when I suddenly knew that none of this “practice” was anything other than daily life. It was not exotic, not special, defying even the attempt to cordon it off into “meditation.” It could not be contained in a definition—it simply was. I find that awareness here in the hotel room: Kuan-yin in the tree outside in the courtyard; a bird chirping; flowing reflections of light from the surface of the pool outside up onto the beams of the hotel; this table cluttered with small red biscuit packages; my hand holding the pen and moving across the pale lavender sheet of the legal pad; Phyllis’s soft breathing from the bed against the wall; the ticking of an air vent; a boat whistle; my thoughts, anchoring me in the great web of consciousness that is China, the world; my body, comfortable for the moment, at ease, container for the thread of awareness that makes me human—all this is Kuan-yin, all this nothing, all this the sum of my experience.
Back in the united states, I periodically ask myself what meaning “the feminine divine” has for me, a twenty-first-century American woman. I know I will never apprehend Guan Shih Yin as a Chinese person does. But I also know that, just as Kuan-yin is bigger and more universal than Buddhism, she is also bigger than Chinese culture. She can leap across oceans just as she leapt from Lo-chia Island to Putuo Shan. She’s here in the United States, venerated by people of many cultural backgrounds. Her footprint is permanently engraved on America’s shore. And I have discovered that far from being a distraction—something “out there” to pray to—Kuan-yin, if approached wholeheartedly, always brings me back to the deepest, most universal part of my nature.
Historical information in this article thanks to Dr. Chiin-fang Yii.
Sandy Boucher is the author of Discovering Kwan Tin: Buddhist Goddess of Compassion.
Image 1: A statue of Kuan-yin on Putuo Island, in the South China Sea ©2002 by Bill Irwin
Image 2: (Left) A temple on Putuo Island© Sandy Boucher; (Right) Author, Sandy Boucher with translator, Helen © Sandy Boucher
Image 3: (Left) Kuan-yin bas relief © 2002 by Bill Irwin; (Right) View of Putuo Island © Sandy Boucher