Page 2 of 3
a pilgrim’s tale from a privileged Western perspective: Something calls
from far away, and the pilgrim takes for granted the importance of the
quest (“this is my life”) and has the resources to make the journey.
Once, when she’s laughing in public, a Chinese woman asks her what’s so
funny. “My life,” she replies. “You are lucky,” the other woman says,
“many people do not have very funny lives.” Crashing into the reality of
modern China, Truman is candid about the contradictions: she visits
sacred sites and wishes she didn’t have to share the experience with
groups of Chinese tourists, who keep her up all night in the guesthouses
with their smoking and card playing. “What am I doing looking for an
image in the People’s Republic of China and then getting upset by
reality?” she asks.
book is strung on a series of questions like this, which evolve with
time and experience. The lone adventurer initially so often annoyed with
what she finds eventually has a dream intimating how much more there is
to Guan Yin than her personal experience:
fall asleep somewhere in the blue night. I dream of Guan Yin. She is
standing before me on the plains with a full moon overhead. I walk
toward her. I’m so excited to see her. She opens her arms as if to
embrace me. But her arms continue to open, wider and wider, until she
holds the entire earth within them. I am one of countless things
floating in her arms. Her arms continue to expand until she holds the
entire galaxy, then the entire universe. Nothing exists outside of her.
the same way, Truman comes to see that she can’t impose her own
template on compassion. In Tibet, she is unsettled by the images of
Chenrezig, a form of Guan Yin who is depicted as male and with eleven
heads and a thousand arms—an eye in each palm. But she realizes that
these images are revealing the fiercer side of compassion. “If I think
of compassion as doing whatever it takes to relieve someone from
suffering, that might not always manifest itself in willow branches and
purple bamboo groves,” she says. “Some illusions might take a sword or
flames to cut through.”
time, Truman understands that she’ll have to embrace the formlessness
of Guan Yin. The turning point comes when she revisits a shop filled
with bodhisattva heads that have been removed from statues. The previous
year she gazed at them, upset, wanting to rescue and preserve them.
This year the heads gaze back, mocking her. “What are you looking at? We
don’t mean anything.” Their beatific smiles turn sinister, and suddenly
everything around her is laughing. Truman is having a glimpse of the
winter of emptiness when meaning falls away, which can be terrifying.
Fortunately, just at that moment a Taiwanese businesswoman named Lily
appears, bringing the spring of emptiness with her. Lily is a thoroughly
modern woman who speaks of Guan Yin as supersonic, as a wave and a
vibration. Winter to spring, formlessness changes from a bleak absence
to a presence pregnant with possibility.
Truman comes to understand that, as she puts it, Guan Yin is a verb
rather than a noun, and her name is a directive: to perceive the world
with ease. “She’s not a being—she’s a way of being.” As Truman leaves
China, she realizes she has to take responsibility for her own mind and
actions—to be Guan Yin rather than look for her. The whole search has
been a matter of letting go, emptying space inside herself and then
watching to see what fills it. The most important thing she’s learned,
she says, is about being present, because that’s where Guan Yin is. The
guest is beginning to understand the possibilities of being a host.
The stories of the women to whom Paula Arai introduces us in Bringing Zen Home: The Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals begin
where Sarah Truman leaves off. Due to varying combinations of choice
and the powerful norms of Japanese culture, they take on the role of
host: caring for children, grandchildren, and aging parents; tending
their family altars; supporting each other in their shared religious
practices. These practices, including strong relationships with Kannon,
provide them with crucial support to live their not-very-funny lives
well, and also to create small oases of guest-hood in a sometimes
overwhelming landscape of hosting.