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Here’s 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.

The 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:

We 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. Nothing.

In 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.”

Over 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.

Finally, 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.


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