I had arranged to go this ancient city to meet with the heads of the Xi'An Academy of Fine Art. I was on a trip to help establish a partnership with Maine College of Art (MECA). I was also meeting Karen Smith, a legendary writer and art critic in Beijing who is the director of a new museum here in Xi'An. She helped to connect me to the art school and met me at the airport where we jumped into the academy's car.
As we drove closer to the hotel, I spotted a yellow stupa in the background, several stories high and radiant in its simplicity. It caught my attention—held it—and I just wanted to keep looking at it.
That evening was spent with art professors at dinner and then Karen and I went for a cosmic two-hour medicinal massage by ladies with pressure-point wizardry hands. Welcome to China, a place where the human form is treated with ancient formulas of healing and detoxification. Where, even though there are Rolls Royce showrooms appearing on the streets, there is also a tremendously old, in-built understanding of how to be a human being.
That stupa, off in the far distance, is where he founded a center for translation, so that teachings could wash into this country. This all happened in 600 AD. It's the story behind Journey to the West and the Monkey King, one of the greatest classical novels of Chinese literature. My randomly-placed hotel was facing the grounds of one of the most important moments in Buddhist history.
On the final night of my trip to Xi'An, another funny thing happened. While out for dinner with Karen and a student of hers, we got lost on our walk back to the hotel. We ended up walking for about an hour, in a roundabout way, down quaint, dark streets. At one point, Karen laughed out loud, "This is so odd" she said. "I never get this lost! What is happening!"
But we kept going and finally we found our way back to the hotel. And that's when I realized what we had just done. Quite by accident, we had circumambulated the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
We were doing the very thing that all wise Buddhists would do if they found themselves by such a holy stupa. They would walk around it in a circle. Because doing so lays a tremendously strong karmic impression on the mind.
After my trip to Xi'An, I went to Shanghai, and then finished with a week in Hong Kong. My home for the first 30 years of my life. I gave talks about Maine and creativity to art students in schools across the territory.
On my final night in Hong Kong, I attended the opening of Song Dong's exhibition, 36 Calendars. This was amazing timing, as I had spent the past few years virtually working on his artwork with the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, from my base in the West End of Portland, Maine.
Song Dong is one of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art, a hero of mine in many respects for the spiritual leanings in his art projects. My job was to take the translations of his 432 wall calendars, that represent every month in the first 36 years of his life -- essentially a memoir in the form of a massive exhibition and online artwork. I helped to copy edit these English translations, refine their poetry even further, which pulled me deep into his biography.
It was an amazing event to witness and my presence at the event inadvertently got memorialized in the New York Times. (I'd suggest you read the NYT story, as the writer does a marvelous job of capturing the night).
What was staggering to me was what happened when I sat down at a desk. As you can read in the story linked above, all attendees were led into this vast hall and sat down at a tiny desk. I sat down next to a Hong Kong-Chinese politics student from Chinese University of Hong Kong on my left, and a young British guy in a suit on my right.
We all had print outs of each month from his artwork on each desk, and the calendar on my desk was from September 2003. I looked again, and couldn't quite believe it.
This is the month where several pivotal things occurred in my life, that led to my quitting my job at the newspaper in Hong Kong and pushed me into the Buddhist path. I've been trying to write these stories down in recent years, but was encountering mental roadblocks. I had the uncanny feeling that Song Dong was conspiring for me to write.
That emperor in Xi'An wasn't far off the mark in creating that vast underground city to take with him into the afterlife. The only thing he got wrong was he thought he needed to build an external form of protection, in the form of clay soldiers. What he actually needed to do was build an inner world of protection within his own mind. To use his radiant, shimmering, impermanent stretch of having a human mind to build the karmic architecture of enlightenment.