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. These are the stone structures built to represent enlightened mind. And in China, they are often these soft, yellowing stone towers, that visually emit peace.
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.
Several days later, I had another run-in with Buddhas. I had flown back to Hong Kong, to set up another relationship for MECA, this time for the Baptist University of Hong Kong's Academy of Visual Arts. I gave talks to arts students in schools across the city, from my own high school, Island School, to places like the Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity. I also did a bunch of interviews as I worked on the 2014 edition of the Time Out Hong Kong Art Guide.
I was staying with a friend in Sai Ying Pun, so walked into Sheung Wan most days. Each morning, I found myself on Hollywood Road, the landscape of my twenties. This was the road that I walked down every day as an entertainment writer for HK Magazine. Admittedly, most mornings I was probably still hungover from the night before, so clarity was not a natural feature of my mind. But it all seemed quite ordinary back then.
This time, as I walked down Hollywood Road, I suddenly realized what had surrounded me all the time. Buddhas. Literally, hundreds of them. Gleaming antique shops housing Green Tara, Avalokiteshvara with his peace eyes, Amitayus with one arm held aloft. The Man Mo Temple with its ever-bulging incense. Hollywood Road is literally a parade of enlightened beings, where every glass window reveals a new Buddha or Bodhisattva. I had walked past enlightened forms everyday for years, and never seen them. Until my karma ripened.
One could argue that to be born an human being and, in her 20s to have Buddhas standing all around her. To have been guided so effortlessly to a study program of the Heart Sutra when she was just 23 years old, takes enormous good karma. Who knows what human it was, or what series of humans, lifetimes ago, who held the same mental continuum as me. The ones who studied and prayed and meditated, and held the strong dedication to keep being reborn as a human, so they could continue to travel down the path. What do I owe to them? Surely at the very least, I can give my spiritual practice all the joyful effort I can muster.
On my final night in Hong Kong, I attended the opening of Song Dong's exhibition, 36 Calendars. I had spent the past few years virtually working on this artwork with the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong, from my base in the West End of Portland, Maine. 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).
But what was staggering 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. And on that desk was one of the months in his 432 months. 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. My calendar 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 this story down in recent years, but was encountering mental roadblocks. I had the uncanny feeling that Song Dong was conspiring for me to write.
Quite by accident, we were circumambulating 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.
And this is what I love so much about this path, this practice. As we combine our daily tasks with the practice of mindfulness and meditation, our life itself becomes an act of creation. We're constantly creating the future, by choosing what to focus on right now. 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 that he thought he needed to build an entire army of soldiers from clay, to bring with him to protect all his future experiences.
What he actually needed to do was build an inner world of kindness inside. To create countless kind actions within the inner landscape of his consciousness, and dedicate these to the well-being of all. To use his radiant, shimmering, impermanent stretch of having a human mind to build the karmic architecture of the future. So that one day, that city of enlightenment can appear to someone's mind.