Pak Ou Caves

After narrowly escaping the Chinese authorities, Sarah E Truman visits the holy caves of Laos and gets a lesson from her little boddhistava friend.

photo by sarah e. truman

excerpted from the print magazine…

My first thought upon waking is a sinking, stomach-turning, adrenalin-surging fear that I'm in China, that I'm in really big trouble and that I can't leave. I open my eyes to see the mosquito net, wispy white, and the window. Slowly I realize that it's not my window, and it's not my mosquito net either. A gentle ease fills my mind as the unfamiliar surroundings, the dark shapes of the room remind me that I am no longer in China. I'm in Laos and I'm not in big trouble.

I relax into waves of bliss as my heart rate becomes normal. I stretch out into the freedom I've possessed all my life but never recognized until I was arrested in China last week. The details of the arrest are bizarre and unclear. The gist is, I was involved in a street brawl, and two friends and I were surrounded by a rather large mob. The three of us were arrested, our passports taken. Everything was blamed on my friend from Taiwan. I was cleared and allowed to leave the country after about four days of meetings with the police, negotiations with men from the provincial court who ironically dangled little red scales of justice from their green suits, and exactly 500 dollars. The price of freedom.

I can smile about it now. Now that I'm fully awake, seventy-two hours and several hundred kilometres from the Chinese border, but that was a scary week. I still feel the residue of fear in my body like a chemical.

I can't sleep anymore, so I pick up my mini Guanyin statue and go out onto the wooden balcony and sit, placing Guanyin on the railing. It's still pretty dark but I can see the Mekong creeping along from across the narrow street. It's warm here in Luang Prabhang, the ancient capital of Laos, a moist jungle, even in the middle of the night. For more than eight centuries the city was the home of the king and cultural centre of the kingdom. It's been sacked and burned several times and its most recent incarnation has a distinct French feel, as most of the houses and shops were built in the French colonial style of the past century. The chocolate-coloured Mekong curves beside the city and right in the centre of town sits mount Phousi, surrounded by little temples with soaring roofs, shiny embedded glass dragons, bodhisattvas, elephants and flowers.

Luang Prabhang is also the home of the standing Buddha. I read that somewhere yesterday. I don't know whether it's true or not but I like the idea. I've always been drawn to standing buddha and bodhisattva images. They look like they're up to something. I wonder how it was that here in this little city in the middle of the jungle, Buddhism arrived and iconographically, the buddhas started to stand.

My mini Guanyin is a standing bodhisattva. She's hand-carved sandalwood about five centimetres tall, and she used to have a hand in the abhaya mudra, which means don't fear, but it broke off and I lost it. I've had her for years as a tiny reminder that Guanyin is always with me. This is our last day together because this morning I'm going to the Pak Ou Buddhist caves. The caves house several thousand buddha and bodhisattva images left by pilgrims over the past 500 years. I'm planning to leave my Guanyin there, too.

I have a longtime fascination with Guanyin and she is the reason I was in China for more than two years - researching and learning more about her. Guanyin is probably the best known of bodhisattvas. She, like all bodhisattvas, has taken a vow to forgo supreme enlightenment until all sentient beings are free from suffering. Although she has the ability to be "liberated," she chooses to stay and help others. She is known as the embodiment of compassion and will use expedient means to manifest in whatever form is most useful to help people in need. She can essentially take any form and be anything and everything.

I used to be really attached to the little statue because I thought, in a na´ve way, that it really was Guanyin. In China I came to understand that Guanyin is more of a verb than a noun. Her names mean to "observe sound" or to "behold with ease," so I've been practising "being" like Guanyin rather than thinking she's outside of me or depending on a statue. I've decided to leave her in Pak Ou, as a sort of testament to my new understanding, in the home of the standing buddhas.

After further adventures in Thailand, India, Australia and New Zealand, Sarah E. Truman and Guanyin recently arrived in Montréal. Guanyin is adjusting well, Sarah is still arriving.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life