17 hours in nanjing

The bus is overcrowded. On the road, travelers with big bags try to flag us down, but there is no room for them. We reached full capacity a long time ago. People are standing everywhere in the aisles. Food, suitcases and fireworks in colourful packages spill out of the overhead racks. The air is thick and hot and smoky.

Almost everyone on the bus is smoking. The men standing in the aisle smoke while hanging on to the backs of seats, the driver smokes while he grinds the gears and honks the horn, and beside the driver, seated on the big old-fashioned hump of an engine, four men in grey-black suits sit smoking.

I can't open the window because the woman in front of me is vomiting. She has been vomiting off and on for about an hour. The woman in front of her is also vomiting. In fact, there are six people vomiting on the bus. Everyone on the bus is either vomiting or smoking.

I'm getting used to scenes like this. I've been in China for six months, working in Nanjing. Nanjing is in Central East China, near Shanghai. This is my first holiday. I wanted to visit southern China, so I decided to come to Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar, Vietnam and Tibet...

When I first came to China, the language was a wall of sound. I could sit in a restaurant like this and hear nothing but noise rising and falling sounds like a song, staccato but slurred language. Wholly unintelligible. I used to catch myself trying to fit sounds I heard into English words or sounds. This got me nowhere.

There is a man who sells newspapers in the alley beside my apartment. Every day at exactly 3:20 he comes and calls out the name of the paper. I couldn't understand what he was saying. A guava ball is what I heard for about three months. Then one day I decided to investigate. I took my Chinese friend and we waited in the alley until the paper man came. It turned out that the name of the paper is Yangtze Wan Bao. My friend admitted that the man was slurring, but insisted that the man was in fact saying Yangtze Wan Bao.

After that incident I decided to give up listening to words for awhile and tried a new strategy: listening to the spaces between words, the silence where words end. I became an expert in spaces.

But lately Chinese words have begun to fill the silence. The wall of sound is coming apart brick by brick and I catch words here and there. The silence is more difficult to hear. I look at the Guan Yin in the corner. Her name, "Guan Shi Yin," literally translates as "observe world sound." I wonder if she listens to the silence or just the sounds...

One of the nicest things in the south is bamboo. Strong and green and whispering everywhere. The temple is set in bamboo, at the base of a hill. It looks like most temples I've visited: tall yellow walls, black-tiled roofs, a new gate that was likely rebuilt because the first one was "damaged by fire" during the Cultural Revolution. It's awful how many temples were destroyed during those years. And sometimes it wasn't the temples that were ruined, just the statues, a hand broken here, a face smashed there. One of the most destructive acts I've seen evidence of was a fresco of a bodhisattva. The whole thing was intact except the eyesthey were dug out round and blank. Something about that image haunts me; it was too precise.

Several makeshift booths stand in front of the gate selling statues and pictures and incense. The vendors all call to me, saying, "Looky, looky," and waving little maitrayas and plastic malas. Again, I have mixed feelings about my contribution to the commercialized tourism of religious sites here in China. Is this what religion evolves into? I wonder what I support in being here. A new, more insidious destruction? I don't know. I pay my entrance fee and enter the large courtyard where some visitors chat, pose for photos and burn huge sticks of incense.

There are several halls in different directions off the courtyard. I enter the one to my left. It's filled with Arhats. Three storeys of Arhats line the walls, staring, laughing, google-eyed and looking very unhuman. They scare me a little. I wonder if that's the point. I can hear my heart beating in my ears.

A round-faced monk in a mustard suit sits at a small desk in the corner. "Nin hao," he says with a big toothy smile.

"Guan Yin Si zai nar?" I ask. He stares at me a little, and then directs me out the door and across the courtyard toward a gate.

A little sign, in Chinese characters, reads Xia Guan Yin Si (Lower Guan Yin Temple). The sign points through the woods and up the hill. I pass through the gate, excited to visit Guan Yin's own temple. Somewhere that she can sit and observe the world's sounds without distraction.

I'm at the top of the green hill. There's no one around. I approach the temple. I can read the name Xia Guan Yin Si written in Chinese characters above the three identical doors that stand open. But it looks empty. I can see through to the other side where three other doors stand wide open.

I feel dizzy.

My flesh tingles as I approach the temple. It's bare. Dirt floor. Nothing on the walls, no altar, no lights. No Guan Yin. Nothing. Completely empty.

A woman in a blue shirt appears from nowhere. "Mei you Guan Yin," she says and spits on the floor. I walk out the back door and cry a little because it's so perfect. The whole thing is perfect.

The woman is following me and speaking, but I don't understand what she's saying. I smile sadly and she walks away. I'm alone, listening to the wind in the bamboo behind the empty Guan Yin temple.

I know what it means. I don't know what it means.

Sarah E. Truman is a great admirer of Guan Yin, music and sound, currently working and studying in the People's Republic of China. She is an old friend of ascent.

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