Traveling to Guanyin Mountain: Photography and Pure Light

My journey to Taiwan was sparked by a brief comment from a dear friend I consider a mentor and teacher, Judith Simmer-Brown.  She mentioned the many temples she saw dedicated to Guanyin and how the female form of the bodhisattva of compassion was “everywhere” in Taiwan.  Immediately I knew I wanted to go.

A year later I shared my travel plans with Judith and she suggested I contact her former student at Naropa University, Jenkir Shih, a nun of the Luminary Order in Taiwan.  A single email to Jenkir yielded a warm invitation and when I arrived at her monastic center in Taipei I was greeted whole-heartedly.

For the next five days I was a chick being cared for by a mother hen.  Jenkir was attentive to every detail of my practical needs.  Most significantly, she shared her enthusiastic support for the mission of my travels, to capture photos of Guanyin for a book in the works, The Female Buddha.

When Jenkir introduced me to Master Wu Yin, the elderly yet robust female head of her spiritual community, my eyes welled up.  These kinds of tears seem to be my best indicator of auspicious moments in the presence of pure light.  Newborn babies do the same thing to me.

Jenkir later relayed a list of Guanyin sites that Master Wu Yin suggested I visit, places of miracles connected to the deity.  My visit to each site is a story worth telling.  The most adventurous took me to Guanyin Mountain on the Northwest coast.  Said to be in her shape, the tall luxuriant hills were wrapped in a continual gray haze when I arrived in May.  Not exactly a photographer’s dream-landscape.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged as strangers pointed the way to her heights, people I met on the train, walking through nearby towns and on the local ferry transporting shoppers and school children.  At my last stop on the outskirts of a small town I stood bewildered, impossibly trying to match my map to the local road signs.

A small gaggle of engineers inspecting a broken water line noticed my confusion and offered help.  The woman in the group spoke enough English to understand my interest in Guanyin and enthusiastically offered to drop me off at a temple on the mountain on their way home.  The odds are they went out of their way to help a foreigner.

Squeezing into their pickup we ascended the winding roads to a very large monastery hugging the upper reaches of the terrain.  They dropped me off with just a few hours of daylight left.  I recognized the historic Lingyun Zen Temple from my Internet research but never imagined I would make my way to such an obscure and magnificent setting.

 The doors at the bottom of the storied structure were open but no one was in sight.  Exploring the bottom floor I discovered an altar with a large and feminine statue of Guanyin.  Eager to catch the simplicity of her delicate form I carefully moved the offerings of florescent colored bows and plastic cups of water lovingly placed in her lap.

Continuing my wandering in the bowels of the temple I was welcomed by a smiling nun and ushered up several flights of stairs to a spacious sanctuary on the top floor.  I had arrived just in time for the evening service.

As usual I was torn.  Do I use these last precious hours of daylight to capture the magnificence of the temple and the nuns conducting the service?  Or do I surrender to the beautiful chants and sit in exquisite reverie with the others who have come to worship?

Juggling my schizophrenic desires I managed to do some of both.  The stillness of the service contributed to the cool I needed to adjust camera settings and capture the magic of a sister raising her striker to a gong so big she could sit in it.

At the end of the service another nun climbed a ladder (with switchbacks) to reach a twenty-foot drum suspended from the tall ceiling.  The massive reverberation of the drumbeat penetrated my core.

She descended the stairs and walked across the room to a to hanging rope so thick it took two hands to grasp its circumference.  With all her might she pulled it down and the attached bell, equal to the size of the drum, shattered the silence again.  Could any other sound offer such clarity?

And did I mention the backdrop of the central altar?  A bronze statue of Avelokitesvara was so immense the details of his thousand compassionate arms were distinct and articulate.  The same bodhisattva as Guanyin, but in male form, had a smile broad enough to make you smile back.

As the light began to fade it was time to descend a labyrinth of stepping-stones down the steep hills to a bus stop the Chinese-speaking sisters pointed me towards.  On the way I stopped at a small folk temple where village members had lit incense and candles.  The figures on the altar were small and ornate with Guanyin in the center surrounded by a retinue of deities from the Taoist tradition.  Alone, I was able to capture a few stills with my camera balanced carefully on a railing and the aperture wide open.

As I ran towards the bus, the driver motioned me towards him and assured me he was going to the spot I pointed to on the map.  Where else in the world can you use a single prepaid travel pass to ride the subway, train, ferry and bus across a wide swatch of a country in a single day?

The smiles, head nods and hands that gestured the way to and from Guanyins abode on the mountain are expressions of the generosity and good will for which she stands. I shared my travel tales with Jenkir and her face seemed to express both wonder and disbelief.  Women in Taiwan don’t do such crazy things.

The following day when Jenkir escorted me on another incredibly fruitful quest for images of the female Buddha I was held not by the kindness of strangers but with the loving care of a family member. Each time I was blessed and amazed in new ways.

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