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Sarah E. Truman

Sarah E. Truman

Excerpted from Searching for Guan Yin by Sarah E. Truman, reprinted here with permission by the author and White Pine Press.

All photos are courtesy and copyright of Sarah E. Truman.

Searching for Guan Yin is available here.

For about the author, visit her website:



Jade Buddha Temple

Excerpt from the book Searching for Guan Yin

We take a cab across town to look at formless beauty. The cab driver is an amiable man, though not the smoothest driver. He keeps looking in the rearview mirror at me instead of the road. When I lived in Canada I always wore a seatbelt. I’ve given up even looking for one in Chinese cabs. Particularly in the back seat; they’re always covered with white sheets, making the atmosphere feel clean.

There’s a fashion show on the sidewalk: three tiny women with large breasts dance in tall leather boots and dry ice. The music – bad techno – spills into our cab and lingers as we drive away. Shanghai rambles on, broad avenue after broad avenue, towering skyscrapers, unique modern architecture, Western enclaves behind gates – cosmopolitan and beautiful. It radiates the same way as New York and London do.

Fashion Show in Shanghai - Sarah E Truman
Shanghai Fashion Show

The Treaty of Nanjing of 1842 – opened Shanghai for international business and the opium and the gambling and prostitution rings that came with it. The British, French and Americans and other expats were allowed to live here and not be subject to Chinese law. They ran their own concessions until the 1940s. But after the communists overthrew the Gumingdong in 1949, Shanghai’s thriving business sections dissolved or lay dormant under the communist rule. It wasn’t until Deng Xiao Peng’s Open Door Policy was instated in the 1980s that the city began to flourish once more. These days nothing holds it back. Many Chinese people that I’ve spoken to say it is the new Hong Kong, but better than Hong Kong. There’s a steady stream of international companies entering the city and thousands of expatriates who have made Shanghai home. The city is under construction twenty-four hours a day.

Shanghai by Sarah E Truman

Lily and I jostle around in the back seat discussing the Journey to the West – the book I’m currently reading and one of China’s most famous novels. The book is a fictional account of Xuanzang’s journey to India. Xuanzang lived in the seventh century and was the founder of the “Mind Only” School of Buddhism. He translated hundreds of texts and is revered as a great teacher in China.

In Journey to the West, the fictional character of Xuanzang travels with three companions through vast landscapes for many years to bring back the Buddhist scriptures. They undergo hundreds of trials on the way and encounter demons that try to kill them and gods or Buddhas who try to help them. The book is full of poems and metaphors for the spiritual path. Guan Yin is in the book and is of course my favorite character.

Lily’s favorite character, of course, is Sun Wukong – the Monkey King. She says that most people don’t understand the esoteric meaning of his name or the story because they read only abridged versions and think he’s all acrobatics and charm. But Monkey King’s name is Wukong, which means “awakened to emptiness.” Lily seems to be obsessed with emptiness, if that’s possible. She keeps saying “awakened… to emptiness” over and over again. I begin to wonder if she isn’t as crazy as me.

The Jade Buddha Temple is on An Yuan Road in the northwestern part of the city. We pass through its ochre gate to the main complex, built in the style of the Song Dynasty, with symmetrical courtyards and moon doors, sky-turned eves and bright yellow walls. I want to stay in the courtyard; there’s something about the layout that calms me. I don’t want to see any statues, of that I’m sure.

I focus on the group of pilgrims in their matching yellow bags and white tennis shoes lighting incense through the moon door. Moon doors are my favorite architectural element in China. They are literally doors shaped like moons, complete circles cut out of walls that you get to pass through when entering a courtyard or temple. The first moon door I saw was in Mochu Park, in the garden leading to the house where the pretty girl whom the park was named after lived. Apparently she drowned herself for some reason in the lake near her house and so it was called “Don’t Be Sad” lake. Although there are moon doors all over China, I can’t help but associate them with the sweetness and sadness of the young girl who drowned in Don’t Be Sad lake.

Jade Buddha Temple - Sarah E Truman
Jade Buddha Temple

Lily stands beside me reading steles. I try to ignore her but she points out the Guan Yin one with the Heart Sutra carved above her. The sutra where Guan Yin realizes that matter is not different from void and void is not different from matter – void is matter, matter is void. Emptiness! A sutra that I can rhyme off in two languages but don’t understand – the words mean nothing. I turn away and cover my head with my hands and look at the ground between my shoes.

“Why don’t you want to see the Buddha?” Lily asks.

“I’m tired of statues and ideas – they mock me and don’t mean anything. Remember those decapitated Buddha heads in the market – I looked at them and they all meant nothing – they were empty. I have no frame of reference today. I’m sick of religious images and nothing makes any sense,” I whine.

“Of course the Buddha heads are empty – they are Buddha heads. Buddha is empty like Sun Wukong and Guan Yin,” she laughs. I frown. “You see, empty head is good, but it’s not the head that’s so important. Everyone always wants to empty the head. But they think too much and focus too much on the head. It’s the heart that needs to be open, empty – kong. You can’t have a full heart – it has to be empty so that there is room for the breeze to blow and all things to fit inside. The pusa have empty hearts; that is how they love the whole world,” she says confidently.

I’ve never thought of it that way before – empty hearted pusa? My heart is stretched out of shape today, maybe a little empty in spots. I wonder how much my heart could hold if it was completely empty.

Lily walks to another stele and I wonder where she came from. She’s a bit of a philosopher, I think. An undercover philosopher, the way she pontificates in her denim outfit and sunglasses. Appearance tells me nothing. Maybe she’s a bodhisattva.

This is one of the charms of traveling alone – meeting people. When I’m alone, there’s openness in me that allows for something new to enter – or should I say emptiness.

“Are you a Pusa Lily?”

“Come and visit Jade Buddha. You can close your eyes, you don’t have to look,” she says.

“Okay, but you’ll have to guide me,” I say, entrusting myself to her once more.

We enter the queue at the right-hand side of the hall and I close my eyes and giggle. When it’s our turn Lily leads me in front of the Jade Buddha. It’s quiet except for some faint murmurs in the hallway. Lily breathes audibly, clearly moved by his presence. I feel a light breeze and a buzzing in my chest – I have to peek. My hair stands on end when I see his luminous form. He’s the prettiest and saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I want to touch him in his milky splendor. He’s about five feet tall, sitting in the lotus position of non-fixation. My eyes water as Lily and I float out of the hall into the sunny courtyard. Everything feels more alive than earlier, even inanimate things seem to pulse as if they have love of their own coursing through them.

“Beautiful and empty both,” she says. I nod and think about the monk who transported the statue all the way from Burma in 1882 – across the continent with one ton of Buddha.

“The lengths we go for a form representing emptiness…” I muse.

“Not so far as you came for a form representing compassion. You could have stayed home and Guan Yin would be there, you know. She is a wave.”

Lily isn’t the first person to say this to me. Several wise people have also said it – I’ve even thought it myself. But thinking gets me nowhere.

“Tell me more about this Guan Yin wave and how I should have stayed at home,” I say.

“Yes. But I am hungry,” announces Lily. “How about sushi? We’ll take a taxi.” I follow her out of the saffron temple onto the Shanghai streets.

In the taxi, Lily tells me about her brother, a practicing Daoist monk in Taiwan, and then gives me a small crystal that he excavated from a cave near his monastery. She says that he would like me because I like Guan Yin. Even though he is a Daoist, he loves Guan Yin. She then insists that Taiwan has preserved the Chinese religions that were destroyed during the past fifty years on the mainland. “Daoism and Buddhism are alive in Taiwan – we have a strong culture and respect for religion,” she says, “but the Chinese government thinks we are merely a province of China. We are not!” Most Taiwanese people I’ve met in China have a great contempt for the Chinese government and think it’s ridiculous that it will not recognize them as an independent nation.

Like Tibet, Taiwan (the Republic of China) is seen as a province of China. But unlike Tibet, Taiwan has its own army, nuclear weapons and economy and has been independent of China since the Gumingdong migrated there in 1949 with most of the of the mainland’s gold and cash.

The sushi restaurant is crowded but we find a pleasant low table in the corner beneath a blue lantern. Lily orders some tea and asks me for my notebook. She writes Guan Shi Yin, and then crosses out the shi and writes the suffix qi instead. I don’t know what she’s getting at.

“Guan Yin is a wave,” she says. “She is supersonic, and the essence of all sounds – all things. She is inside the sounds, and she is the sound inside – the wave of love, the echo of silence in the open heart. Maybe like the Jade Buddha is the emptiness inside the beauty.”

“Or the beauty inside the emptiness.”


Our tea arrives and the waitress pours us each a cup. Mine is thin, rimmed with a pale green glaze like the Jade Buddha. Lily’s an electric red. The tea, aromatic and hot, tickles right through me. I am suddenly overcome with gratitude for my meeting with Lily. What are the chances of running into someone on a Shanghai street that loves Guan Yin as much as me?

“Isn’t it neat that we both like Guan Yin and we met on that street?” I muse.

“Who would you expect to meet – someone who isn’t friends with Guan Yin? I told you she is a vibration, when you tune into her wave she takes you everywhere, you meet her everywhere – because she is everything – in form, in not form,” she says pointedly. “I have to go to the toilet.” She stops at the counter and discusses something with the waitress and then disappears down the hallway.

I sip my tea and think about the Guan Yin frequency. I imagine myself tuning in like a radio, picking up some fuzz and static until slipping into her wave. Emptiness – openness seems to be her main channel, lots of room for her to vibrate in. I tune my heart to that frequency and close my eyes.

Shanghai with Pudong in Background - Sarah E Truman
Shanghai with Pudong in the background.


The waitress brings me a steaming white towel to wash my face and hands. I melt into its heat and then another waitress arrives with a wooden boat full of sushi. There’s enough food here to feed several people, multicolored tiers with shimmering vegetables and bright decorative flowers. She pours me a fresh cup of tea, and a little dish of soy sauce, then picks up Lily’s cup and walks away.

“Ni gan shen me?” I call out, referring to Lily’s cup. The waitress turns around confused.

“Ni de pengyou zou lu,” she says.

“Shen me?”


Lily paid the bill and left several minutes ago.

I could run outside and look for her but I know I’d never find her. A warm wave washes through me as I look down the hallway where her vaporous presence disappeared. I haven’t felt this calm in a long time.

I sit alone in the soft light with my jade-green cup and the enormous spread of sushi. The dark wooden chopsticks are smooth in my hand as I stir some wasabi into the soy sauce and then place a thin slice of pickled ginger on an avocado roll. I lift the piece deliberately, give it a good soak in the wasabi and soy sauce mix and then pop it into my mouth.

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