In Search of the Lotus Land
By Tan Hwee Hwee
I grew up in Singapore, and when I was young, my parents warned me about spiritual places. By that I mean that they warned me not to go to places haunted by ghosts. In Singapore, there were ghosts everywhere. Murdered lovers dwelled in banana trees. Pontianaks, the Malay called them – blood-sucking women who raged in the bulging fruit, bursting out of the yellow skins at night. As a precaution, my parents placed eight-sided mirrors outside our door to deflect these tormented souls. Once, on the island of Sentosa, one of my classmates woke up with bruises around her neck. Nobody was surprised, as demonic assaults were a phenomenon common to camping trips, like mosquito bites. We knew we were sleeping on a sandy graveyard, for before it became a tourist resort, Sentosa was called 'Pulau Mati' – Island of Death – because Japanese soldiers had shot thousands of Chinese rebels and buried them there, under the shore where we slept. In August during the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, a gray fog would fill Singapore – the swirling ash from burnt money, food, and ghost BMWs, presents combusted to appease the wandering souls. We were taught not to walk in underground car parks or go to public toilets alone during that month.
However, when I was eighteen, I left to attend university in England, where I was taught firmly to disbelieve in ghosts. I was told that I lived in a post-Enlightenment age, in which all sensible people realised that Satan was but a mythological fantasy of the Middle Ages, a product of superstition.
After I finished school at Oxford, I went to New York City, a resolutely unspiritual place. Unlike in Singapore, my friends there have never encountered ghosts, possibly because New York is so unconducive to spirituality that even demons don't want to live there.
But for now, I work in New York. There, the skyscrapers block out the light, and at times, I feel trapped in a dark canyon. I wake up each day and immediately go underground into the black belly of the subway. Emerging, I spend most of the day in a gray, windowless cubicle. When I leave work, the night cloaks the city like a funeral shroud, and the only light comes from the billboards, flashing red like cold fire from hell. What depresses me most about the city is its darkness. If you stay too long, you forget what sunlight even looks like. I'm currently plotting my escape from New York, but the difficult question is not really how to get out of the city, but where the hell I would go. One of my fantasies is to take a year off and visit spiritual places. I'd like to go to a monastery in Italy, to live in a stone building surrounded by green vineyards, to walk in the shadows of the cloisters, to sit under the gaze of a white angel and watch the butterflies float around the herb garden.
If I had the time and money, it wouldn't be difficult to go on such a trip. Nowadays, the spiritual tourist has her pick of package tours. On the Internet, I discover that I can join SafariQuest Spiritual Quest Journeys, a tour group promising to reveal the mystical side of South Africa. According to the brochure, the continents originally split at Knysna in the Cape area of South Africa. Thus at Knysna, we can "re-establish ancient energy links and work on our inner child issues. We will work with the record-keeper stones to release the guardians and energy-keepers of Earth by opening up doorways to other worlds." The tour also includes a visit to Pilgrim's Rest, where we can tune into the bio-genetic DNA of Earth's magnetic field.
But you don't have to hop on a plane to find a spiritual experience. Even in America there are places where you can get in touch with your spiritual side. For example, at the Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana you can learn about rhythm exploration, ceremonial dance and drum building. The brochure promised that a Native American chief would teach me how to build my own drum so that I could use it to discover my inner rhythm and connect with the circle of life and the Great Spirit. I was intrigued.
Religious groups have always flocked to the desert and the mountain. Visit Santa Fe, and you'll find Franciscan missionaries co-existing with Buddhists, Baha'is, Sikhs, and Sufis. Residents speak lovingly of Santa Fe's ethereal light, which slices across the brown walls like a razor in the morning and, in the evening, caresses the same walls with a buttery glow. There you can view majestic rock peaks and breathe crisp, sage-scented desert air. Places with both deserts and mountains, like Israel and Salt Lake City, have always become centres of worship. All religions seem to share a belief that natural beauty nourishes the soul.
So what about people like me who spend most of their days cut off from any sort of natural beauty? Living in an unnatural city, will my soul die from overexposure to the synthetic? Sometimes I wonder if Satan had New York in mind when he was designing Hell. Now, those of you who have never been to New York might not realise that it is an island. But it is. And I think that's pretty strange. When I think island, I think of coconut trees and sun-kissed beaches, but New York is an island with steel banks, bordered by rusty fences and EZPass booths. They say Hades is an island, cold and dark, surrounded by the Acheron, a river of woe that flows through black gorges underground. If Hades is a gloomy subterranean island, then maybe New York is the kingdom of the dead, a smog-miasmic land forested by black lamp posts and empty of birdsong.
Federico Garcia Lorca, in his lecture "Poet in New York," argues vividly that New York architecture is specifically anti-spiritual:
Willing neither clouds nor glory the edges of the buildings rise to the sky. While gothic edges rise form the hearts of the dead and buried, these ones climb coldly skyward with beauty that has no roots and no yearning, stupidly sure of themselves and utterly unable to conquer or transcend, as does spiritual architecture, the always inferior intentions of the architect. There is nothing more poetic and terrible than the skyscrapers' battle with the heavens that cover them. Snow, rain, and mist set off, wet, and hide the vast towers, but those towers, hostile to mystery, blind to any sort of play, shear off the rain's tresses and shine their three thousand swords through the soft swan of the mist.
I ask again, what hope is there for the millions like me who live in unnatural cities? Can we ever know God? Part of me, the part that is foolish, idealistic and ridiculously optimistic, believes yes.
This part of me believes that the true artist is like the Christian mystic and the enlightened Zen master, because all three have attained the ability to reach a higher consciousness by seeing the beauty in the ugliness, the spiritual in the mundane.
Zen Buddhism is about developing the ability to see the Buddha-nature in every present moment. You won't be able to find the Buddha-nature in Paradise, or a monastery, or a hermitage unless you can find it right here, right now. The first principle of the Mahayana is that all things, no matter how terrible or trivial they might seem on the surface, are part of the Buddha-nature. The Zen master Hakuin writes that "this very earth is the lotus land of purity, and this body is the body of Buddha."
Christianity, likewise, teaches that the spiritual man can see God in anything and in any place. As Thomas à Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ, "If their hearts were right, then every creature would be a mirror of life and a book of holy doctrine. There is no creature so small or abject, but it reflects the goodness of God." When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus where we should worship, Jesus replied, "Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth."
The radical work of Christ was to free us from dependence on a particular place for spiritual nourishment. For with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, every believer became a temple of God.
I think both Zen and Christianity teach that God can be found in any geography. His presence might be more obviously visible in some places than others, but if one develops a vision of faith, one can see God in all things. That's why I say the artist is like a mystic. The artist can see what others cannot, find significance in the insignificant, and point out the mystery in the mundane. Like preachers and prophets, artists are able to create a giant tree of faith from a mustard seed. The true mark of spiritual maturity is not the ability to see the glory of God in the majestic peaks of a snow-capped mountain. No, the true guru is one who discerns the love of God in the gentle hum of the photocopying machine. Where ordinary humans see only what is vile and boring and ordinary, the artist can see the astonishing, the transcendent. I suppose that's why a writer like Raymond Carver is so revered. It's easy to write about the beauty of lakes and canyons, but far more difficult to show the beauty of beer bottles and half-smoked cigarettes.
I struggle with the question: what creates spiritual inspiration? Is it a particular place, or is it our perception of the place? A Zen master once said, "The mind is its own place, and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." Are some places more spiritual than others, or is every place the same? If you've developed a truly sensitive eye to the sacred and are thus able to see that every place is sacred, then is no place truly sacred? If you're spiritually insensitive, maybe you can only feel the breath of God when you smell pine-scented mountain air, but if you've reached enlightenment like the Zen master, if your vision is as clear and clean as a mirror, then you can see the body of God even in the black exhaust of a U-Haul truck. Is New York like hell to me because it's a horrible, icky place, or is it hell because my mind is dark and I lack the vision of a true artist-mystic?
The most regenerative trip I have ever taken, both spiritually and creatively, was to Italy. I had just finished the traumatic second draft of my second novel and was feeling burnt out. The work was great – the prose had flowed brilliantly onto the page, but my personal life was falling apart. Having locked myself away in creative isolation for a good two years, I had developed some pretty severe emotional problems: fear of intimacy and commitment, separation anxiety, and all sorts of abandonment issues. I had developed such severe social phobia that screwing up the courage to pick up the phone and call a friend would take me an hour. After finishing the second draft, I had a few weeks free while my editor made his judgement, so I decided to contact an old college friend who had moved to Italy, and hopped on a plane to the Eternal City.
I was struck by Rome's beauty; not just its natural beauty, but the beauty of its architecture. The white marble buildings, the elegant, symmetrical structures enraptured me. I loved the flowers that grew out of the cracks of marble walls.
Walking around the city was like walking in a museum. On a casual stroll, you would come across fountains designed by the great Renaissance artists, with water spurting from the mouths of nymphs. Even the streets were beautiful. New York is organised according to a grid whose uniformity, after a while, becomes mechanical and boring. The streets of Italy wound around unpredictably, twisting here and there, rising up and down. Something about the wet, shiny and slick cobblestones makes European cities seem magical – especially compared to modern American cities with their concrete sidewalks. The difference between European and modern American architecture is that the builders of the Roman Pantheons and villas were artists. They weren't just interested in function, in creating utilitarian buildings; they wanted to create beautiful things. I think this is what I dislike most about living in America: I notice a trend in modern American art where little value is placed on beauty. Instead, American art and architecture seem to value the intellectual concept. A typical example is the Nam June Paik exhibition at the Guggenheim museum in New York City in 1999. In these video installations, the artist experimented with the use of TV screens. A typical piece used TV sets as fish tanks. When you see art like that, the pleasure is primarily intellectual: you think, how interesting – I've never thought that TV sets look like fish tanks, but now that he's pointed it out, I see the world in a new way. A TV set/ fish tank is an interesting concept, but it isn't beautiful in a classical sense. On the Italian trip, I was suddenly surrounded by objects of art that were classically beautiful – just viewing them gave me intense joy and physical pleasure. They stimulated not my intellect, but my visual sense. I won't describe how those objects looked; instead, I'll tell you what effect they had on my mind. I spent hours sitting in front of a gorgeous fountain in the Borghese Gardens. I found my mind soothed and my heart filled with joy. And I know I would not have had the same feeling looking at a fish tank made out of a TV screen. I know all about beauty being subjective and relative, that what's beautiful for me might be ugly for someone else, but when I say that the fountain was beautiful, this is what I mean: when I looked at it, my mind was transformed. This object filled my heart with faith. Something about the fountain hinted at an extra dimension – one far beyond the utilitarian and financial obsessions that surround typical American urban objects. It hinted of a world of serenity and love and bliss, of the divine, and showed that this very world has a dimension beyond the mundanity of eating and driving to work. But the fountain's hint is finally indescribable, located exactly beyond words.
As I mentioned, before I went to Italy, I had felt totally burnt out. The trip turned out to be creatively regenerative, because I saw what power artists could have. The artist, like God, can create a thing of beauty out of nothing, a thing that can soothe the mind and heal the soul. One might even define beauty by the effect it has on a person. Try this: beauty is anything – an object, words on a page, the sound of music – that stills the soul and fills it with joy, peace, and love. Artists have been given a gift from God: the ability to heal the soul. As I looked at those objects in Italy, the more beauty I saw, the more beautiful I felt inside. I began to understand a profound but simple truth: you become what you contemplate. In 2 Corinthians Paul writes, "we, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image."
This verse uses the metaphor of God as mirror: God is a mirror at which we are told to gaze, and in the mirror, we see ourselves, yet at the same time not ourselves, but God. As we look into the face of God, we become transformed. After gazing at the mirror face of God long enough, we see ourselves, having ourselves become images of God. When we gaze at the glorious, we become glorious. We become an image of what we look at.
That's the profound truth: you are what your mind looks at. You are what you contemplate. I suppose that's why environment has such a powerful effect on the soul. What does your mind gaze at, stare at? If you look at ugliness and violence all day, you become ugly and violent yourself – a good argument for promoting aesthetics in urban planning. When we build our office towers and decorate our cubicles, it's important that we do this in a beautiful way. Our buildings should not be merely functional, but should inspire peace and joy. The old European architects had an instinctive respect for the power of beauty, something our modern age seems to have forgotten.
There was something Zen-like about the architecture I saw in Italy. Zen principles of art are indirect and non-representative. By this I mean if you asked me, "What is a moon?" I might say, "The moon is a bright yellow thing that appears in the sky at night." This would be giving you an indirect, verbal representation of the moon. Instead, a typical Zen response to "What is a moon?" would be for me to point to the moon. This would lead you to a direct experience of the moon, and when you see the moon, my finger would disappear. That is the principle by which Zen works. Zen is the gesture that leads to a personal experience with the transcendent. And that's how objects of beauty work too – whether a bright field of red wildflowers or a bronze sculpture of a Greek goddess. On my Italian trip, I saw fingers disappearing all the time. I spent two weeks wandering around abandoned ruins, beaches, museums, villas, graveyards and gardens, and was continuously exposed to beauty, both natural and man-made. These objects all hinted at something not physical, something awesome and noble and kind and full of love. This is how I would define beauty: beauty points toward the transcendent. Like the Zen finger, it points to something in a non-physical dimension, to an invisible reality. It hints of God.
Though Zen, as a religion, teaches that one can experience the sacred in every place and every thing, it also follows specific rules in the aesthetics of its temple architecture. A Zen monastery is scrupulously clean and tidy, and all work – chopping wood, cooking, doing laundry, or shaving – is done with such precision and regularity that it becomes a ceremony. There is very little waste of time or material, and the monk owns so little that if you gathered all his possessions together, you'd have barely enough to make a pillow for him to sleep on at night. This is not because Zen believes in asceticism, but because it believes in economy. Zen believes in using the right amount of time, energy and material to achieve a goal – no more and no less.
Some Zen monasteries are treasure houses of Chinese and Japanese art, filled with paintings, pottery, bronzes, lacquer and carved wood, but these treasures are not flaunted. The decoration of the monastery follows the same rule of economy. If too many works of art are displayed at the same time, they can't be appreciated, so Zen artwork is displayed sparingly. Thus a Zen monastery has an air of austere simplicity, with empty spaces relieved here and there by carefully positioned objects of beauty. The very rooms are beautiful, even without furniture. The walls are tinted paper, stretched over wooden frames. The floors are covered with yellow rice mats. The rooms have a quiet, indefinable beauty, yet everything is made from the simplest and most inexpensive material. At the centre of the temple is the Meditation Hall, where again the aesthetics of economy prevail. The room is empty except for the statue of the Buddha, who sits holding a single spray of flowers.
The Zen temple is different from Israel's ancient temple in Jerusalem. While the Jewish temple is believed by Jews to be the house of God, the place where the Creator of the Universe lives – and the design reflects this belief – the Zen temple makes no claim to be the location of any supernatural force. Its architecture, rather, is a tool to aid in the practice of meditation, a place where the aesthetic of simplicity wipes away the distractions of the world. That's the principle of Zen, whose monks live with no possessions but "one robe and one bowl, under the tree and on a stone." Zen believes this to be the best spiritual environment for man, for the curse of humanity is a distracted mind, and only when we have dropped all distractions, when they have fallen like dust to the ground, and when that dust has cleared, then will we have the clarity of vision to see the divine that has been in front of us all the time.
Part of me has always sought that emotional epiphany in travel and art and books. I long for the mystical high, the collision of truth and feeling, illumination along with a rush of joy, the thrill of learning something previously unimaginable. I want the mountaintop experience, and the danger with the mountaintop experience is that it can become an idol. A restlessness has developed in me, a cesspool of boredom that drains me daily and can only be relieved by moving to a new place and receiving blinding insights. I worry that I have become addicted to tourism.
Let me give you a personal example. It took place in New York, oddly enough, when I went to see one of the most famous sights in the world – the Statue of Liberty. The trip didn't start well. I squirmed on board the Circle Line ferry that would slosh me to Liberty Island. Though the passengers had come from all corners of the world, they wore the same uniform: loose, comfortable clothing with sports shoes. A few sported memorabilia caps and T-shirts that, under normal circumstances, they wouldn't be seen dead in (I hoped). Nearly everyone humped a bulky bag, and I hadn't seen so much photographic equipment since Ming's Electric Emporium. Everything on the boat was priced at forty percent above its market value. The burger, served by a sullen boy who looked as though he'd just missed a visit from his probation officer, tasted like a bat that had decided to die in a soggy bun. Liberty Island, I knew, would be tourist hell.
Tourist hell: a place designed, usually via an unholy alliance between government mandarins and corporate sponsors, to simulate a cheerful version of what the natives think foreigners want to see in their culture; the extortion of money through entry fees and the swindling of ignorant, defenceless aliens in overpriced theme restaurants and gift shops; a fake, bland, closely supervised educational experience.
We all looked at the ocean with the same blank sheep eyes.
When the ship bumped against the dock, kids in Mickey Mouse ears laughed their way toward the Lady, who glowed emerald in the soft, autumnal light. I merged with the flock, and we trotted down the tree-lined walkways. Couples linked arms and began their slow, twined walk toward the end of the line that slid into the dark opening between the Dame's limbs.
I had thought lines like that existed only in the former Soviet Union. I asked the tour guide how long it would take to get to the top. "Three hours," he said. Having come so far already, I decided it would be silly to turn back now, so I planted my feet on the first of the three hundred and fifty-four steps.
I cringed, my face inches from a fluorescent Texan buttock. This was what I had to look forward to for the next twenty-two stories: blubber in pink polyester eclipsing my view, and the threat that the burrito-fed belly might belch a stink bomb into the cavernous hole.
As I climbed, I occupied myself with fantasies of the wondrous places I planned to go to. I would live in every corner of the world, in all sorts of dwellings – in mud houses, stone houses, brick houses, tree houses, houses that floated on lazy waters inhabited by fanged fish, cardboard houses, bamboo houses, tents, concrete houses, hammocks swaying beneath mosquito nets, houses in jungles and swamps and deserts, maybe even the back of a Chevy. I would sleep in mosques and caves and sewers and churches, in safari parks and car parks, on fire escapes, in desert cities where the flesh-toned walls stretch star-ward.
Meanwhile I was stuck in the statue, trudging toward the crown at an average rate of three-quarters of a step per minute. Much of the time was spent standing still, choking on the miasma that rose from the damp armpits around me. I looked at the black void that spiralled beneath. This was not my idea of a good time, stuck like a foreign body in the heart of a tin lady, standing still in her womb, a lifeless foetus that would never see the light.
I sat down, but blubber-butt immediately pounded up four steps, and I had to follow to avoid being lynched by the mob below. I felt like a lamb ascending into hell, the oven heat boiling my blood and melting my bones. According to my watch, I'd been imprisoned within Liberty (hah!) for over two hours, in a fog emanating from millions of moist hairs, caged by Liberty's stainless steel ribs. I climbed three steps, then stopped (those idiots!) again, surrounded by weary bones and wet flesh, trapped inside this hard bosom, behind these cold breasts that never cradled a man or fed a child. Maybe I could leap from the stairs like Lara Croft, I thought, and escape down the Lady's wire veins.
Finally a gap appeared above, and I could see it – I had reached the crown.
The place was unbelievably small. If I'd dropped a Kleenex, it would have had wall-to-wall carpeting. The windows were tinier than the screen of my PalmPilot.
"Is this it? Can we go up to the torch?" I asked the guide. "What are we supposed to do?" The guide told me that the torch was closed to the public. I squinted at the windows. The glass was so scarred and lacerated that I could hardly see anything outside, especially since the famous Manhattan skyline was wallowing in smoggy gloom.
I was depressed. I'd had hopes of seeing a celestial sky over a coral city, and instead I had ended up in this vacuous skull, this bimbo head. There was nothing between Liberty's ears, only a black hole that had never loved or dreamed, a brainless cranium that never wrenched wisdom from a lighted page, that never echoed with the mattress moan from a lustrous horn. I was surrounded by visitors from around the world, all looking cheated, a rainbow of unsmiling faces. We had slapped down mucho-money to fly mega-miles, and our only pay-off was a view of a ship coughing smoke on the gray, petrified waves.
I walked all the way down in silence, joining the solemn, creeping procession, hundreds of chests made hollow by the hope-killing sight in the crown.
We boarded the ferry, and it ironed its way through the wrinkled water. The copper woman would not miss us, for she could not even see us, her icy eyes sightless, bored at the clouds, as if willing the sun to burst forth and illuminate them. Her verdigris skin made her look nauseous. She stood, her feet glued to her concrete pedestal, like a mob victim about to be pushed to a watery death.
I turned toward Gotham, but there was nothing to cheer me. The city looked like a crowded pincushion, bars of iron, copper and steel stuck recklessly here and there, high and low – the architecture of angles and anguish. Unlike trees, which grow towards the sun, these rootless buildings rose lifelessly, casting dead shadows on the gray waters.
Then it happened; something I could never have dreamed of. The sun sputtered at the edge of the horizon, igniting the waves. Divining the coming darkness, zillions of windows flickered to life, and the torch unfroze its copper flame. The red-tipped whitecaps skipped like tongues of fire over the molten mercury sea, enflaming the cold water until a candlelight fog rose from its phosphorescent body. In that moment, the world was caught in vaporous light. Everything flared into an incandescent glory.
Never had I seen such a sight: the perfect fusion of artifice and nature. Whitman's city of spires and masts. Tongues of fire, Pentecostal, like the spirit descending on the apostles. The obelisk towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. The seagulls above, confusing the sky with white rings of chaos. The Chrysler Building piercing the soft, rose mist with its silver spear. The metropolis, the sea, Liberty's baton, the birds, the sun, the stars, the moon – all was luminous in unison. Before the chained city, the starry waters trembled under the mackerel sky – an undulating mirror.
"Holy hat of Confucius!" I exclaimed. And in that moment, I was hooked again on being a tourist, because this was the typical pilgrim experience. Whenever you travel, there will be long periods when you'll be tired, pissed off, and bored, but just when you think things can't get any worse, something happens to make it all worthwhile. Like this. You see something beyond what you can imagine, something so beautiful that your brain explodes with insight and your heart with awe. That view of Manhattan at dusk was the ecstatic epiphany I've been describing.
The greatest tourist sights are awakenings. Each one is like a revelation God has specially chosen for you, one you could not have experienced anywhere else in the world. Being a tourist is like being a pilgrim. A part of me wants to seek out the special place, the place that's different from any other, where I'll see the vision, which will be unique and so stunning that it will make all the suffering and effort of getting there worthwhile. It will wipe away pain. For one moment, I'll feel chosen, special, because so many people living in other parts of the world will never get to see this, never feel what I'm feeling. On the water's edge in New York City, I saw a garden of glass burning in everlasting neon. In that moment, I felt chosen by God, like Moses gazing at the burning bush.
Last month, I just got a job as a journalist for a technology magazine – my first full-time office job. I've been in graduate school for the last five years, and so have taken for granted that I would have at least four months every year to travel. I find the prospect of having only ten days of vacation extremely depressing. There are so many places that I want to explore – fantastical escapes far from New York's steel prisons. I want to go to swamps where statues weep blood, and high mountains full of smoky huts and blinking Mongols; I want to visit desolate mausoleums where vampire bats dangle from domes and red ants tunnel through the white sepulchres. I want to sit by mud wells, miles from the nearest diesel engine, listening to sounds I've never heard before – gypsy xylophones, Arab bagpipes, drowning pigs. I want to walk up gentle, dusty stairways and smell air I've never smelled before, the air of a desert city, thick with cloves and incense and wood smoke. I want to laze on hot banks where crocodiles yawn, startling butterflies with their jaws.
But sometimes I wonder if my need to travel is a spiritual weakness. A part of me seems forever restless. I'm like a drug addict caught in a fever, always longing for his next fix. My soul aches and finds no relief until the next adventure, the next stunning vision, one so bright that it will blind me to the pain inside.
Saint Augustine once wrote, "O lord, thou madest us, and our hearts are restless until we rest in thee." In these times, I wonder if, instead of looking for that special spiritual place, I should work on putting my soul at rest. There is a part of me that longs for the serenity of the Zen monk, a soul so peaceful that I could be happy anywhere, happy having nothing, happy just sleeping under a tree or on a stone.QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001
Copyright © 2001-2023 The Authors