the Drive

All I’ve seen – you’ll go to Heaven, Time Traveller.

The speaker: A homeless man, disheveled, proud of an abundance of tangled grey, shoulder-length hair. Looked me in the eyes. Spoke with conviction. Directly to me. Made me smile.

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the clamour of words (a theme)

Well, I’ve finally done it. I’ve claimed my piece of online real estate and nailed my name above the front door. It’s something I’ve planned to do for some time now, but there’s always been an excuse.

I wonder, though. About the usefulness of it. In a world of infinite sources of information, a world that folds distance and time into the staccato bursts of the keyboard, is there anything left to say? Are there any stones that remain unturned? And, does it matter?

I’m loath to suggest that my ideas (or words) are uniquely mine. I’ve read too much and seen too much for that to be true. But the point, in the end, is that they are mine in that I’ve processed them using a lens, a filter, a bias that is uniquely mine. That’s the best I can offer.

I recently read a passage in The Autograph Man (by Zadie Smith) that really appealed to me. It’s an extension of this theme: the validity or utility of creative production. In reflecting upon his novel-in-progress, the protagonist wonders where all the things that no one wants are? We all know where the things we “want” are. They’re on TV, in blockbuster films, (read: The Mass Media) and everyone “gets it.” Then, there’s art with a capital “a” – painting, sculpture, etc. – which he figures is not created for everyone, but always has someone in mind. And that someone gets what they want out of it.

“But where are the things that no one wants? … Who was left to make stuff for no one?”

Who is left to make stuff for no one? This idea really struck me.

No one will be waiting for what I make. So, maybe I’m making this for no one. A nobler pursuit there never was.

And, so, it begins …

corner shacks and back alleys

laundry day in Shanghai\'s French ConcessionI now know that there’s no place like the small tea shack in Tainan that sells iced oolong tea with lemon and osmanthus on muggy, summer days, or the tiny lanes in Shanghai where tall French Concession walls meet Sunday afternoon’s laundry dripping dry over bicycle seats.

These are what one remembers of travel. These are what count.

Buddha Lite

A Day Trip

There were eight of us. Restless expats. We hit the slightly less than two-lane blacktop on a sunny Sunday morning. Destination: away. (Subtitled: The Hell Outta Tainan). One scooter meltdown, two beers each at a roadside betel-nut stand, and several deja-vu loops later – ah, the poetry of motion – our helmeted crew arrived at the much-hyped mountaintop monastery known in its English translation as Buddha’s Light Mountain.

We parked our rides in the cooling shade of an uphill of leafy green. Nestled in the tree-blanketed hills around Kaohsiung, Fo Guang Shan’s earth-toned sloping rooftops shelter a unique brand of Humanistic Buddhism. Simultaneously majestic and hyperbolic, the Buddhist complex seeks to build a “Humanistic pure land.” Humanistic play land‘s more like it.

Founded in 1967 by the Venerable Master Hsing Yun, Fo Guang Shan steers Buddhism along the path of modernization. Bringing Buddhist presentation up to date, the monastery “aims [to] purify human minds.” No small matter, indeed!

Pure Land Cave

Its tourist centerpiece, the Pure Land Cave, was established in 1972. It’s a winding subterranean structure of Taiwanese artifice, as exotic and authentic as the 7-11s that punctuate every street corner in the country. Equal parts sugar-candy hallucinogenic Lotusland – Disneyland could easily claim illegitimate paternity – and delusional Buddhist nightmare, the cave lays claim to educational and cultural designs.

Someone in our group started whistling “It’s a Small World” as we walked through the garden of glowing giants seated in lotus postures. Like a Buddhist drag show, the Pure Land Cave struts across the stage offering a hybrid of messages, for the lay masses, cloaked heavily in delightful camp. Lots of it. Smeared thickly like stage makeup.

Sensory Overload

Perhaps the full palette of colour and sound used in the cave was based on a philosophy akin to carbo-loading before a marathon … Buddhism in a hysterical tone though? Instinctively, it felt wrong.

I vaguely remembered a Buddhism of simplicity – far from earthly trappings and indulgences – scribbled down in my notes from a university 101 course called A Mere Scratching of the Surface of the World’s Religions, or something like that.

But in all its mechanized, sensor-detected regalia, I couldn’t tell what the cavernous circus was teaching a cynical, skeptical layperson such as myself about Buddhism – in the same way that I’m still unsure about the lyrics of that one Underworld song. Is it “porn dog kissing the wind” or “corn dog sniffing the wind” or is it some combination thereof?

These are distinctions in what’s largely unintelligible nonsense.

Assault of the Pure Land … on the Eyes

The Venerable Master, in his great wisdom, sought to promote his particular brand of Humanistic Buddhism through carousels of garish figures and spinning wheel-of-fortune Buddhist swastikas. (I’d like to buy eternal enlightenment please, Pat.)

He may have been trying to teach me something about Buddhism. But the lesson was like an instructive disaster … Pick through this mess long enough and you’re bound to learn something. Is it about Buddhism, though?

Land of Ultimate Bliss? Really?

The cave was apparently constructed according to scriptural accounts. It’s divided up into three sections. Though likely authentic in a narrative sense, I reckon Buddhism’s claims to twinkle lights, lotus-flower paths, and rainbow-bright robotics in the Amitabha Sutra would be considered interpretive at best.

Each faux-tableau in the triptych depicts a pivotal moment. According to the glossy flyer, by the time one reaches the “land of Ultimate Bliss,” one will experience the “Buddha Land personally.” But at the risk of sounding cheeky, I’d had much higher expectations for the uber-realm.

Enlightenment via disco balls and lotus light shows?

Pure Land seemed not to belong wholly (or even partially) to the simplicity of Buddhism, nor to the gong-show fervour of Taiwanese ritual, but rather to some third ad hoc fortune-cookie-aphorism-meets-fast-food-education realm. A quiet tradition; a noisy execution of sound and colour. At this intersection, the message is lost in the muck of the medium.

Here, in this remote artificial cave-world, illusion served a purpose. Well, it tried to. The size of the gap between intended message and resulting enlightenment may vary from visitor to visitor, and the wax-museum puppetry and gaudy dioramas spoke of something other than Buddhism.

I’m still not sure what it said, exactly, but it sure was a hell (or nirvana?) of a lot of fun!