Updated: Mar 12
'We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.'
TS Eliot - Little Gidding
What does 'Wandering China' mean? In English the poetic verb 'to wander' is rich in associations. Some of these cluster around ideas of being lost or having lost your mind. Can being lost as a traveler ever become a positive experience? Well I guess we all might cling to the romantic idea of 'serendipity' as shown in the dreams of finding a lost 'Shangri-la' but the reality of the endless, futile circles of desperation is probably a more accurate version of this type of wandering. Another version of Wandering implies the pleasures of a kind of purposeless freedom. ' I had no particular place to go so I enjoyed myself wandering wherever my feelings took me, after all it's better to journey than arrive.' And so you tell yourself until your travel becomes an extraordinary photo gallery full of beautiful, impressionistic images, which crumple to dust at the question, 'and what did you learn from your travels?'
And so we wander with a purpose, choosing paths, let's take a common example from China- climbing a mountain. A chain of stone steps hangs on the mountainside. We twist and turn into an elemental world of stone and sky. The voices of your traveling companions fall into silence as simple exhaustion leads them into meditation. Your physical body becomes a burden that you have to drag step by difficult step higher. However your mind is free, free in the pain, to wander over the mountainside and out into the boundless sky. And at the mountain top you reach your destination - the sublime, the wonder of your sight sweeping from horizon to horizon, the giddiness of your mind soaring uninterrupted into the heavens. Cautiously you glance down and feel the ecstasy of liberation, how you have been freed from the petty, materialistic world below, where the people of the world and their futile business is no more important than the scurrying of ants. Up here your 5 senses are as boundless as spirits, the joy of liberation!
But could you live in the mountain, wake up everyday to this sublime emptiness, the monastic isolation? And even if it's only to crouch on a narrow ledge of rock over looking the void everyday, wouldn't this be the end of your wandering. Here you will stay, become rooted, your little self, attached to this rock, silhouetted against the boundless. The blood comes back to your feet and you can feel them in your socks and sports shoes, itching to be back on the way. So you turn and wind the descending path of stairs down your mountain. With each footstep the familiar cycles reassert themselves, the gentle clenching and un~clenching of muscles, the cycle of song between you and the mountain birds, the cycle of death in the fragrant pine seeds. So you return to your wandering, the road stretching ahead of you like a song. There was a purpose, climbing the mountain changed something, but as the mountain loses its shape and form in the distance behind you, you are aware that it is not the end of your wandering.
It's the end of the Guizhou road. In fact the official road crawled to an end 2 miles back down the mountain. Since then you have laboured over mud and through pit holes. Your feet ache. A farmer in tattered black, hangs on the back of a wooden plough, patiently turning the heavy soil behind the plod of his buffalo. As you stumble into the village you have to ask yourself why you came here. There is nothing sublime or picturesque about the ten dirty, ramshackle houses. The frames of the houses are not the romantic wooden frames of Miao 'diaojiaolou' but rough piles of grey, industrial breize blocks. There is nothing charming about the faces of the people, skin battered and bruised by the harshness of life- the endless suffering. This Spring Festival time the men are back in the village from their migrant labour all over China, to be with their children for just a few days, before returning to thousands of miles of separation.
The whole story, as every story, is in the simple faces of the children- half the light of love, half the dark fear of the leave-taking that must come. You turn to leave, the last place on earth anyone would want to live. Then on a little hill just outside of the village you see a little white-washed church. The villagers have all gathered there and want you to look around. You're cynical - typical missionaries taking advantage of these good people to impose their thinking on them. And then it happens. From the broken face and scruffy clothes of one of the villagers a voice of infinite beauty soars. In that voice all the suffering and pain of the village are not lost, but transformed into grace. The voice rises and falls, soaring on its notes in a space more infinite and boundless in its emptiness than the void of the mountain. And one by one in a community of ringing echoes, the voices of the villagers join in chorus. It is beyond religion. Nothing can take the suffering of their lives away. Nothing can separate the broken beauty of their faces from this circle of compassion. Your wandering has gone from the purposeless to the purposeful, to end here, beyond material goods, beyond poverty, beyond self-fulfillment , utterly lost, utterly found in the Wandering of their song.
In the words of 'The Heart Sutra'
'Beyond, beyond, beyond the beyond of beyond is buddah~hood, so be it!