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What Pilgrims Must Feel

In this October 2005 letter, Siple describes a journey to Buddhist Mount Jiuhua in eastern China's Anhui Province:

This morning, our group left our homestays early to climb to the summit of one of Mount Jiuhua's peaks. The mountain trails are comprised of stone steps, and for a while this is all we can see, a stairway leading heavenward.

At one of the resting points during our climb, a Buddhist nun invites us into her home. She lives in a one-room house which serves as a shrine to the bodhisattva Guanyin, who is depicted in golden statues and a painting in the center of the room. I greet the nun, kneel in front of Guanyin, and offer the blessing, "Amituofo." In response, the nun offers the same blessing, folds her hands, and bows.

At the top of the peak I step from the stairs onto a marble pavilion which is shrouded by dense gray cloud cover. Offerings of incense burn in metal urns and flames of candles are visible through the mist. I enter the main hall to stand before three colossal statues of Buddhist bodhisattvas. I am mesmerized by the ringing of the bells and dizzied by the swirls of condensation through layers of tapestries which hang from the ceiling.

I hear the striking of another tone and follow it to its source in a second hall of the Buddha. I turn from his jovial gaze to peer into the midst of an open pavilion which is completely deserted. I feel as if this secret location has been emptied from my sole exploration. The gray mist obstructs my view, so I begin with careful step to follow the path of carved lotuses on the marble floor. Then she is upon me in her full magnificence: the golden statue of Avalokitesvara, with a thousand arms spread with eyes in every palm. I experience a taste of what pilgrims must feel. With their heads still dizzy from the climb and the altitude, they step out onto a mystical pavilion enshrined in thick clouds and see through it the golden splendor of their deities offering protection and peace.

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