I was perfectly happy in Beijing and Shanghai, thoroughly immersed in each day of teaching and in company with my lovely hosts at dinner and myself in the evening hotel room. But I didn’t realize how much I missed something until I arrive here in Guangzhou.
I’m staying at the James Joyce Coffetel, a hotel with one floor. No eighteen floors of elevators each day. And James Joyce? Was he ever in China? Would Ulysses be in the desk drawer instead of the Bible or Buddhist Sutras? Would there be Irish music playing in the lobby? Well, none of the above, it’s simply a chain hotel that found its way to this ancient civilization. (And I found a translated copy of Ulysses in the lobby!)
But walking out the door, I was struck by a feeling I dearly missed in the other cities. That feeling of neighborhood, of one or two storied buildings, of trees overhanging the streets, a fruit and vegetable store, a small café, a little park—and no shopping malls. Something in my spirit came alive that was untouched in the other cities, that sense of being in a real place that had character, charm and a delicious invitation to wander the streets and partake with the full measure of my senses and a feeling of adventure, a real traveler in a real world. You don’t get that in the shopping mall, skyscrapered modern buildings, driven everywhere by car. Really, you just don’t.
As a Buddhist, I’m a student of the Buddha Nature, that true nature we’re all born with that connects us with every living being. But truth be told, it’s a bit abstract. The idea that excites me more is that of the genius or daimon, a guiding image that accompanies us into the world and reveals the destiny our particular way of seeing and experiencing the world is calling us to discover. Since no two of us look alike, think alike, feel alike, Nature perhaps has the idea that our uniqueness is designed to offer its gift to the world and that the community of individual souls living out their destiny is the promise of a heaven that has yet to be. The genius is like the genii in the bottle who will fulfill our three wishes. But only the story, it’s not as easy as rubbing a lamp. One has to listen attentively to this voice, follow it even when it’s against the grain (and it often is) the accepted norms of a society.
But one of the origins of that word genius comes from the unique spirit of a particular place, the genius loci found in locations with their particular combinations of plants, animals and spirits from some invisible world. This is what attracts people to certain springs in Ireland, or Mt. Shasta in California, or a Shinto shrine in Japan, some strength of character in a place that uplifts you simply by being there. Perhaps even a shopping mall has its genius loci, but you’d be hard pressed to find it amidst the bright lights, canned music, and overstuffed goods.
And so that’s the feeling I got walking out of the hotel. Air washed clean by a recent rain, streets gently buzzing with lyrical activity, a smell in the air that invites, entices and attracts. Same feeling I’ve had wandering in Barcelona or Venice or Salzburg or Kyoto or Rio or …well, San Francisco. Had a dim sum breakfast with my hosts and now with one day free before beginning my next course, ready to wander about a bit. This the kind of travel I truly love.
And note to self: when you finally decide that you’ve done your part at The San Francisco School and officially retire, you could actually balance teaching and tourism in your travels without worrying about getting back to school by a certain date. Four days teaching, four days at the beach or exploring a city or jamming at some jazz clubs? Think about it, Doug.
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