We gathered in Allen’s apartment at the Lower East Side, Manhattan, celebrating the end of the 1989 American and Chinese Poetry Festival. It was the very first poetry exchange since China opened its door to the west, a confluence of great poets across the Pacific. On the American side, there were Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Bob Creeley, Kenneth Koch.… On the Chinese side, there were the Misty school poets: Beidao, Gu Chen, Yang Lian, Jianghe, Shu Ting.… I was their translator and interpreter, totally in awe with this line of the great poets from two worlds. I had loved the Misty School poets when I was in China studying English and American literature in Beijing University. In New York, I read Howl and On the Road, and it was love at the first sound and sight. So when Lewis Warsh, my creative writing professor at Long Island University, called me one evening and asked if I’d be interested in working with Allen Ginsberg for the festival, I grabbed the opportunity even though it was a volunteer job and I was starving. For three months, I had worked every day with Allen and his assistant Bob Rosenthal translating Chinese poems into English, then traveled with the group all over America to give readings. My days had been full of adventures.
Allen’s apartment was small, but the wine and food were abundant, and spirits high. As the conversations went on, the group strolled into Allen’s bedroom. Above his bed hung a portrait of a beautiful green lady, dancing, with flowers in her hands and under her feet. At a closer look, I noticed she was actually sitting on a lotus, yet her body moved fluidly with the air, wind, water, earth, and fire. Her limbs flowed with music. Beidao wanted to know what it was. Allen gently pushed down Beidao’s pointing finger. “Green Tara,” he said, his palm up and open, his head bowed slightly, “Goddess of enlightenment, the great emptiness.” Beidao asked how long he’d been practicing Buddhism. Allen started with the Beatniks, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Then he went on about Tibet, the sacred land of Shangri-La, the great temples that had been destroyed, and the master teachers who had been imprisoned or exiled. As he talked, his eyes got red, and veins rose along his temples and neck. Beidao assured him that things were getting much better now. No more arrests of the monks or nuns, no more destruction of the temples. In fact, the government was putting a lot of money into the repairs of destroyed temples and cities, especially Lhasa. The conversation went back and forth, back and forth.
Suddenly Allen jumped, his trembling finger pointing at me as he shouted at the top of his lungs:
“What do you know, what the fuck do you know what’s going on there, ehh?”
A dead silence in the room. I looked into his bloodshot eyes.
“Allen, I’m just doing my job as your translator.”
Allen hung his head. Bob took his hand and led him away. Beidao and the other guests also fled. I was alone in the room, feeling abandoned. The Green Tara beckoned, as if inviting me to join in her time and space. I took a step toward the bed, then another; my arms rose on their own, curved, right palm to the sky, left palm to the earth. My knees bent, my center closer to the earth. As my left foot grasped the floor, my right foot lifted and bent forward. I was in the “flying sky” posture of the dancing maidens who fly around the Buddha in ecstasy. I had no idea how I knew this posture. It just felt right as I faced the Green Tara on the wall, our eyes locked, breathing in and out, in and out…
Someone was behind me. I turned around. Allen was holding a pile of books in his arms. “I, I don’t mean to interrupt. But how did you know the dance? Who’s your master? How long have you been in training?”
I put my right foot down. The floor felt cool against my burning sole. “I don’t know, Allen. I guess I have seen the paintings somewhere when I was in China.”
Suddenly I remembered. Ten years ago, I visited Putuoshan, one of the four sacred sites in China, an island at the eastern part of Zhoushan Archipelago, the crown jewel of the 1,339 islands and reefs in the East China Sea. I grew up on the big island of Dinghai, about thirty kilometers away, but I never had a chance to visit the holy island before. That summer I was admitted into Beijing University, my lifelong dream finally fulfilled. My best friend Ning wanted to see the island, so I took her there. We strolled to Puji, a temple dated from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). I peeked in from the threshold. An old monk in a tattered robe sat under the lotus seat of Bodhisattva, Goddess of Mercy. Men and women prostrated in front of him, up and down, up and down. They were trying to be reinitiated into the temple, after the decade-long religious ban. An old lady got up and wrote down something on the book, then asked if she was ready to be initiated. The old monk said, “Keep kowtowing” without opening his eyes. The lady grunted and went back to her mat. I looked up at the Guanyin statue. It was just as tattered as the monk’s robe, broken and chipped and unpainted after many years of neglect and destruction. But she filled my heart with a mysterious peace, and tears started filling my eyes as I gazed at her face, oblivious of Ning’s tugging at my sleeve.
Someone grabbed my hand and yanked me inside a dim room, which had nothing but a small statue, a low table, and a bell. An old monk sat on a small matt.
“Where have you been?” he asked, eyes closed, but I knew he could see.
I pointed to the west. I’d left home since I was thirteen, wandering from place to place. My new home would be Beijing University, in the capital, the north of China. So why was I pointing to the west? A drop of tear rolled down his left eye. “I’ve been waiting for you for a long, long time,” he said, and pulled me down to the matt, right under the Goddess’s seat. He took out a tattered book from the drawer.
“This is you,” he opened to the first page. “You’ve been wandering away from home for a long time, Jing Ping.”
I looked and saw ?? (jing ping), written in black ink on the yellowed page. All my life, I’ve been wondering why on earth my parents named me ? Ping, the unusual character that means obstacles, screens, roadblocks. Sometimes I blamed my hard life on the name. If Jing Ping—to clear the obstacles—is my real name, would my life be a bit smoother from now on? The monk put his hands in front of his chest.
“Thank you for your hard work all these years, Jing Ping. When the world becomes a better place, you can come home and rest.”
I raised my hands to my chest, palms together, a gesture that felt just right. “I promise I’ll come home soon, master.” I bowed, for the first time in my life. It felt good. He closed the book.
“Keep clearing the path. You still have a long way to go, Jing Ping. But I’ll see you again soon.” He picked up his stick and tapped me on my scalp.
Outside the temple, Ning grabbed me. She was sweating a torrent from running. “Where have you been? I searched the whole island, thought you may have been drowned. I’m just about to report to the police.”
“What for? I was there only for five minutes.” My ears still buzzed from the tap.
Her eyes were wide open. “Are you kidding me? You disappeared for three hours. We came here, and talked about if we should enter and bow to Guanyin. You said you’d never bow to anyone. I laughed, knowing you, and then you just vanished. I thought you must have gone to the beach, but couldn’t find you there, anywhere. Where on earth did you go?”
“There,” I pointed to the dark interior of the temple, the broken, peeling Goddess of Mercy, the dozing monk, and the prostrating crowd. “I went into a dream.”
Ning looked at me as if I were deranged. She grabbed my hand and pulled me to the beach. The island was known for its sand, the best kind for sculpture. Every year, the whole world gathered here for a sand-sculpture festival and competition. But now it was empty. As soon as my feet touched the hot sand, a river opened inside, flowing from the heart, through the core, the limbs, and I turned, twisted, and rippled like the waves, my body dissolving into the water, air, wind. When I stopped, a crowd had gathered around me. No one said a word. We stared at one another, until Ning took me away by my hand.
“I didn’t know you dance,” she finally said.
“I didn’t know myself.”
We returned to the Big Island in silence, and we never talked about it once.
I looked at Allen. “I learned it from a dream.”
He laughed and put down his books on the table. He took my right hand and kissed it gently. Then he opened his books one by one, drawing Buddha, lotus blossoms. “My apology for yelling about Buddha. AAAAH!”
I stroked the cloth-bound books, each a limited edition, each giving the fragrance of ink. I looked at Allen, at the Green Tara, and said, “Allen, I’ll go there as soon as I get my green card. I’ll find out what’s happening there.”
Allen smiled and brought my hand to his lips again.
The month I got my temporary green card, I flew to Shanghai, my first trip home since I left China. I visited my father first. He was hospitalized for the last stage of liver cancer, but he still got up at 5:00 a.m. to practice qigong and climb mountains to search for linchi, the magic healing mushroom.He told me he was not ready to leave this world at the age of fifty-six, not before he made a trip to visit the U.S.A. He believed he could heal himself through the herbs and exercise. I stayed and practiced qigong with him for a week, then flew to Lhasa.
The plane was old and shaky, but we arrived safely. From the top of the mobile stairway, I scanned the snow-capped mountains surrounding the airport, and a rush of euphoria overwhelmed me. I felt light, so light that if I just opened my arms, I could fly into the sky. I was in the sky. Lhasa’s altitude was 11,450 feet, almost three miles high. I breathed deep and long, yet my lungs felt empty, as if they lost the gravity and started floating out of my chest. Is this what Allen described as “great emptiness” or “disembodiment?”
Before my trip to China, I went to a chanting session at Philip Glass’ house. His spacious living room was filled with people, incense, and the sound of bells. The energy vibrated with serenity and kindness. During the pizza break, Allen came to me, and kissed my hand as usual. I told him I was going to Tibet the next day.
“Please visit all the temples in Lhasa and light incense for me,” he said. “I’m hoping to go there next year, with the doctor’s permission, of course.”
Lao Han, a Tibetan, Mongolian and Turkistan mixed blood poet, waited at the bottom of the stairway. He scooped me up in his arms. “Baby steps and baby breaths,” he said laughing. “Just small and shallow and easy. You’ve got good lungs and a good heart, right? Then let your body adjust to the rhythm of our land and time. Just trust it and let it do the work.”
Our car drove along a wide, shallow river, its pebble bed dotted with cranes, ducks, and geese.
“In another week, the Yaluzangbu River will be covered by migrating birds,” Lao Han said. “They come from all over the world to eat and rest here, some of them from the Mississippi headwaters, I heard.” He stopped the car. “I know you want to take a dip in the river. Go ahead, but move slowly.”
I baby-stepped down the riverbank. This was the only way I could move. There was only 40% oxygen to support me at this altitude. My breath was short and difficult, and each step felt like dragging a mountain. My body belonged to a thousand-year-old crone, gasping and stumbling, yet the birds didn’t seem to mind. Some of them even made room for me to get to the water. I knelt on the riverbed and felt the stones’ firm grip around my knees, shins, and feet. I was on the ancient sea floor. I could feel its gravity, its magnetic pull. The water was much clearer close up. I could see my face, and the smelts darting in the shadows of the rocks, and the reflections of the hunting birds. I scooped up a handful of water and drank it. It was cool and sweet. It tasted of snow, mountains, fish, birds, rocks, and sky. As I swallowed, I felt the liquid travel down my esophagus, into my stomach, my own river of blood. You’re part of the river now, of the mountain and sky and birds and fish, a voice said. I lowered myself further until my face touched the water—my first prostration.
I had come to Tibet with many questions: what should I do with my life? To get my MBA at Montreal and marry the business professor I was engaged to, or stay in NYC to be a starving poet? What if I don’t make it? My Canadian fiancé said it was impossible to get published, especially with my sixth-grade English. In fact, it’d be much easier to go to heaven than get my poetry and stories accepted by the western world. He even convinced me to take the GMAT test twice, and miraculously, I was admitted into McGill Business School, on the condition that I took at least one year’s worth of math classes. I had a month to make the decision.
How could I support myself if I decided to stay in NYC? What if I couldn’t find a job that would sponsor me to stay in USA? Was I willing to go back to China?
And my father. Would he survive his cancer? Would I have time to get to know him before he passed away?
As soon as my face touched the water, all the whirling doubts and worries drifted away. The only thing that mattered was to breathe.
I looked up. The sky was an immaculate blue. No cloud or bird cast shadows on the giant canvas. And under the sky flowed the river, the artery of the earth, dancing along its blue path. If I followed its path, I could reach all the way to Shanghai, my birthplace, to the East China Sea, where I grew up, where my father was fighting for his life.
I looked back to the mountains. The Lhasa Highway snaked around their waists. On the road, a group of pilgrims prostrated their way into Lhasa. They’d been on the road for at least a year, their wooden gloves paper thin from sliding on the concrete every three steps, their knee pads torn, their hair matted and long, but the smiles on their faces and the light in their eyes made my heart jump. When one touched the land and water for thousands of miles, something would happen. Was it why people took on this journey, giving up everything, even their lives?
On the side of the highway, Lao Han stood like a pillar, still and solid, smoke from his cigarette rising, dancing. A Buddha carved out of the mountaintop was watching us: the river and birds and all the sentient beings. Suddenly I understood why Allen had asked me to take a dip in the river as soon as I arrived in Lhasa, for him and for all those who couldn’t make it to the plateau. And why he yelled for Buddha.
I waved into the thin air.
“Thank you for pointing my way home, Allen.”
This piece is the first story in Ping's upcoming memoir, Flying: Life of Miracles along the Yangtze and Mississippi (Calumet Press, Feb. 2015).
More work by Wang Ping can be found in Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2015 issue 27.1