Throwing in the Tao

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By Kristin Henderson
Sunday, March 26, 2006

She was searching for the mystic oneness of the East. Instead, she had to settle for twoness

The leafy hillside looks like it's sprouting a temple -- upturned corners of green, curly tile roofs and outcroppings of ancient, red-painted walls. It's as if the hillside had eroded through the eons to reveal a series of buildings rising up its slope, the temple of the Taoist goddess A-Ma, queen of Heaven and the sea. High up in the temple complex, I look out over a stone railing and across the treetops to the harbor. The water is white, the sky is white; they merge into one.

My younger sister Ingrid and I are in Macau, which used to be a Portuguese colony on the South China Sea. Now it's a capitalist appendage of the People's Republic of China. Across the hazy harbor lies the communist mainland, a pale, jagged line, overexposed and out of focus. Macau and China are now one. This temple and this hillside are one. The people all around us seem to be comfortably at one, too -- they know their place in this temple, where they fit in, what's expected, connected by language and history and culture. Only Ingrid and I are out of place on this, our first trip to Asia.

Earlier, on our way up through the hillside temple, we crossed a courtyard toward a large circular opening in one of the red walls. An old man sat next to it reading a newspaper, a small-brimmed canvas hat on his head. A shopping bag and a tin cup sat on either side of him. He looked as if he were just taking a break from an industrious day of running errands. But then he glanced up. He grabbed the cup and started clanking it against the ground, mewling at us like a cat.

We stepped through the circular opening. Next to an outdoor staircase that hugged the hillside squatted an old woman. She let out a creaking wail and banged her cup, too. Moving faster now, we climbed up and away, the treetops on one side of us, the rough face of the hillside on the other. We rounded an outcropping of rock and nearly tripped over a silent young man lying on the landing on a straw mat.

His legs were twisted. A crutch leaned against the wall. He didn't bang his cup -- he just held it out and stared at me. He took a drag on a cigarette. I forced myself to look away and keep moving.

At the next landing, I glanced back. A group of well-dressed Asians were climbing the steps behind us, and as they passed the silent man with his cigarette, a couple of them casually dropped a small amount of money in the cup. Watching them, I realized I'd been behaving as if I were heading into a Metro station in Washington, instead of a temple in Asia. Giving him money -- was it enabling an addiction? Or a religious act? What if the unlucky cigarette man and the old couple at the bottom of the stairs were here in this temple to give us, the lucky -- the able and the young -- an opportunity to do a good deed, to positively influence our eventual fate? Looking at it that way, I wondered if I had just stumbled across a life lesson.

I hissed to Ingrid, "On our way back down we have to give them a little money." Then I added, falling back on the Indian, Hindu-esque jargon of our hippie childhood, "Our karma's at stake."

Ingrid hissed back, "All I have are large bills."

Now, a few minutes later, having climbed to the top of the temple, I turn away from the view of the harbor to an open-fronted pavilion that shades a red-and-gold altar. In the shadows behind it sits an ornate icon, half-curtained in red and green, looking down on offerings of fruit and urns of incense. I lean close to Ingrid. "A few tweaks, and it could be the chancel of any Christian cathedral."

Ingrid asks loudly, "Why are you whispering?"

And then I notice that while there is a woman on her knees before the altar, her forehead nearly touching the stone floor, there's a man leaning on that same altar like a shopkeeper behind a counter, chatting with another visitor. And next to them, a woman noisily shakes a bamboo cylinder filled with fortune sticks until one clatters out and she bends to peek at her fate. Several other people walk into the pavilion, laughing and talking. One of them pauses to bow his head before the altar with his hands raised in front of his face and his palms pressed together. But his friends go on talking. Beside me, a woman opens her wallet near a small aquarium where several turtles squat in two inches of water, small denominations of damp paper money draped across their backs.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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