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  • I have come a long way by taxi out of Nanjing, China to see a Buddhist temple on a March day. It is the March of a northern climate: the wind is icy, cutting through damp air; the light is muted, like an opportunity suppressed. There are small, scraggly trees and bare bushes in the flat landscape.

    The taxi turned off the hard-packed gravel road onto a mushy dirt road, sliding a bit side to side causing me to slide across the seat in back. The taxi passed a low concrete building, housing for the monks. I did not see any monks, but they were there because their wash was hanging out to dry under the narrow, overhanging roof. When the taxi stopped, I got out and gingerly walked across the sodden ground and into the temple. It was a small room with a ten foot seated Buddha immediately in sight. Round, threadbare cushions were arrayed in a semicircle in front of him, but before I could see more, someone shouted at me. I turned to see an old woman wearing a thick, cotton-padded jacket in a stall in a dark corner. A low-wattage, bare bulb dangled from a frayed cord above her head. The old woman squinted and shouted again, thrusting forward a packet of incense sticks and red candles. “Duo shao qian?” I asked. How much? That much Chinese, I knew. The old woman made a cross of her two pointer fingers, the hand signal for ten. “Shi yuan! Shi yuan! Shi yuan!” the woman shouted, shaking her fingers. Ten Chinese dollars. I gave the old woman a ten yuan note and took the incense sticks and candles.

    Then, I went to do what I had come to do. I put my candles on a small altar, and holding the incense, bowed three times to the Buddha. I began to pray, searching for Buddha’s peace until my prayers were shattered by the old woman shouting again. I turned and saw another visitor, a young woman, walking timidly to the old woman in the corner, holding out a ten yuan note. I turned back to Buddha and cleared my mind for prayer. I breathed deeply. It was quiet in the temple.

    Then, I heard the deep, comforting sound of a gong. It vibrated briefly until it was shattered by the old woman shouting, “Wu yuan! Wu yuan!” Five Chinese dollars. The visitor was standing fearfully near the gong, while the old woman waved five fingers in front of her face. The visitor opened her purse and pulled out a bunch of small bills. The old woman grabbed one and motioned the visitor away from the gong. Apparently, there was a price to be paid for hitting the gong. The old woman continued to shout as the visitor left the temple.

    It was no good in the temple. I grabbed my incense sticks and candles and left.

    It was now drizzling. I walked through the mud and rain and past my waiting taxi to a small, covered stand of burning candles. Their wax had dripped down into the muck beneath where it clotted amidst a mash of incense wrappers, tissues, and plastic bags. It was ugly but quiet here. I skewered and lit my two candles. Then, I lit the packet of incense sticks. Holding them between my clasped hands and against my chest, I took a deep breath, hoping to pray at last. The cold, misty rain was gentle on my face. The gong sounded, and it aided my search for a quiet place within myself. The gong resounded, then was followed by the voice of a lone monk. It was an ordinary voice, but beautiful in its reverence. I watched the candles burn. Again, I heard the gong, and the monk’s song, plaintive, eloquent, and peaceful, seeped through the rain and into my heart. Standing in the chill drizzle, I thanked God for the monk; then I prayed. I prayed for myself, I prayed for patience and strength and bravery. I prayed as the candles burned against the drizzle, as the incense smoked in the chill. I prayed in the presence of the gong and the voice; I prayed until peace wrapped itself about me and held me in its warm embrace.

    Smiling for the first time in days, I walked back, looking for the monk. I saw none. I only saw the old woman, alone in the temple as she swung the heavy wooden beam against the gong. It resounded. Then, the old woman placed her palms together, opened her mouth and raised her ordinary and beautiful voice in comforting prayer.
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