By Dana Y. Wu
The mountain-top Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto is dedicated to Dai-zui-gu Bo-sat-su, the mother of Buddha. It is said that she can grant one’s wish, whatever it may be.
Hannah (my then 13 year-old daughter), my husband, Mike and I took off our shoes, paid our donation and started down the stairs under the temple–a “tunnel” to remind us of the womb of a mother. The sign on the wall simply said to hold onto the railing. It was made of round wooden ball–not a solid wood handrail, but like a string of prayer beads that swayed as we walked. Apparently, I hadn’t read the fine (Japanese!) print saying you’d better hold on because it was very, very dark inside…so dark, you couldn’t even see your hand in front of you.
I started to feel my heart pound. I suddenly wanted to bolt backwards and run out. I heard noises and smelled incense, and felt an intense wave of fear. I knew where I was, but I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. I called out “Mike, I’m having a panic attack” and felt the blood rush from my head. There were a couple of turns to navigate, but my feet were stuck. My heart was pounding and I thought I’d pass out. I heard him say, “It’s okay.” I was having a flashback to the first World Trade Center bombing. I couldn’t breathe.
Back in 1993, I was on the 63rd floor when terrorists detonated a truck bomb in the basement garage of One World Trade Center. The power was knocked out immediately, so I just grabbed my purse from my desk and ran out to the stairwells with my co-workers from the Port Authority of NY/NJ. We had to walk downstairs in darkness, with the smell of smoke and panic swirling as we evacuated the building. It was stop and go as we moved slowly down those stairs.
The stairwells were completely dark after a while–the emergency lights didn’t seem to be working, and we were proceeding down into increasingly smoky darkness. Somehow, my colleagues and I managed to get to the World Financial Center where the Red Cross had set up tables. We were covered in soot and dust–we didn’t even realize what we looked like until we reached daylight.
To this day, I can’t remember how I got home from work on February 26, 1993. It must have been cold, but I don’t think I even had my coat. At that point we didn’t yet know that it had been a bomb or imagine that our world would be forever changed by that single act of violence.
So here I was in Kyoto, all these years later, paralyzed with fear in the womb of the female Bodhisattva. My hand gripped the swaying railing ball. I knew this was a memory triggered by the darkness and incense of the temple “rebirth” but it also triggered some deep fear in me. Mike reassured me that we were coming to some light. “A few more steps.” Well, that’s what the firefighters said to us in 1993 on our way down those smoke-filled flights of stairs.
Near the end of the temple “tunnel,” there was a stone, rotating and bathed in light, on which is written the word “womb” in Sanskrit. I was grateful for the dim light, gasping up the stairs for air. The entire temple tunnel adventure was probably less than 10 minutes in duration. My own daughter was unaware of my fearful “rebirth” during this sightseeing stop.
When the taxi dropped us off that morning at the Kiyomizu temple, I hadn’t expected to be transported back 20 years to a memory that I had forgotten. I emerged from that temple experience with a visceral and physical reaction. In a world where we feel the constant threat of terrorism and gun violence, where in every corner of the globe there is disease, war and abuse, hunger and inequality, I was faced with my body’s own memory of how our life can be taken away in an instant.
What did I wish for when I reached that stone and the light? What would you wish for?
Dana Y. Wu, a Chappaqua mom of four, is an author, visual storyteller and local volunteer. Her not-for-profit management career includes experience at the New York Public Library. A life-long New Yorker, she graduated from Stuyvesant High School and Columbia University. She pursues her writing with the vibrant, creative community at the Jacob Burns Media Arts Center.