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Quest For Harmony On The Pearl River Delta (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Posted: 02/15/2012 6:00 am

Whether or not we name it, we all seek a balance between the moving parts of our lives. We strive for agreement between our physical and spiritual worlds. Yet, too often we find ourselves incapable of summoning this state of being. Why?

There is a place whose people have been on a never-ending quest to achieve a concord between life's jagged puzzle pieces. And some believe they have found its secrets.

Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong: three pearls in one exquisite setting. Each distinct, yet bound together by a cultural veneration of harmony. Just as a wick needs a flame, some of us can't live without exploring our existence, and I inevitably find myself turning to the East and the wisdom of the Ancients in search of the roots of the human desire for harmony.

Harmony implies balance and the ability to integrate different elements into a pleasing unity. It incorporates the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, opposite forces that come together to form a whole.

Chinese philosophers and religious leaders have long honored harmony as an ideal. Confucius, the great Chinese thinker, spoke of "harmony without uniformity." He taught that the world is full of differences and contradictions, but that righteous people should try to balance them to achieve a vital equilibrium.

Taoists believe that by following practices that achieve balance in daily life, they gain harmony with the universe. And the Buddha said that for the enlightened one, harmony is his joy, his delight and his love.

Jump to my video dispatch from the Pearl River Delta

In Hong Kong the rounded shoulders of tradition find poise and meaning with the new and modern. In Macau western sensibilities integrate with eastern aesthetics. And in Guangdong, many are rediscovering ancient attitudes about integrating human workings with the natural world.

All three are inextricably linked as star players on China's historic trade routes. Scoring the eastern edge of the Pearl River Delta is Hong Kong. At its most authentic, Hong Kong projects a vibrant duality, an ambition of opposites in concert, the special ingredients of harmony. Here, views of steel and glass pointing to the future rest against low stone temples coiling with the incense of deeply rooted traditions.

Hong Kong's fortunes are due in no small part to the deep, protected waters of its harbor. And no ancient ship surpassed in size and technological prowess the Chinese "junk." For nearly two millennia, these ships harnessed the power of the wind to sail as far away as Japan and India.

Today, Hong Kong has emerged as one of the world's busiest ports. Mixing water craft of all shapes and sizes, the scene stirs a peculiar pot of harmony: the triumph of kinetic energy over chaos.

No question the streets of Hong Kong are energizing. But instinctively we know for our well-being we have to both engage and withdraw.

And when the energy of downtown reaches a pitch, folks retreat to the quiet and solitude of Hong Kong's outlying islands.

On Lamma Island, the lines of tension soften. Lamma in Chinese means "the southern tree branch," and it reaches like the limbs of a sapling into a mural of blue waves. There is a Chinese concept known as "Double Happiness" that celebrates the symmetry and balance of love. And on Lamma, where no cars are allowed, the simple act of riding on two pedals or walking on two feet, seems to bring double the relaxation, twice the joy.

When it comes to food, Hong Kong's culinary offerings are like Chinese opera -- rich, colorful, and hypnotic. Cantonese cuisine prizes freshness above all, and "wet markets" spill throughout the city, unruly, individual, swelling with slithering, flopping, gyrating flavors. With thousands and thousands of eateries, life in Hong Kong seems merely the interlude between meals.

A temple of a different sort can be reached by a glass-bottomed cable car that flies over Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong's 200 islands. It is the site of the Po Lin Monastery. Here, amid the plumes of incense, you can almost inhale the spirituality. Buddhism was introduced into China from India almost 2,000 years ago. And the Chinese then mingled traditional beliefs, with Buddhist principles of peace and acceptance.

The Po Lin temple is a place of meditation, a chance to acknowledge limitations and seek enlightenment. Mysteries that perplex understanding seem to gather here: ideas about suffering and compassion, mindfulness and eternity.

Towering overall, the Giant Buddha sits in blaring quietude. To stand in his shadow is to surrender the din of life's chatter to moments of awe and silence.

Though a mere 40 miles from Hong Kong by ferry, Macau seems half a world away.

Some say it's difficult to be two things at once: playful and serious, homespun and refined, cosmopolitan and relaxed, sturdy and exquisitely wrought. Macau begs to differ.

Like Hong Kong, Macau is a Special Administrative Region within China, giving it a high degree of autonomy. But its history takes a different twist. Long before Hong Kong was born, fisherman and farmers found this spot at the mouth of the Pearl River a strategic fix to set up shop. And while Hong Kong's trade history was bound up with England's, Macau's has links that stretch to southern Europe, with the mercantile explorers of Portugal.

For centuries, Macau was a strategic stopping point for Silk Road traders, who hauled goods from nearby Guangdong province onto ships bound for eager consumers in the West.

In the 16th century, Portuguese brokers got the go-ahead from mandarins in Guangdong to take control of this delta gateway. Those Westerners ferried shiploads of their culture here, much of which survives today. Mediterranean sensibilities blended effortlessly with the local Chinese culture, dignifying a kind of harmony that became not only agreeable, but irresistible.

A few miles from the historic center, the A-Ma Temple is one of the city's oldest shrines, and it draws worshippers from all the major Chinese religions. Like so much of the architecture here, this temple has a duality of purpose: It's both a beacon to sailors and a warning to evil spirits.

The temple honors A-Ma, the seafarers' goddess, and is the inspiration for the name Macau.

Legend tells that a poor girl was seeking passage to the upper Pearl River Delta, but none of the wealthy boatmen would help her. When a lowly fisherman finally offered her a ride, a huge storm swept in, sinking all the boats except the one holding the girl. When she landed in Macau, she vanished, only to reappear here, in the form of the goddess A-Ma.

With the insight of history, we can distinguish the strands that came together to form this city, yet who could have predicted the weavings, the rich tapestries of its fortunes today?

A drive across the Macau-Taipa Bridge transports to the islands of Taipa and Coloane, cradling concrete and crystal that herald the future, as well as hand-hewn villages that summon the past.

The drowsy village of Coloane, once a haven for pirates, echoes with tokens of its maritime legacy. On the waterfront, rows of dried fish hang in anticipation of passing shoppers. The baroque church of St. Francis Xaviar still waits patiently for its missionary namesake, who died of fever on his way here.

Ok, here's a personal recommendation of harmonic taste: the Portuguese egg tarts in Lord Stow's Bakery. Lord Stowe, a Brit living in Macau, was not a lord, but his clients called him that for the noble tarts he invented, an original variation of those served in dim sum restaurants and European bakeries. His version is, I must say, even more decadent than those, with its wickedly rich custard filling in buttery pastry shells. First concocted in 1989, Lord Stow's Bakeries now sell about 3,000 egg tarts a day.

The people of Macau have always looked beyond for their livelihood: first to the sea, and today to visitors who flock here for the resorts, shows, gaming houses, eateries and history.

Like its inspiration, Las Vegas, the Cotai strip is a dazzling parade of casinos and high-end hotels, built on reclaimed land, a mirage wavering into a modern oasis.

A simulation celebration of the splendor of Old Europe, the Venetian Macau is big enough to hold ninety Boeing 747s. With 3,000 rooms, more than 30 restaurants and a million square feet of shops, this is where easterners and westerners alike come to wine and dine, stay and play. Running through the heart of the hotel is a recreation of Venice's Grand Canal, where gondoliers serenade passengers past the Italianate facades. Large-scale replicas of famed Venice landmarks, such as the Doge's Palace and St. Mark's Square, float seductively by. It is the old riff come true: If you want to see how beautiful my baby, you have to see her picture.

Spread along the southernmost tip of the mainland and rimmed by more than two thousand miles of coastline, Guangdong Province has long served as the threshold to northern China and its window to the outside world.

As a vital stretch of the ancient Silk Road, this was once a prime path for foreign merchants venturing to trade with China. Just as in centuries past, when goods flowed through this province feeding the port cities of Macau and Hong Kong, Guangdong's role as a nerve center of commerce continues today. The capital city Guangzhou, once known to westerners as "Canton," is the third largest city in China and reigns over Pearl River commerce. It's also a springboard to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in China.

A few hours north of Guangzhou, near the city of Shaoguan, lie the nuanced curves of Nan Hua Temple and the severe landscapes of Danxia Mountain Park.

Nan Hua Temple was built in honor of a monk named Hui Neng, the founder of the southern sect of Zen Buddhism in China and a revered figure in Chinese history. As a poor illiterate peasant boy, Hui Neng achieved enlightenment when he heard a man reciting a line from Hindu scripture. The line he heard was, "Depending upon nothing, you must find your own mind."

Chinese Buddhist temples are different from those in India, Japan or other Buddhist countries. They're generally modeled after the Chinese imperial palaces, with a front hall, great hall and back hall, each holding different representations of the Buddha -- and all integrated with one another and with the natural surroundings.

The belly of the earth has bulged, wrenched and kinked in Danxia Mountain Park. There are spirits clad in emerald forest and red stone. Part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the nearly 70,000 acres of the park are nature's great sculpture garden. This otherworldly landscape, looking more like the contours of the moon than an earthbound park, is enveloped by a warm, humid climate, which helps conserve great stretches of sub-tropical forest. Within this sanctuary more than 400 rare or threatened plant and animal species thrive in evergreen protection.

A scattering of sites fan out around Shaoguan, virtually unknown to westerners, but deeply rewarding to those who seek them out. There's historic Zhuji Lane to the northeast, and the Ancient Buddha Rock to the northwest.

A thousand years ago, Ancient Zhuji Lane became prosperous due to its prime location on a trading route between China's central plains and the south. No footstep ever fell in the wrong place here. The cobblestone road is lined with ancestral halls, relic homes and ancient temples. According to folklore, the Zhang Chang family lived together here for seven generations and received a special award from the Tang Emperor for showing such great respect for family.

Huge numbers of Chinese who emigrated overseas came from southern China. And because so many of their descendants trace their roots to Zhuji Lane, it's become known as the "hometown of the Cantonese."

The marvels of the physical and spiritual worlds merge in the Ancient Buddha Rock and in the cave system that sprawls below. I was a passionate caver when young, probing the limestone recesses of America's Eastern Seaboard, but I'm unprepared for depth of awe this enormous grotto evokes. It was formed over hundreds of millions of years, expanding into a series of linking rooms and corridors that stretch for 13,000 square feet. While above the summer heat swelters near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, here the year-round temperature hangs at a comfortable 67 degrees. Limestone caves are formed by natural acid in rain that seeps through the ground. The acidic water reacts chemically with limestone bedrock, gradually resulting in this wonderwork of flowing stone: nature's own house of quiet veneration.

Many seeking enlightenment through compassion travel to the Buddhist temple carved in the cavern rim. It's dedicated to Guanyin or the "Goddess of Mercy."

The Goddess' full name translates to: "Observing the Cries of the World." Her followers believe that she quells suffering and brings harmony and peace to all in her gaze. Some Buddhists believe when they die, Guanyin places them in the heart of a lotus flower and sends them off to the "Land of Bliss."

Sheer sandstone walls claw to the clouds from Guangdong's Grand Canyon. At nearly a thousand feet deep and nine miles long, this is for me a gaping call to adventure. The canyon's diadem of glory is the Chengtou Waterfall, which fonts from a high ravine like an unleashed dragon.

This means a lot to me. For seven seasons I was a guide through America's Grand Canyon, and now any place that shares that name, calls mine. It's a gift to be able to seek a friendship between belief and place, a soothing of the tensions between the curves and straight lines of our lives.

More than 1,300 stone steps, educated out of the savagery of the craggy cliffs, form a stairway for those willing to test their mortal might and descend into the dark canyon depths. How can I resist? This seems a natural place to reflect on life's grand questions, as Taoists do, through inner meditation and outer observation.

"Above all, prize harmony," taught Confucius. And Hong Kong, Macau and Guangdong offer tantalizing clues to the wisdom of the ancients and sign posts away from confusion. Whether it's the aesthetic beauty reflected in art, the simple rhythms of daily life or the equilibrium found in nature, it's the ability to find balance that makes life complete.

Whether consciously or not, we all long for a harmony that will quietly return us to ourselves.

According to the Tao Te Ching: "The sage would not control the world; he is in harmony with the world."

Watch the new PBS special, "Richard Bangs' Adventures with Purpose: The Pearl River Delta-Quest for Harmony" airing now nationally. Check local listings.

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Pearl River Delta, Macau. Photo by Laura Hubber.