A Shot of Sincerity

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I find myself in this alley near Houhai everyday. There is a coffee shop where I drink milky tea and a small dive where I drink cheap shots at night. Further along, past the tea and pipe shops, the path curves to the left, over a small bridge that leads you into the bar district lining the shores of the lake.

But if you go straight into a crumbly alleyway instead of following the path over the bridge, you might come across Mrs. Xing, 51, selling incense outside the gate of Guanghua Temple.

Unlike the other temples my reporting team has visited, there are no tourists poking around holy altars here. No bored temple attendants looking at their watch waiting for their break. There is no fancy electronic tour headset to rent for 20 kuai. Guanghua is a sincere place that has yet to be swept up in the wave of commercialization that has claimed many of Beijing’s numerous temples.

Believers line the walls of the courtyard, hands clasped before them in prayer, eyes closed in quiet contemplation. Brown-robed monks and nuns stand outside the main altar. I stand in the middle of the courtyard—the summer rain soaks me, but I do not care.

I hear a baritone mantra coming from inside the temple, and the steady pulse of a drum. From a distance, I see candle-lit red ambiance and the golden glint of a Buddha. I want to get a closer look, but at the same time I do not dare look inside the altar.

Things happen that I do not understand.

I think back to a conversation I had earlier with Wang Xianhua of Shandong, who had come to burn incense at the temple.

"We are all human beings," Mr. Wang, 40, said. "Maybe because of geographic or language barriers there is some misunderstanding, but basically we are the same."

“The individual is a unit of the universe," he went on. "We function together, and we should coexist very mutually and very peacefully.”

Beijing has no shortage of large temples with guided tours and souvenir shops, but no amount of kuai can buy an explanation like that.