My ordination master, Songnian, was renowned for his calligraphy and considered a National Living Treasure in Singapore.

We Chinese say the way you write tells a lot about who you are. Of Songnian, the man who shaved my head, they used to say, “His writing is without fire.” As a young novice I wondered at the cool, flowing quality of his characters; Songnian relentlessly pelted me with fiery insults and rebukes. I had to assume that his art was a window into a facet of his personality that I never saw.

Songnian had come from an aristocratic Chinese family and had been forced to flee the mainland when the Communists seized power in 1949. He drifted to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Malaysia, eventually settling in Singapore.

When I came to live in his small Mahabodhi Monastery, I was 21 years old and he was in his mid-eighties, an old man beset by ailments. Only four nuns lived in at Mahabodhi, and they were quietly delighted, almost smirking, by my arrival. As the youngest and most recent arrival, I would be his attendant and bear the brunt of his foul temper.

Mahabodhi was furnished with art and antiques. Money was very tight, so I assumed Songnian had bartered for these valuable items with his calligraphy. His strange and lovely bonsais were everywhere. The monastery felt like a scholar’s abode, and nowhere was this feeling stronger than by the big wooden table in the living room where he practiced calligraphy.

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