Last year, on a whim, I went to fabled Malibu to an afternoon meditation retreat held by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher and monk. I was skeptical, even cynical. I told my friend Jandro, who was driving a Toyota: let me count the number of BMWs and Volvos in the parking lot and I will tell you the composition of the audience.
We were not the first in the dusty parking lot. Predictably, a convoy of pastel colored BMWs, Mazda Miatas, and other automobile imports had preceded us. Couples were walking ahead. They were white mainly, with a few mixed white/Asian couples—average age, thirty-eight. The men were either blonde Nordic types, Jewish lawyers, doctors, or movie professionals: longsleeved white cotton or taupe linen shirts rolled back to the elbows, thin expensive watches, tan slacks, and Birkenstock sandals. The Asian American females—Japanese and Chinese—were lean and toned with shiny black hair cascading over their gauzy Indian tunics and tight body leggings. No obvious makeup over their glowing New Age complexions. The half-dozen African Americans that attended were usually black males with their white female companions.
Jandro and I ran into Pama, a Thai friend of mine. She was carrying a multi-colored triangular Thai floor pillow. The three of us made our way to the grassy knoll and placed down our blankets, pillows, and jackets. Clusters of people around us were already munching on granola bars or swilling bottled water. Many were wearing crystal malas or sandalwood rosaries around their necks along with healing gems of amethyst, rutilated quartz or topaz dangling on black leather cords.
We had entirely forgotten about preparing food although we had bought a large bag of barbecued potato chips, carbonated drinks and hot dogs at a roadside stand. As we opened our paper bags the people around us began to stare out of curiosity or disdain. Others had brought wholesome vegetarian dishes in plastic containers—tofu and grains in assorted forms, cut apples and carrots, and fruit drinks.
Here we were, perhaps the only Asian threesome out of three hundred people, eating the most processed food. Pama stared back at them, but soon embarrassed, she slipped the greasy hot dog out of the bun and ate the bread and relish alone. Jandro and I thought to hell with the vegetarian voyeurs and noisily chomped down the rest of the hot dogs and salty orange-dyed chips.
Next to us a middle-aged Anglo woman begin to admire the pillow my friend had and asked where she could buy it—the colors and shape would be perfect for her patio room. Almost pressed to import a line of pillows in decorator colors for this woman, my friend was reluctant to continue the conversation and was literally saved by the bell. The meditation retreat and lecture were to begin. Several French and white American monks and nuns wearing traditional gray Vietnamese garb took their places around the dais set up for Thich Nhat Hanh. The French were from Plum Village, the monastery he had established in France to do his work outside of Vietnam.
The monks and nuns first gave a pitch for supporting the work of Plum Village, and the significance of Thich Nhat Hanh’s worldwide efforts for peace for which he was nominated for a Nobel prize. They seemed sincere, yet obviously they had spoken these sentences many times before. After a sitting meditation led by the French nun, Thich Nhat Hanh was introduced by an American male aide. A slight, smiling man in a brown robe, Thich Nhat Hanh appeared direct in manner and unencumbered by his fame, the retinue of French and American devotees, or the dozens of books to his name.
He began to speak. I remembered only one thing that he said out of that hour: his story of flower and compost. He said that many admire the beauty and fragrance that emanate from flowers. Yet flowers by their nature decay finally: leaf and stamen, filament and anther, pistil and petal lose moisture, crumple and fall to the ground.
Perhaps it is not surprising that I was drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh, because he was a Vietnamese. Vietnam had figured strangely in my life as a young man—in the form of Tet, which is the Vietnamese name for the lunar New Year celebration, but which was also the infamous U.S. offensive against the Vietnamese people during the debacle a quarter of a century ago.
I remember the smell of that day clearly, as pungent as the sun on the asphalt of the basketball court beside the Chinatown alley a few blocks from my family’s apartment. As the basketball bounced and landed outside of the fence, I ran to retrieve it and looked up. From the alley, I could see T.V. antennae, and U.S. and Chinese flags unfurling in the breeze at the corners of the painted balconies above.
My white T-shirt was damp with sweat. I loved the body I inherited, the stockiness, muscular legs, and even the overlarge forehead over my darting black eyes. My parents, who worked hard, believed that boys like me who fought right, won at cards and played fair could fend for themselves. Sisters were another act altogether, they thought.
We played in the Presbyterian church courtyard, because in this Asian barrio of four-storied walk-ups and small shops, open space was at a premium. Some of us believed in the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost. Others came just for the space, the friendship, or to check the girls out who came on Sunday for the morning English worship. We were second or third generation offspring of working-class Chinatown families descended from Cantonese peasants from villages in the Pearl River Delta.
The head of this church was a burly American reverend of Germanic descent, who was a “father” to us—especially the boys. He followed a long line of “Jesus men”—the Reverends William Speer, Otis Gibson, Ira Condit—who had come to Chinatown a century before to teach “heathens” how to pray. For these white missionaries, many of whom were previously stationed in Shanghai, Ningbo and Canton, the Chinatowns of America were the last Chinese settlements left to conquer. Churches and mission houses duly dotted every third block of my neighborhood: Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, Adventist, Presbyterian, and the True Sunshine Mission.
In a baritone voice, the reverend ruled his Chinatown roost. He had a special way of explaining the variations of love to us with Greek terms: philia, agape, eros. Usually he’d take us into his office, a wood-paneled inner sanctum lined with bookshelves and knicknacks, and explain doctrine and desire to us patiently. Then there were stories of fishermen who dropped their nets on the sand to follow Jesus. Fallen women picked up their lives and children again after meeting him. Monkeys and goats, tigers and donkeys in pairs, gingerly stepped onto the giant wooden ark fearing the violent sea beneath them. Being saved, in essence, was a matter of faith and grace that could only be accepted, not earned.
After basketball that day he called me into his office. He whispered agape in my ear. It was not his paternal smile or familiar words that disturbed me this time. It was another feeling which I could not name. Suddenly I felt his body—twice as wide and whiter than my real Chinese father—pressed against mine.
His litany worked its way slowly under my skin, soft shrapnel designed for a war I could not win.
“How doth move a missionary’s hand?”
“Save me with your hands on my chest and legs. Promise not to tell in the name of him who died to save us all.”
Were these my words or his?
“Who moves inside me, plucks ribs, forks intestines, enters esophagus, takes tongue?”
“What is a mercenary’s hand doing here?”
I grasped the fingers of his hand.
“Where is the shame, what’s in a name?”
“What’s this evil game?”
My body tailspun like a basketball out of court. I cried Foul. The invocation continued relentlessly…
Flesh versus spirit.
Age versus Youth.
Christian versus Pagan.
Occident versus the Orient.
Colonizer versus the Colonized.
No one could sense my fear behind the mashing of mah-jongg tiles and the buzz of sewing machines in the Chinatown alley. The litany both infuriated and intoxicated me. Mekong machetes sliced their way through bamboo. My legs ran of their own accord, but without a map I was lost. Under his irreverent hands my body slipped.
Like a chipped Chinatown roof tile unloosened, I fell from the eaves to the ground. I fled the enclave of my youth. Condemned to silence by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I never said a word to my brother, my parents or friends. My T-shirt was sweaty and dirty. Even after I showered and washed the shirt I could not rid myself of the nameless love and hatred that rose and stuck in my throat. I was estranged from the person I once was.
When I left Chinatown I did not want any more to do with religion or Asia, or with the ornamental figurines that graced curio shops in the form of plastic mock-ivory statues of Confucius, Buddha, or Kwan-Yin—goddess of mercy. None of them would lift a hand to save me, an ordinary boy of no consequence. They were one and the same to me—interchangable icons and images that could be bought, sold, used to decorate home altars, the top of television sets or the mantels of cramped Chinatown apartments.
If Christianity betrayed my generation, Buddhism was no less alien to my nature. Buddhism was something that only white poets went to Japan or China to do. They grew beards, wore cotton robes and sandals, and made pilgrimages to Nara and Nepal between bouts of the drugs and sex of the 70s. They had no relation to me. For the most part, they regarded Asians like myself who were born in the Americas as somehow inauthentic. After all, our complex history in this country contradicted all their notions of orientalness—spiritual, aesthetic or material.
But neither could I relate to the middle-class Mahayana Buddhist temples in Chinatown with their slick gold icons, red carpets and well-dressed Asian Americans who attended services on Sundays. I did, however, visit our family association temple sometimes, with its lacquered gilt statues of Kwan-Kung, the warrior-guardian of borders and of the seas. The clicking of joss sticks and the sweetish burnt smell of incense in front of ancestral tablets on the wall hooked me in their narcotic way. Whatever moved through me was as intangible as smoke.
During the next two decades I found myself craving the looser embraces of women and men. I steeped myself in alcohol, and believed, wrongly, that through another’s love or loneness, I could be desired or diminished. One day desired, the next day abandoned. That rift was the result of my staying in one place or another: New York, Seattle, Taipei, Hong Kong, Naha, Tokyo, Kyoto, Los Angeles. Streets meshed and merged in five languages, then lost me again. There was no place like home. Yet I never wanted to go home again.
In these countries so foreign to my upbringing, I had always found myself unexpectedly alone in temples or gardens. Outside of Kyoto once I found myself at a small Zen temple, in Ohara. Abandoned by the usual groups of Japanese tourists snapping photographs, I was standing alone with the old granite stones in the garden. Then I realized the temple was closing for the day. Even the brown-robed monks had overlooked my silent presence. They smiled when they discovered they had almost locked me in for the night. Maybe I should have stayed there then—joined the ancient noble family of stones, and never left. I remember that stillness which was not entirely empty. The dusk was filled with the small summer noises of shifting branches and evening doves.
Later, and further south along the archipelago, Formosa emerged like a green turtle from the sea. Taipei, its capital, was still under martial law. No matter to me, I was an American citizen, seemingly invincible, like all arrogant young Americans those days. I hopped on the Hsinyi Bus No. 10 to reach the old Taiwanese section of the city, Yuan Wan, where preserved rattlesnakes in glass apothecary jars lined the storefronts of herbalists, and kept girls in Japanese wooden and paper houses vied for my money and pleasure.
Alongside of the bus Mormon missionaries pedaled on their bicycles, their polyester shirts soured by their large pink bodies, armpits damp with the sweat of faith. As part of their missionary training they had to spend a year or two in a foreign country, in Asia, Africa, or Latin America. They, and the Seventh Day Adventists, competed for the island’s brown souls: Taiwan mountain aborigines, innocent country folk, unrepentant bar girls.
The dusk cooled the streets. Outside some of the older Japanese houses, young girls of no more than fifteen or sixteen were dusting the cobblestoned alleys clean, preparing for evening. After dusk fell, many of these same girls would smear their lips red and anoint their cheeks with rouge, and in their thin, cheap cotton dresses pull and tug at the shirt sleeves of any local man who passed through the alleys, urged on by their mama-san who took most of their meager tips. The brothel madame was usually a middle-aged, heavyset woman in a floral print dress, a brightly made up apparition who cursed at her indentured girls.
One time, I had gone up with a young woman to her reed-matted cubicle, lit by a single bulb. She dipped a white hand towel in a tin basin filled with an astringent mixture of water and vinegar, and told me to pull down my pants. I did, and she cleaned my body with the towel before she pulled up her blouse and placed my hand on her small breasts the size of half-tangerines. I tried to kiss them, but I could not get excited by her naked body. Not because of her sex, but because of her age. She looked away from me without smiling. I apologized, hurriedly put on my clothes and left ten dollars on the worn mat.
Anxiously, I paced the cobblestoned streets. I was a character in a film rewinding upon itself over and over again. Yet I could not escape those slender white arms that tugged and pulled at my short sleeved shirt, at my chest and waist. Painted faces were the ghosts of children entangled in their bondage. They laughed at me in disdain when I ignored their pleas and the harsher cries of the older women who owned their bodies.
I found myself stumbling into a small sidestreet doorway, partly to escape them. It turned out to be a shelter for sailors and seafarers, to Tien Hou, goddess of sailors and protector of the seas. I fell, my knees scraping the worn brick floor of the temple. Tears began to blur my vision. I was no different than those teenaged prostitutes. They also had learnt to perform acts of love against their feelings.
I, too, was floating on the sea of desire with no sign of harbor. When would I return to myself? Where was my community?
I am a middle-aged man now, forty-four, in fact. Memory compresses my temples, creases my face, skews my smile. Memory curbs even my prayers to Buddha. My body, no longer lean or agile, is flaccid like that of the nocturnal madames whom I had encountered in red-lit alleyways years ago.
The trapped, stale smells of vinegar, sweat and sex unfold in the folds of memory.
My skin absorbs the pummeling of the pale small hands of nameless girls and boys. But their bruises remain hidden within me, buried beneath the skin’s surface. At least with this body, older and tougher now, I can shield each face and hand from further pain.
I return to Malibu. For, shortly after the retreat, my friend Jandro died unexpectedly, followed by the Malibu brushfires and the earthquake. It was as if the moment I turned my face away, he, the mountains, and the earth changed into dust.
I remember the forty-ninth day after Jandro’s death, the Buddhist day of reckoning for the soul of one who has died. At dusk, I drive for an hour in the rain to meet his family at the temple. Inside, his mother has brought orchids and incense for the altar, and square packets of facsimile gold and silver money to burn, as some Chinese from the old country still do. Two of the temple women take the three-foot-wide cardboard house, papier-maché figures of a female and male servant holding a tray, teacup and towel, replicas of a Mercedes Benz and a trunk full of tissue clothing to the patio and set them ablaze with a cigarette lighter.
“Jandro will be richer in his next life,” his mother whispers to me.
“And he will always have someone to take care of him,” I reply.
Behind the monk, through the glass patio windows, flame, smoke, ashes and darkness engulf the space. A single, lime-green orchid dances against the orange flames, separated by a thin wall of glass. The monk turns to us: “Let him go onto the next life.”
Now, sometimes in my yard below the green leaves of trees, I hear the whirring of wings and see hummingbirds scramble for a perch between form and nothingness. 1994. We are seven days into spring.
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