An unfinished story about understanding and empathy. The protagonist is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in his early teens.
Every summer, an ensemble of Buddhist monks would gather together in the countryside, providing guidance for participants in a series of Buddhist retreats. As one neared the venue from the highway, they would see two dormitory like structures with brown triangular roofs, dwarfing the closest barns and sheds, and perched on top of an incline among vast golden fields and speckles of trees.
One of these structures actually functioned as living and eating quarters, but the other was called the meditation hall. Two bookshelves sat on one end of the hall flanking a long pedestaled table covered in white silk. A small white Buddha statue sat in the middle, a ceramic incense bowl placed in the Buddha’s eternal downcast vigil. Behind the altar was an alcove separated from the hall by a wall that allowed passage in between the altar’s sides and the bookshelves. The alcove had its own altar that was flush against the wall; a towering wooden partition rising out of a long table with its own incense bowl, the partition filled with rows of niches displaying hundreds of small plaques framing pictures of the deceased.
Three dozen Caucasians participating in the mindfulness retreat for English speaking practitioners were sitting on mats and emulating the statues behaviour around me. We were sitting in rows of semicircles about 3 feet apart of each other on one side of the hall and the lecturer facing us was a Vietnamese monk wearing a brown sleeved robe. Behind him, four windows displaying cool colours descended into the orange of a furnace, the rings in the lacquered hardwood floor reflecting the sky as a shimmering still life. We just finished listening to him explain how meditating on the suffering of others cultivates compassion. Few people straightened their backs to prepare for the mindful deep breaths that were done to conclude every function taking place in the hall, the conclusion only starting once the monk used a mallet wrapped in saffron fabric to sound a large black bell beside him three times. The bell was shaped like a giant bowl but the sound, as described by my teacher, was the voice of the Buddha, guiding us back to the present, bringing us peace, and I needed peace quite urgently.
The monk took a sip of water from a glass beside the bell and I clutched my robes counting twelve seconds before he put the cup back down. “Before we conclude, I would like us to spend ten more minutes to apply what I shared today.”
I glanced at the clock. We had been sitting for almost two hours. My head wilted. When I looked up a moment later, the monk’s dark eyes were on me, and I knew I would get a tedious lecture from him entailing how people new to practice loved to sit as long as I did, but were past middle-aged, quadrupling my teen years, and therefore should make me feel embarrassed since I lived under his tutelage for four years. I began to recall other displeasures from my past.
“But I’ve been in hundreds of lectures and I’ve heard topics being repeated a lot.” I whined a few months ago after answering to his objection on my patience. He had brought me into his study. I used to sleep in there with other novice monks during the first two years of my stay in the temple, but nowadays, most of his time was spent on the needs of others and he would often travel abroad giving lectures, providing counsel, and offering prayers in countless funerals. Aside from the area accommodating his bed’s headboard, the entire room was covered with bookshelves containing Vietnamese treatises greying at the edges.
“And I won’t stop repeating myself until you’ve applied anything I’ve said,” he replied. I opened my mouth, but he raised his eyebrows, accentuating perhaps too many wrinkles for a face a little over thirty years old.
My prowess for patience had grown, begrudgingly, but I currently wanted to apologize to a girl named Laura sitting behind many people and I was only able to see her if I leaned forward. She visited the temple occasionally because her mother often came to help with preparing meals during large events. I sometimes saw the nuns lead Laura’s mother to their quarters below the meditation hall, and besides the soft chortling, a tart but aromatic smell of herbal ointments emanated from their door (is this necessary? Could leaving this add to the mystery of how even compassionate people are less observant of the needy?). I only started getting to know Laura when the retreat started. Laura was the youngest after me and from her overt gestures and dynamic voice not only reassured me in knowing she enjoyed her stay, her flamboyance captivated me as she voiced anecdotes and complaints about a seemingly normal life during post-secondary and work. I told her how everyone at my school was too nice to me because I was a monk. (implies that they don’t treat me properly)
Before the lecture I was currently attending, Laura approached me when I was sitting on a bench surrounding a poplar tree that faced a twinkling pond on the foot of the grassy incline the meditation hall overlooked. The sun was beginning its descent behind the hall, its glare smothering some of what we saw above the hill.
“If only you went to France with the other young monks,” she said with a small smile. “I hear the meditation centre there is more beautiful than what you have here.” (cop out)
I gave her a flat stare, and saw wet tufts of her long black hair around her face. Her eyelids, usually hidden to show curious caramel eyes, were now covering half of her brown iris’s. “Are you okay?” I asked.
“Is it that obvious?” Her hand rubbed her cheek. She sat down and I listened to the trill of chickadees perched among leaves rustling in my periphery and from afar. “I just saw hospital paperwork in my mother’s bag,” she said. It wasn’t the first time I heard Laura mention her mother’s illness. “She doesn’t tell anyone anything.” Laura balled her hands. “What if she’s dying?”
“She probably didn’t want you to worry.”
“I just heard those words from her.” Laura rolled her eyes at me. “I swear, the only honest conversation I’ll have with her is when its too late.”
A stern countenance was never directed at me by anyone other than my teacher and I blinked at the rare outburst. “Even then, your anger is destructive to her and to yourself.” I said coolly, paraphrasing what my teacher recently recited during a funeral service.
“Easier said than done,” she said without missing a beat while narrowing her eyes. “I’d like to see you stay calm in my situation.”
“No it isn’t,” I said without looking at her.
“Okay,” she said while standing up to walk up the hill. “I need to be alone.” The sun’s glare prevented me from seeing her eyes before her head turned away and I envisioned a wide-eyed stare of disdain.
Once she was nearing the hill’s zenith, I sighed, puzzled at her sudden unfavourable reaction towards my wisdom and good will, but I started thinking about Laura’s mother. She was soft-spoken but was always smiling. A lot of conversations I saw but did not hear between mother and daughter led to a Laura with an annoyance that I thought matched my own after the occasional phone call I had from my over-loving mother living nearly a thousand kilometres away. Laura was probably just overreacting to the situation because I was confident in what the notion of death looked like.
My teacher sometimes took me, along with a small retinue of grey robed Buddhists, to murmur prayers for ill people in hospital beds surrounded by a silent family. Sometimes, said ill person would appear in coffins, more puffy and pale, and flanked by wreaths and vases of flowers in a funeral home. The acrid smell of formaldehyde overpowered my sincerity and the sandalwood scent from the burning incense held by my teacher standing beside me. No more silence, but a loud downcast vigil of Vietnamese chanting with every syllable accented by a mallet hitting a wooden drum, sobbing and hiccupping in the background from people sitting in pews or kneeling in front of the altar by the coffin. In the most recent funeral, I remember stopping my vigil, tightly shutting my eyes when the coffin was being sealed, anticipating people crookedly joining their palms in prayer like beggars as their sobbing turned into wailing. I eventually opened my eyes once my teacher’s back covered everything in my central vision consisting of the coffin leading the procession of invocators and mourners to the crematorium. I looked up. Only in that moment do I remember conjuring any shred of good will. I saw the purple canvas present in every funeral hanging above the pulpit the coffin used to be on, and covering a wide window displaying an evening sky. Colourful embroideries on the canvas included a dragon and phoenix frolicking around lotuses with a group of smiling children, and in the centre, four Vietnamese words that said “to be born in the pure land.” Peeking above the canvas, the pointed head and arms of a cross; a white spire on a horizon where purple sea met the gold-rimmed clouds outside.
I heard the reverberating, unending sound of a bell, and found myself back to the present in the silent meditation hall, feeling self-conscious from the slack-jawed stare I gave to a window just seconds ago. I leered back and forth to see if anyone was observing me but only saw stillness. The bell was struck again and I straightened my back for the third and final sound, for my only breath I was aware of that day.
We stood up, silently bowing our heads to my teacher, who replied in kind. Then we turned to the statue and bowed in unison. My teacher gave me a look void of emotion and I knew what would come, but for now, I would put away my mat onto another stack of them in the corner of the hall like all the other people. As I did so, I heard the low murmuring of men conversing, the quiet giggling of ladies _______ (establish “middle-age” through action). Two of them waved at me, giving me a slight bow of their heads. I bowed and waved back, but quickly turned to look around the hall. Laura had disappeared. My teacher was gone too.
(perhaps ;the ladies and men are appreciative of m my way of life)
“o em gee you impressive boy.”
“hes got his naughty and good side.” OR “ive been with him for awhile and im sure he’ll make a great teacher.”
“Thank you but teacher needs me.” Once I say this my pride disappears and im solemn.
Do I feel guilty? No I cannot. I blush with pride. (in this case then only 1 day of the retreat should have passed).
As I approached the exit at the side if the hall, I saw my teacher sitting in the alcove as he did several minutes ago. He was sitting on the sofa he always used when listening to the worries of others. Laura sat diagonal to him on a sofa touching the back of the alcove. The participants trickled out of the hall, showing curiosity when they saw my teacher, but were courteous to the mood of my teacher’s conversation, and as soon as the last of them had closed the exit with a click, I approached the alcove quietly, stopping beside the Buddha’s altar.
“Now she’s too unwell to work. Everyone is irritated with her because she doesn’t say anything about herself.” Laura said absentmindedly. She exhaled, her face dreamy, a picture window making all seem tranquil in the amber-lit alcove as sounds of voices and the shuffling of footwear faded.
“I thought something good would happen here,” she said. Her brow twitched. Accusatory eyes. “With respect, I never thought religion could be used to run from responsibility.”
Teacher and student opened their mouths, Teacher and Laura with emotion I’ve never seen and this teacher was the only one to shut everything. “I will talk to her.” he quietly said a moment later.
She nodded and they stood up. I quickly hid under the Buddha’s altar, concealed by its silk cloth. A nibbling fear of my teacher catching me made my stomach churn. He had an uncanny Buddha-like sixth sense for my antics in this building. I had experienced my first thrill of throwing a stuffed animal into a functioning ceiling fan in the hall and then my first fear of the world ending when he walked into the hall before I could throw a second time. To my relief however, I heard the exit open and the sound of a click. I waited a few moments for silence and pulled myself out from under the altar, my back leaning on a pedestal leg. I stared at the hall’s floor that seemed to stretch very far.
People always smiled and developed respect for my teacher after he had talked to them. But today, he didn’t act like a venerable, didn’t try to change Laura’s expression that replayed itself over in my mind. He did not defend his reason for living. He did nothing.
The exit opened again and I jerked myself up to a standing position, eyes wide at the door anticipating my teacher but seeing Laura’s mother, wet cheeks with laboured breath. As our eyes met, she pursed her lips but took a deep breath and wiped her face, impressively manipulating herself into a calm countenance. With her chest and chin thrust out, she looked like Laura’s twin.
“Cleaning the altar when you should be eating?” She shook her head, but a playful smile formed dimples on her otherwise smooth face. “Teacher would be proud.”
“Are you okay?” I asked. “Laura told me everything.”
“I don’t know what she said but don’t listen to her nonsense,” she replied while walking towards the altar. She knelt down before the statue but asked, “aren’t you hungry?”
“Maybe you should stop hiding things from Laura,” I said. “I think it would help both you and her if you shared your problems.” Her smile froze. “Maybe I could help.”
“You should have dinner.” she said a beat late. She joined her palms, head turned to the statue. “Teacher is eating and he’ll be concerned if you’re not there.”
“I thought teacher was supposed to talk to you.”