petals from the sky

Petals from the Sky

A
LSO BY
M
INGMEI
Y
IP

Peach Blossom Pavilion

Petals from the Sky

Mingmei Yip

KENSINGTON BOOKS

www.kensingtonbooks.com

To Geoffrey, loving husband and precious treasure

A thousand miles apart, yet the same moon shines over us all.

—Su Dongpo (1036–1101), Song dynasty poet

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

In writing a novel, between the first word and the last one, there is a long, head-scratching, and pencil-biting process of filling in the hundreds of pages in between.

This daunting task, seemingly solitary, could not have been completed without the help and support of many others.

First and foremost, I owe each of these 338 pages of
Petals from the Sky
to my husband, Geoffrey Redmond, an endocrinologist specializing in women’s hormones, himself an excellent writer with six books to his credit. Geoffrey is always my first reader, friendly critic, and trusted adviser, literary and otherwise.

I owe my ability to cheerfully complete my work to the great support and contagious enthusiasm of my agent, Susan Crawford, and my editor, Audrey LaFehr, whose appreciation and kindness would be any writer’s elixir.

I also want to give special thanks to my other Kensington supporters: Karen Auerbach, Maureen Cuddy, and Martin Biro, whose hard work and generosity contributed to the success of my first novel,
Peach Blossom Pavilion
.

I must mention some of the many other writers and writing instructors who helped me along a writer’s arduous, yet wonderful, path:

Neal Chandler, director of Cleveland State University’s Imagination Workshop, and a writing teacher par excellence.

Lewis Frumkes, director of Marymount Manhattan College’s Writing Center, who graciously invited me to many of Marymount’s literary events, where I was privileged to meet some of the great authors of our time.

Max Byrd, author of historical novels and workshop director of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Karen Joy Fowler,
New York Times
best-selling author of
The Jane Austin Book Club,
and instructor at the Imagination Workshop.

Andre Dubus III, author of
House of Sand and Fog,
an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and instructor at the Imagination Workshop.

Ray Strait, instructor, Palm Springs Writers’ Conference.

Kitty Griffin, my German “sister,” fellow children’s book writer, and coauthor of
The Foot-Stomping Adventures of Clementine Sweet
, whose generosity and kindness are rarely matched.

Lee Kochenderfer, author of young adult fiction—though our encounter was brief, her support for me has been more than generous.

Ellen Scordato, instructor and virtuoso grammarian, New School University, who patiently and generously answered my questions and solved my many puzzles of grammar that have no equivalent in my native Chinese.

Victor Turks, gracious host during my event at the City College of San Francisco.

My writer friends Sheila Weinstein, Esta Fischer, Chun Yu, Kathleen Spiveck, Baixi Su, and Shobhan Bantwal, for their generous help and delightful friendship.

Hannelore Hahn, founder and executive director—and her daughter Elizabeth Julia Stoumen—of the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG), for their untiring efforts to help make many women writers’ dreams come true.

And others to whom I am connected through happy karma in this Thousand-Miles-Rest Dust:

Teryle Ciaccia, close friend of two decades and fellow Tai Chi instructor, who never ceases to send me good
qi,
whether by phone or in person.

Elsbeth Reimann, fellow IWWG participant, who always keeps me cheerful at the IWWG’s annual conference at Skidmore.

Eugenia Oi Yan Yau, my one-time student, now distinguished professor of music and vocalist, upon whom I have always been able to rely. And, of course, her husband, Jose Santos.

In Chinese fashion, I must also acknowledge the overwhelming debt of a daughter to her parents. Without my parents’ vision and selfless support, I would not be who I am today: a happy woman whose dreams have come true.

For my other friends and readers, wherever in this world or another, the same moon shines over us all.

Contents

Part One

1. The Retreat

2. The Fall

3. To Accumulate More Merit

4. The Scarred Nun

5. Depending on Emptiness

6. The Fire

7. One Day When We Were Young

8. The Same Moon Shines Over Us All

9. The Peak

10. Decadent Pleasure

11. The Proposal

12. The Nun and the Prostitute

13. The Non-Nun Nun

14. Under the Paris Sun

Part Two

15. New York, New York

16. The Fortune-Teller

17. The Teenage Orphan

18. Reception at the Met

19. Beauty with a Limp

20. Philip Noble

21. Why Don’t You Try It with a Woman?

22. The Dying Kitten

23. Vegetable Root Zen Center

24. Men Are Nothing but Trouble

25. The Funeral

Part Three

26. Form Is Emptiness

27. The Golden Body

28. The Private Retreat

29. Wedding Pictures

30. A Trip to China

31. Great Protector of the Dharma

32. The Elevator

33. The Peach Blossom Garden

34. The Car Accident

35. The Hospital

36. The Missing Temple

Part Four

37. Bad Karma

38. Confessions

39. Ten Thousand Miles of Red Dust

Epilogue

A Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

PART ONE

1

The Retreat

M
other choked and spilled her tea. “
Ai-ya,
what evil person has planted this crazy idea into your head?”

I was twenty and had just told her my wish to become a Buddhist nun.

She stooped to wipe the stain from the floor, her waist disappearing into the fold of flesh around her middle. “Remember the daughter of your great-great-grandfather, who entered the nunnery because she was jilted by her fiancé? She had no face left; she had no name, no friends, no hair.

“She just sat the whole day like a statue; the only difference was she had a cushion to sit on. And she called that meditation.” Mother looked me in the eye. “Is that the life you want? No freedom, no love, no meat?”

Before I could respond, she plunged on: “Meng Ning, there are only three reasons a girl wants to become a nun: before she meets the right man, after she has met the wrong one, or worse, after the right one has turned out to be the wrong one.” Mother clicked her tongue and added, “Not until after you’ve tasted love, real love, then tell me again you want to be a nun.”

That had been ten years ago, but my wish to be a nun had not faltered.

Not until 1987, on a hot summer day in a Buddhist retreat in Hong Kong.

I hopped off the bus on Lantau Island and walked toward the Fragrant Spirit Temple—the oldest in the colony. The path led up a hill beside a maze of crumbling monastery walls over which trees spilled out as if to taste the forbidden world outside.

As I joined the crowd hastening to get under the cool shade of the foliage, a plump, middle-aged woman caught up with me, panting and grinning.

“Miss, is this the route to the Fragrant Spirit Temple for the Seven-Day-Temporary-Leave-Home-Buddhist-Retreat?”

I nodded and gestured toward the throng. Two thick, round pillars flanked the temple’s crimson gate. Above its lintel hung a wooden sign with four large, yellow, Chinese characters in ancient seal script:
MARVELOUS SCENERY OF GREAT COMPASSION
.

My heart raced. Within this gate for the next seven days, I would be tested for my karma to be, or not be, a Buddhist nun. At twenty, I had made up my mind to avoid the harassment of marriage. Now at thirty, I still couldn’t decide whether to remain in the dusty world as a single career woman, or to enter the empty world as a career nun.

Why should I feel so nervous? After all, in the absolute sense, is there a difference between a shaved head and one with three-thousand-threads-of-trouble?

Gingerly, I stepped through the crowd into the temple’s expansive lobby and a soothing aroma of jasmine incense. Activities were in full swing, with people assembling for the opening ceremony of the retreat. Electronic Buddhist music boomed from different corners of the two-hundred-year-old temple. I listened intently, seeking the music through layers of noise arising from gray-robed monks and nuns, black-robed workers, volunteers, and retreat participants. It was a synthesized version of the traditional Buddhist chant “Precious Incense Offered for Discipline and Meditation.” My heart instantly warmed to the familiar tune that I’d heard so many times. However, I still preferred the human voice, even when sung from the wrinkled lips of old monks and nuns. I hurried to the end of a long, slowly moving queue.

A little ahead of me stood a thirtyish man with a robust frame and light hair—a foreigner. Surely a devout Buddhist to have come all the way here to join the retreat.

I flung back my hair, feeling dulled by the heat and hating the sticky feeling of my blouse pasted to my back, unwilling to let go.

Looking around, I saw a gilded Buddha statue on a tall table, hands in the
abhaya
and
dana
mudras—the have-no-fear and wish-granting gestures. Flowers, fruits, and thick incense sticks in bronze burners crowded the rosewood surface encircling the golden figure. Under Buddha’s all-seeing gaze, an expensively dressed woman stuffed a pile of banknotes into the capacious belly of the
gongde xiang
—Merit Accumulating Box. How would she look if she shaved her head and wore a Buddhist robe?

“Looks very bad,” my mother would say whenever she saw a nun. “Meng Ning, you’re a very beautiful woman. Beautiful women deserve nice clothes, nice jewelry, and a nice husband.”

Mother was born in the year of the cat. And like a cat, she was snobbish, sensitive, sensuous. In elementary school, she was so cute and petite that her classmates used to call her “Little Sweetie.” Then she became “Coca-Cola” in high school. Of course Mother was sweet, bubbly, and as popular as Coke, but she’d told me what her classmates really meant was that her precocious body had the voluptuous shape of the soft-drink bottle.

Mother, beautiful in her youth, had a lot of nice jewelry and, according to her, a nice husband. But a miserable life. My father never bought Mother any of the jewelry; instead, he sold pieces of it so he could go to gambling houses to act like a big spender among the pretty hostesses who’d caress his face with one hand and rummage his pockets with the other. The jewelry came from my grandmother, a businesswoman in Taipei with a chain of jewelry stores.

My grandfather died young, leaving my grandmother with four bony kids and an empty stove. She used the jewelry repair skill she’d learned from Grandfather to obtain work as an apprentice in a small gold store. Later, she was able to start her own business, then expand. She had fourteen stores and more than two hundred employees before she died.

So during those years, the jewelry kept flowing like tap water into my mother’s life. But when Grandmother and Father died, they left Mother and me penniless. Grandmother left nearly all her money to her three sons, in accordance with the old Chinese belief that if one left money to daughters, it would eventually be lost to another name. However, she didn’t feel right leaving Mother nothing, so over the years she secretly sent Mother money and gave her part of her jewelry. But how would Grandmother feel if she could find out that not only had the jewelry not turned into food on our table, it had paid debts to the loan sharks?

Despite what Father had done, Mother’s eyes would moisten and her voice soften when she talked about her first and only love. “Your father was a romantic man. In our age, people had arranged marriages, but we married for love.”

Then she told me how Father had hidden a pistol in his pocket the night he proposed.

“Mei Lin”—he’d aimed the gun at his chest—“if you say no, I’ll blow my heart out!”

He was gone, and Mother had been the one left with a shattered heart.

That pistol always seemed to me a symbol of my parents’ marriage. It had never been fired, but was always there to suggest love, threat, and a bad choice. Their life had constantly shifted between passion and tension, with me squeezed between them like a cushion.

When I was ten, I came home one day and found my parents in a fight.

Mother wagged a finger at Father. “You’re a good-for-nothing poet. I can’t stand you anymore!”

My heart hurt to hear that. An unhappy marriage makes some women quiet and others garrulous; my mother was definitely among the latter.

“I can’t afford you anymore, you spoiled baby!” Father retorted.

“Spoiled? Have you sold your poems or calligraphy to buy me clothes and jewelry?”

Father was speechless for a moment; then he jumped up from the sofa, grabbed me, and shook my arm.

“How did your daughter grow so big if I haven’t paid for anything?”

“Do you really think you pay for her—”

Before Mother finished, Father let go of me and snatched my copy of
Dream of the Red Chamber
from the chipped coffee table. “Doesn’t this dream cost money?” Then he threw the book down and seized Mother’s TV magazines (we couldn’t afford a TV). “Doesn’t this gossip cost money?” He went on to grab the radio, the cracked teapot, my drawing book, my crayons, the day-old bread, asking the same question until he exhausted both the list and himself.

During their fight, I looked down at my feet so I didn’t have to look at their unhappy faces. I imagined my right big toe was my father. The left big one was my mother. The rest were the brothers and sisters I’d never had.

The little toe on the right was chubby, so he was the chubby little brother who’d died three days after he was born. The little left toe was as small as a peanut, and that was me. It always made me sad to look at my two little toes so far from each other, like the unbridgeable distance between us. Would my little brother have lived if Father had stopped gambling?

When Father’s and Mother’s voices grew angrier, I moved my toes together as if they had stopped quarreling. Married life didn’t appeal to me at all, not even when based on love. Perhaps a nun’s life would be better. Later I thought so because of a secret I’d never told anyone since the day I fell into the well.

2

The Fall

I
t was the day after my thirteenth birthday. Father had just lost five thousand dollars in a casino in Macau, forcing our family to move from Tsim Sha Tsui, the bustling commercial district in Kowloon, to a village house in remote Yuen Long. The rent was two hundred Hong Kong dollars, three times cheaper than what we’d paid in the city.

In the communal backyard behind our house was an abandoned well surrounded by tall grass that whispered when the wind blew on winter nights. Older villagers avoided the well because there were rumors that ghosts dwelled in it. A hundred years before, a young concubine, with a stone tied around her neck, had jumped down the well to prove her innocence after being accused of having an affair with a wandering monk. People believed the well was so old that it had absorbed the essence of the sun, moon, stars, water, air, wind, sound, and light until it acquired a spirit of its own. A blind fortune-teller insisted the well was the third eye of an evil goddess who would observe the people above and snatch down the handsome ones—especially children—to feed her jealousy.

While children were warned to stay away from the forbidden opening, the younger adults didn’t care about it one way or another. They simply regarded the well in a practical way—as a trash bin.

As for myself, the myth pricked my curiosity during my lonely adolescence. I’d sneak to the well and stare down into the space below. Most of the time what I saw was completely different from the villagers’ descriptions. Rather than frightening, I found it fascinating. In the dim light, I could make out all kinds of objects—blankets, books, branches, twigs, papers, clothes—thrown down through a gaping hole in the mesh that covered the well’s mouth. I imagined a diary hidden among the piles of refuse, words inscribed on tear-streaked rice paper in vigorous calligraphy by the doomed concubine to bitterly lament her innocence. I also imagined photographs, faded and brownish, of forgotten people. A young bride, a happy family, the sad-faced concubine with her bald lover, a chubby baby with eyes widened as if asking: why was I thrown into this cold world?

During days of heavy rain, water would rise from the bottom and I’d see my own reflection with a small, round piece of blue sky floating behind my head. Sometimes I’d hear noises whispering below when the wind stirred the long grass aboveground. One evening I saw the reflection of the moon, so round and pregnant that I thought she might burst and drop into the well and make a splash so loud it would wake everybody from their dreams.

On other evenings, I saw stars peeking shyly at their own images. I would throw down a stone and watch the reflection split into tiny diamonds, like those that had once sparkled on my mother’s pretty fingers. I imagined time itself reflected on the circle of water and, like a kite snapped off from its string, flying away through the opening, carrying away memories of color, smell, and touch.

Whenever I peeked into the well, I felt the evil goddess also staring back at me, her eye hidden. She’d watch my every move and absorb my heart’s deepest secrets. She made me see—by linking the earth and the sky together—another world, familiar yet strange. She was the third eye connecting me to a larger, mysterious universe.

I’d always wondered how it would feel to be on the other side of the world.

One hot September afternoon as I studied, my parents began to fight over my father’s purchase of a pair of expensive shoes. Mother said he would rather feed his vanity than his family. He argued that a poet must retain his dignity. As my parents’ voices began to simmer and boil, I sneaked out to the backyard, went straight to the well and looked down, wondering what I could find this time to cheer me up: a book, a pillow, a doll, a puff of cloud floating in the sky? But in such dry weather I saw nothing except darkness. I looked up and met the angry glare of the sun.

Just when I began to feel uneasy and thought I should go back home, someone bumped me from behind. I lost my balance and plunged into the dark. I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious, but I woke up surrounded by a fresh coolness. Yet my head ached and my body was clammy with a cold, searing pain. My clothes were torn, my knees badly scraped, and my toes swollen like sausages. But I was alive! The trash in the well had cushioned my fall and saved my life. I kept thinking how ridiculous to be saved by a heap of rubbish. I could have laughed, except my joints throbbed as if on fire.

I looked up toward the dim light and saw blurred faces leaning over the well, staring down and howling, “Meng Ning, can you hear us?” “Are you all right?” “Don’t be afraid; we’ll get you out as quickly as possible!” I could hear my mother crying and see my father holding her tightly in his arms. The world above looked remote and alien. The people, yelling and gesturing wildly, seemed trapped in the circle of clear, blue sky.

But I was the one who was trapped. I tried shouting back, but the darkness, like a witch, snatched away my breath and swallowed my voice. My chest swelled and my heart jumped like ants in a hot wok. My knees were cut and sore. I wrapped some old dirty rags around them to stop the bleeding. I asked myself if it would be my fate to die, rotting with the garbage, in an obscure hole in the earth. The walls around me exuded the smell of decay and rotten fish. I reached out to touch the stone lining of the well, but immediately withdrew my hands when I felt a stickiness like the blood on my knees. I wanted to cry, but no tears came, only gasps.

I looked up again; people were still leaning over the well and looking down at me, with flashlights and kerosene lamps raised high in their hands. Their loud voices carried down to me, but I sensed hopelessness behind their frightened faces. I could almost see them cupping their mouths and whispering, “A doomed child, what can we do?”

Suddenly, I thought of the Guan Yin statue in my neighbor Mrs. Wong’s house and of how this plump woman used to ask the Goddess of Mercy to protect her ancestral graves, give her a son, even cure a cold. She’d kneel before the serene ceramic figure in its small shrine surrounded by lighted joss sticks and offerings of flowers and fruit. Then she would press her hands together, kowtow, and pour out fervent prayers. Now, imitating her, I put my hands together and whispered an ardent prayer to Guan Yin, pleading to her to get me safely out of the well.

I kept praying, ignoring the talking, arguing, and crying above, and the strong odor of vegetation, mildew, and rot surrounding me. Then something grazed my head and landed beside me on the ground with a soft plop. I picked it up and held it to the side of the well where the light was brighter. From a thin red string dangled a brightly colored Guan Yin pendant. The Goddess of Mercy wore an orange robe; her hands held a flask with a willow branch and her bare feet rode on a big fish that looked as if it were swimming toward me.

I felt a tinge of warmth.

I looked up and glimpsed my parents’ concerned faces. Mother was still sobbing; Father pulled her close to him. Other faces squeezed to lean over the well, looking down while competing with one another to offer comforts and suggestions. I frantically waved the pendant at them, then cupped my mouth with my hands and yelled at the top of my voice toward the opening, “Mama! Baba!” Suddenly hearing that I was very much alive, people got excited all over again. A child clapped. Several old people pressed their hands together and whispered prayers. Teenagers raised their index and middle fingers to show victory. My parents squeezed through the crowd to peek down at me. “Oh, thank heaven, Ning Ning, are you all right?!” Mother hollered and Father kissed her on her forehead, their earlier quarrel forgotten. Then, with my blurred vision, I saw a bald scalp above a pretty face, glistening in the sun. I blinked and strained, but the scalp and the face were no longer there.

The crowd continued to lean over the well, taking turns to keep me company and to throw down a blanket, a sweater, candies, cakes, even several comic books.

Everybody was talking to me to keep my spirits up. One old neighbor yelled, “We’ve called the firemen; they’ll be here any minute!” Another hollered, “We’re getting ropes and a basket to get you out!”

So I sat and waited with Guan Yin in my hand and all the people watching from above. The air was dense yet soft. I kept praying to the Goddess of Mercy until I felt my prayers deep underground and my fear dissipated. My hands pressed together and my lips moved as though I’d been practicing the ritual for a thousand years.

It was very strange, but I had begun to like this small world of my own. The rancid smell ceased to bother me. In fact, I felt soothed by the strange coziness of this space, now completely mine. I could almost feel the wall breathing faintly and wrapping close to me, the trash and withered foliage moving gently and warming my body. I listened to the well’s pulse beating with mine and felt a stab of gratitude both for my privacy below and for the care of so many people above.

When the villagers were ready to rescue me, they threw down more quilts. Voices shouted, “Meng Ning, spread them out under you!” Then came the long rope and the basket. The voices hollered again, “Get in!” Slowly, I climbed inside and curled up like a baby in the womb. The people above began to pull. The ascent was slow, cautious, wobbly at times, but steady. People kept yelling, “Meng Ning, don’t look down!”

But I couldn’t resist the temptation. I wanted to take one last look at the little round corner that had unexpectedly given me moments of peace. So I leaned over and looked down. I didn’t panic as the villagers had feared. Instead, I felt great tenderness for a larger realm that I couldn’t yet name. I recalled the reflection of the floating clouds in the shimmering water, the third eye forever following me when I moved, the pregnant moon, the peeking stars, the murmuring tunes of the grass at night….

Then I was suddenly in daylight again, being pulled out of the basket by my parents, who were crying and shouting, “Oh, Ning Ning! Thank heaven you’re okay!” All the neighbors took turns to comfort and greet me. Right then, the firemen arrived. I was immediately rushed to the hospital for a checkup. The doctor said besides a few bruises and cuts, I was fine, and miraculously, not a single bone was broken. He bandaged my knees, gave me a tetanus shot, and said I could go home.

After that, I was considered an extremely lucky child. The blind fortune-teller said any person who had survived such an ordeal could only be a reincarnation of Guan Yin. The villagers held a celebration party for me the next day. They made offerings to the ancestors and gods, then they roasted pigs, butchered chickens, gutted fish, warmed wine, and ignited firecrackers. They also showered me with gifts: lucky money in red envelopes, clothes, toys, books, crayons, my favorite Cadbury Fruit & Nut milk chocolate, first quality tea leaves, wine, even gold and silver ornaments, and small antique statues. My parents’ hands were intertwined during the whole evening, their eyes resting tenderly on me.

While I was pampered like a little princess, the two boys who’d knocked me down the well during their game of police-chasing-thieves were severely punished—each had his bottom whacked ten times with a thick stick. My plea that I actually had a good time down in the well landed on deaf ears. The villagers thought I was just being nice and adored me all the more. My neighbor Mrs. Wong gave me the best Iron Goddess of Mercy tea with rose petals, and a roasted chicken like the one she had offered to Guan Yin. Believing that they’d share my good luck, several villagers went to buy lottery tickets. After the banquet, my father took all my lucky money and slipped out to the gambling house.

I almost wished I would fall into the well again, so that Father would stop gambling and fighting with Mother. So I’d always be loved and treated like a goddess. So I could be left alone with just Guan Yin in that quiet place underground.

A few days later, I ran into Mrs. Wong. She told me that near my house was a nunnery dedicated to Guan Yin; she regularly went to pay her respects to the gilded Guan Yin statue sitting on a golden lotus. I soon began to visit the temple after school. Surrounded by glimmering candles and the fragrance of long-burning incense, I’d look up and pour out all my heart’s troubles to the Goddess’s beautiful image. I’d also watch the nuns’ kind faces as they housed and nurtured the orphans, fed the poor, cared for the old, prayed for the dead. Like Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, they plunged into the Ten Thousand Miles of Red Dust—the mortals’ field of passion—having sworn never to enter paradise even if only one soul was still left unsaved.

3

To Accumulate More Merit

N
ow inside the lobby of the Fragrant Spirit Temple, the line continued to move very slowly and people were starting to fidget. Electronic Buddhist music—the “Incantation of Great Compassion”—boomed from every corner of the monastery.

Because I had been too poor to afford it in the past, this was the first time I’d joined a retreat. I had little money, but I thought that at thirty, it was now or never. So I paid with the money I’d saved during my five years of study in Paris as a scholarship student and by doing odd jobs—assisting part-time in a small art gallery, sketching portraits for three francs each in Montmartre, and waitressing.

The temple quickly filled up with people of all ages, including quite a number of children. Some were sitting; others strutted around in their little black robes, their oversized sleeves trailing on the floor, making dry, brushing sounds. A few of the boys exhibited cleanly shaved heads; their pale scalps looked like strangely enlarged eggs under the hot July sun. Groups of men talked animatedly while waiting. I wondered what they were talking about, Buddhism or the stock market? Women whispered and giggled. Were they comparing the charitable deeds of the Goddess of Mercy to those of Princess Diana?

Next to a huge bronze incense burner a young couple gazed silently into each other’s eyes. After a while, the woman pulled out a tissue and wiped the moisture from the man’s face. The man gave her a grateful smile and patted her hand. Neither uttered a word. Buddhists say
xinxin xiangyin,
two hearts merge into one. However, their affection made me sad. It reminded me of the many times Mother looked at Father with silent admiration and affection when he was writing poems for her, able to forget for just a moment whatever else she knew about him. Or that our rice vat was almost empty.

It was finally my turn at the registration desk. A sour-faced woman with unruly wisps of black hair stabbed a meaty finger at my name on the thick registration sheet. “Miss Du Meng Ning, your fee for our Summer Buddhist Retreat is two thousand Hong Kong dollars. Have you brought your own Buddhist robe?”

I hadn’t. But if I chose to be a nun, I would be wearing the
kasaya,
the gray patchwork vestment. I feared I might miss the color, fabric, taste, and mood of all my other clothes. Especially the dress I was wearing now—purple flowers amid patches of green; whenever I wore it, I imagined myself in a purple dream shimmering with lotuses.

Moreover, I would also be given a Buddhist name. I wondered which would suit me best: Observing Mind, Solitary Light, Enlightened to Suchness, No Dust, or Empty Cloud? I hoped I wouldn’t be given the name of my great-great-grandfather’s daughter—No Name.

“Miss, have you brought your own Buddhist robe?” the registration woman repeated, waking me from my reverie. “It’s fifty dollars.”

“Oh, no, I’m sorry, since I’ve just come back from Paris—”

“All right, you don’t have one, no need to explain.”

The woman turned to search hastily among a pile of plastic-wrapped packages, pulled one out, tore it open, shook out a robe, scrutinized the inside collar, and handed it to me. Her quick action manifested like the single brush stroke of a Zen painting.

I carefully counted and handed her the money.

She frowned. “Don’t worry, miss, even if you pay more; it’s a donation to the monastery, and you’ll accumulate more merit for yourself.”

She emphasized the last word by raising her already loud voice. Was she trying to amplify the same benefit-nobody-but-yourself message to the people waiting behind me, or was it a self-interested version of the ancient wisdom, “To lose in order to gain”?

I turned and saw in the line behind me a lanky middle-aged man, a young woman talking rapidly with an elderly one, a couple with two bored-looking teenage boys, and two young girls, holding hands and giggling. I smiled at them, but all ignored my cordiality. What should I expect? Buddhist retreat or not, I was in Hong Kong, a city notorious for rudeness, crowding, and money craving. Then why had they come to the retreat? The woman’s words clanged like a bell in my ears—To Accumulate Your Own Merit. They saddened me; I’d never thought of joining the retreat to accumulate merit. I had come only to test my karma to be a nun.

Right then, something stirred outside. A shaft of sunlight dappled the temple’s rooftop. The amber tiles appeared to be rising and falling, resembling golden dragons in flight. A young nun floated by, her bald scalp glistening under the hot sun, her robe fluttering in the breeze. She looked happy and peaceful.

Had great-great-grandfather’s daughter No Name really been unhappy as a nun?

“Of course,” Mother had once said. “Since the day she entered the nunnery, she was never seen again. She refused to receive any visitors, not even her parents. They could only communicate with her through other nuns. And she refused to talk about anything but illusion, delusion, and emptiness. No Name died of brain cancer at twenty-eight. On her deathbed, she instructed that her body be cremated. So the nuns took her ashes to a high mountain and scattered them into the air. Her relatives said that was her karma—to have entered the empty gate so she would become emptiness.”

Mother had made a face. “But isn’t it funny that, if she thought about nothing but emptiness all day, she would die with her brain
full
of tumors?” She paused, widening her eyes. “I know she didn’t really die of a brain tumor”—Mother pointed to her chest—“but a broken heart.”

I let out a sigh.

The registration woman studied me with a worried look. “Miss, are you not feeling well?”

“Oh, I’m fine, thank you.”

“Good. Sorry to inquire, but I don’t want any trouble during the retreat. It’s already so busy, and we don’t have enough workers. You understand?”

I sighed again. This time she ignored me as she scribbled out a receipt, tore it off the pad with a threatening
zeeet!
and handed it to me with the retreat’s schedule, then picked up the small pile of money.

I took the receipt and began to peruse the map to find where the meditation classes would be held. Immediately I was interrupted by an angry cry; I looked up and saw her fingers waving like an eagle ready to attack.

“Wait, wait! Miss, one of your five-hundred-dollar bills is fake.”

“What?”

She fluttered the note, her face pinched like a bun. “This bill is fake!”

The people behind me now seemed suddenly awake. The lanky man eyed me suspiciously. The young woman stole glances at me, while whispering to her friend. The two young girls, blushing, stared at their feet. The two teenage boys laughed uncontrollably. I imagined—despite the risk of bad karma—smacking their faces with a sharp
thwack!

In order to get the most from my scanty savings, I’d asked a friend’s friend to exchange the Hong Kong dollars on the black market in Paris’s Chinatown. But how could I tell this to the registration woman?

Now she threatened to either cancel my registration or inform the temple. She thrust a pudgy finger at the long queue. “As you can see, miss, we can’t afford to waste time with this hoax.”

“Ma’am, there’s no hoax—”

“I mean what I say, and I only tell the truth. Now the truth is that your money is fake.”

Just then the foreigner I’d noticed before stepped forward and asked in English, “You need help?”

I looked at him and hesitated.

He asked again, his voice full of concern, “Something wrong? Can I help?”

Before I’d even decided what to do, I blurted out to him in English what had happened, as well as where and why I’d obtained the money.

He pulled out his wallet, fished out a five-hundred-dollar bill and laid it down on the counter, and then, looking very stern, said to the woman, “I think this is just a misunderstanding. This lady was cheated. She’s…my friend, and I’ll pay for her.”

Seeing that he was a foreigner, the registration woman flashed an obsequious grin and said in English, her voice now full of warmth, “Thank you, sir.” Then she addressed a young nun by the counter in Cantonese. “Shifu, would you please take this miss to the dorm?”

She turned back to me. “This Shifu will take you to your room.” Her grin was still stretched wide on her face. “Miss, sorry about the misunderstanding. No hard feelings, eh?”

I ignored her while extending my hand to thank the foreigner, feeling confused yet nevertheless grateful. “I’m Du Meng Ning. Thank you so much for your kindness. I’ll pay you back as soon as the retreat is over.” I looked at his eyes and noticed they were green.

Five hundred Hong Kong dollars was sixty-five U.S. dollars; why was this green-eyed foreigner so generous?

He smiled. “Don’t worry about it, Meng Ning. I’m Michael Fuller from the United States.”

I blurted out, “Meng Ning means tranquil dream….” Then my cheeks felt hot. Why had I just offered a piece of such personal information to this stranger?

“Beautiful,” he said.

“Thank you.” I blushed more. “And I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Fuller.”

Probably sensing my embarrassment, he nodded toward the young nun while addressing me. “Meng Ning, why don’t you let her take you to the dorm? We can talk later.”

“Sure,” I said. “And thanks again.” While I was turning away to follow the nun, I felt his eyes on my back. I was still wondering, why was this foreigner so generous to a total stranger?

With rapid steps, the young nun led me out of the lobby, then through a back passageway lined with potted plants and flowers. We passed groups at work: nuns washing vegetables or preparing tea; women dusting; others lighting incense; young girls washing plates in outdoor sinks or doing laundry in large wooden buckets.

An elderly nun loaded down with plastic bags of vegetables and food lumbered toward us. I put my hands together in the prayer gesture and smiled. “Good morning, Shifu.” “Shifu” means teacher, or master, the title of respect for Buddhist nuns and monks.

She smiled back. “Good morning, miss. Here for the retreat?”

“Yes,” I said, looking at the sunlight reflecting from the big beads of perspiration on her forehead.

“Hope you enjoy it,” she said sincerely.

“Thank you, Shifu. I will,” I answered respectfully.

Once she had passed by us, the young nun said, “She’s Wonderful Voyage Shifu, supervisor of the cooking for the retreat.”

“I see.” I turned around to look at the elderly nun’s receding back.

I always wanted to live a significant life like a nun’s. But Mother once asked, when we had just finished dinner, “What kind of success is it if you have no one to share it with? Look at your grandmother. She had cash in her purse and diamonds on her fingers, but no man in her heart to love. You want that kind of life?” Then she threw a big plate of fish bones into the garbage can, where it landed with a thump. “I don’t want to see my only daughter die a lonely old woman!” I understood her warning—if I didn’t get married, my destiny would be the same as that anonymous collection of fish bones.

The nun and I continued to walk toward the dormitory. We entered a small hall and ascended a broad wooden staircase. The nun climbed fast; I had to take two steps at a time to keep up.

She smiled back at me apologetically. “Do you know you are not allowed to make conversation during the whole retreat?”

“Oh, really?” The steepness of the steps made the climb a physical ordeal.

On the stairs, the nun’s cloth slippers thudded softly, like secrets told in whispers. She lowered her voice, her tone didactic. “Unless it’s absolutely necessary, talking is not permitted after the retreat has formally started. Also, one is not supposed to make noise during meals, like smacking lips or slurping noodles. Not that we want to be mean, we just try to show respect to the Dharma.”

I was amused by the idea of this little “meanness” committed in the name of Buddha’s law or, like the registration woman, in the name of knowing the truth.

We arrived at the top of the stairs and the beginning of a long corridor leading into different rooms. She spoke again, her voice high and excited, and her face flushed. “You know, because people come here to meditate, to find peace of mind, it is important to remain silent. Since both the sound and the content of speech can be distracting. Modern people who are under a lot of stress usually talk nonstop, to vent their frustrations and fill up their minds, so they won’t feel nervous and restless. But their conversations are mostly about worldly things: TV programs, soap operas, gossip columns…”

“I see.”

She finally stopped. “Here’s your dormitory.”

The room was huge and crowded with rows of steel bunks. The walls were empty except for a large photograph of a statue of Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy. Her half-closed eyes gazed down at the roomful of women. Under the picture the sweet smell of sandalwood wafted up from a bronze burner.

The nun showed me the location of the bathroom and my bunk bed. Back in the corridor, she continued, “Many people still talk even when they’re meditating. They don’t talk aloud, they chatter inside. We call this monkey mind, because it’s compulsive, like a monkey jumping from tree to tree.”

Suddenly she stopped to stick her head inside a doorway. “Ma’am, please don’t hang your underwear on the bunk. It’s not a very nice sight!”

Tired of her jabbering, I felt relieved that we’d arrived at the rows of stacked lockers. The nun handed me a key, looked at me intently, and instructed me not to lose it.

As she turned to leave, I called, “Shifu, what’s your name?”

She turned back. “Miao Ci.”

Compassionate Speech.

“Thank you very much, Miao Ci Shifu.” I tried my key in the locker while pondering the contrast between the symbolism of her name and her persistent chatter.

Irritated, I pushed hard on the locker door; it shut with a loud clang.

The nun startled, flashing an embarrassed grin. “Miss, I think you’re all set now.”

Sorry for my rudeness, I put my hands together and bowed deeply to her.