Dispatches

The Shī Fu

Joe Bongiorno

“Do you want to meet the master?” Dino said

This way,” my colleague Yang said. She led me into the waffle house on the first level of a high-rise building complex in Zhu Bei, a city of about 175,000 people in the northwest of Taiwan, made up of half-empty luxury condos recently built to house the engineers working consecutive twenty-four-hour shifts at the Science Park. There had been three cases of death by overwork in the previous nine months, yet I had come for peace of mind.

It was a typical August night: 38 degrees with 97 percent humidity. Sweat was dripping down my chin. When I opened the door of the restaurant, a blast of cold air hit me.

“You can sit here,” Yang said with a slight bow. We sat at the booth across from a petite middle-aged woman.

“My English name is Chlorophyll,” the woman said, bowing her head again.

“Chlorophyll?” I said.

“Chlorophyll,” she said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, registering it as another memorable English name I encountered in Taiwan, like Sarin and Hamburger.

“Please order something. My treat,” Chlorophyll said in staccato English, handing me the menu. I thanked her, accustomed to having every member of Taiwanese society offer to pay for my meals or undercharge me for a service on account of my white skin. I ordered the ham and cheese waffle and a tapioca pearl mango drink. Yang, smiling dutifully, didn’t look at the menu.

“You are English teacher?”

“Yes.”

“English is very important,” Chlorophyll said and then giggled for no apparent reason.

“Yang and I work together at the international school,” I said, glancing at Yang, who smiled, revealing electric pink braces. “She asked me to come tonight.”

I had revealed to Yang my interest in going on a Buddhist retreat and she had assured me she knew just the place.

“So why you want to meditate with us?”

“Happiness,” I said, sucking the tapioca pearls up the straw. “Achieving enlightenment, breaking the endless cycle of pain in the pursuit of possessions, that kind of thing. I need, you know, direction.”

“I see,” Chlorophyll said, looking impressed. Yang nodded.

I took a bite of the waffle and chewed discreetly.

“Joe,” Chlorophyll said in a low voice and hunched forward. “Do you want to meet the living Buddha?”

“You mean like the Dalai Lama?” I said.

“Who?” she asked, exchanging words with Yang in Mandarin.

“Our master, the Shī Fu, is the living Buddha. You are so lucky to live in his lifetime.”

“You’re saying the Buddha lives here in Taiwan?”

She nodded. “Maybe it is like, how do you say, destiny.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Yes,” Yang joined in. “I think you will say that you are changed after you meet the Shī Fu. He change all our lives. Before, my mother and I argue all the time. Now we are daughter and mother again. You will see,” she said confidently. “He free us from our pain when we meditate with him.”

I pictured the hand of a stranger reaching out and resting on my forehead, releasing me of twenty-seven years’ worth of anguish. “Awesome,” I said with a mouth full of cheesy waffle, wiping the crumbs from my mouth with a napkin.

“You will see,” Chlorophyll repeated. “Are you excited?”

“Very excited,” I said.

“Oh,” Chlorophyll said, looking at her watch, “it’s time to go. We are getting late.”

She paid for my meal and we took the elevator to the eleventh floor of the same building. When the doors opened, two doormen in matching purple tracksuits and earpieces stood inside. One of the doormen placed a blue sticker on my shirt.

“What are the stickers for?” I said.

“Blue is for visitor. Yellow is for member and orange is for the elder brothers and sisters,” Yang said, pointing to the orange sticker on her breast.

“This way,” Chlorophyll said, leading me through the narrow whitewalled corridors lined with queuing members of all ages in identical purple T-shirts. I wore shorts, flip-flops and a tank top that revealed an excess of body hair. We went up several flights of stairs, skipping past more doormen and brothers and sisters.

Before moving to Asia, I’d read the Tibetan Book of the Dead and renounced the degeneracy of Western values. I thought I’d climb a mountain summit to meditate with om-chanting monks and purge myself of angst and cynicism. Instead, I was in the long hallways of a converted office space above a waffle house. Still, I was willing to ignore my surroundings for a chance at finding something greater than myself. I breathed in, imagining the mental fog clearing out in a moment of cleansing. Maybe by the end, I would have Yang’s optimism and calmness of spirit. Maybe I could finally be a better person.

“I want you to meet someone,” Chlorophyll said, gesturing to someone standing behind me. “His English better than me. Come, Yang, we must help the brothers and sisters prepare for the next service.”

“See you soon,” Yang said, flashing her sparkling pink braces.

I turned and looked up, meeting the eyes of a towering, big-boned brother in eyeglasses and a purple T-shirt.

“Hi, I am Jun, but my English name is Dino,” he said.

We shook hands.

“This is where you register.” He pointed to a group of people, who were lined up at what looked like a checkout. “I will translate for you. I am mechanical engineer, but I also study English.”

The woman at the checkout handed me a ballpoint pen and a document written in Mandarin.

“Okay, so write your name here,” Dino said.

I wrote my name in big round letters. “Now, it cost three hundred New Taiwan dollars,” Dino said. “That includes permanent use of the facilities.”

I handed over the money, the equivalent of fifteen Canadian dollars. The woman at the checkout searched through her fanny pack for change and handed it to me. She typed my name into the computer system. Then she gave me a receipt and a nametag with a barcode and proceeded to the next person in line.

“Remember,” Dino said, “it’s tax deductible, so keep the receipt.”

I folded the receipt and put it in my pocket.

“This way,” he said, bringing me to a space walled off by a room divider. “I show you how to meditate. Please, sit down on the mat.”

I sat down cross-legged, facing Dino.

“First, back straight,” he said, politely clearing his throat. “When you hear this chant,” he said, and chanted something in Mandarin I did not understand, “you must bring your hands together, putting your left thumb over your right thumb. This is Diamond Lotus mudra. Raise your hands to your head and kneel forward to show respect to the Buddha. Focus on the heart chakra in the centre of your chest and curl your tongue. When you hear this chant,” he said, and chanted again in Mandarin, “you raise your head and repeat.”

I repeated the words and gestures, misplacing my hands and mispronouncing the words.

“Now, when you hear the chant,” he said, chanting again in Mandarin, “you repeat, changing focus to the third eye chakra.” He pointed to the space between his eyebrows. “Then you will hear the same chant again and you must repeat, focusing on the master’s loving kindness.”

“What do the chants mean in English?” I asked.

“Gratitude to the master. Praise to you, master,” Dino said, his face lighting up with an expression of tranquility. “If you don’t speak Chinese, you will not understand in your mind, but you will understand in your heart. When we talk about the master, we are filled with his loving-kindness,” he said. “Are you ready?”

“Ready,” I said, getting up from the mat.

He led me to the doors of what looked like a tightly packed conference room. Brothers and sisters sat crosslegged on the floor and the old and disabled sat on foldable chairs along the walls.

“You may go in,” he said and bowed.

I stepped in, sitting in the first available place. A man on the verge of tears spoke passionately in words incomprehensible to me, repeating “Shī Fu” again and again. He bowed and let a nun dressed in black and white robes standing on the pedestal take control of the service. She spoke slowly and sedately. Behind her hung a life-sized portrait of the Shī Fu. He looked like an average, white-collar Taiwanese man in a white robe and a jade necklace. He posed in the lotus position with palms skyward.

The nun spoke in Mandarin and soon my mind began to wander. After what felt like an hour I was submerged in the undertow of boredom and incomprehension. Thoughts of filing taxes, Pilates and my receding hairline emerged in my mind. Then the meditation finally began and I was caught off guard. I mispronounced the words; my gestures were off cue.

Then it was over.

The brothers and sisters bowed. We left the room.

“Joe!” I heard someone call. I turned around. It was Chlorophyll.

“How was it? Did you feel it?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t think I understood anything.”

“You must be humble.”

“Humble?”

“Yes, humble,” she said. “Be humble and accept the Shī Fu into your heart.”

I nodded. I knew I was probably in the wrong place, but nirvana was worth another shot.

A few days later I took a deep breath and opened the temple door. The doorman scanned the barcode on my nametag, checked something off on the clipboard and placed a yellow sticker on my breast.

On the second floor, Dino was waiting with his hands clasped behind his back.

“Hello,” Dino said with a slight bow and friendly smile. “Happy to see you again.”

“Yes,” I answered, taken aback by his sudden appearance. There didn’t seem to be anything nefarious about him, no ulterior motive, only a clingy sense of goodwill.

“Right this way,” he said, once again escorting me past the purple queues to the doors of the packed conference room.

“See you soon,” he said with another bow of the head.

For the next hour and a half, I sat cross-legged in agony, focusing the energy in my being on absorbing the testimonials, prayers, or whatever it was they were saying. Again the first speaker was on the verge of tears. Then a monk took control of the service. He spoke in Mandarin. I found my mind drifting again. And then it was over.

Dino was waiting for me by the water cooler, polishing his glasses.

“How was it?”

“Good,” I said.

“I have great news,” he said. “Follow me and we will explain.”

I followed him to an office. A scrawny, spectacled man sat behind a desk. Yang was sitting on a couch. A woman with a yellow scrunchy in her hair brought me a cup of oolong tea.

“Hello,” said the man behind the desk. “I am Gino. Sorry, my English is not so good.” Dino stepped in to the office.

I looked around the room for a second. There was a calendar with a picture of the Shī Fu blessing his disciples; the clock read 10:30 p.m.

Gino began to speak and Dino translated. “You have great fortune. This weekend, the brothers and sisters are organizing a trip to Taipei to meditate with the master.”

“Three thousand people,” the woman with the scrunchy said.

“Do you want to meet the master?” Dino said.

“Well,” I stumbled for a second, glancing at the picture of the Shī Fu. I imagined his hand reaching for my forehead. “Sure,” I said.

“You must practise to cleanse yourself of karma,” Dino translated.

“So,” I interrupted. “If I meditate and follow the path of dharma, can I achieve enlightenment?”

“You must let go and let the master take away your bad karma,” Dino said.

“So, if I do that, can I…” I began.

Just then Gino and Dino spoke to each other in Mandarin.

“The Shī Fu,” Dino began again, “is like Jesus or Mohammed. He listens to Rú Lái.”

“What’s Rú Lái?” I asked.

“God,” Gino said firmly. “God?” I said.

“The Creator,” Dino said.

I glanced at Yang. She sensed my discomfort, and tried to defuse the conflict with her beaming pink smile.

“We must tell others about the Shī Fu,” Dino added, handing me a ballpoint pen and a document with an X on a dotted line. “Sorry, we not have in English.”

I looked at the paper.

“This paper say you agree to tell a new person every day about the Shī Fu,” Dino said.

“Every day?” I asked. “So this is a contract…”

“It can be friend, family or colleague. Anybody,” Dino said.

The pen shook in my hand as I signed.

Yang exhaled in relief.

“Great. Now to see the master you have to wear correct clothes,” Dino explained. He opened a box on the floor. “The T-shirt is three hundred NT, the sweater three hundred fifty NT and the tracksuit is five hundred NT.”

I took out my wallet, hoping it would spontaneously combust as a warning sign, but I needed to see the Shī Fu and stare divinity in the face. I took out three one hundred New Taiwan dollar bills and handed them over. The woman with the scrunchie handed me a purple T-shirt.

“You have to wash it inside out,” she said. “It must not touch dirty clothes. Wash it alone. It has the spirit of Rú Lái.”

The tag read 100% cotton, made in Bangladesh.

In a colossal gymnasium at the National Taipei University I sat cross-legged and hungover among three thousand people, focusing on my posture and the gases expanding in my gut. Dino took a seat at my right.

We faced a stage where a lotusshaped pedestal with a gold-coloured cushion on it sat. A large idol-like portrait of the Shī Fu hung on the wall. Notes & Dispatches 15 Loudspeakers played what sounded like Chinese pop music, except the only lyric was Shī Fu. Then the music stopped and a woman took the stage.

“She says thank you for being here,” Dino whispered in my ear. “Also, there is a donation box in the front. The master isn’t working today, so he can’t make money to eat or buy clothes.”

“What do you mean he’s not working today?” I whispered back.

“Miao Chan, our Shī Fu, is a lawyer,” he said.

“The Shī Fu is a lawyer?” I asked.

“Yes. For one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in Asia,” Dino said. He smiled with pride, not seeming to find anything suspicious or bizarre about worshipping a corporate lawyer.

“I see,” I mumbled.

“She is introducing the Shī Fu,” he said, closing his eyes. “When the master comes, he will take away our suffering.”

The brothers and sisters closed their eyes, but I kept one open, watching the Shī Fu take the stage with slow deliberate steps. With immaculately combed hair and a slim physique, he looked exactly like the man in the portrait, only shorter. Gently, he took a seat on the pedestal and sat in the lotus position. I stared at the guru, imagining him levitating and hypnotizing the crowd with his deep, resonant voice. Instead, he cleared his throat and spoke in a nasal tone. I sat, enduring the pain in my knees, searching for the message, but the longer I looked, the more I felt like I was watching a con artist.

The Shī Fu spoke. The crowd responded in unison. Very slowly, the Shī Fu rose. The crowd of purplewearing followers bobbed back and forth, eyes tearing with gratitude as their master spoke over the loudspeakers. The moment of liberation had come: the Shī Fu spread his arms like Jesus on a crucifix and his disciples leaned their heads back and pushed out their chests.

I looked around at the brothers and sisters around me. I watched their jaws slacken and muscles unknot.

“Gratitude to the master.”

“Praise to the master.”

I closed my eyes, forcing myself to ignore all better judgment. My heart raced but I muted all thought, inviting the Shī Fu to cleanse me of the sorrow accumulated over infinite lifetimes. My muscles unknotted and my jaw slackened. For a single moment, I sat numb and stupefied, but when I opened my eyes all I could see was a diminutive lawyer, posing with his arms open on a university stage. One muscle at a time, I rose to my feet and walked out the back door.

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Joe Bongiorno

Joe Bongiorno writes fiction and non-fiction. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Canadian and American publications including Geist, Event, Freefall, Broken Pencil and Carte Blanche. He was shortlisted for the 2018 Freefall Prose and Poetry Contest and he won the Event 2019 Speculative Writing Contest. Bongiorno is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. He lives in Montréal.

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