The SHƯ Fu

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

Geist - - Contents - Joe Bon­giorno

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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 “SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ Fu into your heart.”

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

Afew 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ Fu hung on the wall.

Loud­speak­ers played what sounded like Chi­nese pop mu­sic, ex­cept the only lyric was SHƯ 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 SHƯ Fu, is a lawyer,” he said.

“The SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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 SHƯ Fu spoke. The crowd re­sponded in uni­son. Very slowly, the SHƯ Fu rose. The crowd of pur­ple-wear­ing fol­low­ers bobbed back and forth, eyes tear­ing with grat­i­tude as their mas­ter spoke over the loud­speak­ers. The mo­ment of lib­er­a­tion had come: the SHƯ 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 SHƯ 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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