Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Now and Zen

As we know, wondrous things can occur in our own backyard, and it’s true that wherever we are we take ourselves with us. Still, experiences in travel to foreign lands hold special value and would not necessarily have occurred at home. Such, it would appear, is true of my trip to Taipei, Taiwan, in 1984. I had had magical things happen in my life, but this one is close to the top. What began as a gig doing voiceover for a Chinese teacher living in Seattle who was creating English tapes for her students in Taipei led to three rich months across the ocean teaching young Chinese students in person – as well as being taught.

It began when, in addition to the voiceover work, I was also doing some video editing with another of the “voices.” One day when he and I were in the editing suite, I excused myself to make a phone call to my landlord to let him know that I and my 11-year-old daughter would be leaving our apartment at the end of the month. I had been feeling it was time to move, but I hadn’t made the call; I felt a strong impulse to do so at just that moment, even though I had no idea about where we would be living next. (Yes, I tend to live on the edge.)

When I returned to the editing suite, my cohort announced that Ruth, the producer of the English-teaching tapes, had offered him a job in her school in Taipei for the summer, and he could take his little boy – but he wasn’t able to leave other responsibilities. “Wow,” I thought, “maybe that’s where we’ll be for the next little bit!” The journey had begun.

It took some talking, but I finally convinced Ruth that Rachel and I would be a positive addition to her staff there. While Ruth was friendly, she was also very careful. She did repay the tickets once we arrived there (and immediately on landing, I might add), and even took us on a tour of the southern part of Taiwan before we began work, which was a special treat, but held our return tickets until it was time to leave. Did I mind? Hardly. I wasn’t planning to leave anyway, so it wasn’t an issue. I was open to whatever this journey would bring.

While there were many adventures there, simple and complex, which still resonate in me, one that stands out had to do with my desire to study with a Zen master since, after all, I was close to where such practice began. But I hadn’t actually sought one out.

One beautiful Sunday, Rachel and I were at a nearby park, which was a common destination on a day off for anyone living in this teeming city. It was a very warm afternoon, with a little wind, so after sitting for a while, I left Rachel flying kites while I walked to the ice cream stand. On the way back, I passed a man walking in the opposite direction holding short bamboo sticks, two in each hand, with which he was clicking out a beat. I smiled and walked to his beat a bit. He was short, with shaved head, slight build, a mischievous smile, and simply dressed in khaki pants and shirt.

After I returned to my bench, I noticed him a short distance away entertaining a group of kids, and since I wanted to document everything I could on film, I walked over to him with my 35 mm. With touristy sign language, I indicated that I would love a photo of him, and he duly posed.
Then he walked toward me and handed me his bamboo sticks, with the obvious invitation to “play the sticks.” I tried, but needless to say I did not have the mastery, and by this time I was laughing along with the kids who were practically falling down in hysterics. When I handed the sticks back to him, he proceeded to hold them to his heart and sing, in virtually operatic tones, a song to me in his native language. I stood motionless in awe and appreciation, and at the end thanked him with a bow and a smile.

Later, he came over to where I was sitting and had something for me. He dropped a handful of white, fragrant blossoms into my open palm, and gave me a book of songs, handwritten in Taiwanese. He also gave me his business card with the Chinese side up. I turned it over -- it said “Zen Master.”

That week I had the photos developed and the next Sunday found him again in the park to give him prints as a thank you for letting me take his picture. I watched him for a while in his interactions with the people around him. Again, as was obvious the week before, I saw his combination of play and sing. He was in total glee as he relentlessly teased a pet monkey on a leash that was sitting on the shoulder of an elderly gentleman. In the next moment he was standing beneath a baobob tree, singing in his serious operatic style to the accompaniment of a classic single-stringed instrument played by a focused and very peaceful younger musician. A crowd had gathered.

I was grateful: I had, however briefly, studied with a Zen master. With the park as the “temple,” as indeed anywhere in the world could be, his unspoken message of “life is improv” stays with me: “Now and Zen, play and sing,” a live teaching he so easily shares with other perfect strangers in the park.

Anita M. Coolidge

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