Christopher, Allison, and Dr. Sinclair saw two Chinese men waiting when they stepped off the maglev train. At first, there was nothing distinctive about them. They wore blue jeans, t-shirts, and jackets, and looked like all the other people waiting for passengers. Then, Christopher noticed their shaved heads and muscular builds and saw Dr. Sinclair’s name floating in the air between them. He surmised they were their Shaolin reception committee.
As they approached, the taller man spoke in perfect English. “Brother Nathaniel, Christopher, Allison, welcome to Luoyang. Master Lu sends his greetings.”
Christopher wondered, Brother Nathaniel? Why call him that? It must be some form of respect.
Dr. Sinclair recognized the two monks from the holoimages he received before leaving Boston. “Thank you for meeting us.”
“Yes, thank you,” Christopher said, uncertain of the proper etiquette.
“Christopher, Allison, I’ll be leaving now. I’ve got to go back to Beijing and Boston, and the return train leaves in a half hour. I’ll leave you in the more than capable hands of these two monks.”
Startled, Christopher asked, “Why? I thought you were going to the Temple with us.”
“I received a message on the plane. There are critical things to attend to, not the least of which is your project.”
“Okay, but I was hoping…”
“Me too!” Allison echoed.
“We will all see each other again soon.” Dr. Sinclair turned and walked back into the station.
“Let’s get your luggage.” The shorter monk said.
The monks escorted Christopher and Allison to a red Volkswagen Santana. Chris thought a Santana was somehow inappropriate for Chinese monks to be driving. It should have been something Chinese or Korean. Surprised, he loaded their bags into the trunk, Chris and Allison slid into the back seats, and the monks sat in front.
“Mr. Makim, did you expect an ox cart?” the shorter monk asked, joking about the famous ten ox-herding pictures that depicted the path of the Zen practitioner.
“I guess I just didn’t expect a VW… and call me Christopher, please.”
“Well, this is the most popular car in China. Surprise!”
One of the monks said, “Santana,” followed by some Chinese words. Christopher assumed he was instructing the VW AutoDrive system to go to the Shaolin monastery because the dashboard display lit up, the quiet electric motors engaged, and the car inserted itself into the oncoming flow of traffic. Then, ignoring the operation of the vehicle, each monk rotated his seat, to face Christopher and Allison.
They headed west out of the city passing row after row of multi-story housing units. The two monks had endless questions about America.
“Is it true that everyone carries a gun?”
“No, not everyone, but enough to make me worry.”
“Why can’t everyone get health care even after the efforts in 2014 and last year?”
“If I knew the answer to that, I’d be President.”
“What do Americans think about China?”
“All the military posturing in the South China Sea is history, so most American’s think China is kind of cool. They’re addicted to the products coming out of your factories.”
After a while, the monks seemed to run out of questions. Christopher thought he could avoid uncomfortable silence by looking out the window, but the view was unexciting. Only the AutoTour feature with its surround heads-up display automatically pointing out key landmarks kept him from falling asleep. He felt a moment of exhilaration when the Yihe River provided a break in the visual monotony of one small parcel of farmland after another interspersed with apartments for China’s endless citizens.
Finally, they entered a group of small mountains. The road meandered back and forth through some interesting curves, and the housing was becoming sparser.
“You look relieved,” the tall monk said.
“Yes, I didn’t want to offend you, but the homes and farms were getting a little tedious. They all look identical.”
“We don’t get offended. In a few kilometers, we’ll come to higher mountains and many tall trees. You’ll find that more entertaining.”
“How much longer to the Temple?” Allison asked.
There was no response from either of the monks. Allison took it as a signal to enjoy the present moment. They would arrive when they arrived, period. She took a deep breath. The mountains were beautiful and evoked an odd sense of serenity, and her thoughts became quiet. Lacking any distinct points of interest, AutoTour was dormant and seemed to be contemplating the view too… at least for a few moments.
Breaking the peacefulness, the heads-up display highlighted a mountain in the windshield, and a digital voice announced, “We are approaching Mount Song.”
The monk in the driver’s seat finally answered Allison’s question, “We’ll be at the Shaolin Temple soon.”
Christopher was shocked as he stepped through the massive white gate at the main visitor entrance. Oh my God! Tourists everywhere shooting videos with ComServs. Where’s the tranquility? Red pagoda-style buildings with ornate green eaves. This is Chinese Disneyland!
Allison exchanged glances with Christopher. “I can’t believe this is what Master Po told us about.”
“I notice that once again China failed to meet your expectations.” the shorter monk said, laughing. “You were maybe expecting David Carradine? That’s the funny thing about the mind. It always seems to create a world that reality just can’t live up to.”
“Please tell me this isn’t what Allison and I have come to see!”
“Tourists have flocked to our temple since your Kung Fu television show in the 1970s. We created areas they could visit to preserve special places for us to study. Don’t worry, soon we’ll be in the more secluded part of the Temple.” The monk laughed again, “I’m sure you’ll find that closer to what you imagined. For now, enjoy the show.”
“It’s the only option.” Christopher stopped to admire the kung fu demonstrations in the Performance Hall for a few moments, then joined the other three in a small electric cart. It was a short ride to the central temple complex on the mountainside.
He thought, It’s incredible how the Shaolins master their bodies like that, but even more remarkable to master your mind.
They passed a multitude of halls and buildings reaching the Pagoda Forest, with over two hundred stone and brick pagodas. Christopher thought, This should be called the souvenir forest. Everyone’s trying to sell something… prayer beads… ceramic Buddha status… bootleg copies of the Kung Fu TV series… Kung Pao Chicken. Amazing!
The cart navigated through the throngs and stopped at the foot of a narrow stone pathway in the woods. The taller monk stepped on the trail and motioned for Chris to follow him through a tall iron gate.
Christopher walked into an entirely different world. There were no tourists. No ComServs. No vendors — only single-story white buildings and sculpted gardens. I just passed through a Chinese Looking Glass. I’ll probably see a giant version of one of my caterpillars next. At least the incessant noise is gone.
“This is more like it.”
“Please, Christopher, from here we must be silent,” the shorter monk said.
Ok… no problem, he thought.
Tall trees lined the footpath as it continued in a curve toward a hidden courtyard. Well-maintained unassuming buildings surrounded the central court. They were far less garish than the brightly painted red and green structures intended for tourists.
To his right in the Great Meditation Hall, monks sat in silent contemplation. To his left, Christopher saw what he presumed to be the dormitory for the monks. Three hallways extended from the front to the back of the building. Each had a multitude of doors extending down its entire length on both sides. He thought, Kinda like the Grand Hyatt, but no Jacuzzis. Which rooms will Allison and I stay in?
Without speaking, the two monks continued toward the far end of the courtyard and entered a small building. Christopher stood motionless as he gazed at the shrine dominating the wall in front of him. A smile and gentle tears came to his face as he felt benevolence and joy surging through him like a tidal wave coming from the depths of his heart. An enormous golden statue of Buddha sat on a polished black wooden altar. It seemed to Christopher that his heart was connected to the heart of the Buddha. Yellow flower arrangements stood on either side of the Buddha, almost as tall as the statue itself. Smaller arrangements of red blooms were in front and to the side of them. Five figurines that Christopher couldn’t quite recognize guarded the Buddha. Candles and incense in front of them filled the air with a scent of intoxicating jasmine. It all combined to create a magical realm where the figures came alive and stirred the compassion in his soul. He knew they must be Bodhisattvas.
The taller monk walked to a door to the left of the altar and delicately knocked. After a moment, he opened it and motioned for Christopher to enter. Grand Master Lu stood to greet Christopher. Chris thought, An elderly, small man with a clean shaved head and a white beard… the first thing in this monastery that’s what I expected. Allison faced him and grinned. Chris realized she had the same reaction.
“Welcome, Christopher. Welcome Allison,” the venerable Lu said in perfect English. “Master Po and I discussed your arrival. I hope you had a pleasant journey.”
They nodded without saying a word.
“Today you shall settle in. Christopher, you will stay in the room next to me. Allison, the monks will escort you to the Chuzu Temple. It’s nearby and is where female monks reside.”
“Oh. I thought…” Christopher said.
“Your friend cannot stay here. Full attention must be given to your efforts, and we have no facilities for women.”
The two monks motioned for Allison to follow them, and the three left the Master’s room.
“Now let me show you where you will be staying.” Grand Master Lu said with a reassuring smile on his face.