Chapter Thirty Seven II
Outside the hut, around ten thirty, we settle in cross-legged on a blanket. It’s twenty seven degrees, the air still. Wind doesn’t much get inside the temple, surrounded by ten foot high walls, the back is up against the brick façade of a windowless warehouse that rises some thirty feet higher than the monastery.
I can’t resist one final jibe before getting into no mind, “I hope you appreciate the depth of my devotion. It’s flat fah-reezing out here, girl. What if it turns out that qi doesn’t work below thirty degrees?”
“Then they will have two frozen statues to stick in Hue’s garden to scare the pigeons away.”
“Great, fifteen years of martial arts training to wind up covered in pigeon poop.”
Janah, “Quiet, my eyeballs are starting to ice up, see you in the morning.”
We are silent until dawn.
In the early light, Tan emerges, “Warm and cozy in my room all night, I may get you to sit here until spring.”
Janah stretches, “Not too bad once I got the heater going. It took about an hour in this temperature, I don’t think I’ll need to sit for a long time.”
“Good, then help me in the kitchen. They don’t need you at meditation this morning, we’ve been meditating for six hours, compassion no doubt pervades the planet. If we’re trying to end suffering, this is a strange way to do it.”
Tan, “You have to listen to this one babbling all day?”
Janah smiles, “It’s part of my mental endurance gung fu.”
“Her sense of humor is good, qi masters must be having even more fun now. Tell them Tan said he couldn’t freeze you solid, enough for today. I need peace and quiet. Go now, take the chatterbox with you.”
Janah and I bow, then back through the bamboo past the garden.
Hue is headed to meditation and walks with us, “No worse for the wear?”
Janah, “We’re still thawing. I’m going to help in the kitchen this morning, if I have to sit for another hour, I may have to retire.”
Hue, “I did that all night sitting a few times, not so cold as this though. Disciple Sylk isn’t too frozen to make us a good hot meal is she?”
“No sir, I’m looking forward to my warm kitchen. Today oatmeal and baked apples with plenty of hot oolong.”
Hue, “Perhaps I can persuade Sung to try speed meditation, five minutes then to Disciple Sylk’s nutrition.”
We laugh, bringing joyful lightness to a cold grey morning. The sound spills down to the monks entering the hall.
One is overheard to say, “The sound of their laughter makes this frozen morning like a spring day. Perhaps we could get Master Sung to tape it so we might wake up to laughter everyday instead of the gong.”
His companion replies, “I’m going to meditate on that sound today, joyful mind, a good meditation anytime.”
The first monk nods, time for silence in the hall. Later, as the monks begin to stir from the morning sitting, the scent of baked apples, sugar and cinnamon fills the air. They enter the dining hall and sit while the students serve steaming bowls of oatmeal; warm milk and cane sugar already on the tables. Then comes soft baked apples, cored, with crispy skin, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar sprinkled inside, cups fill with hot oolong. I look out over the monks it is my privilege to nourish. There is a blessing in the room, quiet appreciation for what they have been given.
Breakfast over, the kitchen and dining room cleaned spotlessly by my students, I’m already stirring my vegetarian version of hot and sour soup in a huge pot. French bread arrived from our baker and the students are bringing in the bags. Just before lunch, I’ll cut the loaves into round slices and toast them with butter and parsley to go with the soup. An hour before that, I add firm tofu to the spicy broth, it has to be just right. They would be facing an afternoon of hard training in bitter weather.
Janah is teaching a class, math I think, at least she can remain standing after last night. The qi masters stop in just as I leave.
Master Chu, “Disciple Sylk, you are a kitchen wonder, you make the cold disappear. Thank you for the wonderful breakfast, the scent of fragrant apples still lingers. Master Hue brought one to Tan, with oatmeal and tea. You’re going to spoil our hermit monk, he might even become fit for human company!”
“Thank you Master Chu, it’s important to keep our monks nourished in this chilly weather I think.”
Master Zhang, “Must have been more than chilly sitting outside Tan’s room all night, Shaolin hot water heaters to keep him warm inside. Old man getting soft.”
“Perhaps not soft enough, he didn’t seem to be upset about turning us into monkcicles.”
The two grin, Master Zhang, “Good point, Disciple Sylk. Tan sits up there for years, Master J comes along and now he’s poking his head out occasionally. I’m sure he grumbles and groans every step of the way. He finally has his student, got two for the price of one. We are aware of the challenge you accepted last night. Few monks can regulate body temperature for such an extended period. We enjoy laughing together and being foolish, we also see the diligence with which you approach each step of your training.”
They say no more, there would be no ‘congratulations’ or ‘keep up the good work’ speeches, even from the lighthearted qi masters. They are telling me that I’m being observed more closely, which means I am being considered for more responsibility.
After lunch, Janah stays with me for a few minutes while I clean up, “I’m going to check up on Tan when you go to gung fu, then, if there’s nothing more there today, to Hue. At least the heat of his boiling potions keeps the chill away.”
“Should you bring Tan some tea and soup? I know he doesn’t like more than one meal, tell him it’s Disciple Sylk’s ignorance, she insisted because of the weather. He can grumble at me, but maybe he’ll take extra nourishment during this cold snap.”
“Put in extra, I’ll tell him it’s for both of us, he’ll be too polite to decline. Grumpy as he pretends to be, he isn’t rude. If I tell him I’m hungry, he can’t refuse to eat with me since it would be impolite for me to eat without him.”
“You’re getting as devious as all the rest of them.”
“I’m happy to leave all that up to you. Here’s your stuff, there’s spoons for the soup, let’s see, no, I’m not doing this, hold on…student Xiang, find Chan for me please.”
Janah knows my thought, Chan shows up in half a minute.
“Take this and go with Master J. Wait for her and when she’s finished, bring the pots and plates back to the kitchen, then clean and put them away please.”
I put everything into a basket, I couldn’t have Janah lugging all this stuff around. Besides, Chan would rather be with Master J than breathe and we’d give Tan a look at the boy.
“And be careful, there’s very hot soup and tea in there, even though the tops are closed, I don’t need you with burns on your leg. I’ll tell Disciple Chin you’re on an errand for Master J.”
Chan hasn’t changed expression from the moment he showed up. If you see Chan on Tuesday, he looks exactly the same on Wednesday. Only Janah and I can read his heart from the virtually imperceptible changes in his facial expression. Chan is a fireplug, five eight, some growing left to do. He left slim a long time ago. He’s thick side to side, front to back. His gung fu is less graceful, his power is unquestioned, and power is what makes gung fu useful, not just deceptive flowing hands and elegant kicks.
My power comes from the poetry of synchronized motion and speed, Chan is blunt prose, his power comes from bulk muscularity. I like to practice with him, he’s hard to throw, low center of gravity. He picks me up like I’m made of air. Besides Janah, only Chan could move Black’s solid muscular six foot two body. Chan and Black swap a lot of bruises practicing. Dear David can’t handle either of them. That isn’t any put down to David, not many of the masters could deal with them one on one.
Janah and Chan walk off together, Janah chattering away softly, she is reviewing the dharma with him while they walk. He speaks only to her, occasionally David, except to answer direct questions by disciples, then only yes or no, a nod if possible. I can hear him, through Janah, asking questions about Ch’an teaching, her questions, his responses, full and complete. The dead would rise up and talk to Janah.
Tan, “You bring something to eat and drink? You’re trying to make Tan fat and lazy like those monks down in the temple, practicing gung fu like aerobics class. You think Tan doesn’t know aerobics? Old man sitting up here meditating all day and night, out of touch. Who is Chinese boy?”
Janah, “This is Chan.”
Chan bows to the old man.
Tan studies the boy for a time, “Chan and Tan, nursery rhyme. He is silent, good for him. Monks talk too much, do too little, read books, too busy to see life right in front of them. This one sees.”
Tan, “Freezing out here still, come into the room, student Chan too, let’s see what Disciple Sylk has to fatten up Tan. She thinks I might go easier on you if she gets me well fed, I know her tricks. Tell Disciple Sylk I am up here thinking of ways to make her work harder.”
Janah opens the food and tea, setting out the bowls and cups, when it is served, she and Tan both begin to eat, Chan waits until they begin and Janah indicates it is okay for him to eat as well. Tan is clearly enjoying the hot soup, taking his time to savor its richness. When they finish, Chan takes the bowls and containers, restacks them in the basket, Tan is still sipping tea.
Tan, “Disciple Sylk is forgiven her devious nature. Her Ch’an flows through her spoon and into the food, she is kitchen master. Wait outside student Chan, I would like to speak with Master J for a time, then you may accompany her back.”
Chan takes the basket, stands, bows, and steps outside far enough to be out of earshot. He sits at Tan’s small table, legs crossed on the bench, staring silently into the bamboo.
Tan, “You and the other managed to get through a long frozen night, time spent on qi wasn’t wasted.”
Janah, “It was good practice, extended for that long in those conditions. It’s one thing to say turn you mind away from pain or cold, another to do it. People tend to think the Shaolin have some mystical experience and it falls into place.”
Tan, “Yes, awaken and all the troubles of life just drop away. Troubles and pains drop away only at death. Shaolin is for living and dying, dying every day to the foolishness, the fear we carry around. Waste of time to talk about what happens when the body dies. It becomes plant food and stardust, finally good for something. Now tell me about the boy, you brought him up here for a reason. You can carry a basket, he’s not here just to be a pack mule.”
“He was with us when we were accepted, with two others. His mother was a prostitute, essentially he was on his own. The temple saved his life perhaps.”
“And he is a good student?”
“Like all of us, he has strengths and flaws. He is silent mostly, he is loyal to the Order, respects his instructors and works hard. He is not a scholar. His gung fu is unique, his power is unquestioned. He studies his lessons, his books, diligently, his heart is elsewhere.”
“His heart is on serving you, even a blind monk can see that. It’s good, who knows what trouble you will find yourself i. You will enter a whirlwind with no thought for yourself, then where would we be? You have Disciple Sylk and now the boy, some others as well Sung tells me.”
“The universe seems to have decided I am in need of assistance. We, Disciple Sylk and I, don’t plan our life much, things just sort of come up.”
“As did the boy.”
“And you and your other thought I should know.”
“Is deep, unformed as yet. He’s got the temperament, he’s learning.”
“Aren’t we all.”
It is a statement of acceptance, “I trained no one for half a century, thought there might be not a single student, now I get you, your other and the boy. When it rains it pours they say.”
“That’s what they say.”
Tan, “Go now, return tomorrow. Send boy to qi masters for now, old jokers need something to do besides tell stories to each other. Boy won’t laugh at their jokes, I like him better already.”
Janah rises and bows, she and Chan wedge through the bamboo, then the gardens out into the main area, “Take the basket to the kitchen and put things away, then return to your training.”
She strokes his cheek, he bows and leaves to complete his task.
I am training, “Have fun warming yourself in old Tan’s hut while I am out here like a Shaolin ice sculpture?”
“Hope Chan knows what he’s getting in to.”
“He’s like another Shaolin I know, takes what he’s given and does what he needs to do. What’s that thing you say? He’s not going to navel gaze about it.”
“My kind of guy.”
Janah laughs, she seeks out the qi masters.
Chu, “This boy, he is ready to be a disciple?”
Janah, “I am not his martial arts instructor, I teach him math, other subjects, like all the students. I have worked with him on qi however. Master Tan suggested he take further instruction,”
Zhang, “Old Tan has seen this boy?”
Zhang and Chu look at each other, Chu responds, “No rest for old qi monks. We will see him after morning gung fu for an hour. He must become a disciple soon, however. I will ask Kahn what he knows of the boy.”
Janah bows and leaves. There is no point further discussion, the old men would find out what Kahn thought about a student taking lessons that would normally be taught only to a disciple, an advanced one at that. They would take this extra step because they knew Janah worked with him. They also know Tan. He didn’t send them this boy as a favor to her. First, they know she wouldn’t ask for one, second they know Tan doesn’t do favors. He reads a monk in an instant, knows what they can and can’t do in a second instant. Tan sent the boy because he has the gift, like his Master J, or perhaps more like Tan himself. Janah is a healer, she is still learning power from Tan. Her ability is more subtle. Tan’s qi is very powerful, even at his age he retains enormous strength, there is not a monk in this temple, perhaps any other, that can touch him. If the boy is more like Tan and only fifteen, and he didn’t break down under Tan’s training, he would be invincible when Tan is done with him.
After evening meditation, Janah walks with Chan to the dining hall, too cold to sit outside. I have the big pot full of Chamomile and Valerian, it’s fragrance fills the hall, monks filter in for the soothing warmth before heading for their rooms.
Janah, “Tomorrow, after morning training, go to the qi masters. Do as they say, pay close attention. If you have questions of them, ask. This is a time for inquiry, not reticence. They will not be offended. We will talk at lunch.”
Chan nods, I bring him a cup of tea and one for Janah, Black and David sit down.
Black, “Thank you for thinking of hot tea Disciple Sylk, it will make sleep easier on this cold night.”
“You’re welcome. I have to get Master J warmed up. Me too, she complains that my toes are cold.”
Janah, “I make her wear socks, blood can’t seem to make it all the way down those long legs.”
Black, “Master J, with all due respect, it’s hard for those of us who sleep alone to work up a big pile of sympathy.”
Janah giggles, “Nor should you, her toes don’t stay cold for long.”
Black rolls his eyes and looks at me, “You’re just loving this aren’t you?”
“I’ll meditate for your warmth before I fall asleep, I promise.”
“I’m calling Sonia tonight, any messages?”
“We miss her, we’ll see her soon.”
“She’s painting Master J, in the abstract. Don’t ask me what it looks like, she won’t say, she told me to tell Master J so she wouldn’t be surprised when she saw it.”
Janah, “How kind, and fun, I’ve never been abstracted. Please tell her I’m humbled.”
“She said you’d say that, she also said to tell you she’s humbling Disciple Sylk next.”
David laughs, I say, “Tell Sonia, oh my I’m not sure, it’s so sweet of her. I, for once, am completely flummoxed, speechless. Thank her for her thoughtful gesture.”
“When I tell her she made Disciple Sylk speechless, that will bring the Sonia smile, you know, where her nose crinkles and the freckles come together. That vision is my warmth on cold nights.”
Chapter Thirty Eight II
No, you can’t look like the model does by buying a piece of
plastic for three low monthly payments of nineteen ninety-five.
Even if you actually use it for those three months,
or the next hundred years.
Janah discussed qi with the boys many times during their evening visits in the garden. Janah’s approach is to empty the mind, which is an expression. The thing is always busy with something, most of it thankfully doesn’t rise to consciousness. Beginners in meditation attempt to occupy the frontal cortex with repetitive or mundane tasks, which frees up the subconscious mind to do its thing. That’s what all the chanting, candle staring, focus on breathing is about.
And it helps, it’s how to get started; eventually the mind no longer needs to be distracted or numbed. In a few, like Janah, the conscious mind does not disturb the under mind, she can juggle both balls. It’s why she can read the micro expressions of another and explain their honesty or deceitfulness in a glance. She has feeling, thought, and the state beyond thought in synchronized harmony. She’s one in a billion, there are seven billion on the planet, so, maybe, there are seven Janahs.
She explains to the boys, “Most of us can’t handle our emotions, much less coordinate emotion and thought, thought is controlled by emotion. People who think there is an “I” in control should try and sit still for an hour, a half hour, with an empty mind. They can’t. When you can sit for an hour a day, with minimal conscious thought, life becomes easier, smoother, we come to understand what we are and are not. That is the sole point of meditation. When thought produces no reaction, it loses strength, that’s how the brain works. If we nourish our thought, it gains strength. If we question it deeply, and see the false, illusion withers away. There is no reaction to give it strength. Our questioning is not to fight thought, that’s just mental conflict. Questioning is to doubt our thought, passively. It is not the end of challenges, which thought makes into problems. The end of painful thought is the death of problems, which is obvious. The insight, deeply understood, that thought itself is the only problem, will change how you react. You will see that all of your so called problems are a matter of how you think about them, nothing more.”
David, “Where does the self arise, Master J?”
Janah, “The self arises as a reaction to the events and stimulations received in the mind. From fear, it seeks protection, from desire, it seeks to continue. We learn by enriching certain synaptic connections in our brain, and by letting others wither away. As an infant, you grow huge numbers of neurons, all with potential for connecting to other neurons via synapses. Chemicals called neurotransmitters, hormones and peptides all enable connections or discourage them. Out of these billions of connections emerges an individual. Thus, the individual is not separate from the world, or anything in it. The creation of the individual is a consequence of the brain’s interaction with the world around it. The world it experiences, the people in it, are born of their relationship with the world and other people. No individual mind is possible without that relationship to all the minds that preceded it, and the minds and sensations it comes in contact with along the way. In that very real sense, there is no individual mind as separate. Layered over this is thought, which is a product of our prefrontal cortex. How thought got turned into ego and the sense of separate self is a mystery, as is consciousness itself.”
David, “Is that what is meant by no separation?”
Janah, “Yes, not thought, relationship. As has been said, your are the world and the world is you. It cannot be any other way.”
David, “How did the Shaolin come to this before all the neuroscience?”
Janah, “Many teachers, including the Buddha, understood the world as completely integrated. According to the texts, they had an insight, which culminated in an intense feeling of connectedness. They didn’t discover it in any sense, it was revealed more than discovered I think. However, let’s not get distracted. We want to talk over qi, and what makes it difficult for us to access and use.”
David, “Sometimes I feel a heat, a vibration, then it quickly disappears, then sometimes I wonder if I’m just making it up, only thinking I feel it.”
Janah, “Sometimes we do make it up. It took me a while to know what I was feeling, real energy or just wanting to feel real energy. You are hitting on my point precisely.”
David smiles. He isn’t sure what he’d hit on, but if Master J liked it, it must be good.
Janah, “When we ‘try’ to meditate, what happens?’
Black, “That’s easy, monkey mind.”
Janah, “Yes, we’re all over the place, getting settled down, then the mind runs away. We chase after it, try and corral it again. It seems our whole meditation is spent smothering thoughts, then it’s over and we wonder what the point was. Qi is like this. The more we look for it, the less it seems available, or we look so hard we create a feeling of it, an illusion. What’s happening is that looking is interfering with the qi, our action of seeking it is preventing it’s flow. We can think of it this way, all our energy, our life force is qi. We have it and use it whether we think about it or not. To channel it by will often burns more than we have in storage. Like burning gas to propel the car, the friction causes inefficiency. We have to find the proper levels, learning to channel qi by letting it happen, not by making it happen.”
Black, “This is subtle, how do we know how much is enough, or too little?”
Janah, “Individual trial and error. It’s why the practice takes so long and why so many get discouraged.”
“She doesn’t have a ‘Six Weeks to Killer Qi’ program, which I find most annoying. I actually have to stumble around, not trying, or trying gently, to allow my body and mind to let it work, not make it work. I want it to be like television, you know get a couple of b-grade actors or a model, and tout it like an ab workout. I even have a name, The Qi Blaster. Janah nixed the whole thing.”
Black, “Where’s your entrepreneurial spirit, Master J?”
Janah, “It would be misleading at best.”
Black, “That don’t stop the ab guys.”
Janah giggles, “Daphne just wanted to wear a little workout thing on television, show off her flat tummy, it was an ego trip.”
“She made me wash my mind out with soap and promise to quit thinking about myself. She said only one of us needs to think about me, and it isn’t me. Try writing “I will not think about myself” 100 times on the board and not think about yourself, it’s almost impossible. Every time I thought about me, she knew and made me start over, it took forever.”
Black, “That’s a perfect Ch’an exercise.”
The next day the blackboard in the library is covered with “I will not think about myself.” The Qi Masters spent weeks laughing about it, nobody knew who had written it. Master Zhang told Janah that it sounded exactly like Disciple Sylk.
Chan has, guided by Janah, worked with qi for the last three years; only we know how far he’s progressed. The sheer level of trust required, completely outside of any personal control, is like throwing yourself off a cliff in the dark because your instructor says there is only deep cool water below, not bone crushing rock. Janah discovered that if she was willing to forgo all certainty, all psychological security, no self protection of conscious thought, the universal energy became available to her.
The pain Sung referred to wasn’t just physical, it is the mental equivalent of being on a hundred yard tightrope swaying in the wind, a thousand feet in the air, no net, blindfolded, taking the first steps, with no more than ‘my body will figure it out.’ The list of people on the planet who are willing to trust in a reality that thought fearfully denies is very short.
Now, after learning to meditate all the time, not just at meditation, coupled with his complete trust in Janah, Chan is coming upon the inklings and tastes Janah had received many years earlier. We didn’t bring him to Tan’s attention because of what he could yet do, rather because he has the temperament to withstand the tightrope walk.
Chapter Thirty Nine II
Mrs. Fong has a mind like a diamond
and a tongue that could cut one.
We keep a low profile through our fourth year, sticking near to the temple and occasional one nighters home. Black advanced to disciple earlier, then the boys.
During that same year, Sung introduced us to the notorious Mrs. Fong, a legend in Chinatown. She built a minor real estate empire out of a local restaurant and is fond, in her way, of the Shaolin. Fond, for Mrs. Fong, means you get a lot of grief whenever she spots you and your job is to smile and tell her how much she is appreciated, not only by you but the entire community. She then accuses you of telling lies to a helpless old woman who is scraping by because she doesn’t have the heart to charge the appropriate rents on her few run down properties.
All the drama is perfect nonsense. First, she doesn’t own run down properties, she is a pristine and scrupulous landlord. That doesn’t mean anyone gets over on her, it just means she holds up her end, tenants pay their rent, she takes care of her obligations as the owner, often more than her obligations. Tenants who abuse the property, or fail to pay, are quickly evicted.
She donates generously to the temple, and she extracts her price in lambasting the monks. She tells Master Sung she is helping them learn humility, which he has clearly failed to do, what with their saffron robes and arrogant airs. Sung always thanks her, both for her generosity and for pointing out his numerous insufficiencies as Abbot.
In the past year, I’d cooked at Fong’s many times, on a first name basis with her staff. Mrs. Fong takes enormous pleasure in giving me the most grief of all, then fawning over Janah. She tells everyone in earshot that Janah is the only person in all Chinatown who understands the difficulties of a frail old woman in a heartless world. Janah thinks the whole production is better than a Broadway play.
Today, Janah is at the table, near the cash register, Mrs. Fong uses as her headquarters, “White Angel, have more tea, thank you for the herbs from your garden. Old Hue never found time to bring healing remedies to me. He was always busy being big master of garden, could never bring himself out to see real people, just sit up there and talk to his plants. You think I don’t know about that? Rather talk to mint leaves than people, silly old priest. Not like beautiful White Angel, who knows how to show respect to elders. Precious one, would you like something to eat?
“Disciple Sylk! Bring something for White Angel to eat and quit gossiping with cooks. If you come here, you must work, not like a lazy Shaolin, strutting around with old people bowing down all the time.”
My end of Mrs. Fong, “Big deal Shaolin monk, go in back and make yourself useful. Everyone thinks you’re such a great cook, go and learn something from really good cooks, the ones I train. You think I always sat out here? I cooked for years back there, I brought recipes from China, real China, not the greasy cornstarch chicken slop you see in commercial joints around here. I go personally for vegetables every morning when I started, get the best, not the wilted crap they put on trucks to deliver. Awake everyday at four and buy the best. Shaolin have truck drop it off so they can sleep late in cozy monastery. You stay with Mrs. Fong, maybe you can learn to be a real cook, not funny business good for nothing monk cook.”
I thank her profusely for the chance to learn from her and her staff. I spend time in the kitchen as long as Janah stays occupied around the neighborhood, learning special dishes directly from Mrs. Fong.
“I don’t know what precious Master J sees in Shaolin, all day bowing and drinking tea. She is out in town healing, helping with real problems right now, not thinking about some never gonna happen better world tomorrow. You monks all living off other people’s work. Go now, White Angel shouldn’t be alone in city. Don’t be useless, sitting around kitchen! Go, if anything happens to her, it’s your fault, monk! At least protect one innocent girl.”
I thank her for her understanding and leave to round up Janah. Mrs. Fong has no way of knowing I know exactly where Janah is and exactly what she’s doing. Janah hardly ever wanders farther than the herb shop anyway; she sees patients, recommends herbs and treats them until it’s time to return. Once she’s spotted in Chinatown, people make their way to the shop for treatment. Most of the time it’s no more than a half dozen, usually elderly, with the chronic aches and pains of age, sometimes children too young to be in school. We go on Sundays, no gung fu practice, show up in the morning, never able to leave before 6, often just in time for evening meditation. If there are tough cases, we skip that and might return at eight or even nine. Mrs. Fong always knows when we are there, there is little of significance or insignificance Mrs. Fong doesn’t know about. Food shows up courtesy of the old woman and there is always a pot of tea ready.
We eat between patients, I stop long enough to go and thank Mrs. Fong, who would, on Sundays only, not fuss, “Not all Shaolin lazy, some try to do some good once in a while. For those we are grateful.”
Janah frequently goes to the restaurant to sit with her, checking her over and finding some reason to massage her neck or work on her spine while Mrs. Fong gushes about her White Angel. When she leaves for the shop, Janah always kisses the old lady on both cheeks and thanks her for all the help she provides the temple.
Mrs. Fong shoos Janah off, “Don’t make me sentimental White Angel, help your patients. Thank you for visiting me, come again as soon as you can. Bring that tall skinny monk if you must.”
Janah, “Good thing Mrs. Fong likes you.”
“She has the best recipes, I’m gratified she shares them with me, she surely doesn’t have to do that.”
“She trusts you, she wants you to use some of it to make the meals for the monks as good as you can. She loves Master Sung and all the monks, and puts her money where her mouth isn’t.”
“She’s so funny. If she ever says anything good about me, I’ll have screwed up big time.”
“Master Sung says the same thing. He goes around every couple of weeks, if he misses a trip, he hears about it for six more weeks, how he doesn’t care about regular people who have to work for their bread. Then she sits him down and gives him special oolong and some of that incredible vegetable rice with bean sauce.”
“I wonder if I should go to the market myself, instead of delivery?”
“You have too much to do already. You have the guy trained not to bring us the second rate stuff. Going there would be a waste of time.”
“Plus it would disappoint our driver, he’s gotten fond of a cup of tea and a taste of breakfast.”
“He’s gotten fond of a certain pretty monk charming him with a brilliant smile and mysterious eyes. He’d drive out and pick the vegetables himself if you asked him to.”
“Jimmy’s cute in his Brooklyn guy way, and he works hard. His mom takes care of grandma, and his dad runs the wholesale business. We get our stuff right from the owner’s son. His dad took the business over from his dad, grandpa died 12 years ago, Jimmy says he was old style New York, a tough Hell's Kitchen guy. He threw a mobster into the street who wanted to sell him protection, Jimmy thinks he might have actually done him in because the bad guy just disappeared. The old man didn’t talk about it. It was 40 years ago, who knows? Jimmy’s going to college part time, learning accounting, he’ll run the business someday. He’d be a great husband for some pretty girl, he’s decent, polite, works hard. If I wanted a husband, I’d snap him up.”
“You don’t know his GPA?’
Janah laughs, “How come he’s got no girl now?”
“No time for it. He’s up before dawn, works in the business, goes to his classes, studies, to bed, same thing next day. He says a girl wouldn’t get much attention right now. That’s a good way to be, not wanting everything right now, doing half of the stuff badly. That’s why he’s a good potential partner for a sharp girl who doesn’t need it all right this minute. He’s got self control. He has his mind around what he needs to do and other things will come in their time; you do the exact same thing.”
“That’s why I got a sharp girl who doesn’t need it all right this minute, pretty one too.”
Chapter Forty II
Drugs are stupid
Guns are stupid
Mixing the two is insanity
The boys, not so much boys anymore, are coming into themselves. Now almost third year Disciples, well on the way to developing the specialties for which they will eventually become masters. They’d learned the infinite patience needed to spend years studying one thing. They’d watched me repeat a skill time after time, constantly correcting small imperfections. Chan has been working with Tan and Janah. Like Tan, he can sit and wait forever with no apparent physical or mental discomfort. As a child, long nights of waiting for his mother had at least given him something.
We leave for two weeks with the family. So far the weather, while chilly, has been fairly mild, no snow and little icy rain. Perhaps we’d catch a break and be able to get around the neighborhood without slush everywhere. Before we go to the condo, Janah wants to see Mrs. Fong and wish her a happy holiday.
We enter through the back alley to the kitchen; it’s only ten thirty, the front door is still closed and locked, shades drawn. Mrs. Fong is putting money in the cash register when we arrive. She closes the safe underneath the register and opens her arms to give Janah a hug. She begins rattling off in Chinese about her White Angel, did she have time for tea with an old lady?
Mrs. Fong doesn’t waste a moment, “Monk, go make tea and find something to do. Tea for me too, big pot, use good oolong, don’t stand there skinny girl, go!”
I smile and return to the kitchen, 'Happy Holidays to you too, Mrs. Fong.'
I have my back to the alley door, pouring the boiling water into a delicate china pot, I feel someone entering. I don’t look up. It doesn’t feel right, there is one, then another, then a third. Two brush past me, the third stays by the kitchen door. I glance at him, he has on a ski mask.
I mental, Janah, “Robbery, be cool, one’s in here with a gun.”
“Two more in here now,” I can see the two through Janah’s eyes.
The first one in, ski mask, jeans, nondescript nylon jacket and gloves, “Hands on the fucking table! Old woman, get up slowly and get to the register. We want the cash, open the safe too. Put it in the bag.”
He throws a zippered satchel at her. “Do what the fuck you’re told, no one gets hurt.”
Mrs. Fong, “No money, go away, I call police, you go to jail, go away, no money.”
Fortunately, in her nervousness, she rattles this off in Chinese, the men stare blankly.
Nylon Jacket steps to her and puts the gun to her head, “Cut the chink crap lady, get the money.”
Mrs. Fong is clearly scared, which makes her angry. She starts up, again in Chinese.
The second thug, boots, khaki pants and a long floppy hoodie says, “Fuck this,” and raises his gun hand.
Janah slides in between, “Wait. Please, she’s scared, let me talk to her, get things calmed down, then we can work it out without anyone getting hurt.”
Nylon Jacket, “Well, well what have we here. Nice piece of, what? What’s with the get up, honey?”
“Just a robe, nothing special. Please, let me talk to her.”
Janah speaks to Mrs. Fong in Chinese, telling her it would be best to give them some cash and let the police handle it.
Mrs. Fong answers in Chinese, “Safe has a lot of money from rents, cash to run business, pay vendors, many thousands.”
“Then give them the money from the register and I’ll tell them you don’t know the combination, that your husband knows and he’s out of town, perhaps they don’t know any better.”
Mrs. Fong shuffles to the register, Janah repeats the story.
Hoodie, “Bullshit. She knows the combination and she’s going to open the fucking safe.”
“If nylon jacket gets rough, take him out, I’ll deal with two and three. Put your guy between you and Hoodie. If the second one shoots, he’ll have to shoot his own guy. Tell Mrs. Fong to stay behind the register.”
Janah says something to Mrs. Fong, speaking slowly and softly as if she is just keeping her calm, all the time she watches Nylon Jacket, holding his eyes.
“I’m trying to encourage her to cooperate, it will be fine. She’s frightened, let her settle down, all these guns are scaring everyone. You’re in control, it’s all going to come out right.”
Hoodie, “We need to get this done, what’s all the fucking around? Clock the old woman, or better yet, the girl, the old lady will see reason.”
Nylon Jacket sneers at Mrs. Fong, grabs Janah by the hair and raises his gun as if to hit her. I wait, my back to the guy by the kitchen door. He’s eight or ten feet away at most, Hoodie is less than ten feet to my right. Janah grabs the gun hand, stomps his foot, hard heel on the instep, she feels it crunch. He howls, her powerful grip twists the gun, breaks a couple of fingers in the process. He lets go of her hair to wrestle for the gun. Too much pain too soon, his foot is broken, his index finger and middle finger bent out unnaturally. There seems to be a hydraulic grip around his neck. He’s getting dizzy, his back to Hoodie. He can’t grasp how she’s holding him up by the neck with only one hand and how his body simply won’t respond. Why is it getting dark?
I zing the china teapot, full of boiling water, and nail the kitchen door punk directly in the face. The pot smashes, parts of it stick in his cheek despite the mask, scalding water splashes into his eyes blinding him. Agonized scream from the kitchen, “I’m fucking blind!”
“They need to expand their expletive vocabulary. Maybe, ‘bitch blinded me.’”
“Bitch blinded me!”
That’s just weird.
Hoodie first points the gun at Janah, but his partner is in between him and the girl, the old lady is out of sight behind the register. Screaming from the kitchen, he looks over his shoulder, Kitchen Man has his hands to his eyes and blood all over the mask.
As Hoodie turns, his hand drops to the floor with the gun still in it, he’s uncomprehending, the gun is on the floor, his hand still around it, he brings up his arm, reality bites, he screams as he decodes his problem. I wave the fat meat cleaver in his face. He doesn’t have time to register pain, the blunt end of the cleaver whaps him under the ear and he mercifully collapses, unconscious. Blood pools on the floor around his stump.
Kitchen Man has the mask off, blinks, his face scalded red. He’s looking for the gun he dropped when the pot hit him. One of the cooks kicked it under a counter. He is calling for his partners, too late, I’m at his side, still have the cleaver, it seems like overkill. Red eyed, he pulls his hand back to punch me, I stick the blunt end of the cleaver hard into his groin. As he bends over gasping, my elbow engages his temple, with attitude. Nap time.
During my workout, Janah has Nylon Jacket by the neck and cuts off the blood to his vicious brain. He’s unconscious before Hoodie’s hand hit the linoleum. We gather up the weapons and put them on a table near the register, careful about fingerprints. I leave the hand and gun on the floor.
Janah wraps a tourniquet on Hoodie’s arm, the kitchen crew and I tie up the other two. She calls 911. A few minutes later the place is swarming with cops and EMTs. Janah is comforting Mrs. Fong and I’m telling the story to a uniform when a booming voice rumbles through the air.
“Daphne, honey, you okay? What the hell? Is Janah okay? What the bejesus happened?”
It’s Detective Marsconi, a regular at the Village Diner. I’d been charming his socks off for years.
I give him the short version, “Attempted armed robbery.”
His partner, Jocelyn Williamson blasts in, a feisty black woman with less than zero tolerance for punks.
Jocelyn, “Daphne, Janah, how are you babies? What are my two favorite monks doing at a crime scene? You okay? Don’t tell me some chump hurt you. I’m gonna shoot their ass so full of holes they gonna crap out their belly button. You okay, baby? You better be okay. I might shoot somebody anyway, just for practice.”
She’s stroking Janah’s head.
Marsconi, “You’d be better off worrying about the perps, Jocelyn. Daphne’s been busy.”
Jocelyn is looking around at the three guys getting triaged by the EMTs, and paramedics, “Damn, girl. Bet they wished they’d taken up truck driving instead of Life of Crime Modalities 101. I guarantee you this is the three slime balls that knocked off the restaurant downtown. You done stopped a crime wave, honey,” she looks down at the grisly hand and gun on the floor, “now THAT is a handgun, girl.”
Gets her big throaty laugh going, “Shee-yit. You shoulda joined the force. New York be crime free by now.”
Janah has Mrs. Fong calmed down, she is keeping a careful eye on her restaurant.
She says in Chinese, “Good thing Shaolin didn’t break up furniture, I have to send bill to Master Sung.”
Janah and I start laughing, quizzical looks from the detectives until I explain what she’d said.
Marsconi, “Might have gone worse for these guys if you two hadn’t been here. Mrs. Fong wouldn’t have left them in such good shape. Okay, can you finish your statement to our guys? We can avoid dragging you down to the station. You two show up down there, no work will get done the rest of the day.”
I hug the big cop and Jocelyn, the other big cop, “I better see you around the diner, we’re home for two weeks and I’m wanting to see all my friends. I got plenty of stories, Jocelyn, and I know you got some for me.”
Jocelyn, “Oh, I’m gonna be there baby. Big Mini, he cooks more than my eggs if you know what I mean. Give me your number, I’ll call when me and Marsconi in the vicinity.”
“I love it when you talk cop. Gets me all quivery.”
Jocelyn shakes her head, “You just took out three psychotic assholes, you act like it was an afternoon stroll.”
“I only took out two. Janah did Nylon Jacket.”
Jocelyn, “I’ll be got-tam. Got-tam. That sweet thing? Coulda fooled me.”
“Baby, Janah cracks walnuts with two fingers for fun. Putting that asshole to sleep was part-time work.”
Jocelyn studies at me, there is no smile, “You two gonna make yourself useful down the road, aren’t you?”
“We only wish to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. Unfortunately, that sometimes requires the suffering of some sentient beings who just don’t get it. If I could have meditated these jokers gone, that would be better, except….”
Jocelyn, “Except they would have just shown up some other place, and maybe killed somebody.”
“Exactly. What’s a girl to do?”
Janah and I finish with the patrolman who dutifully writes it all down. Marsconi gives us a perfunctory lecture on the danger of what we’d done. He’s forced to cut it short when Mrs. Fong goes into a tirade about the slow uncaring police letting vicious criminals attack old ladies trying to run an honest business. Then she starts in on how much money she’d lost while they fool around in her restaurant instead of taking vicious criminals off to jail. She is still regaling Marsconi in an incomprehensible blend of Chinese and English when we hit the street and head for the condo. Jocelyn is laughing so hard she has tears in her eyes.
“Tough about the guy’s hand. I couldn’t let him shoot somebody. I wasn’t sure how long the kitchen guy would be out of commission and Hoodie was going to fire that gun at somebody. When I heard the hammer click, his hand had to go.”
Janah, “You could have killed him. You didn’t. You didn’t ask him to carry the gun, or to start robbing people with it. I, too, regret his ignorance. It was his ignorance that got him there and your skill that prevented him from killing anyone. Nylon Jacket was perfectly content to try and crack my skull, or worse. These guys aren’t children and they don’t care who gets hurt.”
“You did great, baby. Got your own hapkido working, don’t you?”
Janah, “I’ve watched you do the twist out the weapon thing at least a thousand times, and stomp the instep another thousand. It worked. Grabbing his neck made it easy to control him and keep him between me and Hoodie.”
“Those hands of yours, you could have crushed his throat, he got off light.”
Janah, “Maybe Mrs. Fong will ease up on you now.”
We both laugh. Mrs. Fong has entirely too much fun giving me grief, and I would miss the rapid fire Chinese recriminations.
Janah calls Master Sung and gives him the news. Someone in Chinatown, or the press, or Master Hue’s plants, would inform him of our adventure at Fong’s. Better to come from Janah.
Sung, “Everyone is okay, except the unfortunate robbers?”
Janah, “Yes. Mrs. Fong was fussing at the police for reasons we can’t quite explain, just her normal nervous energy I expect.”
Sung, “I’ll go and call on her. I will take my punishment, she will no doubt be able to explain how I am to blame for this incident.”
Janah giggles into the phone, “Daphne is concerned that Mrs. Fong will start being nice to her,”
Sung, “She cares for Disciple Sylk far too much to do that. Good thing for her you decided to visit, bad for robbers you decided to visit. Good for community you decided to visit.”
Janah, “Daphne regrets their ignorance. She saved lives and didn’t take any, her gung fu instructors have taught her well.”
Sung, “Give my best to your families, and return to us soon, Master J.”
He disconnects, Janah is relieved she’d thought to call rather than some blindsiding phone call from a reporter. This way he could be intelligently ignorant and tell the press what he would have told them regardless, ‘Temple matters are not open to public discussion, it is our way. We meditate for the end of ignorance and suffering the world over.’
That would be the first and last comment they’d get. Nothing, not even a flat rock in the desert, could be less communicative than a Shaolin monk when he chose. The Shaolin see evil as ignorance, if people were rightly educated, a substantial amount of evil could be avoided. At the same time, they do not view that as an excuse for the ignorant to avoid punishment, only unfair or unreasonable punishment. Master Kahn says that sometimes one needs to cut off a finger to save the hand. Or in my case, cut off a hand to save a life.