Articles April 24, 2023

one long listening (excerpt)

Chenxing Han

My not-a-refrigerator roommate and I share many things in common. We were both born in China, both raised by atheist parents. We are not morning people. Our families find it strange, if not downright health-endangering, that we live on a campus where meat is prohibited.

We would both fail the meditation résumé check. Here we are, 在山上, on the mountain, with the perfect conditions for spiritual practice. Daily morning and evening liturgies bookended by hour-long meditation sessions. Week-long retreats throughout the semester. Buddhist monastics leading all of it.

Here we are, sleeping.

Our classmates rise from wood pallets in the predawn, wash faces and brush teeth in the communal bathrooms, sit alert with folded legs in the cavernous gym, chant and bow in the spotless Buddha hall, eat steaming porridge in the cafeteria after their morning ministrations.

Disheveled, my roommate and I stumble into the undarkening dining hall to hastily fill our bowls with the last dregs of congee from a metal pot that the kitchen volunteers are already beginning to wheel away. Abashed, we start skipping breakfast. On the mornings when she has to get up early to study for an exam, I wake to birdsong and the crunch of instant noodles eaten straight from the package.

When I was still in California preparing to go to Taiwan, my roommate was meditating for the first time. The weeklong silent retreat was mandatory for all incoming students of the Buddhist college. She soldiered through spartan conditions only to emerge haggard from days of inexplicable vomiting.

My introduction to meditation, when I was around her age, came more gently. After three months of regular vipassana and Zen practice, I embarked on my first silent meditation retreat, five days and four nights in Northern California. We slept two to a room on comfy mattresses in our woodsy chambers, pondered a vast menagerie of tea in the kitchen during break times, sipped our individual selections while trying not to think about whether the lemon echinacea or hibiscus rose or vanilla rooibos would have been a better choice. Oh, yes—and we meditated too.

I doubt I would have been at that retreat in Northern California if I didn’t believe, to a certain degree, that meditation would make me a better Buddhist— or a better person, because I wasn’t yet calling myself a Buddhist then.

Yes, just notice what arises. Yes, non-attachment to the outcome. And yet. I can’t resist the siren call of better, that relentless tread toward self- improvement. A familiar road: It is 1999, I am thirteen, my hamster died a week ago, I write in my journal, “lose weight, 1 lb., I am 93 right now.”

And so it begins. There has to be a better tea out there, a better me out there. Surely meditating is better than starving myself?

Meditation mishaps:

1) Junior year of college, I attend the daily meditation sessions of the on-campus Buddhist student group. The only other regular has been meditating since the age of thirteen. We sit in a cramped closet of a room as morning sun ekes in through vinyl blinds that conceal the tiniest of windows. I am feeling proud not to have budged from my lotus position for the past thirty minutes, screaming pain in hip be damned. My long-legged, flexible-hipped companion marks the end of the session: ding! He stands up lithely, cushion and bell in hand. I hasten to follow, realize too late that my foot is asleep, fall and twist my ankle.

2) In grad school, I mention to a fellow student in the Buddhist chaplaincy program that I don’t have a meditation practice—that, to be honest, I don’t particularly like meditating. Alarm flits across her face, as if I am a dentist who has just confessed to never flossing, a pulmonologist caught smoking. “Don’t worry; that will change,” she blurts out. I’m not sure which of us she’s trying to reassure.

3) Now, when I could be meditating, I write. Or sleep.

Somewhere along the way, I had become convinced that to be a good Buddhist is to be a good meditator. It does not occur to me to interrogate what “good” might mean in this equation.

Not until the Buddhist boyfriend and I move to Southeast Asia will I realize that this equivalence renders the world full of bad Buddhists. Like the Cambodians who converge by the brothy Tonle Sap on full- and half- and new-moon days, lotus buds and incense sticks in hand, awaiting their turn to make offerings at the riverfront shrine. Like our neighbor in Phnom Penh, whom we call Lok Yeay (grandmother), who nonchalantly gives us local fruit and begrudgingly cares for stray cats and offhandedly mentions that we shouldn’t assume she’ll still be alive after our weeklong trip to Laos. Regular temple-goers whose actions bespeak generosity and non-attachment and impermanence—but can they really represent Buddhism without its sine qua non, that cross-legged practice par excellence so glowingly embodied by svelte yoginis on glossy magazine covers?

The summer after my first year of grad school, I attend a ten-day workshop on Guanyin, the goddess of mercy who first arrived in China from India in the guise of the male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. We are based, aptly enough, near Putuoshan, a pilgrimage site to which Guanyin devotees flock. After the workshop, with a day to spare before catching the train to Shanghai, I take the earliest morning ferry over. Meandering along the island’s roads through forests and beaches, I chance upon a young Chinese couple on vacation. They tell me they aren’t Buddhist, though one of them used to go to temple with her grandmother to 拜拜, praying for good grades with three perfunctory nods of the head, cough-inducing joss sticks sandwiched between her palms. The couple apologizes for the superstitions of this older generation. Is it true that in America, even ordinary run-of-the-mill people who aren’t monks or nuns meditate? Now isn’t that a truer form of Buddhism?

Somewhere along the way, I had become convinced that to be a good Buddhist is to be a white meditator.

Another mishap? (Bay Area, post-college, pre–grad school.)

At the final monthly meeting of an introduction to Buddhist chaplaincy training program, we are invited to take our teachers’ places. Each of us ascends the stage to field questions from the other nineteen students and (nerve-rackingly) our three instructors.

The stage is a modest one. What at a temple might be dais on wood is, at this meditation center, zafu on carpet. Come my turn, something isn’t right. I can’t bring myself to sit on the plump black cushion.

Instead, I’m drawn to the low coffee table graced by a small Buddha statue, humble compared to altars I’ve seen elsewhere. In front of the lone Buddha statue, I bow three times. Head dipped, hands in prayer, hands to forehead, hands to heart, a deep bend in the knees, knees on carpet, palms and forehead follow, the whole sequence in reverse to rise—all of this thrice repeated.

Bemused, our teachers (all white, all meditators) ask: Why did you bow?

I must have babbled an answer, face aflame. But truth be told, I don’t know. I didn’t grow up bowing, so why would I do it now?

Why do I envy the people—so visible in Asia, so invisible here—for whom these acts of devotion are inscribed in body memory, performed without self-consciousness, effortless? Effortless the way my elementary school class- mates fixed themselves bowls of cereal. Classmates pale as cold milk, milk my grandma would have insisted I heat up had she been with us in that semi-rural town in Pennsylvania, but 奶奶 was in Shanghai then and wouldn’t come to America for another fifteen years, arriving shortly after the Buddhist boyfriend informs me that pouring the milk before dumping on the Cheerios is not the standard order of operations for this procedure.

Why does it feel comforting to bow, a motion as unpracticed for me as pouring cereal first, milk after? Before the puzzled eyes of my classmates and teachers, I feel like a chinawoman in a canary, although I don’t think that’s how the expression goes.

From one long listening by Chenxing Han, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2023 by Chenxing Han. Reprinted by permission of North Atlantic Books.

Chenxing Han

Chenxing Han

Guest Teacher

Chenxing Han (she/her) is the author of the books "Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists" (North Atlantic Books, 2021); one long listening: a memoir of grief, friendship, and spiritual care (North Atlantic Books, 2023); and numerous articles and book chapters for both academic and mainstream audiences.