THE TREE, and the verdant flora and distant purple mountains that offset it, were part of an Indian landscape, not a Vietnamese one, said the monk. “You must imagine how a bodhi tree appears under the skies of another country.”
But neither the youth nor the man could paint the trunk, branches, and leaves of the bodhi tree exactly as the monk had wanted. The problem might have been the canvas that the monk had bought from Builder's Emporium and stretched and nailed onto the crumbling drywall behind the main altar table of the temple. The canvas surface was uneven to the eye, and, given the dim lighting and the smoke of burning joss sticks in the room, awkward to prepare or paint.
Moreover, neither artist had painted larger-scale murals before. The monk had showed each artist the Thai prints of the Shakyamuni Buddha—sitting under the bodhi during his enlightenment, teaching his disciples, or meditating in the forest. The thin, gaudy paper prints themselves were torn and stained, because, as the monk explained, they had been damaged during his stay in the Thai refugee camp ten years ago. But that is where the monk had originally met the two painters: then, one was a child and the other a teenager who belonged to the families whose boats had been capsized or plundered off the Strait of Malaysia that summer. Everyone who survived the journey ended up, sooner or later, in Songfa camp.
The first artist, Vu, came from a family of lacquer craft workers. In Vietnam, the family specialized in pictures, trays, and commemorative objects of black lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl and abalone shell. The process was a delicate one: selecting and curing the light wood underframe, procuring and thinning the lac itself, incising the designs and laying in the fragments of shells and pearl. Once the family came to the States, however, they no longer
made lacquer wares but instead imported them and sold the works of their relatives. Vu had not trained formally, but as a child he had observed his father carefully sorting the shell and pearl shards by color, sheen, and size.
The monk had wanted the mural behind the altar of the wooden statue of Shakyamuni Buddha completed before July 15—the Vu-Lan festival. Those three days following, hundreds of people would descend on Little Saigon, Orange County, to visit the Buddhist temples and pay their respects to those who had perished in Vietnam, in America, or at sea. They would pray for the liberation of all sentient beings, including animals, who suffered in this and nether worlds.
With ingenuity, and hired Mexican day laborers, the monk had over the past five years transformed the plain three-bedroom tract home into a colorful yellow and red temple and combination living quarters, surrounded by elaborate tropical gardens in the front and back yards. After the L.A. riots in spring, jobless laborers were even more plentiful than before. They helped install the granite stupa that stood as tall as a man in the front garden. The laborers didn't like the temple food consisting of cooked vegetables and soft tofu, however, so the monk had to drive them to a Taco Bell for meat burritos and Cokes at midday.
The outside windows facing the busy street were trimmed in an auspicious red paint, as was the front door. From the Korean nursery where the monk once worked, he managed to obtain some concrete statues of the Buddha and the Quan Am, along with a chipped birdbath, to grace the front. Two stone lions guarded the temple, along with a symmetrical arrangement of azalea hedges, sago palms, aloes, and two ten-foot bodhi trees on either side of the entrance. The house and its exotic gardens were an anomaly on the run-down suburban street with its tract homes and fading plots of grass.
After classes, Vu had rushed to the temple on his bicycle and gone to Builder's Emporium with the monk to buy acrylic paints for the mural: violet, forest green, burnt umber, azure, royal blue, black, and carmine.
In the temple, the monk had showed him the printed images of the Buddha rendered in saturated tones of pink, green, blue, and yellow. Vu did not care for the brilliance, but listened attentively to the monk and nodded politely. The older generation, Vu thought, merely copied what they could remember of Vietnam. But now that they were in America, maybe they should paint in a new way, not drawing upon their memories or nostalgia alone.
Vu opened the can of burnt umber, using it to first outline the trunk and
branches of the bodhi tree, which would take up the middle portion of the wall. He mixed in some red and green, as brown tended to absorb the colors around it. Without filling in the trunk he studied the form of the tree, slowly dabbing in the red and green, toning the color down with gray. After three hours he was happy with the enormous trunk, like an elephant's. It would extend above and over the wooden Buddha figure, once the altar table was pushed back against the wall. Chi, the old woman who lived in the temple and prepared food for the Sifu, told him that it looked more like the trunk of a banyan than a bodhi tree. The monk, after his nap, surveyed the painting. He was silent.
“Sifu, what do you think of the bodhi tree? I didn't copy the picture exactly.”
“A great effort. But the trunk looks like that of a eucalyptus tree to me, with all the gray bark. Better look at this print again!”
Vu pretended to study the print. “I see my mistake. Let me paint for half an hour, and then I'll return tomorrow?”
Vu pursed his lips: everyone had a different idea of how the trunk of the bodhi tree should appear. In reality, he thought, the trunk and branches of the bodhi did not differ much from other trees—it so happened that Buddha was sitting under one. He could have been sitting under a banyan for all anyone really knew.
Finishing the trunk took longer than Vu had anticipated. It was ten o'clock when he returned home. He ate the rice porridge, fish cake, and eggs garnished with onions that his mother had left out on the kitchen table for him, and lay on top of his bed. He popped a disk of Jay Z's “Hard Knock Life” into his compact disk player and moved into another space, just past the four corners of his room, through a familiar open field, and into the thicket of his memory. Nameless, fishlike creatures leapt through vines wrapped around dark branches. Pale monkeys splashed in the river beneath overgrown bamboo and ficus. The same large tree again. Its gray branches thickened into arms that ensnared his body—swarthy arms of the pirates who had once tossed him into the sea. The knock-down pulse of “Hard Knock Life” delivered him back to his room, as quickly as it had taken him out.
He got up and dragged himself to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Ice cubes and 7-Up would soothe his dry tongue and throat. Sweat covered his body, and the scar on his forearm from the shark attack turned livid, as it usually did when he felt anxious or angry. He didn't want to go back to the temple the next day. After his Chemistry 1-B, he called the Sifu and told him
that he had to study for final exams and that he wouldn't be able to finish the painting before Vu-Lan day. The monk said that he would find someone else, and thanked him for his help.
The monk also had had dreams that night. Awakened by them, he had arisen several times and lit a yellow candle at the altar, studying Vu's rendition of the bodhi tree. A painted branch was more than flat brush strokes; each stroke should carry the round pulse of the hand.
Yet he conceded that living like squatters in the refugee camps could distort a person's sense of balance and proportion, and alter their perception. What they had seen and endured on sea and land could make anyone forget the true nature of things. Vu was probably too young to remember the makeshift bamboo and thatched roof temple in camp, which could hold forty or fifty people at a time. There were no gilt statues or bronze censers to furnish the altar. They had nothing but paper prints of Buddha strung across a rope inside the doorless, open-air structure. Sun, monsoon rain, and wind flung themselves in at will. Once, as they were praying, a sudden gust lifted and tore the flimsy roof off, and they could see white albino rats whirling in the air. Without the hand of Buddha, he thought, he himself would be dead, or have gone berserk long ago.
Understandably, young people, once they were in America, wanted to forget the past and move into the future as quickly as they could. Vu tried his best. But the elderly temple worshippers, the monk feared, would laugh behind his back at the stolid trunk and stiff branches of the tree. It was roughhewn, unlike the refined frescoes they would remember in temples back home. A fidelity to familiar images was a way of positioning his life in the new land.
He had to find someone else to finish it before Sunday, when families would come to pay their respects to temple monks and nuns.
The monk heeded his own blunt hands: they were good for striking the mallet on the wooden fish drum, for tending vegetables and pulling weeds, and even for teaching martial arts as he did, but not for painting. But he trusted his eyes, his vision, and his acute sense of people: by looking at a person's face or hands for five minutes or listening to their voice, even hidden behind a screen, he could ascertain their motive or character. The monk saw, but he did not discriminate. Whereas the world did. Between rich and poor, male and female, high and low, between Mahayana and Theravada sects. One time a portly scholar from a Buddhist university in Hue came to visit the temple. He gave the monk a copy of his book on Vietnamese Zen philosophy,
signed with a flowery signature, a Ph.D. in bold black letters after his name, and with all the names of schools he'd studied at in Paris and Vietnam. This angered the monk. When they came to the U.S., intellectuals flashed their credentials even more, he thought. Knowledge of books led to discrimination by the book.
For he himself knew what it meant to face discrimination by words, or the lack of them, when he first arrived. At first he could barely understand English or make himself understood in that language by others. Each morning when he left the temple to work, he tried to remember a new word. He'd washed dishes in a fast-food restaurant. He'd moved office furniture for a van company on Figueroa Street, near downtown. He'd worked in a Hollywood nursery, for a Korean. He memorized the common names of flowers and trees, the ones most popular with customers: daisy, rose, camellia, orchid, maple, bamboo, pine, birch, cherry, peach. His new vocabulary was both small and large. It was provisional, yet easily understood. For six years, he'd stayed at the main temple at Ninth Street and Berendo, near Koreatown in Los Angeles, until he saved enough money to put a small down payment on a foreclosed tract home in Garden Grove. He'd planned to turn the house into a temple, miles away from L.A. A refuge—away from the blue and red graffiti on the walls, on the buildings, away even from the loud Mexican music that he somehow grew to like. Its melodies were endearing and sad at the same time.
In the inner courtyard of the downtown temple the monks who'd come before him had planted fruit trees: persimmon, kaffir lime, loquat, and kumquat. People from all over would find their way to this temple in the corner of a nondescript block with aging stucco apartment houses. Especially during the Tet holiday, young men would drive around in their shiny Toyota Celicas and rush in to make New Year's resolutions. They'd light three punk sticks, kneel, pray, then speed away with their long-haired girlfriends in tow. More often than not, they would cruise the temple, driving around the block to show off their cars to friends.
The next morning, the monk telephoned Thanh. Thanh had been laid off recently from the bank and had time to finish what Vu had started. He was ten years older than Vu. Though not trained as a painter, Thanh was well known in the community as a poet and watercolorist, albeit unable to hold down a job. Already his wife had left him, taking the two children with her to Las Vegas where she found work in a casino.
Thus his stanzas—published in the local Vietnamese paper or in the Bhiksu Buddhist Association journal—were ostensibly about Buddha, but also intertwined with feelings about his family. Startling images, line after line, were juxtaposed in his poems: a young Gautama washing himself in a muddy pond; a woman scrubbing her body raw with Mojave Desert sand…
Sometimes he would come to the temple, sobbing in front of the altar, seeking solace. The monk was at a loss. Even the Buddha's placid countenance could not allay his friend's pain—and it was three years since his family had left him. Painting might rescue him momentarily from his grief. Thanh hurried over to the temple. Again, the Sifu brought out his torn Thai lithographs, explaining that distant mountain peaks should be sharp, like mountains in Nepal or in India, not rounded like the hills found in the lowlands of their own country. Both of them laughed, because neither had ever seen snow on mountains in Vietnam. Last year, however, the monk had driven through the Sierra and seen snow-capped western mountains for the first time. Thanh would give it a try. He assured the monk that he could have the wall painted over if it wasn't right.
By late afternoon, the trunk of the bodhi tree had grown slimmer, and faraway peaks flushed with violet and pink began to appear on either side of the tree. The monk seemed happier, and Thanh came back the next two days to finish drawing the green heart-shaped leaves. The leaves, unfortunately, looked like solid clumps of philodendron, not like bodhi leaves at all. The monk thought it ironic that such clumsy rendering could come from Thanh's small-boned hands. Exasperated, Thanh shrugged his shoulders; he was not in the mood to paint the finely veined leaves required for the tree. “The tree lacks spirit,” Thanh admitted. But the Sifu said the rest of the painting was fine, and reached into his pocket to pay him. Thanh refused the dollars, saying that the temple had helped him many times before and that the Sifu should keep the money.
That evening, the monk explained to the half-dozen worshippers why he was being so particular about the way the leaves and branches of the bodhi were painted.
“When you walk into this temple, the first thing your eyes see is Shakyamuni and the wall mural behind him. Everything on the altar, from the fresh color and scent of flowers to the smooth-skinned fruits, must move the heart in the right direction. Physical beauty is not just for the eyes alone.”
The worshippers, mostly old women attired in gray cotton Buddhist robes, nodded in assent. One spoke up: “Master, you are right. Sooner or
later my colored photograph will be hanging here with the other photos on the ancestors’ wall, together with my ashes in a bronze urn on that table. I hope my nieces and nephews will come to pay their respects to their dead auntie. Of course the more beautiful the temple and the painting, the happier my soul will rest.”
The other ladies guffawed at the stout black-haired woman who had just spoken. One whispered too loudly: “She'll probably outlive all of us, that's why she's agreeing!”
With a sharp glance at the women, the Sifu continued: “No matter who dies first, the tree will outlive all of us. You remember back home how large the bodhi tree grows, its roots can envelop the whole land below a house. I'm afraid this painting won't do.”
Early the next morning, after dawn prayers, the monk drove his van to pick up one of his former martial arts students, Tinh, a nineteen-year-old who lived with his family in a beach town south of Little Saigon.
As the monk headed toward the coast, block after block of Vietnamese shopping malls disappeared in the van's rear view mirror. Then, a blue line of Pacific entered his vision.
Already the air glistened with heat. Cars and campers along the beach road were jammed bumper to bumper. Sweat ran down the back of the monk's thick cotton robe. He opened the window completely and let the heated salt air fill his nostrils.
He pulled his van up to the entrance of the beach parking lot. There were no guards here, as he remembered from the Thai camps. Because he was a monk, they had let him through the barbed wire gates to the beach beyond, facing the gulf. Under merciless sun or drenching monsoon rain the monk would meditate for hours on the white sand. But the exact meaning of his prayers, chanted in Pali or Vietnamese, had eluded the ears of the guards.
The American beach was different. No guards, only lifeguards in the wooden towers spaced evenly apart on the beach. He got out of the van and began walking toward the water. He tried not to notice the bikini-clad bodies lying on the sand, the pale breasts and thighs sprawled on bright beach towels. The coconut aroma of suntan lotion glazed the air. His bare foot almost caught on the jagged neck of a beer bottle buried in the sand.
Fastening his eyes on the horizon, he began humming part of a sutra to himself, the same one he had chanted a thousand times in camp. He touched the cloth pouch that dangled from a cord on his chest. Folded inside the
pouch was a paper tablet with the “Heart Sutra” written in Chinese characters that his own teacher had given him.
Reaching the line where the tide wet the sand, he dug his feet into the water. He did not feel as liberated in America as he had hoped. The temple carried a fifteen-hundred-dollar monthly mortgage that had to be scrimped from weekly donations. The bank clerks, machinists, beauty shop manicurists, factory workers, and families who came to the temple helped out when they could. But the recession had reduced the amount people could give.
His breathing tightened. Maintaining the temple grounds and red altar candles and incense cost money. Then there was auto insurance, his frequent driving tickets, and remittances to his home temple in Saigon, now Ho Chi-Minh City. Everything had to be paid in dollars, and rich Chinese or generous Vietnamese donors who would buy a plot of land or donate a building for the temple, as they did in Vietnam, were not to be found in America. He turned abruptly around, made his way back to the van, and continued his journey.
The monk reached the dilapidated pink wood-frame cottage in back of t...