by Panpan Song
from BWR 46.1
I. Prayer for the Feeding of the Hungry Ghosts
In the fall of 2013, I had recently moved to New York, when I ran into an acquaintance from some years ago in Shanghai. He was working for an investment bank in Midtown and said, if I were at all hungry, that he knew a place I would like. So I found myself that evening, late September, sitting down to dinner at a vegan Buddhist Japanese restaurant with a 25-year-old investment banker, in a two-story townhouse in Murray Hill.
From our seats at the chef’s counter the investment banker ordered for us the eight-course tasting, called Hana, which in Japanese means flower. The menu was this:
Otsukimi: moon viewing
Ginger dumpling with black sesame sauce
Potage with eggplant, chives, julienned Tokyo scallion
Grilled and steamed vegetables with gomannaise
Market vegetables served two ways
Shiizakana and house-made soba
Oyster mushrooms with black daikon, mountain yam with wasabi, malabar spinach and cabbage in umeboshi puree, burdock-root tempura, chrysanthemum sushi
Japanese taro, pumpkin-fu, yuzu zest
Pan-seared yuba with sansho sauce over rice
Mochi with sweet edamame paste
Matcha with candies
From the tea selection he chose a light green sencha to pair with the meal. The counter, the waitress explained, had been carved from a single piece of keyaki wood, prized in Japan for its fine grain. The serving dishes were crafted hundreds of years ago by master potters and would be carefully selected to complement each course. Our water glasses were made of wafer-thin glass with tiny cherry blossoms etched into it, and stood on squares of white paper printed with this design ☐△◯—Oh lovely I thought, though what I said was nothing.
Our waitress came and served the tea, in a blue-and-white ceramic teapot with an oversized handle, which she placed on a small square of cloth with the same design ☐△◯ printed onto it. The way the steam lifted from our cups reminded me of the end of a summer years ago, in a coffee shop called COFFEESHOP in Shanghai, where I had tea with a boy I was seeing at the time. He ordered a chrysanthemum tea and I ordered a frozen chocolate drink with whipped cream, which was all right because it was lunchtime and I had over the summer grown thin, from torment I called it. The chrysanthemum tea came flowering in a small glass teapot which delighted me, and when he poured the tea into a matching glass teacup with no handle I watched the steam curl around the edges of his face like leaves.
This much was true: nothing very bad happened. Nothing big. I was interning that summer as a translator for a Chinese government bank, a job for which I was entirely unqualified, but that was all right as it turned out to be a sort of sinecure where nothing actually was expected of me. Mornings I spent entering reports on India’s electricity generation levels into Google Translate and afternoons I spent reading English books that I bought from the street stand outside the office building. There were these grapefruit mints that I liked from the convenience store in the lobby, and every morning I would buy a tin and make it last through the day. I drank chilled water while eating the mints because I liked the way the mint made the water taste extra cold. When the office emptied out during lunch I turned off the lights and napped at my desk.
My supervisor had arranged for me to stay in an acquaintance’s unoccupied apartment, a small, partially furnished two-bedroom in the former French Concession, in the old Puxi area of the city. In the foyer was a mini-fridge and in the sitting room were two chairs and a folding card table. The second bedroom opened out onto a small porch with dirty screen windows and languishing plants hanging from the ceiling. I never cooked in the apartment; there was a problem with the gas cooktop and the door to the kitchen was kept firmly shut. All I did was boil water in the electric kettle I kept on top of the fridge, and wash the mug and spoon I owned in the bathroom sink. What I ate for dinner were cups of ramen and takeout noodles from the place around the corner.
I had a roommate, and we mostly got along and were friends. When she moved out she left a value-sized bag of oatmeal on the shelf in her bedroom, and for a week afterwards I lived off the oatmeal. By then I was no longer eating meat or fish. I’d lost weight and the half-moons had faded from my fingernails. I spent my last week in Shanghai in bed, calling in sick to work and sending emails to the boy I was seeing then. The last afternoon at the coffee shop, we finished our drinks and walked back to my apartment in the French Concession where I packed my things messily, carelessly, in the half-hour before I left for the airport. I told myself then that I didn’t care, really I didn’t—whatever had happened, for whatever reasons—it no longer made any difference to me. That was the start of the empty.
There was a ghost in the apartment on Huaihai West, and like all personal ghosts she seemed to haunt only me. The first night I walked past my bedroom and saw her sitting there, legs crossed, at the vanity. Her counterpart, the boy, took my roommate. She said she’d wake at night with the ghost-boy standing over her in the light from the window—which was like every ghost story ever, but it was as real to us as we wanted it to be, and we did. Evenings we crept around the apartment, quietly so as not to disturb the ghosts, and before we slept I’d set out a plate of black sesame cookies on the sitting-room table, in case they grew hungry during the night.
When my stomach first began to itch (from the inside, as I said), I thought it was a kind of hunger, so I ate to fill it: Nanxiang soup dumplings from the famous place in Old Town, red dates stuffed with sticky rice from the restaurant on Tianping Road, greasy guotie from the street stands along Huaihai West. I bought soft buttery bread swirled with red bean paste from the bakery near the metro station and ate it by the loaf, pulling it apart in spirals. One Friday I took the day off to buy golden raisins and dried apricots at the multicolored stalls of the Muslim street market by the Huxi mosque, a stark white incongruity among the dusty high-rises of Jingan. I sat under a makeshift tent sharing a pot of spiced tea with a family from Xinjiang and a blue-eyed Irish expat, picking at sesame-studded flatbread from a bag on the table, greasy fingers smearing our plastic cups.
The itching grew. I stopped eating meat, then fish. I ran the stairs of my building and flooded the bathroom with long showers. Listless nights I spent curled up in a sitting-room chair, nursing my crawling stomach with mugs of hot water and honey. There was a traditional Chinese pharmacy down the street where I went for medicine, foil-wrapped pills and vials of amber-colored syrup and envelopes of herbs to steep in boiling water. I took whatever the woman behind the counter gave me, and when I ran out I went back for more. Mornings walking down Century Avenue in the rain, I thought I was becoming invisible. I thought if I stopped eating and sleeping, or needing to do things like eat and sleep, then I could disappear. There was a little girl upstairs who would practice the same few bars of a Mozart piano sonata over and over, every night, and I’d lie in bed and listen while my stomach turned on itself. After she stopped I would continue to hear it, and eventually I could no longer tell whether it was really playing.
There was this: it was always raining in Shanghai. Most days it was stiflingly hot. There was the way the headlights of the taxis looked in the rain, and how the saline humidity hung in the air. There were the lighted boats along the river and the couples stepping out of screeching cabs, all the girls wearing blush and looking like dolls. I had a flowery blue umbrella that I used until it broke, near the end, and I left it crumpled by the door when I packed my suitcase the last afternoon. I remember useless things like that. When I moved out of the apartment on Huaihai West I left my things strewn across the rooms: a jar of honey above the fridge in the foyer, boxes of herbal medicine and receipts from late-night cab rides home in the drawers of the nightstands, a white collared shirt dripping water onto the porch. In the cab on the way to the airport I decided I wouldn’t go back to the city, and it’s true I haven’t, though what I came to see was that you can’t return to any place once you’ve left it (not in the same way, not as the same person)—and also that you never really leave it, anyway. The apartment building was one in a complex of five, unkempt window boxes and fading salmon-pink paint. Stray cats wrapped themselves around potted plants and French Art Nouveau patio furniture in the courtyard. My bedroom had one queen-sized bed, two nightstands of dark lacquered wood and a latticework-framed vanity into which was woven one large plastic sunflower. Those last days I slept intermittently, and when I did I had nightmares about that sunflower. What did it mean—maybe nothing. But at that point I was still trying to work out the pieces of that particular narrative, as they say, still telling the story in order to find out.
There is a painting by a Buddhist monk that looks like this ☐△◯, and a reproduction of it is printed on a sign hanging outside the restaurant in Murray Hill. The painting is untitled, but it’s sometimes called “the universe.” The square represents the four elements (earth, water, fire, air) of the physical world. The triangle represents the three aspects (physical, intellectual, spiritual) of the human being. The circle represents the infinite, which is in itself formless. The idea behind the painting is that together these three shapes encompass the universe, so if you understood what they meant, then you would understand the meaning of everything. Inside the restaurant we finished our tea and the investment banker said he was leaving town temporarily, to Brazil for business and to Morocco for vacation. But I thought he’d come back and the seasons would have turned, or the leaves would already be falling in Central Park—in that way I liked to mourn the deaths of things. The investment banker paid the bill discreetly and we went out onto the street, and in the sky a full moon hung large and low. He turned to me and said, “Do you see?” But it wasn’t possible to keep anything from leaving, so the most you can do is to say that it happened, every lost thing, all of it. We had dinner at the place. The soup was perfectly seasoned. The investment banker said, “Are you even a real person? Do you want real things?” Then we laughed a pretend laugh and went away.
II. The Heart Sutra
Two years after I left Shanghai, during the spring break of my last year of college, I went to a Zen Buddhist monastery to study the emptiness of being. I found one not far away, in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. On Saturdays the monks bought vegetables at the farmers market in Fort Greene. I told the monks that I intended to do research for my undergraduate thesis, an experiment in form on the subject of emptiness, particularly as discussed in the Perfection of Wisdom sutras. “Is emptiness empty?” I asked. “Is wanting to want nothing wanting still?” The monks told me to stay the week. They taught me zazen and the art of the ōryōki breakfast. In art practice they encouraged me to write haiku to represent the great void. They gave me books from the temple library that said this:
1. has 17 Japanese syllables (on) in 3 phrases of 5, 7, 5
2. juxtaposes 2 images of ideas with a cutting word (kireji)
3. references the season with a seasonal word (kigo)
For practice, I wrote emails to a friend in haiku form:
A morning haiku—
I am packing and thinking,
Where is my sweater?
Hello? Are you there?
Hello? Are you there? Hello?
Are you there?
The last line appeared incomplete, I explained, because it ended with a two-syllable pause for emphasis. He wrote me a haiku in return:
It consisted, he explained, solely of pauses for emphasis.
The Heart Sutra says, form=emptiness and emptiness=form. Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, while practicing the Perfection of Wisdom, saw clearly that all parts of the being were empty, and was so saved from all unhappiness and suffering. Evenings in the monastery, we gathered in the Buddha Hall where the roshi gave lectures on the Way of Zen. He said, “When you come to the end of the road and reach perfect insight you will see that nothing exists. I’m not speaking these words and you’re not hearing them.” The only thing to do, he told us, was to laugh. Life is a joke, our roshi said. He was very serious about it. He called it the great cosmic hoax. The supreme swindle. We laughed together, like this:
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Someone once said you have to be very, very desperate in order to become a Buddhist. As it turned out, I lasted only three days. In morning meditation the students in grey robes walked circles around the dim zendo. The roshi sat in front of the smoking altar. Nothing happened. Nothing would happen. There was the tall monk changing into his black robes behind the folding screen, and the short monk smearing butter onto his gluten-free bread. Twice a day we sat zazen and every morning we chanted the Heart Sutra. At breakfast we recited, We and this food are vacant. I spent the last morning mopping the Buddha Hall with water because I couldn’t find the soap, and I couldn’t ask anyone because it was silent time. Anyway I suspected it didn’t matter. One mops the floor in order to mop the floor. Mindfulness.
Here’s a Buddhist story: One day a monk, walking in the wilderness, stumbles upon a vicious tiger, who chases him to the edge of a precipice. With no other options, the monk climbs down a flowering vine hanging over the edge: below he sees another tiger waiting to eat him. Two mice appear from a hole in the cliff and begin nibbling away at the vine. Suddenly the monk notices a wild strawberry growing on the face of the cliff. He plucks and eats it. It is incredibly delicious!
Though in some versions of the story the strawberry turns out to be poisonous, the tall monk at the monastery told me. We were sitting full lotus on the floor of the Buddha Hall and he was teaching me to fold my hands in the shape of the cosmic mudrā, for emptiness: palms up and thumbs just touching, to form a perfect O. Then I finished the mopping and did the coatroom and the entryway too, and none of it was getting any cleaner, I was just pushing around the dirt, but still.
Where do lost things go? I have a friend who loses umbrellas in cabs. This has become a recurring motif in her life. Every time she goes out and it is raining she leaves an umbrella in a cab somewhere, and because of this she’s stopped buying new umbrellas, so as not to lose another. We were out, one night, and she was certain she had lost her sweater, and was running up and down the stairs of the nightclub called O looking for it—she spent all night searching, and only by the end did she remember she hadn’t brought it out in the first place. I told this story to a mutual friend, and she rolled her eyes. “You mean it as a metaphor for her life,” she said, and I did—I was and remain susceptible to this kind of misreading. In fact the thing that I lose in cabs is sweaters. I leave them in back seats, on warm nights, and each time it’s heartbreaking because I love them all. “See?” I said. Imagine losing something actually significant. That is why I am afraid of feelings.
In the spring after graduating from college, I did some traveling in a vague and half-hearted way. I booked a plane ticket to the Netherlands and went from there around Europe and Greece and so on. In particular I was having a bad time of it in Amsterdam, late April, though I didn’t know it then. I didn’t see the Anne Frank House or the Van Gogh Museum and I didn’t smoke pot in the coffee shops, none of those things. All I could do was take the tram to the central library and sit in the café on the top floor looking out, and eat falafel from a place across the canal and lie in bed looking up flights to elsewhere. I was staying in a brothel turned hostel by the southernmost canal, in a whitewashed room with Dutch-blue bedspreads and pictures of windmills on the walls.
I flew south, to Morocco. In Marrakech I met many Brazilians. I liked them because they were cheerful and they wanted to see things and do things. I took a bus to the desert with the Brazilians. We rode camels and slept in tents and they taught me to say “Hello, is life beautiful?” in Portuguese. In the Sahara it was cool at night, and we drank mint tea and there was music and people danced. The man who served the tea poured it from high above the table, from a tarnished silver pot with a long spout, and it fell in a thin stream that twisted around itself like licorice.
When I first moved to New York it was summer and for a while I felt very young because everything seemed new, and I was meeting new people and I liked the people that I met. I didn’t think too much about things and went around and had the usual sorts of fun. My apartment was a three-bedroom in Morningside Heights that I shared with two other girls, and we all got along. There was a mouse who lived in our kitchen, and one night I saw him scurry from a bowl of strawberries on the counter, across the burners and into the stove. One of my roommates bought mousetraps, and placed one ripe strawberry in each, but after she went to sleep I crept into the kitchen and ate the berries and they were sweet as summer. In the morning I woke with a nosebleed—though that was because the air was getting drier, because it was getting to be the fall—
For a while I dated a software engineer, a very nice guy. “I’m not that nice,” he said, “nice guys finish last.” We went to a restaurant where he ordered for us a whole roasted fish on a platter. He took it and peeled away its spine and placed boneless white flakes of the fish, one by one, onto my plate. “You should really eat meat,” he said. He had nice hands. He would probably make a good Buddhist, I thought. I was boring myself terribly. “Everything is boring,” I said. We were at a bar somewhere and I was on my third gin and soda. I drank them because I thought they didn’t give me hangovers. I was getting confessional. “I don’t have feelings,” I said. “I don’t feel feelings.” I felt drunk. “You’re a weird girl,” he said.
I grew weirder. I slept little. I drank coffee until I felt sick and then I ate vegetables that I cooked in the microwave. Once I bruised my nose walking into the microwave door, but I loved that bruise, the purpleness of it. I showed all of my friends. “I microwave everything,” I said, “I microwave potatoes.” The bruise on my nose faded but then one night I cut my hand slicing fruit in the kitchen and that too was lovely, and I hated the slow inexorable way it healed over itself, which made me think of cut flowers dying. After a while I stopped talking to people and going to places. Nights I spent rearranging the furniture in my room. I put all of my sweaters into a large cardboard box and pushed it to the center of the room and sat inside. To me, experience served only to break down the spirit. “Just protecting my poor heart,” I said to no one in particular.
Some days were better than others. One day I walked to Central Park and sat at a picnic table under a tree. It grew dark out and then I went home. There was a time, in the fall, when I went with a friend to a crowded Times Square theater and saw a movie in which nothing bad happened, no one hurt anyone else, and then we cried together for whatever reason it is that people cry—self-pity? I came home and swiffered the apartment until it looked clean, and sat on the floor of my room and ate a pear. The thing was, I said, I was—petrified—of psychological pain. I thought I was more afraid than anyone I knew. Everyone around me seemed somehow broken, everything perpetually coming apart—so what had happened, that had left things the way they were? And if you could tell it, where would that leave you?
It was like this: when I was in college I spent a summer in Shanghai and it left me anxious and empty and difficult about food. Back at school I started writing essays on emptiness that I called experiments in form. Then one day I came across a quote from a Buddhist text called the Heart Sutra that said that all form was, was emptiness, which brought me to the monastery in Brooklyn, and so on. I had this idea that if you could figure out exactly how you had come to the place you were, then you could fix it, you could find a way out. As it happened that wasn’t the case, but it was a while before I suspected it. There would be no revelation, in the end, just the slow fade-out (which never would, completely), and the rubbishy remains to pick over, at the close of the day—
That was all: cause and effect. You start out in one place and after a certain point something’s changed; you’ve arrived somewhere else. But wasn’t emptiness the end of everything? Where would you go to from there? That had me running from the Zen monastery in New York, running for the ferry at the old port in Santorini, along the zigzagging steps down to the caldera. There was the monk in orange robes raking the dirt outside the Holy Trinity, and the nun in black at the collection kiosk at St. Stephen. When I handed her my entrance fee she smiled kindly and made the sign of the cross. There was the hostel in Athens with the old-fashioned elevator rattling its way up to the fourth floor, and the little restaurant with a view of the Acropolis where I got drunk off white wine and walked home barefoot, painstakingly, over the cobblestone path back towards the Plaka. Someone had broken glass on the ground outside the hostel, and I dreamt I was picking at my feet and pulling smooth-edged stones from beneath my skin.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction writes that a story can end in only one of two ways:
1. resolution, when no further event can take place
2. logical exhaustion, our recognition that we’ve reached the stage of infinite repetition; more events might follow, perhaps from now till Kingdom Come, but they will all express the same thing—
The next time I saw the investment banker, it was winter in New York and snow was falling in sheets. He wore a thin coat and looked a bit older or more tired. It was our friend Susan’s birthday and he’d brought a cake. We stood in her lobby waiting for the elevator and he was looking at me in this way, like I was some silly little girl, which was of course true. The elevator came: we took it to the fourth floor. In her kitchen Susan made tea in a kettle on the stove. I watched as she took three mugs from the cupboard and scattered a handful of dried chrysanthemums into each. When she poured in the water the flowers floated upwards and opened and started to fall apart. “How’s every little thing?” the investment banker said. I tried to tell how I’d meant to see the tulips near Amsterdam, that spring. They bloom for only two months each year, in a town called Lisse, an hour outside the city. To get there you take the tram to Schiphol Airport, then transfer to the bus for the Keukenhof Gardens. It was one of the few things I could think to do, and I didn’t want it enough, to actually get there. We sat on the floor of the living room and stirred our tea slowly. I wanted to say more about it, something about the things we seemed to want, but already that felt to me sort of hopeless, so many words signifying what? “Oh well,” Susan said. “Never mind.” Never never mind.
Sunflowers are summer flowers, I learned. Chrysanthemums bloom in autumn, then tulips, which last only through the spring. Then it was the next spring and I was on break again, and Susan was saying to me, go on a trip, just book a plane ticket and fly to somewhere. But there was a time when I tried that, and it didn’t work. Still, she said—things happened every day. And they did. That fall I made it in time to see the leaves turn, just like I’d wanted, and it looked so nice it made me feel _________. I felt ________________, because ___________________________. I met a friend, Alex, at Grand Central, and we took the Metro-North three stops to the New York Botanical Garden where we walked along the avenue all lined with tulip trees. If you continue east on Garden Way, which becomes Azalea Way, then turn right onto the Wild Wetland Trail, you’ll eventually reach Daffodil Hill. It was a Tuesday: a lovely afternoon. We sat on the grass on the hill and Alex took this picture:
Standing on the platform waiting for the train back, he said the way the trees looked reminded him of a garden cemetery in Providence, RI. He’d gone in for a walk, but then couldn’t find the way out, and he wandered the grounds for hours. It was getting dark and he was walking in circles around Swan Point Cemetery, and he swore he could feel the ghosts of things swirling around him. The anxiety of plot, he said. He was telling the story and I was already writing it. In the cemetery it had started to rain, just lightly. In the night the rain looked like bright little things under the street lamps. So he was still going around lost in Swan Point, cold, slightly damp, when he saw the twin headlights of a maintenance truck coming slowly towards him. The gardens would be closing soon, and he’d grown not a little hungry.
Panpan Song currently spends her days writing PHP. She lives in New York and received an MFA from Columbia.