Converting, by Yuan Changming
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
My father was the most loyal member of the Communist Party of China I’ve ever known in person. As a petty Party official, he was always ready to “serve the people” as taught by Chairman Mao. Every year, he would bring home at least one big certificate of merit for his political performance, but he never mentioned his achievements whenever we chanced to meet between his endless work trips; the only thing he kept saying to me was what I later recognized as the content of his oath of admission to the Party. So, he was a weird if not a mentally ill father. It’s not really that he sounded like a broken record, but that he lived as an unbelievably firm believer and passionate preacher of communism as defined in CPC’s constitution. Indeed, he seemed to have been born a true communist, and he would die as such. There’s no doubt about that.
However, shortly after his retirement, my mother began to complain that he intended to become a hundred percent Buddhist monk for the remaining days of his life.
But what about his lifelong faith in communism? I asked her repeatedly over the phone. So very tired and afraid of his brainwashing effort, I had always avoided contacting him directly even before I left my homeland.
Because the Party has changed essentially, though not in words, since Deng Xiaoping took power, because he’d have no more to do with it, my mother explained to me on his behalf.
Why a monk? Can he just enjoy his retired life like all other normal dads?
I got no satisfactory answer from my mother until I visited her about a year later. With my father staying in Great Compassion Temple in Songzi most of the time, she had all the leisure to recount how and why he eventually decided to remain a lay Buddhist; this way, he could live up to his lifelong title as an honorable “model” Party member.
That’s a good compromise, I concluded. But how come he’s become such a determined follower of Buddhism?
As my mother sees it, my father was actually more a faithful Buddhist than a loyal Communist to begin with. There were numerous episodes pinpointing to his Bodhisattva heart. For instance, he would give every cent in his pocket to the homeless, donate every extra shirt in his wardrobe to the poor, and help every disabled person on the road. Once he walked seven miles simply to cross a river on a bridge because he had given all his money to a beggar without retaining two cents for the ferry boat. Another time, he fell down in a swoon from sheer hunger on a country path because he had given every mantou to a starving family. More deplorably, when I returned from Canada to my hometown for the first family reunion after immigration and gave him a handsome red envelop to show my filial love, he insisted on me sending it personally to a local charity. In his last years, he knelt down before a statue of Buddha and recited sutras for three consecutive hours every morning, just as he had bowed to Chairman Mao’s portrait nine times nonstop prior to breakfast during the Cultural Revolution. Most noteworthy was when his room was haunted by thousands of ants in a late spring, it never came cross his mind to kill them; instead, he kept giving them his best wishes until they all voluntarily left. Likewise, he would just let mosquitos suck his blood rather than drive them away, and miraculously, he turned out to be the only person in the whole neighborhood who got no more bites in summer.
So, he converted to Buddhism as a result of such testimonial experiences? I wondered aloud.
Not only that!
Then, my mother recalled how the seed of Buddhism was deeply planted in the depth of his soul as a thirteen-year-old orphan. It was a burning summer afternoon in 1949, several months before the Communists were to take over the entire country. While wandering in the wildness, my father began to have a high fever. Unable to bear the sizzling weather in addition to his internal heat, he went to a pond nearby, where he dug up some cool alluvium with his hands, covered his body with it and lay down on a small ridge. He would have soaked his whole body in the pond like a buffalo, but the water felt simply too hot; besides, he was afraid to get drowned, for he had never learned how to swim, even like a dog. After several wrappings, his body temperature dropped quite a bit, but he was still too weak to stand up, as he hadn’t eaten any food for the past two days. He was dying for a big bowl of rice from a mother-like landlady when a passer-by in a long orange robe spotted him far away and came over. Knowing his situation, the traveling monk gave my father five silver coins, all the money he had for his long journey to Guiyuan Temple, the famous Buddhist monastery in Wuhan. With the monk’s money as well as his help, my father got back to his normal life as a waif. And it’s since that casual encounter that he had cultivated a profound bond with Buddha. To practice gratitude, he not only had a great monk growing in his own heart and lived all his life as a lay believer, but kept trying to convert me into Buddhism.
But alas, with my stubborn faith in freedom, I have never yielded to his effort. Or maybe I should?
Anyway, while video-chatting with me on his anniversary day last week, my mother announced that she had newly made up her mind to follow his steps. How about you? she asked.
Well, like him, I only eat vegetables now.
So, you want to become a lay believer too? Like father, like son, eh?
Yes and no, Mom.
This story was inspired by and thus devoted to Yuan Hongqi (袁宏启）
Yuan Changming edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Yuan in Vancouver, and has published 15 poetry collections in English. Early in 2022, Yuan began to write fiction, with short stories appearing in Aloka (UK) and Nashwaak Review (Canada), or forthcoming in Lincoln Review (UK), Paper Dragon (US), and StylusLit (Australia), among others. Currently, Yuan is working on his trilogy.
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