Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman

V (Excerpt)

The bus station was really just a muddy parking lot. Wei-ching bought their tickets from an old woman sitting on a bamboo stool. She told them that the Kun-ming bus didn't leave for another hour, so they wandered through town in search of breakfast. At the outdoor market, they found a stall that served soybean milk and yut'iao, which is something like a doughnut.

"Watch me," Wei-ching said, holding his yut'iao with a piece of newspaper so the hot oil would not burn his fingers. He dipped the end of it into the cold soy milk, then took a large bite out of it. "This way," he said once he had swallowed it, "you get hot and cold, solid and liquid, at the same time. It is a balance of opposites, which helps the digestion."

Hsun-ching had never had such a fancy breakfast before. He followed Wei-ching's instructions and dipped the yut'iao in the milk, but once he put one end in his mouth, he just kept stuffing and chewing until the whole thing disappeared in one huge bite. Wei-ching had to laugh; with his cheeks full of dough and his eyes wide open with excitement, Hsun-ching looked more like a squirrel than a young monk.


The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman
pgs 25-26
Published by Vintage Contemporaries (1991)
Vintage Books
A Division of Random House, Inc.
New York


When the Number-Four bus arrived in Kun-ming after a bumpy seven-hour ride, Wei-ching and Hsun-ching got up stiffly and hobbled out of the vehicle. There had not been nearly enough seats on the bus for everyone, so Hsun-ching and Wei-ching had been forced to sit on the floor with baskets of fruit piled up on their laps. That was uncomfortable, but some people had to stand the whole way.

Once he had shaken the stiffness out of his limbs, Hsun-ching took his first look at the city. Curved tile roofs, handsome teakwood balconies jutting out from the old houses along the street, and the solemn, ancient wall that surrounded the city -- all of it glowed with the pale color of sunset and left him speechless with admiration. "Let's have some foreign food," Wei-ching said, interrupting the boy's reverie, and he pointed to a mud-walled building with three tables set up inside it that advertised itself as a French restaurant.

The French had built a railroad from their colony in Indochina up to Kun-ming in 1921, and had a community of missionaries and mining engineers in that city for many years. After 1949 the French, like most of the Westerners in China, were forced to leave, but they left behind a good hotel. some great recipes, and the best pastry shop in China. The maitre d', waiter, chef, and manager of this humble establishment was a man named Kuei who claimed to have worked at the French hotel back in the twenties and thirties.

Chef Kuei did not say what his job had been in the French hotel, but it evidently had little to do with preparing food. He served the two monks a watery Chinese soup, a few slices of canned Yunnan ham, then a main course of very bony steamed fish. It was served without the head or tail, which the chef enthusiastically called "French style." After dinner, he gave them each a taste of a locally produced brandy, which Hsun-ching could not finish, but Wei-ching declared miraculous.

After dinner Wei-ching mentioned to the chef, who was by now quite red-faced after helping himself to several glasses of the brandy, that they had come to Kun-ming to get English manuals for Hsun-ching. The old man said, "That's easy enough! The Foreign-Language Bookstore is right down the street, where Liberation Road crosses Broad Masses Avenue."

Wei-ching winced. "Those aren't really street names, are they?" he asked. The chef put his finger to his lips, signaling Wei-ching not to speak so loudly, then rolled his bloodshot eyes and nodded his head with resignation. Then, as if he were suddenly in a hurry to make their table available for more customers, he gave the two monks the address of a dormitory where they could get beds for a reasonable price.

When the had settled down for the night, Hsun-ching spoke up. "Master -- I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham, and liquor. What will happen to us now?"

Wei-ching picked at his teeth fro a moment, then said, "It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. Bit it is even more true that a Buddhist must be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed."


The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman
pgs 26-27