Image Source: Pacific Press Ltd / Wasserstein, B. (1989) The Secret Lives of Trebitsch Lincoln, Penguin.
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Great Western Road, Shanghai.
Friday 25 August, 1933.
The north-west suffered a devastating earthquake and armed conflict, but Shanghai had returned to a state of relative peace and sunny serenity. The door opened at Buddhist House, 131 Great Western Road. Martin Steinke, Marie Chauve and Hertha Henschel left, walking fifteen minutes to Jing’an Temple.
The Italians, Anthony and Giotto, studied under Adeline, a small stern Belgian nun with a fat head. Her icy exterior only breaks when Chaokung enters. He looks the manuscript over. Thirty years in the civil service has made her a polished communicator.
The pillars of a narrow hallway hold up two floors to blue sky. Adeline strolls the square by gargoyles the size of fingernails, and gryphons, big as houses. The shade of curving roofs and emerald lotus leaves give her pause to interrogate the self. From the kitchen there is a vegetable aroma and Maurice from Munich taking dishes from bamboo drainers. Adeline barks his name. Suddenly Juliet Escoffier flies past, pulling bowls from Maurice, putting them back. The mother sauces must be prepared first, she says. She comes from a family of gourmet chefs. Escoffier looks at Adeline as if she is responsible. Maurice apologises, and Escoffier suggests he brush the square.
Maurice C. Braus is thirty, with a ball shaped chin and dazed black eyebrows. The Latvian, Margot Markuse, wipes the steps in circular motions and does not see him passing. The married couple from Cannes bow. Henri and Marie rake the allotment soil on this, Henri’s fiftieth birthday. The expedition is much harder than they pictured yet gardening around the stone lions makes it all worthwhile. Marie is twelve years younger than Henri. They met after the war, when she became his first hire at the perfumery. Marie wooed him with her eye for art and renditions of show-tunes. Marie notices the Abbot watching them. Between the black cloak his face is thin, all bone and bulbous head. Marie’s friend, Hertha, the youngest, is at his side. There is to be no talk now for Chaokung sends Marie away.
He puts the tool in Hertha’s hands and guides her in direction and posture. A slow rake can make sure soil is not pushed onto the path, he says, taking her hands in his.
The summer furnace recedes, transforming into purple clouds at dusk.
Three months and three hundred kilometres by Tientsin-Pukow railway, they toil above Nanking. Damp Yangtze River rain sprinkles on the frost: on red maples at cave entrances; sixth century rock-cut shrines; golden gingkoes with fan shaped leaves.
Willem Jansen, the railway planner from Holland, knocks on the Abbot’s office. When called, he sees Martin Steinke counting the last donations. Chaokung puts his pen down and asks Willem to approach. The invite to the Confucian monks of Fuzimiao to come there, to Ch’i-hsia Chan Monastery, on Sunday, was positively received. The Soviet and French ambassadors will also be there, helped by their familiarity with Steinke’s writings. Steinke has protruding angular ears but does not seem to hear Willem. He’s fixed on the accounts. Their land is owned in perpetuity and so temple finances should be stable.
Willem is dismissed, and the Abbot and Steinke exchange books. Chaokung’s draft sermon uses Steinke’s writings on breathing and healing. It is barely in Steinke’s hands when Escoffier enters. She gives the Abbot an envelope bursting with yuan banknotes. Steinke is pleased his work will be shared however, it may not be appropriate to lecture the crowd on sexual desire. Escoffier agrees. The people do not want to hear all that. They do not want to be told what they can’t do, for their life is not for everyone. Very well, said Chao. He will bow to her wisdom in this matter.
Escoffier steps out to the path were the rain is now only an echo. She makes her way to the bathroom. On nearing the partitions anguished sobbing fills the air. Young Hertha’s face streams with blood from cut hair, razor trembling in her hand.
At Ch’i-hsia Chan they rose before the dawn, sitting cross-legged reciting vows. At seven they washed, then ate. Before lunch they studied The Sublime One’s holy texts, and after, attended a lecture. Adeline took strength from the sermons on avoiding the pleasures of the flesh. Chao said he was legally married, but in all things he was married to God, and looked at Henri and Marie as he spoke. In doing so, he saw Hertha’s mouth dip in sadness.
“Abbot,” she asked, “nothing will stand between myself and God. Should I not share him with others?”
He thought for a moment. “Of course you must. You live with God, day and night. He is with us not just in prayer. We do eat with Him and do sleep with Him; do all in His Presence.”
On Sunday Hertha was ordained ‘Tao Ta’, which means ‘Our Right Path’. Steinke was also anointed as ‘Tao Chun’, and Margot Markuse as ‘Tao Lo’. The Bodhisattva led the ceremony before a crowd of two hundred people. Afterwards, Adeline and Jiaho politely turned away reporters. Chao and Hertha spoke with Walter Fuchs, and a Chinese official. Steinke was with Lo Chia-Ling and Baroness Soucanton. They were the monastery’s two biggest funders. Chao saw them and excused himself. Steinke was caught off guard by the interruption. Ladies, he said, our mission starts under favourable signs. We will propagate the Buddha’s doctrine in the West with His Holiness The Panchen Lama at our side. Steinke briefly registered the lie; his thoughts raced to Chao’s role in this successful day.
In December they returned to Shanghai, and mourned the death of the thirteenth Dalai Lama. The Italians, Anthony and Giotto, left then, and Chao did not seem to care. He was quite happy to hear of The New Life Movement, a moral reform program led by Kai-shek and his wife. Chao said it reflected their own principles.
Marie preferred Nanking: she missed the deer; the goats; gibbons; the coveted sightings of big cats. Initially reluctant about their early retirement, now she enjoyed sitting in one space for many hours. Except, Shanghai was noisier, and with it, the Abbot was harsher. He doled out extra work and punishments. She wanted to discuss it with Henri but Chao made sure she saw him less and less.
In January, Chao took Marie to the German embassy. His friends, Collenberg and Fuchs, had been replaced by Richard Behrend, and his request for a visa would have to go to Munich. Marie sensed Behrend had no interest in helping them. Two weeks later, she took down Chao’s dictated letter to the Fuhrer. He said he had once judged him wrongly and now, was full of praise for his role in the rise of Indo-Aryan civilisation, of which the foundations were the universal truth of the Buddha.
Hertha, twenty-four years young, thought the monastic life suited her. Where-ever they practised she could pray and paint, and find balance. She got on especially well with Escoffier, Marie and Willem, but not Adeline. She sensed she was not alone in this. Only The Venerable One considered Adeline a favourite. When he asked Hertha to join him in applying for a visa at the Belgian consulate, she was surprised. On Nanking Road, the Chinese turned Hertha’s head. She examined the women’s faces and postures. Hertha wanted to be one of them and could not understand why they held low status: women, and the Chinese generally.
A month later, Hertha looked over the edge of the SS Empress of Russia, the North Pacific Ocean long kissing her lungs, that vast face of God. She grappled with the door and found the Frenchwoman laughing at her on the other side. Escoffier had magnetism: she was sensible but also exuberant, and forever chirping on about colour. Hertha sneezed as old Adeline walked past and she stared disapprovingly from black raisin eyes. Escoffier, looking to cheer her up, took her to one side. Abbot Chaokung, she said, was once known by another name. He was a British spy! Hertha laughed at the idea of it. She did not believe Escoffier’s stories; until they reached Vancouver.
At first they thought it was related to Jiahao, and the Chinese Exclusion Act. They waited patiently forty five minutes. Then word came the Abbot would not be admitted on Canadian soil. Chao raised his voice. They had planned to go to Ontario to set up a Buddhist colony!
The group were returned to the ship and Adeline arranged for a telegram appeal to be sent to the Prime Minister. Journalists from the Vancouver Sun, The Courier and The Province gathered with cameras and tape recorders. Immigration were swamped with enquiries. The next morning, a telephone call came in from Ottawa. It was the Prime Minister, R. B. Bennett. He told the head official that Chaokung was to be allowed into Canada for thirty days.
They stayed at a skid row hostel between Gastown and Chinatown. Most other buildings they walked by in the afternoons were extravagant: Birks on Georgia Street with terracotta friezes; the Hotel Vancouver, where Babe Ruth and Sarah Bernhardt lodged; the Eastside Majestic picture house, and the Army and Navy Shoe Department claiming, ‘We Undersell Everybody’. The people were crushed by the Great Depression. ‘Willing to Work’ lay in laps of men sleeping in the streets. Rats ran around spilled soup and beans in a Government relief camp. Man, wife and child fought with police, who charged them with vagrancy. Chaokung’s protégés offered an intriguing distraction, and they discussed which were men and which were women. Reporters followed them, and the locals took advantage of this. Why did the papers not talk about Eton’s Clothing, who exploited crisis laws to pay half the minimum wage? The reporters brushed them off, and Chaokung in turn brushed them off. The acolytes formed a protective circle around him, but a few slipped through.
“I am pleased at being officially on British soil for the first time since the war,” one heard.
“I will speak at leading cities throughout England this summer,” another learned.
He told a third, “You can write a story without seeing me or talking to me,” before a door was slammed in his face.
Hertha was there only for show when he agreed to be interviewed by The Sun at Vancouver Hotel. When the journalist said he was in court for the trial of the Abbot’s son, he was gripped by sadness. Hertha was sent out, as Chao demanded the man recall every detail.
The attention from the press made sure the public lecture sold out quickly. Martin Steinke opened with a reminder how Siddhārtha Buddha was but a man living two thousand years ago. Modern culture was quite different. No one could stick to finding enlightenment in Buddha’s old ways. The modern disciple should embrace relevancy, be open to new teachings and new revelations.
At the interval, the Abbot was short and cold with him. He said it was him they came to see.
“Rising above the restless soul is the only way to banish impatience. Politics is a dangerous game. It makes the heart heavy, but is necessary as a mechanism for Truth to be birthed across nations. Government, the armed forces, big business, these things cannot be entered into for ego. Or profiteering. Or power. Those traits must be removed by abstinence and fasting. The binding power of the universe is energy. Responsibility stands in the flesh. For too long men think in terms of greed and we deceive ourselves into loss.”
The name of his talk was ‘How I Killed Trebitsch Lincoln’.
On the train to Ottawa, he and Steinke looked out into scenes of white hillsides and gold rivers, brown countrysides and tiny houses. Chaokung saw the waterway to St. Lawrence River, and recognised sites of Presbyterian pilgrimages. He got up and passed his silent followers, to send the telegram.
TO RAMSAY MACDONALD, PRIME MINISTER OF THE UNITED KINGDOM
FROM BRITISH TERRITORY WHERE HAVE BEEN KINDLY PERMITTED TO LAND I SEND YOU FOR BRITISH GOVERNMENT FOR BRITISH PEOPLE MY ASSURANCE THAT I AM THEIR FRIEND NOT THEIR ENEMY STOP PLEASE ACCEPT MY SINCERE WISHES FOR THEIR WELFARE PROSPERITY AND PEACE.
Escoffier, Adeline, Hertha and Jiahao sat together, the lenses of Jiahao’s spectacles smiling permanently, and he was, of all of them happiest to be there. With his head shaved he looked much older than thirty-six, due in part to his poor upbringing. Hertha scrutinised him for any clue to the Chinese mindset. Tutelage under Cleather and Chaokung meant Jiahao had a good grasp on sacrifice, divinity and enquiry.
“You should stop staring at him, Tao Ta,” said Adeline.
“Pardon?” asked Hertha.
“Perhaps if you spent more time affirming your vows,” said Adeline.
“Now wait just a minute,” snapped Hertha.
“Oh. Don’t think I don’t see you and Tao Lo.” Adeline shook her head. There was a glimpse of disgust and she turned to the window. “Lusting after the Abbot. Why, it’s unseemly,” she said.
“I did not!” cried Hertha. “I did not!”
“How about you cease bullying her?” said Escoffier. “Looking over that poor child’s shoulder every hour, like nothing is ever good enough. And she dare not say boo to you, no one dare.”
Everyone but Adeline, whose face was white, looked at the Frenchwoman with timid pride.
“We do not make inappropriate remarks about you and the Abbot. Yet you get preferential treatment, you get anything you want!”
“That is simply not true,” snapped Adeline. “How dare you, you harlot! Swanning about like you’re better than me!” Adeline didn’t know where to look. Finally she looked up and saw Chaokung.
He said nothing for a moment, and then, “This will not do. It is not for one sister to turn on another. It is a futile waste of the energies of the Buddha. You are all to remain silent until I say otherwise. Only I will talk during our week in Ottawa. Adeline, you will spend that time in solitary meditation. I hope you will learn to transcend your folly.”
That night they hear Sutton on sax, Gillespie’s trumpet, Ellington’s piano. On Friday morning they see linen mill workers going to risk their lives for a cheque. ‘Closed’ signs are hammered out by alleys brimming with the guts of store rubbish. They see a soup kitchen and ragged malnourished dockers and bawling babies with buckets. It is the third week of April and food rations have run out.
On Monday they return across Wellington Street bridge, above Rideau Canal. Across from the station is the magnificent Château Laurier. The hotel windows are Tiffany stained-glass. A diplomat crosses the lobby’s Belgian marble floor to meet them. They pass carved gables of scrolls and flowers to the new East Wing. The panelling is dark oak, like a British baron’s home, with trophies of the hunt overlooking the gallery. The elevator rises above the Jasper Tea Room, the two floors of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, to Bennett’s seventeen room suite. They line up before the Prime Minister, who greets each in turn. He offers refreshments, only to be told they are fasting.
They stand silently for an hour. In another room, Chaokung and Bennett talk about Buddhism and money.