I got a job pushing monks into the ocean. The monks don’t seem to mind, and the abbot says that my threat promotes awareness. So I’m sitting here on my observation chair, watching the mainland recede, working on my peripheral vision. Not that the monks are fast. They are at peace in walking meditation, so I don’t want to interrupt the cadence so much as divert it, shuffle out into the hot sand, barefoot and cringing, and see if the monk notices my presence. If he turns and nods, I back away. But if he is lost in thought? Whoosh. Most of them surface facing up, smiling. Sometimes — and this is part of their beatific appeal — they gurgle. “To drift is to return,” as the abbot would say.
As such, the monastery has drifted here, to southern California, following the final invasion of the People’s Liberation Army and the dissolution of Tibet. A whole country just absorbed into China — whoosh. But more than geography is the spirit of the Bon po lineage, they say, and so they picked up and vanished, teleported or dropped from the sky into this edge of America. The monastery was transported entirely to the beachside property, along with half an apple orchard, seven yaks, a crop of seedless marijuana plants, and a slightly deflated soccer ball. Then, the breaking away. The drifting.
I don’t know why they hired me, but it’s probably on account of my rugby shoulders. Now those shoulders are the color of split grapefruit, peeling at the edges. It’s worth it. Some of the practice is seeping in, the waves and bells and chanting all waft up and the air just seems so chewy. If there were a more technical way to describe this, I wouldn’t know. Chewy chewy chewy. I need a special type of fork to devour it fully.
Have you heard of Tibetan tea? It sounds exotic, but it’s just milk and salt. Sometimes yak butter. At breakfast we get Tibetan tea, and I drown it in sugar and instant coffee. I guess it’s really the sugar that’s drowning, right? Then water, boiled and filtered, filtered and boiled. Monsoon notalgia. Also flat bread with airy bubbles and lots of butter and strawberry jam. Every day. Lunch is the rest of the bread folded over potatoes and cauliflower and olives and turnips all fried up on the gas stove. For dinner, shin po du. It is tasty. Noodles, mostly. Generous and chewy, like the ocean air.
You’re wondering. You’re wondering, and I’ll tell you. Sometimes, yes, monks get caught in fishing nets. We find them on the temple steps, draped in wet rope. One of them, Dughnri Lama, said he was tangled in the rope for hours, and while tangled up he learned how to talk to shrimp. What do shrimp talk about? I asked him. Sex, he said. They talk about sex.
Last week, I went to the monastery library to pick up some books related to my job. Stuff on tides, types of sand, robe fabrics, and this new translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I found the latter to be fascinating, colorful in its sheer terror and comfort, but Donald says forget it, that translator is a real jackass. Apparently Donald met this translator, Hank Brooks, at a Tibetan studies convention a couple years ago. Donald says that the guy is a freak, I mean going to the salad bar and piling his paper plate with hundreds of baby corn like it’s no big deal. How can someone with such profane habits understand the nuance of transcendence? That’s what Donald wants to know. I find this to be petty and ad hominem, but now I can’t read the book without thinking of all those baby corn cobs.
Donald is cool, though. The only other American, only other native English speaker, so we chat a lot about philosophy, the monastery, the tides, storms, and itchy blankets. These blankets, they’re faux mink and covered in lice, but it’s all we have since the breaking away. We shiver sometimes. It’s not so bad. Donald and I talk, or he smokes his pipe and I talk, until his pipe smoke makes me quiet. Ah, my grandfather’s tobacco. That’s what that is. Dead fifteen years, and here is his smoke. It’s nice. Makes me quiet.
Stomp! Stomp clap! That’s Tibetan forensics: stomping and clapping. After years of study, each monk must face this interrogation, like defending your thesis, and the monks line up with questions. Stomp! Clap! Question! Answer! Usually laughter. When they turn toward the ocean, I’m standing there, shoving another monk into the waves.
I’m working on my Tibetan. Here’s a translation of a recent conversation with Dughnri Lama:
Dughnri: “How are you today?”
Me: “It is good. How is your body doing?”
Dughnri: “Ha ha. My body is doing well. Did you see the full moon festival yesterday? The rice and smoke?”
Me: “It is tasty.”
Dughnri: “I think the monsoon season is near.”
Me: “It is not tasty.”
Dughnri: “Also, be cautious near the guest houses. This morning I saw a small, black snake.”
Me: “Good fortune and greetings to you.”
Dughnri: “Where did we leave off in our book?”
Me: “It is good. It is not good. It is tasty.”
I guess what we’re on now is an island. A drifing island. The abbot says the drift was the closest they could get to sovereignty, so they accepted it and went back to their prayers. We have no rudders or giant sails, though sometimes a robe will flare up and catch a breeze, sometimes twenty robes at once, and the island drifts a little faster. This is what nostalgia feels like, like I have borrowed the ocean in a small squeeze bottle, squeezed the salt water up my nose twice a day so I can feel the tide, whoosh, back and forth, inside my head. Somewhere between the Pacific currents, I’d like to think the island has a purpose, that it wants to find its way back to its natural latitudes, but I know we can’t control it.
The sound of a monk unaware.
They float like babies and return.
One day, when they’re enlightened, I’ll become obsolete.
I’ll serve no purpose here, and move on to my next career:
Tripping gods at the top of the stairs.
Jeremy Richards is a writer, actor, and improviser residing in Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in McSweeney's, Eyeshot, The Cascadia Review, Bullfight Review, and on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." Jeremy is currently researching his next project, "Nietzsche! The Musical."