Monday, December 19, 2011

Only Once

After about a month of not writing, it is clear that my mastery of procrastinatory behavior is still at an all time high. Sorry for the lack of postings friends; I honestly don’t know where the time is going! Although I still have 5 months in Sri Lanka I am amazed that rather than the “9” button or “8” button on my keyboard, it is the “5” symbol that accurately represents the amount of time before I have to say goodbye to this beautiful country (at least temporarily). If any of you have some kind of unspoken deal with God or any of his friends, let me know, I’ll willingly pull a Sri Lankan and slip him a feel hundred rupees to slow down time just a bit. Just throwing it out there…

Despite the past month whizzing by, it has been fantastic. I suppose that is where the euphemism comes from after all. As far as actual events that have happened since the last time I wrote it is hard to even begin. Ranging from the usual Sinhala lessons, Jataka Tales classes, and Dānas, to the not-so-usual late night clubbing in Colombo with Afgan-Canadians and Marines, being invited for dinner at the Iraqi Ambassador’s house, meeting many beautifully minded monks, making a 1,000 year old Buddhist recipe recorded in the Pali Canon, and learning how (and by that I mean attempting) to slackline with a new friend— things have been going pretty darn swimmingly. Instead of glossing over them, however, I am going to be contended with enticing you with such a list and focus on one the most striking event that has happened this month (and simultaneously quite possibly the least action packed): a meditation retreat.

The center is about 2 hours away from Kandy, sandwiched between tiers of tea plantations and a pine forest on the side of a mountain. Despite its enticing location, to be honest, as I boarded the bus to go there I could not help but feel a bit skeptical. Even though I plan on my life’s work to be intimately involved with Buddhism and its respective philosophy, I consider myself-- and as of recently (blame Stephen Batchelor) quite avidly--a meditator, not quite ‘Buddhist.’ I am not sure if it is my own personal exposure with Buddhist practice, being involved with a particular approach that on a spectrum of religion is as far removed from dogma or religiosity as possible, or if it is my current experiences with Sri Lankan Therevada, although beautiful in its own accord, much more of a political infrastructure than a contemplative practice in my opinion, that made me feel this way. For whatever reason, going to this retreat center was a challenge for me. But, like many challenges, it turned out to be an incredibly fruitful experience. The teacher, Upal, is a lay meditator (meaning not an ordained part of the sangha, and therefore, a bit removed from its cultural activities). It turns out that 20 years ago (that tells you how long this guy has been at it) was selected as a participant for one of the first EEG experiments on Buddhist meditators. As a result, he was quite excited about my experiment and openly expressed interest in assisting the project. I had to assure him that my time there was for “inner research” but that I would come back to do the other kind. I plan on returning after the Christmas festivities die down, this time with a recorder in hand to document our conversations. The retreat itself was really good for me, allowed me to see some missing parts of my own practice…but I wont bore you with those details. The highlight of the retreat was a chance encounter with an astro-physicist from Malaysia. After the evening meditation we both decided to go out and look at the constellations. She showed me the 7 Sisters, Taurus, and divulged passionately facts about the universe that made my head spin (partially due to the fact that there are so many big rocks and scary space things spinning around one another our there!). But as it turns out, she had to quit her job teaching children about the night sky in Malasiya because of a cut in government funding and become a business analyst for a large company. It made me so sad. I thanked her for her passion and we both retreated to our rooms. Coming back from the bathroom, however, I looked up into the sky and it was a full lunar eclipse directly above where we were standing. I cannot express how eerie the feeling is to see something that that without the least bit of forewarning. Entirely unearthly (badumchick). I hurriedly knocked on her window and we both dragged out plastic chairs to the garden and meditated together for the hour and a half it took for the moon to come out of darkness (cough obvious symbolism cough). In Sri Lanka the full moon is an auspicious occasion, known as Poya Day, where all shops and business close down. To witness a full lunar eclipse at a meditation retreat, in Sri Lanka at just the right moment with just the right person did indeed feel auspicious. I could not help but think of Gary Snyder's poem "Once Only" (

I think this universe is great. End of story.

This week a bunch of friends and I are headed to Nuwara Eliya, a tea plantation area in the highlands, and then onwards to climb Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka’s holy mountain. It is tradition to climb the mountain during the night and to arrive at the summit at dawn. I am so excited to get out into some mountains and play….I think I have been missing Colorado this time of year a bit too much. Although Sri Lanka does not really boast the best snowshoeing, I’ve been promised we get to see Buddha’s left footprint along the way, which will also suffice.

When I get back I am really going to hunker down on research (fingers crossed!), am starting Pali lessons at the university, teaching English lessons for a Korean nun’s niece, and getting ready for my DAD and JUNE to visit in a few weeks! So much to be thankful for.

I miss you all and am wishing everyone wonderful holidays from afar.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Island Time

I am currently sitting over a steaming bowl of tamarind chickpeas and listening to Buddhist chants ebb through my window from the nearby temple. Evening has set in on yet another Sri Lankan day of running about to and fro from office buildings, stores, administrative posts and bureaucratic stepping stones, only to succeed in a single goal: accomplishing absolutely nothing. For days we’ve been trying to get library cards to the university, a swimming pass, internet and trivial things like buying vegetables or meeting with the head of a department. After days of not understanding why the one person who needs to sign the one paper that would allow me to accomplish the measly task at hand is perpetually not at work, I come to the realization: relativity is at play. Sri Lanka is profoundly, inexorably and unavoidably engulfed in what is known as “Island time.” Island time is by no means a rare phenomena, and in fact, is a quite prevalent feature of ocean dwelling landmasses and otherwise. A mixture of culture, ample relaxation, heavy dosages of heat and the incessant reliance on old-colonial-paper-work-run-bureaucracy are several factors that I have identified as primarily contributors to this very real Einsteinian distortion. For the control freak or easily flustered this kind of lifestyle might be the tipping point for a near emotional breakdown, but to be honest, I find myself relishing in its absurdity.

Island time example #1: This past week I’ve finally met my advisor from the psychology department, a recommended Fulbright contact I have been trying to get in touch with since my arrival. As it turns out, the email I was given was wrong and the number I had been given for some reason was for a different department’s secretary. It was not until I had the fortuitous luck of literally running into her in a hallway that we were able to meet at all. At that point I introduced myself and once she realized who I was, hurriedly ushered me into her office across campus. “Oh wonderful Professor! We’ve been expecting you!” were the greeting words, setting off the initial “Hmmm there must be some confusion here,” voice in my head. As the conversation progressed and I assured her I was only a measly undergraduate student here for independent research, not worthy of such a title and totally unable to teach, the realization set in: there was a massive miscommunication at hand. Finally, after an hour of explaining the difference between a student scholar (research) and a senior lecturer (a US professor selected to teach for a year in their field of expertise) her conclusion was: “Oh, no matter, how many classes do you want? Four? Five?” After, and in true Sri Lankan style, negotiating my class load from 5 to a Cognitive Psychology course for second year students the discussion was over. I was told to come back on Monday ready to lecture without the slightest idea about what, where or for how many students. And obediently I came back Monday morning ready to teach my first class, only to find out that the Head of the department had decided to take a vacation to Colombo and the class schedule had not been posted yet. When I went to the secretary’s office (the silent but definitive magic makers of a bureaucratic society) to inquire about this confusion, she told me not only was Cognitive Psychology not on the list for courses this semester, but that students were not going to be registered for another 1 week, which after further inquiry turned into another 2 weeks. The fascinating part of this delay is that the university has already been postponed for over 2 months due to consecutive strikes by staff and faculty.

Ode to Island time!

Despite the fact I think I am incredibly under qualified to teach in the first place, I am excited to have the chance. It is my dream to teach and research at the same time, so having the opportunity to do that is something I am looking forward to. Despite the small frustrations of never knowing when things will actually happen or simple things like being told that I am not allowed to see the final examination worth 60% of the student’s grade, I feel like I am learning so much through the minutia of every day interaction... most of all the virtue of patience. Even when I may for the first time be considered a teacher, I am equally a student— as it should be. :)

Love to all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Homes, Holes and Happenstance

Hip hip hooray! I have finally moved to Kandy for the rest of my time in Sri Lanka! Three cheers for a little less transiency. Colombo has been great, but I am happy to finally be somewhere a bit more permanent. Annnnnd to compound the joy of prospective stability, after a month of searching for a house, we (another Fulbrighter and myself) have found a place to live. Alas! We are living in what is known as an “annex,” a very popular Sri Lankan phenomenon, where part of a house is rented out for short periods of time. Annexes can vary dramatically between being a detached “servant’s house,” only sharing property with the family, or it can be as intimate as living inside someone’s house with a room to call your own. The place we’ve decided on is a happy medium between the two. We have two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a long corridor hallway and a living room that are all built on the side of a house that is built on the side of a cliff. If this was not already enough of a bizarre set up, smack dab in the middle of our kitchen floor is a hole leading down to a narrow set of black spiral stairs and into a separate room with a small medicinal herb garden. It feels like something out of Alice and Wonderland—a rabbit hole in our very own kitchen. After trying to decide what to do with this space, either a meditation area or a dining/pub/hang out room, we’ve gone with the latter. The reason being, our next-door neighbors just so happen to be 1. A Buddhist school and 2. A massive stupa. Much like a mosque’s call to prayer, in the morning the temple blares chants from loud speakers, echoing across the nearby hills and directly into our annex. As a result, our entire apartment may as well be a meditation room… whether we like it or not. :)

The past few days in Kandy have been wonderful. The day I arrived I ended up meeting some friends of another friend’s friends (i.e. the social matrix that all of Sri Lankan society is embedded in and the means by which everything seems to be accomplished) for a class on the “Jatakas,” the stories of Buddha’s past lives. The people who were holding the class are Buddhist scholars from the US living in Sri Lanka and have written a book about the Jatakas. Seeing as they were expatriates themselves, I drove their house for the class thinking that the majority of the audience would be primarily foreigners (Kandy has a surprisingly well linked expatriate network). Much to my surprise, however, I did not walk into a room of expatriates, but a room of smiling bhikkus and bhukkunis (Buddhist monks and nuns) from Malaysia, Bhutan, China, Japan, Laos, and Myanmar. Ken and Vishaka (the authors) have been English teachers in Asia for over 30 years, so part of the class is to not only talk about Buddhist texts, but to help new student to the University with their English. Many of the monks and nuns there were also students working under the same advisor at the University as me. Afterwards I walked home with ne of the monks from China, who is doing hi PhD in Buddhist Psychotherapy. Sometimes I am taken aback by how widespread the interest in the relationship between contemplative practices and psychology are. We talked excitedly all the way back home and have since been pdf swapping.

The next day I was invited to go to the International Buddhist Center with the same group of students for another class about Buddhist economics. Again, not knowing exactly what to expect, I drove up to a temple outside of Kandy. Although we talked some about the readings that was given prior to the class, we ended up playing “Buddhist Trivia” for the majority of the time. Not only would I be bad at a game called “Buddhist Trivia” (and yes someone actually did manufacture this) in a regular setting, compared to these students bad was an understatement. It was wonderful. Despite the fact I was the clear loser of the game, it was an endless source of laughter and a prime learning experience.

To completely contradict my expression of the “joy of not commuting to Colombo” any more, tomorrow I leave for Colombo yet again. Haha. We’ve been invited to attend the “Marine Ball,” which is a celebration put on every year by the US Embassy to celebrate the Marines and their hard work. Much like many of the US’s ever so wise allocation of resources, the ball from what I hear is nothing less than an extravaganza. Dancing, food, drinks, processions (did I mention Marines?). It should be fun. All of us Fulbright ladies have bought saris to wear to the event, which will be the first time I’ve worn a sari since I was 16. We’re hoping to find someone in Colombo to help us tie them, considering negotiating such a massive piece of fabric is not only daunting, but near impossible for the average Westerner.

After this weekend we’ll move into out apartment and then real research will begin. But in true Sri Lankan style, you never know what the next day will bring, let alone next few months, which is also precisely why I am so grateful to be here. Life is one adventure after the next.

I hope everyone is well and love from afar!


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Babies and Broad Strokes

I am listening to the call to prayer as the monsoons rage outside. This is our final weekend of language training and last few days in Colombo together before we scatter across the continent for our respective projects. It is hard for me to believe that almost a month has passed. Times flies, I suppose. The past two weeks we’ve been commuting by train between Colombo and Kandy. In Kandy I’ve been staying with Bryanna’s (the other Fulbright researcher in Kandy) host mom from her time here as an exchange student. The experience living with a Sri Lankan family has been irreplaceable. Every morning we wake up to a slew of boiled beans, coconut curries, spices and tea. An hour or so later Sheshan, a 1 ½ year old boy arrives at the front door yelling one of the four Sinhala words he knows “Balla,” (dog), “thatthi” (granddad), “aya” (brother) and “ali” (elephant). Sheshan is our host mother’s grandson and he spends the day at the house while his mom teaches English at the University. I’ve never had the chance to really be around a kid his age, apart from the occasional babysitting back in high school, so I’ve been relishing in the opportunity. Sitting at the table with him propped up on one knee, a scoop of rice in my hand, whilst attempting to bribe him to eat his food by inventing comical dances and songs related to how fun eating can be, reaffirms my desire to be a mother someday. There are so many lessons to be learned. Annnnd if baby humans was not enough…our host mom decided to adopt a new born Pomeranian the first week we arrived (and if you know me at all, you know that this warrants excessive amounts of joy and squeaking). Playing with Mimi (a perfect name for the puff of fur that is a puppy Pomeranian) while our host mom is busy chopping away jack fruit from the garden is not a bad life at all.

The last week two of the other Fulbright girls, who will be based down south, came up to Kandy with us. It was the first time I’ve had the chance to go from a potential tenet to a sightseeing tourist while being in Kandy. Seeing the city through a different set of eyes was really nice. We went to the Temple of the Tooth, an elaborate temple in the heart of the city where allegedly Buddha’s tooth is located, an elephant orphanage outside of the city, and the largest botanical gardens in Asia—all of which have reaffirmed my love of this country. Sri Lanka is breathtaking.

I continue to be busy meeting people and learning more about the different avenues my research can take. Once we settle into a house (hopefully within the next few days) I look forward to starting to meet with people and learn more about where I’d like to do my work. The other day I had my first meeting with my advisor, an 85 year old Buddhist monk and Pali scholar at the University. We only met for a few minutes, but I ended up talking to several other Buddhist monks who were pursuing their Phds, one whose focus is on the psychological impact of meditation. In the midst of our conversation I was taken aback by a moment of inner celebration, realizing how satisfied it is to finally be doing the kind of work I love. I look forward to the coming days.

I hope everyone back home is well. Once things are a bit less busy I hope to blog on a regular basis, hoping to avoid posts like this one that are littered with a lack of detail and miss so much of the smaller moments I’d love to share. But until then, love to all!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Start of Ceylon

Hello all from lovely Sri Lanka!

I am sitting here in a multicolored moomoo nightgown, munching pomegranate seeds and watching yellow geckos scurry across the wall. The wave are crashing outside my window and the streets of Colombo are settling in for the night. So in fewer words: happiness. Sri Lanka is an incredibly endearing place, I cannot even begin to explain the surprise I have gone through upon arrival. Although I love India for many reasons, Sri Lanka seems to have all of the beauties of the subcontinent without many of its difficulties. I think it is something about Sri Lanka being an island—everyone is a bit more mellow. The fact 80 percent of the nation is Buddhist may also contribute to that sense of serenity, even amongst the clamor and smog of the city.

The past week I have been kept very busy with Fulbright lectures security briefings, finding a place to live, getting a banks account set up and socializing with the 8 other wonderful Fulbright kin. I’ve been commuting between Kandy, where I will be living, and Colombo, where we are taking intensive language training on the weekends. The train ride to Kandy is one of the most phenomenal rides I have been on, with train tracks built in 1847 and a wheezing train winding its way up the hillsides. Emerging out of the seaside town of Colombo reminds me of the stories my grandma used to tell me before bed of Pete and Patty and how they would rise above the clouds into “lala land”-- that is how Kandy feels. The whole town is blanketed by a quilt of green velvet. Kandy itself, although a city, is much more manageable than Colombo. With charming British buildings dotting the road and a lake built in the center of the town, where the Temple of the Tooth (allegedly the location of Buddha’s tooth) floats on the river bank.

Having recently returned from the somewhat atheistic approach towards Buddhism in Japan, I have been pleasantly surprised (and relieved) by how prevalent and practiced Buddhism is here. Although there are the pray-and-go type Buddhist, who go to the temple, lock their hands, pray, throw a few coins at the Buddha’s statue and go, there are also many people who stay and meditate along the temple walls. For selfish reasons, this makes me very happy (finally in a place where meditation is around!) and for academic reasons, this is fantastic. A smiling monk in red or saffron robes scuttling between the streets puddles and traffic is a common sight.

For the next month I plan on focusing on learning the language, applying to graduate programs and learning about the new software I bought for my project…afterwards I hope to start conducting research. I still have not met my contact at the University of Peridineya, but I have met many helpful people through Fulbright, including a Fulbrighter who has returned to the country to complete some work with women nuns, known here as Bhikkhunis. I am so happy to have met her and we’ve been collaborating about places where I may be able to conduct research. I’ve decided that I want to work primarily with women, for cultural reasons, so this is a fantastic encounter. I feel like I’ve been floating around the past week and things are just falling into place. I don’t want to communicate an artificial sense of ease here, considering it still takes twice as long to get absolutely anything done, but I guess what I am trying to say is being here just feels right. And with that, I am grateful.

I hope everyone is well back home and despite the distance I am still thinking of you all.



Sunday, August 21, 2011

First Impressions and A Taste of Tokyo

Soooo....despite my incredible lack of blogging this trip, I have been keeping really good notes! And will be writing from past to present in the coming days. Here are the first two posts, with hopefully Kamakura and Kyoto to follow soon. LOVE TO ALL!

First Impressions and Broad Generalizations

I will go straight out and admit it from the start: before coming to Japan I virtually knew nothing about Japan, Japan's culture, the Japanese language, Japanese food (turns out there is more than just raw fish. A shocker I know), and so stepping off a of a 13 hour plane ride across the Pacific Ocean (my first time flying west! And therefore full circumnavigation across the globe by airplane!!!) was a bit like a slap across the face. A big slap across the face, with extra wasabi for taste. The first impression I had was the sheer amount of people there are! Millions of people buzzing about in well put together outfits, tiny high heels, and heavy black business suits...yet somehow different than India, one of the world's most populace countries. Despite the amount of people in Japan, at all times everything seems to be incredibly orderly, non-aggressive, and perpetually elegant. Who knew mob mentality could be so beautiful. It reminds me of the big schools of fish or clouds of black birds you see on the Discovery Channel. People have an incredible skill for coordination and efficiency here, an almost intuitive force that allows things to flow just so.

My second impression of Japan was out of all of the well dressed, well organized peop

le racing around me, basically no one (and I mean this: NOBOBY) speaks English. As a girl who has fancied the post-Colonial English countries in the past, this too was a big surprise. After miming my way into the acquisition of a sum of converted money and a bus ticket to Tokyo with a friendly lady in electric pink lipstick and perfectly coordinated dress suit (which of course would not make sense with out the ridiculous straw hat with a big bow to match the lipstick), I was on m

y way to to the city. When I got on the train I was greeted by a big bow from a man wearing white gloves (which I later learned is known as a “pusher” and whose job is to push people into the trains during rush hour like sardines and still enable the door to efficiently close)...which brings me to my next impression: the Japanese bow.

This could easily be my favorite part about being in Japan. Every transaction, hello, goodbye, “excuse me” or “I'm sorry,” any subtle acknowledgment of someone's existence is met with a bow. Bows come in many different flavors. Some are low, some are long, some are erratic and dizzying to watch as old women chatter on in agreement, some are mechanical, like when a vendor passes through a train and before exiting they give the whole car a great big bow from the hips and carry on. The bow is great. I find myself bowing about like it is no one's business without even thinking about it and it is such a great way to convey a non-verbal manner, which of course is fantastic for the mute white girl trying to make her way. So yes, the people, their efficiency, and the bowing are my first three overall initial impressions of Japan and somehow I feel like they may not be mutually exclusive aspects of society, rather totally supportive of one another. If there is anything that is apparent, it is that Japanese culture is not apparent. It is complex and deeply nuanced, in need of incredible respect and attention to detail.


Being an ever-increasingly avid mountain and nature lover, I never would have thought that Tokyo, the world's largest city, could possibly have stolen my heart in the way it has. What had originally been a pit stop on my way to Kyoto, has transformed to one of my favorite places in the world...and if I may be so bold, possibly even my favorite place to travel (besides Switzerland...ahem Silvana ahem). But really though, Tokyo is fantastic. You can walk for miles and only see skyscrapers, yet still tucked in between is a rich, thriving culture of food stalls, Zen gardens, sake bars, temples, shrines, and people from all over the world dressed in everything ranging from Pokemon pajama bottoms to slutty Frank Sinatra themed outfits ( I know, I know, bizarre). Literally the second I stepped on to the train to the city, I met one wonderful person after another. The first night I was there I met two girls from France, a girl from Belgium, a guy from Canada and a guy from New York and despite my sleep deprivation we went out to a sushi and sake bar. I was happy to be with people who knew a bit of Japanese, primarily one of the French girls Diane, because knowing what kind of bizarre concoction upon rice to order was beyond me. I ended up trying raw squid and plum sushi, which was an accident I have not since repeated. Haha.

Unfortunately, however, due to my sleep deprivation in conjunction with general and complete airheadedness, I ended up leaving my wallet (with all my money, cards, passport, important health documents, so on and so forth) in the bathroom of a run down sake joint. It was a bad capstone for a great evening. But thankfully Diane knew of these things called “Police Boxes,” which are apparently on like every street corner and assured me that “people in Japan do not steal. They just don't.” Thinking trying to rescue my lost things was a fruitless endeavor, I still went down to the alleged police box and had Diane (attempt) to explain my case to a somewhat begrudging officer. After a tedious battle of words and wit, it was communicated to me via handrawn map and the police officer saying “wallet, wallet” that my wallet had been turned in to the main police station. YAY! The next task, however, was trying to decipher in the dark where this said Police Station resided. Luckily the wonderful friends I had met joined me in the pursuit and with the help of an incredibly kind family who took the time to walk us all the way there through back road streets and deserted temple grounds, my wallet and I met again. Alas. Reason one hundred and seventy five why Tokyo is great.

The next day I woke up early (4 in the morning early). I suppose this is the only time in my life that jet lag has worked for my benefit, because I was able to make my way over to the world's largest fish market for the morning tuna sale. A huge arena with big hacked bodies of fish and hundreds of shouting bidders surrounded me. Because most of the stuff there has been dragged directly out of the sea and plopped on mats, the whole market smelled of ocean and, not surprisingly, had a somewhat of an oceanic floor. I was one of the few people there that did not have big boots on or some kind of water proof shoe. Occasional blood and bones floated by in big puddles. I could not be more happy. There were enormous squids, strange colored eggs, seaweed like hair strands, tentacles, eels, and big shells cracked open and displaying their gooey innards. After making my rounds and deciding to buy a bit more “mild” breakfast (a melon bun filled with sugar) I went to Subisha, where the world's busiest cross walk is located. It is also the high fashion shopping district where all of the modern gizmos and styles are displayed. I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around awestruck at literally every street corner. That night I met up with the rest of the travelers from my hostel from the night before and we went to the top of one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo to have drink and enjoy the view. We made it to the top just in time for a lightening storm. Sitting there drinking plum wine and watching the city hum below the black clouds, I was reminded how truly blessed I am. That night one of the French girls Pauline had heard of a fireworks show in a park so we all went. Apparently it is one of Tokyo's biggest firework displays and people dressed in the traditional Japanese dress and wooden shoes flooded the park to see it.

Much more is to be said about Tokyo adventures, but time is short. :) Love to all.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

I recently completed an Asian Thought class here at Goucher with Steve DeCaroli (by far one of my favorite classes. ever). The final assignment for the class was to write about the complicated, and often paradoxical, philosophy of Zhuangzi, a Taoist writer in the 4th century BC, in a way that would be accessible to children. The theory being Taoist thought should be spoken about in a simple, direct fashion. The short story I wrote, "Adventures with Mrs. Pu," uses tales from Zhuangzi's original text and places them within a contemporary story of a nanny and two children: Austin and Melody. An additional author's commentary for children is always included at the end. Enjoy! (NOTE: apologies for some of the spacing and indentation issues. blogger html is funky).

Adventures with Mrs. Pu: A Reinterpretation of Zhuangzi

By: Kelly Anne Graves

Goucher College

The doorbell rang, but Melody and Austin were too preoccupied throwing Austin’s two black marbles across the dining room floor to take notice.

It was their mother, flustered and hurrying toward the door, that got their attention. They realized that there was something unusual about the person on their front stoop. It was unlike the adult-head-hat-and-coat outline that typically appeared through the stain glass window when someone knocked. This time it was different.

“Oh well hello Mrs. Pu!” their mother said, opening the door. “It is so nice to see you again! Excuse me for keeping you waiting, we were just finishing packing. Please, please let me take your bag.”

First came mother. This was expected. Then came a bright red bag. This was less expected. And then, something neither of them anticipated, stepped the two tall legs of a large white crane.

“Hello there kids!” said the crane to Melody and Austin, who were frozen stiff with the sight of the large bird standing in their living room.

“Don’t be rude,” said mother.

Austin was the first to speak up “Hi,” he said blushing a bit. Melody backed further behind him. They had never met a talking bird before.

“This is Mrs. Pu. She recently moved into the neighborhood and will be your nanny while Dad and I are away.”

Their mother kissed them on the cheek, loaded the suitcases in the car and reminded Melody to water her sweet peas before the car zipped off into the distance.

“Well look at that,” said Mrs. Pu, “It is already noon. Time for cookies and tea!” Melody and Austin followed her out to the porch, where they were handed two crunchy white cookies and a glass of hot, green water.

“How come you are so tall?” Melody asked behind a mouthful of mashed cookie. “I’ve never seen someone so tall.”

“Plus!” said Austin, “You’re a bird! Birds can’t talked,” he accused.

“Ahh, I see,” said Mrs. Pu. “Let me tell you a story.”

“Once upon a time in China there lived a great King, known by his people as Royal Relativity.”

“Really-what?” said Austin.

“Relativity,” said Mrs. Pu. “I’ll give you an example of what it means. One day Gaptooth, the city peasant, was trying to learn the difference between right and wrong. So he ventured all the way to ask Royal Relativity what he thought. Royal Relativity replied ‘How could I know that? If people sleep in the damp, their backs hurt. But is that true for an eel?’”

Austin had recently learned about eels in science class, and giggled at the thought of an eel having a sore back.

“‘But if the eel lives in trees, they shudder with fear. Is this the same for the monkey? Of these three who knows the right place to live? People eat cattle, dear eat fodder, maggots eat snakes, and hawks enjoy mice. Of these four who knows the right taste?’

“So you see,” said Mrs. Pu, “it is for this reason I am big.”

“Because I am a monkey and you are an eel?” joked Austin.

“Exactly. It is a matter of perception” Said Mrs. Pu, “Now come, let’s go for a walk!”

The two children sat there for a moment confused by what had just transpired, but finished their cookies and followed Mrs. Pu.

“I have to water my sweet peas before we go!” said Melody.

“Can we go swimming?!” asked Austin.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Pu. “Go grab your swim wear and I’ll help Melody water her flowers.”

“What a beautiful place!” exclaimed Mrs. Pu.

“Thanks,” said Melody, “Mom and I have been working on it since I was five. Last year I was so good at watering the tomato plants, Mom said I go grow something all by myself. I picked sweet peas because they are pretty and pink”

Melody maneuvered between a series of freshly laid manure and rows of green leaves budding up from the earth

“Here is my patch!” she said, pointing out the southernmost corner of the garden in the shade. “It is the best place in all the yard.”

“Oh, I see,” said Mrs. Pu, “It is really nice. But where are your flowers? I see only dirt.”

“They…well, they are just taking their time,” she said, “but I water them everyday so they’ll become big.”

Austin came whirling out of the house and into the garden, “Ready! Re-a-d-y! Let’s go swimming! C’mon Melody!”

The three of them walked down the stone path, up the hill, and to the woods. While they walked Mrs. Pu began to hum, and the three of them marched on looking at butterflies, toads, and leaves. Finally, after 20 whole minutes, they reached the water hole.

“Here we are!” said Mrs. Pu. But Austin and Melody didn’t respond. “What’s wrong? Why are you not getting in?”

Melody sat down on the rock. “You tell her Austin, I’m not going to.”

“What? Don’t you know how to swim?” asked Mrs. Pu.

“No.” they replied in unison.

“But we’ve read books about it!” said Austin.

“And Mom and Dad told us about swimming!” added Melody.

“So we figured we’d just…pick it up when we got here.”

Melody began to sob. Austin sat next to her to sulk.

“Oh I see.” Nodded Mrs. Pu, “Did I ever tell you the story about Wheelwright Slab and Duke Huan?”

“No, we just met you,” pouted Austin.

“Ahh, I see. Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time in China there was a skilled craftsman named Wheelwright Slab. He worked long hours and was always kind to whomever he met. One day while chiseling a wheel in the royal courtyard he noticed Duke Huan reading a book. He’d always wanted to talk to the Duke, because he respected him greatly, so Wheelwright Slab put down his work and approached the Duke.

‘Excuse me, what are you reading?’ he asked.

The Duke said ‘The words of the sages.”

Confused, Wheelwright Slab asked ‘But are the sages still around?’

The Duke said ‘They are dead,’ and went back to reading.

‘Then what M’Lord is reading is nothing more than leftovers from the ancients.’ The Duke got very mad at this comment. How dare a craftsman talk to him in such a way! He ordered an explanation, and if Wheelwright Slab had none, he would be killed”

Melody looked up from her hands. “Oh no!”

“But Wheelwright Slab said ‘Your servant looks at it from the point of view of his own business. When I chisel a wheel, if I hit it too softly, it slips and won’t bite. If I hit it too hard, it jams and won’t move. Neither too soft or too hard—

I get it in my hand and respond with my mind. But my mouth cannot put it into words. There is an art to it. I’ve done it this way seventy years and am growing old chiseling wheels. The ancients dies with what they could not pass down. So what M’Lord is reading can only be their leftovers.’”

“Like meatloaf?” asked Austin.

“How old is the meatloaf?” asked Mrs. Pu.

“Blah, always too old at grandma’s house,” said Melody.

“Then yes, exactly like meatloaf,’ said Mrs. Pu. “And this is the same reason why you can’t learn how to swim from reading a book. Or hearing about it from your parents. It is like eating old meatloaf and thinking it will help you learn how to float. You will surely sink. Now come, take off your shoes and I will teach you about water.”

For the next two hours Mrs. Pu taught Melody and Austin all that they needed to know about water. She floated them on their backs one at a time, and taught them that in order to swim, they must first forget about the water altogether. She taught them about how the streams would bend around sharp earth and big boulders to flow into the water hole, and that they, too, had to learn how to bend. Austin and Melody were very happy.

When the sun began to sink lower in the sky, the gathered their things are headed home. Being so excited about their first swimming lesson, Austin and Melody skipped and jumped off the fallen logs and rocks with glee. They all sang songs and ran through the woods. Mrs. Pu took out her large wings and flew in and out the branches with ease.

But soon the sky began to get darker, and they realized that a whole hour had gone by. “Shouldn’t we be home by now?” asked Melody.

“Hey, I don’t remember that big oak tree,” said Austin.

“Oh no!” they said together “We’re lost!”

“What will Mother think? If we’re lost, where will we get our mashed potatoes from? Who will feed us dinner?” asked Austin in horror.

“Who will take care of my sweet peas?” cried Melody.

“Now, now children. Come, we’ll find our way home. Don’t’ you fret.”

“But Mrs. Pu,” said Melody, “I am scared.”

“Well, have I ever told you the story about the man and his boat?

“No. You just met us.” said Austin.

“Ahh, well I see. Well listen up while we walk.

Once upon a time in China there was a very poor man. He only had a pocket full of seeds and an old boat that had been passed down form his father’ father’s father.”

“That is a long time!” said Melody.

“Yes. And the boat was the most precious thing in the all the world to this man. When he would sleep, he would dream about his boat, when he would wake he would check to make sure his boat was still there. His whole life he was afraid of losing his boat. But then one day…”

“Did he lose his boat?” interjected Austin.

“Not yet,” said Mrs. Pu, lifting the two children over a large log in the middle of the path. “One day the man hid his boat behind some brambles off the side of the lake. He picked some underbrush and laid it across the front of the boat so no one could see it. But as soon as he began to walk away he heard:

‘Well hello there friend!’ It was a butterfly. A large orange and black monarch.

‘What do you want insect?’ asked the man. ‘I am busy.’

The butterfly danced around his head and over to his boat, ‘You know, a strong man could come and take your boat away if you’re not careful.’

‘Why are you harassing me butterfly? What have I done to you? I have hidden my boat in the brambles and underbrush, no one will find my boat. I am the only one who knows exactly here it hides.’

‘Ahh,’ said the butterfly, ‘but don’t you see foolish man? I have been living in this forest for years. I have seen many things come and many things go. You can’t just hide your boat in some branches and expect it to be safe!”

“Well what do you want me to do? It is my only possession, I am a poor man!”

“Hide it in the world and then you have nothing to lose.’

‘The world?’ How do I do that?’

‘If you hide it in the world, you can never lose it. Even if someone comes at night and steals it. It is still always where you put it.’

“I don’t get it,” said Austin. “Wouldn’t that mean it would still be lost?”

“Well,” said Mrs. Pu, “If you hide your boat in the world, not just on the side of the lake, you can never lose it, it has simply changed location.”

“Just like us!” yelled Melody. “We are lost in the world!”

“Not anymore,” said Mrs. Pu, “we’ve found our way home.”

The children had been so engrossed in the story, they hadn’t even realized that they had walked all the way up the stone path and were standing in their backyard.

“How about some pie in the garden?” said Mrs. Pu.

The two children cheered and happily made their way to the backyard. The sun was setting and the whole world seemed soft. They sat and watched the colors turn from bright pink to a calm purple, and then, finally, to the first black of night.

Suddenly Melody jumped up. “I’ll be back,” she yelled.

A few minutes later Melody came back screaming: “They’ve come! They’ve come! My sweet peas have come!” Both Austin and Mrs. Pu ran down the path to Melody’s plot and saw the miracle. The seeds had finally sprouted. Small little stems surfaced above the dirt. They were all ecstatic and danced around Melody’s masterpiece.

“I knew it! I knew it! The sprouts where there the whole time!” yelled Melody.

“Yes, well what a beautiful surprise Melody. But it is getting late, let’s walk back to the house and wash our hands before bed. And while we do that, I want to tell you a story about those sprouts.

Once upon a time…”

“In China!?” yelled Austin.

“Yes, in China,” smiled Mrs. Pu.

“Once upon a time in China, there was a man named Zhuangzi. He was a curious man and decided to go for a walk near the Diaoling preserve.

Suddenly, a strange magpie hit him in the forehead and then crashed into a chestnut grove! Hitching up his robe and tiptoeing forward, Zhuangzi pursued it bow in hand. But on his way, he saw a cicada forgetting itself in a pretty bit of shade. A praying mantis took advantage of the cover to grab for it, forgetting its own body at the sight of gain. The strange magpie was right behind, eyeing the prize and forgetting the truth. Zhuangzi shuddered ‘Eeee! How things are entangled!’ He threw down his bow and ran all the way home.

Three days later, Zhuangzi finally came out of his house. When asked where he had been, he replied ‘I was guarding my body, but forgot about myself.’”

“Your stories are always so confusing,” said Austin.

“I thought this story was about my sweet pea sprouts!” whined Melody, still excited about her achievement.

“Oh, but it is about your sweet pea sprouts Melody,” said Mrs. Pu, “When Zhuangzi yelled that things where entangled, what did that mean?”

“Sometimes my hairs get all tangly,” said Melody.

“Yes, and when your hair is tangled what happens?”

“They get all tied together.”

“Yes, so similarly, Zhuangzi sees that the cicada, the praying mantis, the magpie and himself all tied together. They are connected.”

“I still don’t understand what this has to do with my sprouts,” said Melody in exasperation.

“What did your sprouts need in order to grow?”

“I don’t know, seeds maybe.” said Melody.

“But what about the water?”

“Oh, yes, that too.”

“And what about the sun?”

“I forgot about that.”

“And what about the dirt? And the worms? And the clouds?

“Yes, those too, I suppose.” said Melody.

“And what about you? Where would those sprouts be if you hand not planted them? And your Mom? Where would those sprouts be if she had not bought you a packet of seeds?”

Melody was quiet.

“Don’t you see Melody, your sweet peas are more beautiful than you thought. They are not sprouts that needed to be cultivated. They are a combination of everything around you! They are the whole world! Without everything else, those sprouts would not grow.”

And with that Melody and Austin slipped into the covers and began to dream about all of the adventures that had happened that day.


Author's Commentary


The “Adventures of Mrs. Pu” are based off an ancient text, written by a man who lived in China, named Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi was a writer and was most famous for his contribution to the religion known as Daoism. Unlike some religions that you may be familiar with, Daoism has no God, no moral laws, and no Sunday school! Instead, it can be viewed as way of living.

The world Daoism comes from the word “Dao.” Dao can be either a verb (an action) or a noun (a thing). But instead of being just one action like “run” or just one thing like “cat,” Dao is all actions and all things at the same time! That is the tricky part. Dao is like a big blanket that falls over the world, covering everything that it touches. It is similar to when you turn on a light in a dark room— everything that is illuminated by light is part of the Dao. This will become clearer as you read on, but for now, consider Dao to be the basis of all things, just like how the cells in your body are the basis for you. It is the substance that things are made from.

There is a very important name in this book, Mrs. Pu. The word “Pu,” is Chinese. When you write it in Chinese it looks something like this . It means: “uncarved wood.” Did you know that before your chairs and tables were in the shape of chairs and tables, they were once a tree? In order to make a chair and table from a tree, you must carve away wood. This turns it into the shape it is. The word pu refers to before the wood has been carved into these different shapes. This is a very important image in Daoism, because everything is made of the same substance, Dao, it is important not to look at things as objects separate from the rest of the world. Or in terms of tables and chairs, to see the tree behind their shapes.

This uncarved block is a symbol for what is known as pure potential. The amazing thing about an uncarved block in comparison to a chair or a table, is that you can make anything from it! It is like when you have a ball of clay before it is dry. You can bend it into any shape, big or small, long or short, bumpy or smooth. But as soon as you shape it and let it sit in the sun, it is stuck. You cannot change it into another shape without it breaking. In Daosim this state of uncarved wood is very important, because it symbolizes all of the different objects at the same time. A very famous man named Laozi once said “the greatest carving cuts nothing off” (Lau, 1982). When you carve very little away from the wood, the more potential there is inside of the block. Instead of looking at one thing at a time, like a table or a chair, in an uncarved block you can see it all at the same time. In Daoism, this is very much how the world works.

Mrs. Pu was named this because in the book she is a great teacher. She tells many stories about Daoism to Melody and Austin. Naming her “Mrs. Pu” represents her ability to see the world without prejudice, preconceptions or illusions. The commentary below will discuss some major themes seen in Mrs. Pu’s teachings and how they relate to Daoism.

Royal Relativity: Shifting Perspectives

In Daoism there are no ultimate truths, everything is relative to something else. Instead of something being big or small, bad or good, an extreme is only an extreme in comparison to other things. When Melody asks Mrs. Pu why she is so tall, Mrs. Pu tells her the story of Royal Relativity and how each animal eats, lives and behaves according to what they think is right. But upon comparison, it is clear to see that it is all a matter of perspective. Have you ever stood at the top of a very high building or been in an airplane? The world looks very different from up high than it does from down below. But the amazing thing is, everything stays the same size! It is you, your perspective, that changes.

This can be seen in the famous Daoist symbol, called a “yin yang.” A yin yang is a picture drawn in black and white, two opposite colors, that together form one object. If you look closer, there is a small white dot inside the black side of the symbol and a black dot inside the white side of the symbol. This represents that opposites may appear to be extremes, but really they are part of each other. Just like how Mrs. Pu is a tall crane and Melody and Austin are small children, they are really part of the greater whole.

Another famous example of relativity in Daoism is known as the “Butterfly Dream.” It goes like this: “One night, Zhuangzi dreamed of being a butterfly—a happy butterfly, showing off and doing as he pleased, unaware of being Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Zhuangzi again. And he could not tell whether it was Zhuangzi who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi” (224). In this story, everything is relative— whether he is a man or a butterfly, awake or asleep. In order for this to work, you have to be able to shift between two perspectives. The reason that relativity and shifting between different perspectives is important in Daoism, is because if everything is all part of the same thing, Dao, then everything is in relation to one another. They are all part of the greater whole, just like the black and white sides of the yin yang. If you want to see a picture of the “Butterfly Dream,” go to page 15 of your book. This is a famous painting of Zhuangzi dreaming.

Wheelwright Slab: Non-Conceptuality

Daoism has a very special relationship with words. Unlike what many teachers and parents will say, in Daoism words are only a tool. They are not as important as experience. In fact, words can actually keep you from really seeing the world around you! When Melody and Austin reveal that they cannot swim, but that they’ve read about it in books and heard about it from their elders, Mrs. Pu decides to tell them the story of Wheelwright Slab.

The conversation between Wheelwright Slab and Duke Huan casts Wheelwright Slab in a heroic light. He is a good worker. When he asks the Duke what he is doing and learns that the Duke is reading the words of the ancients, Wheelwright Slab is unhappy. He does not see the point in reading the words of people who have passed away. He calls these leftovers. He says that the ancients died with what they could not pass down.

This story is very important in Daoism, because it characterizes something known as “wu-wei. Wu-wei means “non-action.” When Wheelwright Slab tells the Duke of his occupation as a wheelwright, it is clear that Wheelwright Slab views it as a highly skilled art. It is something that “he cannot put into words” (235) And if he did, then the words he chose would not encompass the entire picture. It is something that is “non-conceptual.” Non-conceptual means without using words. Often times it is based in experience. When Wheelwright Slab works on his wheels he enters this realm of wu-wei, which is an effortless, non-conceptual action. This is why even if you’ve read a million books about how to swim, the only way to truly learn how to swim is to master it through experience. Words may teach you a lot about floating and different types of strokes, but it is not sufficient. This is why in Daoism in order to truly learn about the world you must experience it, not read about it in a book or do it because someone told you to. You’ve probably experienced this before, like learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time.

Once Melody and Austin realize this, Mrs. Pu teaches them how to swim by teaching them about how water works and letting them experience it. Water is a very important symbol in Daoism, because it is able to flow around objects with ease. This also is an example of wu-wei. The water does not try to flow in a certain direction, it simply follows its natural course.

Hiding Your Boat in the World: Formlessness

When Melody and Austin realize they are lost in the woods, they become very afraid. Austin points out that he does not recognize the oak tree up ahead, and they are not where they are supposed to be. Mrs. Pu, however, does not become afraid. Instead, she begins to tell the children a story about a poor man and a boat. This story is an example of the Daoist notion of formlessness. Formlessness means “without shape.”

In this story the man obsesses over his boat, the only thing he has ownership over. He can’t even sleep without thinking about his boat. One day, however, he hides his boat and while walking away, is approached by a butterfly. The butterfly is an allusion to the “Butterfly Dream” discussed earlier, and is supposed to be a symbol for Zhuangzi. The butterfly tells the man to not hide his boat in brambles, but to, instead, hide it in the world. If he does this, the boat can never be lost. The man is clinging so tightly to his boat, that he allows his life to be ruled by the fear of losing it. But what the man fails to realize, is that because everything is part of the Dao, it is all connected. He cannot shave off a slice of the world, his boat, and call it his own. It will inevitably disappear. By hiding his boat in the world, he embraces

this natural law, and his boat can never be lost, only moved from one part of the world to another. Similarly, Melody, Austin and Mrs. Pu cannot be truly ever lost, they are only in a different place than they expected.

Forgetting Yourself: Interconnectivity

The final story that Mrs. Pu tells when Melody’s sweet pea sprouts finally come up, is a reference to two things: 1. Another famous Chinese writer named Mencius and 2. The interconnectivity of the world. Mencius was a Confucian writer. He believed that everyone had “sprouts of goodness” inside them, making people naturally good people. In Mencius’ point of view, it is society’s role to cultivate these sprouts and let them flourish (Chan, 2002). Mrs Pu, being a Daoist, uses Mencius’ words and asks Melody what else the sweet peas needed in order to grow. Melody answers “the seeds.” This is a very Confucian answer. But Mrs. Pu points out that the seeds in the earth may naturally have the potential to grow, but that there were so many other things in the world that the sprouts depended on to grow. Rather than merely being a matter of cultivating seeds, like Mencius believed, in Daoism the world is connected— everything depends on something else. To view the seeds as individual entities capable of growing flowers would be a misnomer, because it overlooks the contribution of the soil, the sun, the clouds, the rain, Melody, her mother, and in one way or another, the entire world!

An example of this would be if you drew a circle on a page of white paper and labeled it “a seed.” In this example, the circle stands alone and is distinct from the rest of the page. But a Daoist drawing of the situation would be very different. Instead of being a circle alone on a page, it would be many circles with lines connecting them together. This is what the word interconnectivity means: that everything is entangled, just like the magpie, the cicada, the praying mantis and Zhuangzi. This is why in Mrs. Pu’s story they all “forget themselves,” because they realize that nothing is separate from the rest.


In this commentary you’ve learned several big words: relativity, non-conceptuality, formlessness, and interconnectivity. Despite how large these words may appear, don’t be intimidated! They all represent very basic themes of life. The goal of Daoism is to get in touch with the simple realities of the world around you. The more you think about the meanings of these words and the stories Mrs. Pu told, the more you’ll begin to see them in your everyday life. Have you every sat at the edge of a brook or by the ocean? Next time you do, think about the water and how it relates to formlessness. Next time you see a flower bloom, think about how many things contributed to its growth. And the next time you see something from a different point of view, think about how your perspective influences the way you interpret it. The more that you experiment with these ideas in your own life, the more you’ll be able to experience them for yourself.

Works Referenced

Chan, Alan K. L. (ed.), 2002, Mencius: Contexts and Interpretations, Honolulu:

University of Hawaii Press.

Hansen, Chad (1983), ‘A Tao of Tao in Chuang Tzu,’ in Experimental Essays on

Chuang Tzu. Ed Victor Mair. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ivanhoe, P. (2001). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy. In J. Ivanhoe & B.

Norden (ED,).

Lau, D.C. (1982), Chinese Classics Tao Tao Ching. Hong Kong: Chinese University