It was late, but I had not eaten dinner at the restaurant. A block from my old rickety tower, I detoured north, peddling past the Haagen Daz and its beckoning $5 mango sorbet, a retailer that claimed to be the American Walmart, and the noisy waves of people crashing in and out of the SM mall. I peddled up the little mountain that hugged it from behind, through a vertical canopy of green, until the mall, though only 500 meters away in distance, felt much further than that. I traversed a short, winding path, that clung to the terrain as it dipped and flared across the little mountainside, and then I was at the temple complex.
Guanyinsi’s Buddhist buffet was just $4/person, and while my mind eagerly savored the price, my plate filled and stomach swelled with all shapes and shades of silk gourd, cauliflower, eggplant, tofu, dumplings, sesame balls, noodles, green beans, fried rice… soups, porridges, pudding… little dessert-style dim sum… there must have been 25+ varieties of different foods, and coming for the first time, I naturally had to try them all. As I ate, I wondered whether I should slow down; the answer was definitely yes. But observing the table in front of me, my mind was fighting back. Something must be in this food, I reasoned, that is stopping these monks from ballooning.
It wasn’t chastity.
Maybe they cooked with less oil?
Seeing that the monks were okay, I resolved to keep on eating.
Guanyinsi’s buffet was not unlike most others in Xiamen. Monks, vegetarians, and everyday workers would crowd in for dirt-cheap and sometimes delicious, but always acceptable, mountains of lunch or dinner. Every year, adherents would save up their paychecks so that they too could open their own restaurant. Everyone dreamed of making plant foods so cheap, so accessible to meat eaters that they would have no choice but to eat plants. Invariably, after 1–3 years of losing money, these ventures would fold. No matter how many meals they served, they simply could not support a restaurant without margins, and no rich or poor person wanted to lose money indefinitely. While the restaurants drudged onwards, however, they were thoroughly enjoyed.
(The lone exception to this rule were temple buffets, which were patronized not only by eaters but by donation boxes, promising to bestow wealth and good fortune on the charitable. Like Guanyinsi’s buffet. Interesting business model.)
Thanking the cashier once again, I exited the restaurant into the night. The air around the temple, in the last hour, had begun glowing, and a slight breeze drifted along carrying with it the ring of a choir. “OM-MA-NI-PA-PE-PO, OM-MA-NI-PA-PE-OH, OM-MAN-NI-PA-PE-OH …” Under the reddish glow of the temple lights, a young man quietly crawled towards the buffet. His left hand grasped an empty stroller, and his right cradled the infant against his chest in a warm cocoon. As he passed, I barely made out the white letters on his black shirt:
“It’s all right. I have a plan.”
The temple’s main tower was now a column of light, ascending skywards in tiered rings of red, yellow, black, and white. The cornerstones of the pagoda’s buttresses coiled around themselves so many times that the roofs had nowhere to grow but upwards and outwards. The tower was majestic, and it occurred to me that if I somehow could perch up at the top, inside the forbidden apex that I could never enter, that I would probably see God then and there, maybe smoking a cigarette and browsing the nightly news. Why is it, I wondered, that American vegan food insists on being so damn cute!! Make it mighty! Make it awe-inspiring! Build a hundred-foot tower of light, and let others bask its mightiness and question God!
They may even give you free money.
Leaving the temple, back out the winding road, out of the forest, past the ebbing waves of mallgoers, passing once again the dark-signed Haagen Daz and Walmart center, down to my old rickety tower apartment, the air of magic slowly trickled off my body. I was back in bed, asleep.