THE NEXT STEP (16)

Laura stopped for a moment and tried to see if she could spot anyone on either track. But she couldn’t.

What to do? As Laura stood there, looking at the lanes, she heard footsteps behind her.

‘Got lost?’ Laura turned around and saw the familiar tall figure of Darky climbing up towards her.

‘What is he doing here?” Laura thought, but nevertheless gave a small smile to Darky. ‘Didn’t know you were here too.’

Darky laughed at that. ‘I was following the group a few feet behind. I fancied some time just for myself without having to talk to anyone.’

As if. He had hardly taken part in many activities during the retreat.

‘Do you know the route? Any ideas which way they might have gone?’ Laura asked him instead of voicing her opinion. ‘I stayed behind to take in the beauty of the scenery and now I have no idea which path they may have taken.’

‘Your guess is as good as mine’, Darky looked at both paths. ‘Shall we through a coin? This good be a nice adventure.’ He gave Laura whithering look. Was he flirting with her? Laura felt the now familiar unsettled feeling in her stomach.

‘I guess that is the only way to decide’, she shrugged. ‘We might as well make the most of this adventure.’

Darky took a coin from his pocket and flipped it in the air.

‘Tails, we’ll take the left path. Heads, we’ll take the right one.‘ He caught the coin and smacked it on his palm. Heads it is.’

He started striding along the pathway that looked steep and seemed to form a zig zag shape. Laura was doubtful that the others had gone this way. The other path looked less steep. But she started following Darky as she had no idea what else to do. At least this way she wouldn’t be completely on her own.

THE NEXT STEP (15)

‘Why don’t we go somewhere on a day trip?’ One of the men of the retreat group lifted up his hand and looked intensely at their yoga teacher. They had just finished a lunchtime session of yoga and Laura was stretching her legs in front of her in the green grass.

They had fallen into a pattern of having two sessions of yoga and one session of meditation each day outside in the lovely garden surrounding the retreat centre buildings. Laura quite liked all the people in the group. In addition to her and Annie, there was a young couple from France, two middle-aged women from Germany, a family of four from Estonia and a group of friends from Spain. One of the Spanish men was the one proposing a day trip. Laura had a feeling that this was more of a holiday for them rather than a chance to have some peace and quite for themselves. Laura had seen Darky only once, for one of the yoga sessions, but other than that, there were no signs of him. She wondered if he was still taking part in the retreat.

‘That is a good idea’, their ever-so-calm teacher smiled at the man. ‘Taiwan is a very versitile country and there is much to see. Any ideas where you would like to go?’

‘Somewhere in the nature’, one of the younger ladies piped up. ‘I am loving your beautiful mountains.’

All of them had fallen in love with Taiwan’s beauty. Laura felt like a million miles and years away from her life in London. This setting couldn’t have been more different to her life in central London.

‘Wonderful idea’, another one of the young ladies chirped.

A couple of days later, the whole group set off to have a hike on one of the nearby mountains. It was a sunny and hot day, and they were all showing signs of tiredness just after the initial walk up to the main viewing area half way up the mountain. Annie and Laura took in the stunning scenery or luscious trees and flowers spreading ahead of them. They could see the high buildings of Taipei in the background, with miles and miles of greenery spreading in front of their eyes. ‘Now we are going to walk the famous route that all famous people want to walk when they come to Taiwan’, their guide said with a big grin on his face. He seemed to be the only one to whom the hot and humid air was having no effect. ‘The likes of the Beatles and One Direction have all done it.’

Laura wondered whether that was true. Still, it sounded appealing and they all started walking along a narrow path leading further up the mountain amongst huge trees. Laura was lost in her own thoughts as they walked along. Nature certainly had a calming effect on her and she slowed her pace, trailing behind the others who were treading along. The birds were singing and Laura stopped for a short while to take a swig from her water bottle. The others were walking along and disappeared behind a curve in the road.

‘I will catch up with them’, Laura thought as she took a bite of a sandwich that she had brought along and carried on walking. But when she walked behind the curve, there were two pathways leading to opposite directions – one to the west side of the mountain and the other to the east side. Which one had the others taken?

THE NEXT STEP (14)

After the morning ceremonies, Ted wondered through the golden gates and towards town. He wanted to take in the vibe of Taipei and also to buy some more T-shirts and light trousers for this humid weather. He walked along the concrete pavement and marvelled at the bilboards in Chinese. He spotted a sign for a meditation and yoga retreat centre. ‘Perhaps I can go there for some meditation and yoga classes’, Ted thought to himself as he neared the city centre.

‘A market is probably the best place for buying what I need.’ Ted started looking into different streets to try and spot an open market. There were many department stores and trendy shops around, but somehow Taipei had a very nice feel to it, with art work spread along pavements and plenty of flowers and trees to lighten the atmosphere.

‘This doesn’t feel like a big city at all, even though thousands of people live here’, Ted muttered to himself. He stopped at a cafe to get an iced latte. Despite his healthy eating and drinking habits, he still loved coffee more than anything.

Soon enough he spotted a big open-air market. There were stalls filled with fruit, clothes, books, CDs… Anything that you could think of. Hundreds of people were milling about. Ted spotted a couple of Westerns and they exchanged glances and smiles.

‘Funny how you feel solidarity to other people standing out from the crowd’, he thought as he chose a mix of colourful shirts and trousers, as well as a pair of sandals, from a stall manned by a young lady who smiled shyly at him and responded in broken in English.

‘I must learn some Chinese before I come and buy more clothes’, Ted said to the lady before he wandered off to check out the rest of the market.

The market seemed to sell everything that one could think of. Ted was in particular drawn to traditional Taiwanese necklaces and clothes. They were made of very pretty colours and would look beautiful on anyone. They were surprisingly similar to African clothes, with bold patterns and wooden beads.

Ted spotted a table filled with golden Buddha statues of all sizes.

‘Ah, I always wanted to have one’, Ted said to the man behind the desk. As he looked up, he saw that the man was also a Westerner, tall with dark brown eyes. ‘Then you’ve come to the right place’, the man said. ‘I have plenty here and they are reasonably priced as I believe that anyone should have a chance to buy one regardless of their financial situation.’

Ted looked around the table and, indeed, he could see statues of all sizes, all glistening in the beautiful sunlight. He placed a small one on his palm and took a closer look at it. It was mesmerising. ‘How much do you sell this one for?’ Ted asked. He felt that he just had to buy the statue, that it somehow needed to accompany him on his journey.

‘I can sell that one for you for 20 dollars’, the man said and grinned.

‘That really is a good price’, Ted nodded as he handed the dollars to the man. ‘I don’t think that I can find a better deal anywhere.’

‘I’m here to surprise and delight’, the man said and laughed. There was something intriguing about the man, Ted thought as he put the statue in his bag. ‘Do you live in Taipei?’ Ted asked, trying to sound light, although in reality the man made him feel on edge.

‘Oh, I live here and there’, the man gestured around the market with his hand. ‘A traveller or a gypsy as most would say. Or a restless soul.’ He laughed some more and Ted smiled. It sounded like the man was of the 70s hippy generation.

‘I have been in Taipei for some time, yes’, the man continued. ‘I would love to open my own retreat centre here. A place for Westerners to come and relax, to get away from their boring lives back home.’ ‘I can see there being a market for that’, Ted noted. ‘There is and I hope to conquer it’, the man winked at Ted.

‘Hey, I am staying at a retreat centre just down the road. Why don’t you pop over for some tea one of these days? It would be good to talk some more with you. You know how it is, difficult to come across people here who speak something else than Chinese.’

Somehow the idea sounded appealing to Ted. He found this man intriguing, although he knew so little about him, and would have liked to talk more with him.

‘I certainly will’, Ted said and the two men shook hands. ‘But can we please have some coffee instead of tea? I am missing my cafeine fix!’

The man laughed. ‘My sentiments exactly. Coffee date it is then. Come any afternoon and ask for Darky at the reception. Here is the address to the centre.’ The man scribbled on a piece of paper. ‘I’ll have Nescafe ready for us.’

THE NEXT STEP (13)

Once the meditation finished, Ted remained sitting down on the cushion. He felt that he was in a daze. He could still feel the sensations, the melodies, the words shifting through his body and his mind. It was as if he could feel energy running through him. Now he could totally understand what it meant when people had told him and one felt recharged and anew after a deep meditation session.

Choo came to stand next to him. Without a word, he guided Ted to the dining hall where everyone was drinking their morning tea in silence. All that they could hear were the birds singing outside in the garden and the crickets crying right outside the window. Plates of samosas were brought out by one of the nuns. Ted took one and bit into in mindfully. He had practiced mindfulness, of being fully present and focussed on what one was doing, for some years now. All the monks and the nuns were eating in silence around him. Ted could feel a strange sensation in his mouth and he had the urge to stop chewing. He looked at the samosa and realized that there was meat in it.

That made him feel sick and so he discreetly spit the samosa into a napkin. Uh, he thought. They eat meat? But one of the main teachings of the Buddha had been to cultivate compassion for all living beings, including animals, and treat them with respect without killing, let alone eating, them.

Ted felt disgusted and stared down on his plate. This was too much of a contradiction for him to go by. He would rather not have breakfast. The monks and the nuns started leaving the hall, still in absolute silence. Choo walked towards Ted and placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘You don’t like samosas?‘ He whispered into Ted’s ear and started guiding him out of the hall.

‘Oh I do’, Ted said. ‘ But I just don’t eat meat.’

‘Ah’, Choo nodded. ‘Some people don’t’. He laughed.

‘We eat the ones that roam around our gardens.’ He explained as they walked along the corridor.

Ted hesitated for a moment before asking.’ But how come you eat meat when one of the core teachings of Buddhism is feeling compassion for animals and all sentient-beings?’

Choo looked him sternly in the eye. ‘We love our animals and show them compassion, but we also need to eat.’ He waved his hand. ‘Just a different way of showing compassion.’

Ted hesitated again before asking. ‘But if you love someone, how can you kill them and then eat them?’

‘My son’, Choo winked. ‘It is about detachment. You feel compassion and love, but you can also detach yourself enough to be able to do other things.’ Ted nodded, but he was still not convinced by Choo’s arguments.

‘So you are saying that, as long as a person is alive, you can show them love and compassion, but then it is also okay to kill them because you need money and they have it?’

Choo laughed his hearty laughter. ‘You are clever, my son,‘ he patted Ted on his shoulder. ‘You are doing the correct thing. You are questioning things and not taking anything for face value. That is what Buddhism is all abut.‘

Ted knew that the Buddhists teachings encouraged you to question everything and not take anything at face value. Still, to him the claims by Choo were somewhat contradictory.

‘I suppose that I will have a chance to learn more about this mentality during my time at this monastery’, he thought to himself.  himself. them.

THE NEXT STEP (12)

The following morning Ted woke up to the sound of the gong resonating through the monastery. He checked the time and realized that he had slept for 12 hours. The time difference between Europe and Asia, as well as the long trip, had taken their toll on him and he had needed a long rest to recover. It was five o’clock in the morning. The sun was not up yet, but through the small window Ted could see the rays gleaming in the distant horizon behind the mountains.

Ted’s room only had a mattress and a small chest of drawers in it. It was all white. Very simple and pure. Which is how the whole monastery was, in fact. When Ted had entered the main gate yesterday, he had been greeted by the main laymen of the monastery who had given him a short tour of the main shrine room, the dining hall, communal areas and garden, and finally his own bedroom.

All the monks had been very welcoming towards him. They were all smiling and radiated a serene feeling. This monastery was somehow a little more advanced as there were both male monks and female nuns resident here under the same roof. The strand of Buddhism that they followed, the Mahayana path, was more open and integrated individuals from all walks of life into its teachings.

Ted had been drawn to Buddhism from an early age. He was five when he first started reading about the Buddha and ten years of age when he started doing meditation and yoga. In his teenage years, his interest in the religion intensified. For Ted, it was more of a philosophy for life than religion. To him, all the teachings of the Buddha made perfect sense. The teachings articulated the fundamental philosophies effectively and provided one with tools to live in today’s modern world without going mad, and for understanding what life was about. Ted had found warm refuge in the teachings, and this is why he had decided to volunteer at a Buddhist monastery while he was in Taiwan.

Ted stretched and sat down for his kundalini yoga and meditation. The serenity and tranquility of the surroundings really got to him and he felt a strong inner peace that he had not felt for a long time.

After a while, Ted heard a gentle knock at his door. He got up and opened the bamboo door. The chief layperson of the monastery, Mister Choo, bowed at him.

‘Good morning, Sir Ted’, he said and bowed for a second and then for a third time. ‘Did you rest well?’

‘Good morning, Mister Choo’, Ted said and also bowed for three times. There was something magic about number three for the Buddhists and this is why everything was done three times. The magic number meant the three main components of Buddhism – the master (the Buddha), the teachings (the dharma) and the followers (the sanga).

‘Yes, I did very well, thank you’, Ted continued. ‘I fee like newly born now.’

Mister Choo laughed. ‘Well then, you may come and join us for the morning meditation, after which we will have our morning tea. And by the way, please call me Choo. Mister… is just too formal!’ Choo laughed again with hearty laughter.

Ted walked behind Choo down the narrow corridor. He could see other monks coming out of their rooms, dressed in orange ropes, walking slowly with their hands placed in a prayer position in front of their hearts. None of them spoke; everyone walked on to the meditation hall in absolute silence.

In the hall, the recitation of the heart sutra was in full swing. Incense was burning in front of the altar and red cushions were placed in even rows across the marble floor. Ted sat down next to a couple of nuns who were fully absorbed in reciting the sutra. Their voices were amazingly low and had a  throaty Tibetan-style singing tone to them.

Ted joined in the chanting and was soon over-taken by the unity of the act and fully absorbed in hammering the verses in his head.

THE NEXT STEP (11)

The starts were shining brightly in the blue night sky as Laura stepped onto the soft green grass in the courtyard of the retreat centre. There were colourful thin blankets organised in a circle and the leader of the retreat, Ms Shanti, was sitting in the middle of the circle with her hands resting on her knees, eyes closed. Annie was already lying down on one of the blankets, eyes closed and looking very relaxed. Laura could hear her deep breathing in the stillness of the night.

There were just a couple of them today before the rest of the group would arrive. They were about to do an evening meditation that would help them all to have a restful night of sleep. Laura lay down on one of the blankets. Se sighed softly. When she was here, it felt like all her worries flew away and she could just be still, without thinking or doing anything. ‘How long will this last?’ She thought to herself. ‘How long will I feel this peaceful and will I be able to carry this feeling with me to whatever I decide to do next?’

Laura opened her eyes briefly and took a glance around the open space. There was no sign of Darky. ‘Where is he? What is he doing?’ She thought as her eye lids started feeling heavier. ‘Better not to think about it’, she told herself as she started having an uneasy feeling in her heart and her stomach once again. ‘There was something strange about that man….’ Laura let the nature and the mild breeze in the air take her mind away.

After half an hour of simply being, Ms Shanti asked them to open their eyes. ‘Now we are going to do a little chakra mediation. After that you are free to retire into your rooms’, she said brightly. ‘If anyone needs a drink before we do the meditation, feel free to pop inside into the main hall. We have cool water and some jasmine tea inside.’

Laura sat up slowly. ‘I will go and get some.

‘Do you want any?’ She asked Annie. Annie was still lying down.

‘Thanks, but I seem to be fine for now. I just feel like gazing up at the stars for a while longer.’ Annie had a dreamy look in her eyes and Laura left her behind while she wondered inside.

Laura poured herself a cup of tea and leaned against a marble table in the hallway. This whole building had a calm to it that was hard to explain. She had never before felt this peaceful anywhere in her life.

Then some sharp voices from around the corner shook her out of her reverie. First they were whispering in Chinese, but they sounded angry and worried to Laura. Then she heard someone speak in English with a heavy Chinese accent. ‘But they are not here. We have searched the whole building and can’t find them anywhere. Someone must have taken them!’ ‘They are worth thousand of dollars’, another voice said angrily. ‘How can they go missing from a locked storage? It must be someone with a key who took them.’

‘No one who works here would take them. Everyone knows that the golden Statues of the Buddha, or any statue of the Buddha for that matter, is a Holy object and not to be stolen. That accumulates very bad karma.’

There was silence after that. Laura felt very uneasy and had a sick feeling in her stomach. Someone had taken the golden Buddha statues from the retreat place. Why did she have a sinking feeling that Darky Matthews may have something to do with this?