“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”
Those were the first words I read when I opened the book she gave me. They were the preface to Richard Dawkins’s most recent popular science book, Unweaving the Rainbow. On the preceding page, my new friend had hastily scribbled her phone number and CALL ME IF YOU’RE EVER BACK IN THE US — ANYA EACMEN. Above her note was a stamp indicating the book was the property of the Seattle Public Library.
I read it from cover to cover on my twelve hour flight back to Dengfeng. The preface is etched into my memory, like an epitaph on the grave of my career as a Shaolin monk. We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Dawkins was a man of science, an atheist with no need for the supernatural—miracles, as Hume would have called it—but the opening lines of his book revealed a man at peace with death and the oblivion that followed.
Anya had left a few of her handouts from her Empiricism class folded up in the book cover. I studied those too. My favorite was Occam’s Razor, the law of parsimony. Among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected for further study. I was too young to understand the nuances of that maxim, but at the time, I understood the core principle: that the simplest explanations, the ones that made the fewest assumptions about the world, were the most likely.
The Buddhists believed in reincarnation, in eternal souls inhabiting our bodies, but I had no need of that hypothesis. It was far easier for me to imagine nothingness than some grand cycle of recurrence; and besides, if I couldn’t remember my past lives, what was the difference between the two? I had always been skeptical of religions—the Christianity of my parents, and later, the Buddhism of my brothers—but until I read Dawkins, I had no simpler hypothesis to consider.
Dawkins’s explanation of evolution was so simple and elegant that I simply couldn’t ignore it. I realized the great mysteries of life could be answered by science, that I no longer had any need for ancient myths or the traditions of my elders.
The realization triggered an existential crisis. I was not going to be reborn, and I was not heading to an eternal paradise when I died. This was it for me. I suddenly felt the hourglass of my life draining away, and I knew then that I wanted more than a quiet, celibate life in the temple before my time was up.
I was sixteen years old, in peak physical condition, and I spoke perfect English and Mandarin. The world was full of possibilities for me. Shifu Yangxin realized this long before I did. When the plane touched down in Dengfeng, he was waiting for me in a big black limousine. The rest of the disciples were escorted to a rust-colored Volkswagen bus.
“I saw what you did with the melon,” he said as I took a seat across from him in the spacious limo. There was a pizza waiting for me—the pizza De Yang had promised. I wasn’t sure how Yangxin had found a western-style pizza in mainland China, but I knew it meant I had done something right, so I remained silent.
“Your English is still right?” he asked me clumsily.
“Yes. It’s good,” I corrected.
The young Abbot tapped his lips thoughtfully and switched back to Mandarin. “You understand showmanship. This is good. How would you feel about leading the touring troupe?”
“Me? But I’m not even a monk yet.”
He waved his hand dismissively. “You can take your vows when we return to the monastery.”
That casual hand-wave might as well have been a slap in the face. I had been working for years to earn the right to take those vows, and now he was just going to let me take them because he wanted me to lead the public relations campaign?
“Just like that? I can just go home and take them? No more tests? No more mastered Forms?”
“Don’t you think you are ready?”
“That’s not in question,” I snapped. I was angry. I didn’t even know why I was angry, but something about the exchange had reached up and grabbed my heart. It was his casual dismissal of Shaolin traditions that got me, I later realized. “I’m supposed to be eighteen. It’s a five hundred year old tradition.”
“The world changes. We must change with it, or be destroyed by it.”
I didn’t want Shaolin to change. I wanted the romantic Shaolin ideal: the ancient, secluded temple in the mountains, far from the buzzing electronics and flashing lights of the modern world. I wanted Kwai Chang Caine and the old west. I wanted to beat up bandits and save peasants.
But that was just a child’s dream. The old temple was gone, and in its place was a living museum. I didn’t want to work in a museum. I wanted to go back to Seattle. Back to Anya.
And leading the touring troupe, I realized, would help me get back there.
“I’ll do it.”