Seeking Shelter in Disaster Oasis
by Chenxing Han
In June 2015, three-quarters of the way through a yearlong chaplaincy residency at a Northern California hospital, I fly from San Francisco to Manila to Jakarta to Yogyakarta for the 14th Sakyadhita International Conference for Buddhist Women. Exhausted from the two-day journey, I stumble into my hotel bungalow, only to be greeted by a miasma of mildew. My unkempt state and the brisk night air hurry me down an outdoor path to a standalone shower stall. The single light bulb burns out two minutes into my hasty scrubbing.
Groping for a towel in the pitch dark beneath a spray of icy water was not how I expected my first trip to Indonesia to begin. When I finally locate the shared bathroom, near another set of bungalows, I wonder: Where to spit out my toothpaste? (There is no sink in sight.) And whence the name of this hotel, Disaster Oasis? Is it supposed to be an oasis from disaster? A disastrous oasis? A coin toss where there’s a fifty-fifty chance of one or the other?
Five, six years later, I can’t stop thinking about Disaster Oasis. Why? The most immediate reason is that I’m writing a memoir about my education in Buddhist chaplaincy, an education shaped in large part by that residency year, during which my only vacation was to Yogyakarta.
A more oblique reason is that we are collectively struggling to find oasis from eruption after eruption of disaster. The litany of anguish is all too familiar. Climate crisis, global pandemic, political polarisation, rising authoritarianism, structural racism, tanking economies, wealth inequality, white supremacy… Enumerating these ills feels like taking attendance at the public schools of my K–12 education, an exhausting and seemingly inexhaustible roll call, a list so long you have to consult the alphabetised roster even when it’s recited daily.
In these devastating times, Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World grips me. Who knew an eight-hundred-year-old text would feel so starkly immediate? Composed in 1212 by the Japanese poet and Buddhist priest Kamo-no-Chomei, Hojoki offers a litany of suffering and a rumination on shelter. As translators Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins explain, “[t]he three sections—the disasters, the central pivot, and the latter hermitage—are held together by the recurring image of the House” (p17).
Back in Yogyakarta, I present my research project on young adult Asian American Buddhists, then lead a theatre workshop that explores dynamics of oppression and power. For the workshop, the warmup I wish we had enough space for is “People Shelter Storm”. In the exercise, participants gather in groups of three. Two people face each other and raise their arms so their palms touch, forming an angled roof beneath which the third person can take shelter. Call out “People!” and the inhabitants switch places. Call out “Shelter!” and the houses break up to form new pairs. Call out “Storm!” and everyone reconfigures into new groups of three. A theatre instructor who played this game with a group of children in foster care saw how they would strain their arm-roofs to the sky to squeeze in an extra kid, refusing to leave anyone unsheltered. (The number of kids was not divisible by three.)
The memoir I’m working on is neither chronologically linear nor geographically fixed. At daybreak I meet the architect who transforms his room on the oncology unit with orchids that he has coaxed into blooming year-round (2015). Mid-morning I nestle happily in the arms of my childhood nanny, watching the people rather than the animals at the Shanghai Zoo (1989?). After lunch I admire the glint of temple spires from our fifteenth-story Bangkok apartment just as the balcony AC unit bursts into flame (2019). In the afternoon I jog along Phnom Penh riverfront, where a few dollars can buy lotus bud offerings and a moment’s flight for caged sparrows (November 2016). In the evening I am at the bedside of a twenty-nine-year-old friend who is dying in a Portland hospital, rubbing her feet for the first and last time (October 2016).
Perhaps writing this memoir is a form of escapism. Perhaps it’s a mode of travel, though these trips are less tourist’s leisure than pilgrim’s journey, the unpredictable path of a troubled spirit. Books — the writing and reading of them — have become my vehicle and sanctuary of choice: for travelling through space and time, for seeking refuge from the entrapment of sheltering in place.
One of the members of my weekly writing group reports that the undergrads he’s been teaching (online, of course) have told him that poetry makes sense in a way it never did before — that poetry might be the only thing making any sense these days. As the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Bashō wrote on the rim of his travelling hat (in Jane Hirschfield’s rendering, p92):
Under this world’s long rains,
poetry’s makeshift shelter
Though Hojoki’s original text is prose, Moriguchi and Jenkins have aptly laid out their translation as poetry. The segments invite regular revisits, like mala beads that attract restless fingers or Buddhist chants that draw out lonely voices. Kamo-no-Chomei is kindred to us today: haunted by disasters, which is to say haunted by death, haunted by how to establish a safe and stable home under these circumstances (p33):
and are born—
whence they come
and where they go,
I do not know.
Nor do I understand
the transitory homes they build
For whom do they fret themselves?
What can be so pleasing to the eye?
A house and its master
are like the dew
that gathers on the morning glory.
Which will be the first to pass?
Sometimes the dew falls away
while the flowers stay.
But they will surely
wilt in the morning sun.
Sometimes the flower shrivels
while the dew holds on.
But it will not outlive the day.
Chomei’s own homes have been transitory indeed, a succession of ever smaller shelters. In his waning years, the monk has settled in an abode that is not even 1/100th the size of the houses of his middle age. He waxes poetic about how little he needs. The very title of Hojoki is an homage to the place from which Chomei’s words were composed: a ten-foot square hut.
The mildew problem is uniquely bad in my room, I learn after talking with a Taiwanese nun who is also staying at Disaster (one of the nicknames for our hotel). With 1,000+ conference attendees lodging in Yogyakarta, there’s nary a spare room available. Miraculously, a bed opens up for me in another bungalow at Oasis (the other nickname of our hotel). I finally learn the origin of the moniker: the hotel was built as a sanctuary after a deadly eruption of Indonesia’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi, whose smoking peak is visible from the property of Disaster Oasis. The tiny museum that commemorates this recent catastrophe is a moonscape, everything warped by ash. I look at a stack of CDs encrusted in a thick grey crust. The jewel cases have melted off. I think: my room is shelter enough — nay, more than enough.
My hotel room with its sturdy brick walls, two narrow beds and single skinny dresser is certainly more luxurious than Chomei’s living quarters, which could literally be disassembled, placed into two carts and rebuilt in a flash. Among the few items inside his hut: a shelf (for offerings), a screen (behind which sit the Lotus Sutra and images of Amida and Fugen), dried bracken (for bedding), two portable instruments (a folding koto and a jointed biwa). It’s a home equipped for poetry and music, a place ripe for what Hirshfield calls “poïesis as making”, a way of “bringing something freshly into being” (pp9–10).
What makes Disaster into Oasis for me is the arrival of my roommate. In spite of our obvious differences — she is British, older than my mom, retired in Bali — we become fast friends. I urge her to shower before nightfall and share tips for warding off mildew. We chortle at the stricken expressions of conference-goers upon hearing our response to their question of Where are you staying? The truth is, I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. In the past nine months of my chaplaincy residency, I have moved five times, for reasons I’ve been trying hard to erase from my memory, though for years my dreams will be haunted by the stalker and the court case. I haven’t taken a single day of vacation, because of the stalking and the court case and the fact that I feel safer at the hospital than in a rotating series of rented bedrooms. The weekly 24-hour on-call shifts, all the patients who have died, the howling grief of families — I am burnt out. At the end of each day here in Yogyakarta I can talk to my roommate about Javanese Bhikkhuni foremothers (among other presentation topics) and succulent tempeh (which she can appreciate as a fellow vegetarian). It’s exactly the respite I need from dying grandmothers (among other chaplaincy visits) and stale bagels (the least lacklustre breakfast option at the hospital cafeteria).
Though he resides in a remote hut, Chomei is not entirely isolated. There is a little boy who sometimes visits (p66):
When all is still
I walk with this companion
He is ten, I am sixty,
so the difference is great.
Yet both delight.
We pick buds and shrubs
and gather bulbs and herbs.
Or go to the fields
at the foot of the hill
and gather fallen ears of rice
and make different shapes.
Sometimes the boy and the elder will climb to the top of hills. Sometimes they journey farther still, to stop by a poet’s former home or another poet’s grave. The two accompany each other through multiple seasons (p67):
depending on the season,
we look at cherry blossoms,
view maples, pluck bracken,
gather nuts as offerings
or to take home.
I wouldn’t be able to read about this intergenerational friendship of eight centuries past were it not for the translators who have spent untold hours immersed in another world, another time, another mind — with the intention of bridging it with my world, my time, my mind. The translator’s job and the chaplain’s task are kindred. As a hospital chaplain, I often wondered how to speak the same language with the person in front of me, literally and figuratively. The interpreter phone was only part of it. There were so many ways to communicate, as I learnt from the family member whose gratitude took the shape of home-grown oranges that they piled into my arms, the doctor-turned-oncology-patient whose get-out-of-my-room glare alerted me to her nurses’ need for spiritual care.
My first impulse in writing this bricolage of an essay was to look up some definitions in the dictionary, that reliable preamble to many an English assignment of my dutiful elementary school days. According to my computer’s dictionary, “disaster” means: A sudden event, such as an accident or a natural catastrophe, that causes great damage or loss of life. An event or fact that has unfortunate consequences. From Italian diastro, “ill-starred event.” But “crisis” feels closer to the truth of the new decade. A time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger. A time when a difficult or important decision must be made. The turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death. From Greek krisis “decision.” Cursing the stars for the disasters of this pandemic year seems to miss the point. These crises we’re faced with are not random. They are the fruits of our collective decisions, a bracing lesson in karma. By these definitions, the senseless, preventable deaths that freight the news — deaths from Covid, from racial animus, from gun violence — are more crisis than disaster. I have to believe that if we can decide ourselves into this mess, we can decide differently and find a way out.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard (non-Chinese) people say that the Chinese word for “crisis” is comprised of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”. No doubt John F. Kennedy’s use of this mistaken meaning for 危机 weiji in his 1959 and 1960 campaign speeches helped popularise this misconception. I admit I feel some aversion to this fanciful etymology. What is it about this land of golden-grained opportunity that clamours to make crisis into an optimistic call for action, a grasping for extractive gain? (Opportunity: A set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something. A chance for employment or promotion.) 危机 is more precisely understood as a precarious change point. If past decisions led us here, isn’t it time to pause and see what needs to change? The bias toward productive action neglects the value of renunciation, the necessity of mourning.
In a ten foot square office, I write a memoir about a time when hugs were not verboten, a time when I used the intensity of my workdays to avoid my own grief. The writing is a kind of mourning, for the patients who died, for their grieving families, for my own untended traumas. I don’t miss the burnout, but I miss many aspects of my chaplaincy training: the deep listening that can blossom in the most unexpected of circumstances, the twinning of action and reflection that is a hallmark of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). I miss, too, how the numinous is distilled into the mundane. Like the orchid-whisperer/architect who received so many jars of organic peanut butter from his visitors that he started giving them away to the hospital staff, though the staff had become so fond of him that they would only take the jars of PB if he autographed them. I never got his autograph, but my memories of this man are indelible, his life a celebration of beauty and generosity.
The past has a way of finding us in the present. Five years after the end of my residency programme, one of my former chaplaincy supervisors asks me to speak to her current CPE group. She asks me to assign a reading. I look for something that gets more to the feeling than the fact of being a Buddhist chaplain. I find it in the Prelude of cultural anthropologist Robert Desjarlais’ Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World. He opens with the scene of a party attended by a group of Hyolmo Buddhists living in New York. An uncle of about thirty begins jesting with a two-year-old boy whose mother has just left the room, her departure unnoticed by her young son.
Āmā, khoi? asks the uncle in Nepali, presenting his hands in front of the boy on the first word and disappearing them on the second word. Your mother, where is she? Hands, no hands. Presence, absence. After multiple repetitions, the boy finally notices his mother’s absence. Crying, he runs to find his mother, who appears and comforts him.
Desjarlais muses on how this distilled moment demonstrates one of the myriad ways we weave a kind of “ordinary death philosophy” that tells us as much about how we theorise life as how we theorise death. “The man’s ritual play of presence and absence and the boy’s efforts to lessen his distress hint at the ways people respond to the demands of life and loss,” Desjarlais posits. “We rely on words, images, objects, bodies, sensory textures, memories, and virtual imaginings to relate to loved ones while they are alongside us, and to mourn them when they are no longer here. We do so hesitantly, tentatively, finding our way, alongside others, unsure of our actions” (pp6–7). Our faltering attempts and bumbling alongs are poeisis at play.
“Poiesis can assume many forms,” Desjarlais assures us (pp13–14):
Among them are inclinations, in no particular or purely distinct or finite order,
to make new things, more or less concrete or virtual
to alter or fashion the appearances of the world,
to shape or change the consciousness of someone or something,
to construct memories,
to change the form o[f] someone or something,
to teach someone something significant or lasting,
to create relations between forces in the world,
to alter the ways in which relations take form or proceed in the world,
to forge a path, a line, or a trajectory in the world,
to bring forth something previously dormant, hidden, or germinating,
to play with the forms and formations of life,
to unmake something; to dissolve something or take it apart,
to withhold from acting in the world
My favourite part of this list is the punctuation-less last line, the way it opens into an emptiness full of possibility. All of us are constantly engaged in poeising, though we might not call it by so fancy a name. This human universal comforts me in an age when “we” too easily fractures into “us” vs. “them”.
Impermanence is discomfiting, but how else can we hope to find common ground? “Loss nicks at all of us… A language of ‘they’ easily slides into one of ‘we’” (p19). Reading Desjarlais’ words makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. For these lives that inevitably end in death. For the earnestness with which we bungle our way, through one big disasteroasis.
About the Author
Chenxing Han is the author of Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists (North Atlantic Books, 2021). She holds a BA from Stanford University, an MA in Buddhist studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and a certificate in buddhist chaplaincy from the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California. The author would like to thank Nathan Michon, Trent Walker, and Sue Mace for inspiration and editorial guidance on this essay.
Photographs author’s own.
Desjarlais, Robert R. Subject to Death: Life and Loss in a Buddhist World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Hirshfield, Jane. Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.
Kamo-no-Chomei. Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World. Translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 1996.