As a writer, Ive always felt a strong interest
in the personal lives of other writers whose work I admire. Among
my favorite writers, especially during my younger years as a freelancer
in Asia, was John Blofeld, whose books helped inspire my early
interest in Buddhism and Taoism and fired my imagination with colorful
visions of life in China before the communist revolution swept
away traditional culture there.
Id always imagined John as an eccentric old scholar long retired from
his Asian travels and living a reclusive life in his native England. So when
in 1986 I heard from a journalist friend on assignment in Taipei, where I
was living at the time, that John Blofeld lived right nearby in neighboring
Bangkok, I decided to go there to visit him. The journalist, whod had
dinner with John in Bangkok the previous week, gave me his address, and I
immediately wrote him a letter expressing my longstanding admiration for
his work and my sincere wish to meet him. He delighted me with a prompt reply,
thanking me for my letter and inviting me to come visit him at the House
of Wind and Cloud, his home in Bangkok.
John Blofeld was born in England in 1913. One day when he was still a little
boy, his favorite aunt took him out shopping. As they passed by an old curiosity
shop, something that would ultimately mold his mind and steer the course
of his life caught his eye: it was a small Chinese statue of the Buddha.
He hadnt the slightest notion what it was, nor did his aunt, but it
captured his heart and he knew with absolute certainty that he must have
it. Tugging his indulgent aunt into the shop, he made such a fuss about it
that she finally relented and bought it for him as a gift.
Treating it like a treasure, he took the little statue home and reverently
placed it on his bureau. Soon he realized that simply gazing in silence at
this image of the seated Buddha engendered extraordinary feelings of peace
and tranquility in his heart. Later, when he learned from a book what the
statue represented, his devotion grew even deeper, and he began placing offerings
of incense and flowers before it, secretly becoming a closet
After two years of studies at Cambridge, the call of the East beckoned him
with such urgency that he ignored his familys pleas to stay and finish
his university degree and instead boarded a ship bound for Hong Kong, where
he landed in 1932 at the age of 19. There he taught English and studied Chinese,
biding his time while he waited for a chance to enter the Dragon Gate of
China, the fabled land of his dreams. After several false starts, his chance
finally came when a Chinese friend arranged a teaching post for him in Peking.
And so in 1934, at the age of 22, Johns childhood dream came
true. Passing through the gigantic gates of Peking, he joined the privileged
of residents in the fabulous old capital of imperial China.
Later in life, long after the strife of war and revolution had spoiled his
dream, John wrote a poignant memoir of his early days in Peking and called
it The City of Lingering Splendor. For me, as a sinophile who went to Taiwan
with the same dreams of China at the same age as John when he went to Peking,
this book and its charming depictions of traditional Chinese ways that have
vanished from the world reveal the magnitude of the loss which my generation
of China hands suffered when Chinas colors shifted
from imperial gold to revolutionary red.
Shortly before Maos army stormed into Peking, John married a Chinese
lady and escaped to Hong Kong. Why Hong Kong rather than Taiwan? I
asked him during one of our long talks at the House of Wind and Cloud. Because
at the time, he explained wistfully, we were all convinced that
soon Taiwan would be swallowed by the same red tide that engulfed China. Flat
broke with a wife and two infant children to support, and not yet a writer
by profession, John accepted an administrative position with a United Nations
organization in Bangkok, and in 1950 he moved to Thailand. One thing
led to another, he told me, and Ive been living here
By the mid-1950s, Johns
literary inklings began to stir, and he started writing books about his travels
in China, focusing particularly on his lifelong
spiritual quest, his pilgrimages to sacred mountains and remote monasteries,
and his frequent encounters with Buddhist monks, Tibetan lamas, and
Taoist hermits. When his wife took their two children and moved to England a
years later, John became a recluse and devoted most of his time and
energy to the cultivation of his spiritual practices and cultural interests,
to the writing of his books on Buddhism and Taoism.
Tantric Mysticism of Tibet, The Gateway to Wisdom, Taoist Mystery
and Magic, Beyond the Gods, The Zen Teachings of Huang
Po, Bodhisattva of Compassion, and other inspirational
books on the spiritual traditions of the East flowed
from his pen,
introducing a whole generation of Western readers
to the wonder and wisdom of ancient Asian mysticism. Despite
the esoteric nature of his material, John always wrote with
sense, in a style both elegant and intimate, anecdotal
yet authoritative. In his later years, he summed up his
his spiritual discoveries
in The Wheel of Life: The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist.
Id never been to Bangkok before, so when I arrived there to visit John
in March 1987, I had no idea what this smoldering city held in store for
me. On the one hand, Id come to pay my respects to a literary elder
and fount of spiritual wisdom. On the other hand, the lyrics to the song One
Night in Bangkok kept running through my mind as the plane glided in
for a landing, because a few days before I left Taipei, by some strange twist
of fate, an editor telephoned me from Hong Kong and offered to fly me to
Bangkok to write a short guide to that citys notorious night
life, all expenses paid. A young freelance writer living on a shoestring
is in no position to refuse a well-paid assignment, and so I accepted.
As I approached the House of Wind and Cloud for the first time, my immediate
impression was, It looks like a temple! It sounded like one too,
with Chinese chimes ringing in the breeze from the swooping eves. Splendidly
perched on stilts in a Chinese garden, with steeply peaked rooves etched
gracefully against the blue sky, stood a traditional Thai house built entirely
of polished hardwood and glazed tile, without a trace of metal or concrete.
This was the first time Id ever seen a real Thai-style house, yet somehow
it all looked so familiar to me, like the Buddha in the old curiosity shop
felt to John when he first set eyes on it. As I rang the bell at the gate,
I said to myself, Some day I must live in a house just like this.
The maid let
me in and showed me upstairs to Johns room. Id called
ahead to announce my visit, so I knew that he was expecting me, but when
I entered the inner sanctum where he wrote and slept, I was surprised to
find him lying flat on his back in bed. Come in, come in, Dan, have
a seat here beside me, he said, sitting up and greeting me like an
old friend. We have so much to talk about. He rang for
the maid and told her to bring a kettle of hot water so he could prepare
for us in the room, and mentioned briefly and unemotionally, as though
noting the weather, that he was dying of cancer. Then, without any
we launched into a lively talk about China and things Chinese.
talk we did! All afternoon and into the evening we ranged across
the length and
breadth of Chinese history and civilization, pausing here to examine
a favorite period or poet, there to analyze an ancient anomaly or debate
a simmering historical issue, discussing everything under Heaven like
two old friends in China might have done a hundred years ago. I signed
a copy of my book on traditional Chinese medicine for him, and he in turn
a few copies of his books for me, including my favorite, Taoist Mystery
and Magic. Our taste in things Chinese ran in remarkably similar tracks,
and sometimes we had to pause and laugh at the way we kept reflecting each
others views. His terminal illlness never once intruded into our
conversation, but its silent presence prompted us to speak all the more
frankly and openly,
and we exchanged some hilarious stories about our respective experiences
as Westerners living among the Chinese--his in China, mine in Taiwan, each
for eighteen years.
Id planned as a two-week visit stretched
out to become a two-month sojourn. I would visit John three or four times
week, staying with him
from early afternoon until sunset, then foray out into the sultry Bangkok
night to do my field work on the citys sensational night life.
It was a heady blend--spiritually uplifting deliberations by day, sensually
pursuits by night--the dualistic poles of life on earth which cause such
contradiction and anguish in Western civilization but which are smoothly
integrated in Eastern life as complementary aspects of the human condition.
This wise and compassionate compromise between the physical cravings
the spiritual yearnings which all humans feel, without the compulsive
need to sacrifice one for the other, is one of the greatest gifts which
Chinese civilization has to offer the world. Its a theme that appears
often in Johns books, and it arose repeatedly in our conversations.
Johns health would rally with a sudden surge
of energy, and wed go out for dinner with his family
and friends. He always chose one of his favorite Chinese restaurants,
where he knew the chefs and could
go into the kitchen to tell them exactly how he wanted the food prepared.
At the table, he and I kept up a running dialogue in Mandarin Chinese
to which only we and the waiters were privy. His adopted Thai
daughter Bom usually
joined us for these culinary extravaganzas, as did Susan, his daughter
by his Chinese wife, who was visiting from England. Somehow
to arrange things so that almost all of the guests who joined us at
these lavish Chinese banquets were both Asian and female, which
to share another one of our favorite Chinese traditions--enjoying
good food and wine
in the company of charming women.
got to know and like John well during those two months in Bangkok.
In many ways, his life was a mirror
key aspects of my own life, both
past and future, and in me he found a friend who felt as enamoured
and nostalgic about the vanished splendors of old China as
did. We were both what I
call sinopaths. While a sinophile is simply a scholar with
an intellectual interest in China, a sinopath has a visceral interest
far deeper than scholarship, pursuing an almost pathological obsession
with all things Chinese and molding his life to the model. When I met
even looked Chinese, with his Fu Manchu moustache and goatee, his frog-buttoned
Chinese chemise and baggy silk trousers, his straw sandals and old-fashioned
regrettably, it came time for me to leave. Id
spent my entire expense account and had two deadlines to meet
the following week. On my last
visit to the House of Wind and Cloud, John invited me to stay for
dinner with him at home, just the two of us. He kept a special
cook in his
household whose sole job was to prepare authentic Chinese food
for him, and that evening
she outdid herself to impress Johns newfound friend. As we
ate, we mused over some lines of Chinese poetry brushed in elegant
a tattered old scroll hanging by the dining table. Plumbing our minds
for just the right words and images, by the time dessert came wed
deciphered the poem and rendered it into fairly good English verse.
He seemed overjoyed
by this accomplishment, and felt greatly relieved as well. For
years Ive been pondering the meaning of those lines as I sat
here alone having dinner, he said, but with so many possible
interpretations and no one else to discuss it with, I never felt
that I got them quite right.
Now I have, thanks to your help, and I can tell you that its
a load off my mind!
celebrated our achievment with a toast and drained a few more cups
of the special Chinese wine hed
opened for dinner. The next morning I flew back home to Taipei.
The only line I still remember from that poem is, The
pines sigh in the breeze.
Exactly one month later, in early
June, I received a letter from his daughter Bom, informing me that
John had died.
July, en route back to Taipei from an assignment in Singapore,
I stopped briefly in Bangkok and
paid a visit to the House of Wind and Cloud. A somber pall hung
over the house. Even the chimes were silent. My fathers
still here, Bom whispered, nodding her head towards the shrineroom
upstairs. We havent been able to find a place to keep
last wish had been to have his ashes interred in a Kuan Yin temple
in Thailand. Kuan Yin, the beloved
Chinese Goddess of Mercy, had
always been Johns favorite Buddhist deity, and he devoted an entire
book to her, Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan
Yin. After Johns cremation, Bom had gone to all the Kuan Yin temples
in and around Bangkok, trying to find a final resting place for her fathers
remains, in order to fulfill his wishes. To her great surprise and frustration,
not a single Buddhist temple in Bangkok, where John had made his home for
35 years, would accept his ashes, even though hed been a devoted Buddhist
all of his life and his books had been instrumental in introducing Buddhism
to the Western world. So his ashes remained in an urn in his shrineroom,
unsettling the entire household of family and servants, who felt the restless
presence of his lingering spirit. No one dared go upstairs except for Boms
ten-year-old daughter June, who often went up to commune with her grandfather. She
goes up there all the time, Bom said with an involuntary shudder, and
talks to him.
I went up to the shrineroom to pay
my respects and returned to Taipei the next day.
Later that year, in December, I
returned to Thailand on holiday, and the first place I went was
the House of Wind and Cloud. Bom opened the gate beaming with a
big smile. We found his temple! she exclaimed.
Yes, my fathers Kuan Yin temple, his final resting place, just as
he wished! Were taking him there next week. The ceremony is set for the
27th, and you absolutely must come. Im so glad youre here!
invited me upstairs to the tea pavilion, and we prepared Chinese tea in the
same old Chinese pot
John had used during my visits with him. While
the tea steeped, she started to explain what had happened. A few
months ago, I began having this vivid dream. It was always the same. I
saw my father
sitting in a temple surrounded by monks. He looked so happy there. I called
out to him, and he waved at me. Bring me here, he said, this
is where I wish to be. But I was so overwhelmed by my emotions that
I burst into tears and woke up crying. This continued for several weeks.
paused to gauge my reaction, wondering whether I thought she was crazy.
But Ive always believed
in the significance of dreams, and I was already
hooked by her story, so I urged her to continue.
after a few weeks of this, I finally managed to control myself
and pay attention to the details in the dream. For example, I noticed
that the monks
there wore grey robes, as they do in Chinese temples, not the saffron robes
worn by monks in Thai temples. I also remembered a big yellow wall
in front of the
temple and a huge bodhi tree outside the main gate. And there was also
a river. I finally realized that my father was using this dream
to communicate with me,
and that he wanted me to bring his ashes to that particular temple. I spent
nearly two months driving all over Bangkok looking for that temple,
the Chao Phya River, but I found no place that looked anything like the
temple in my dream.
paused to pour us some tea, then continued. Finally
I got an idea. My father used to conduct temple tours
of Thailand for foreign visitors on
behalf of the Siam Society, so I went there and told them my problem.
They were very nice about it, and they remembered
my father well. I spent day
after day there, looking through all the books and journals in their
library, searching for a temple that matched the
one in my dream, and finally I found
it. It was in a monastery located in Kanchanaburi province, about a
two-hour drive from Bangkok, so the very next day
I drove out there to look.
I could hardly bear
the suspense. What happened?
moment I saw the place, I recognized it as the one in my dream!
It was facing the River Kwai and had a big bodhi tree out in front,
and a high yellow
wall. I ran inside and found the abbot and told him the whole story.
When I mentioned my fathers name, he smiled sweetly and said, Of
course you may bring your father to rest here. John was my good
A tingling current rippled up my
spine when I heard those words, raising the hairs on the back
of my neck, and I felt an uplifting surge of
energy as I realized that Johns spirit had
been patiently guiding his daughter to this remote
monastery, where he wanted his ashes to be interred
the abbot was an old friend of his.
the abbot took me into the main shrinehall of the temple, Bom
continued, and sure enough there was a big statue of Kuan Yin
sitting on the central altar. The abbot smiled sweetly again and pointed
up to a faded old
photograph hanging above the side entrance to the shrinehall. I couldnt
believe my eyes! It was my father! He was standing next to another
Englishman behind a chair in which the abbot himself was sitting. They
all looked so young!
The abbot told me that the photo had been taken in 1951, only a year
after my father arrived in Thailand and nine years before I was born. Tears
welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks, and for a while we
sat there in silence.
A breeze jingled the chimes.
Then she sighed and finished her
abbot told me that my father had helped raise the
money needed to finish building that monastery shortly
after he came to Thailand, and that the picture had been taken
on the day
the main temple was formally consecrated. None of us ever knew
anything about this, and my father never mentioned
it. Not only is it a Chinese Kuan Yin
temple, it also has a close connection with Tibetan Buddhism, which
is extremely rare here in Thailand. As you know,
my fathers main Buddhist teachers
were Tibetan lamas. Anyway, the abbot invited me to stay for lunch,
and after that he checked his calendar and told me
that December 27 is the most auspicious
day for the ceremony, so thats when were taking my
ashes there. I do hope youll come.
wouldnt miss it for all the tea in China! I replied,
thanking my lucky stars that my trip to Thailand coincided with
and Susan and their husbands and children picked me up at the crack
of dawn that morning,
and we drove out to the monastery for the ceremony,
was scheduled for 8:00 AM. As soon as we arrived there, I recognized
the Chinese and Tibetan scripts painted
pillars at the main entrance,
the Chinese style robes worn by the monks, and the Chinese and
on the altars. Although John had lived the last 35 years of his
life in Thailand, where Theravada Buddhism prevails,
practiced the Mahayana Buddhism of
China and Tibet taught by his Chinese and Tibetan teachers. Through
the connection hed established with
this Chinese monastery in Thailand, he insured
himself a final resting place in the spiritual embrace of Kuan
Yin, his beloved Bodhisattva of Compassion
and the guiding light of Mahayana Buddhism.
were now bringing John home to rest in a Chinese monastery that
taught the Tibetan school of Buddhism he
practiced, with a Kuan Yin temple which he
helped found during his first year in Thailand. The wheel of
life had come
full circle for him.
ceremony was enchanting. For over an hour we sat on the floor in
a dozen monks chanted Tibetan mantra in deep,
vibrant tones, the air redolent with the fragrance
incense. Lost in reverie,
my head rocked gently to the mesmerizing cadence of the chant.
John must have felt half a century earlier when he visited those
remote mountain monasteries in China, and the
spiritual inspiration he found there glowed
like a candle in his books.
abbot clearly demonstrated his deep respect and affection for John
for Johns ashes to be interred in the corner
slot of a sacred stupa located on the terrace behind
the temple. This is a rare honor
even for a resident senior monk, and even more so for a foreign
layman living in Thailand. The crypt was sealed
with a marble plaque inscribed in gold
with Johns name and dates of birth and death. After making
offerings of incense, fruit, and prayer, we all joined the monks
for a big vegetarian
banquet in the courtyard.
lunch I went to Kuan Yins
shrinehall and gazed up at the faded photograph above the door.
Again I felt that tremor run up my spine. There
stood John in a starched collar and white linen suit, tall and
handsome, next to another Englishman, with the youthful
abbot sitting in a chair before
them, holding a rosary.
With Johns last wish fulfilled and
dream finally come true, we got in the car and drove
back to Bangkok in silence.
years later I decided to move to Thailand. Taiwan had become too
modern and too fast for my traditional
Chinese tastes, and had lost its old-fashioned Chinese charm, just
as postwar China had lost its appeal for John. And like him, I
took refuge in Thailand.
the first two months I shared a spacious house and garden with
an old friend in Bangkok, but
a Taiwanese developer came along and bought the
property to make room for a condominium, so we had to move out. Hearing of
my predicament, Bom came over to visit me and said, Why dont
you come and live in my fathers house? You were the last friend he
made in this life, and he liked you so much. I know that hed be happy
to have you living there.
So my wish to live in a traditional
Thai house just like Johns was
fulfilled. Almost three years to the day after first arriving at the House
of Wind and Cloud to meet John, I became its resident writer and sinopath-in-exile,
writing and sleeping in the very same room in which Id spent so many
memorable afternoons with John.