Eileen Chang: Life and Death in a Fallen City

Eileen Chang (Sept. 30, 1920 – Sept. 8, 1975)

I have an abiding interest in Chinese literature, both ancient and contemporary, but my knowledge is by no means comprehensive. Consequently, I had never heard of Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing) until a couple years ago.

One autumn afternoon I was standing outside of my apartment building when an Asian woman approached and began taking photos of the building. I didn’t think anything of it, since our place receives a fair amount of attention due to it having been a location in the classic film noir, Double Indemnity (we’re also a stop on several sightseeing tours).

I guess the woman felt uncomfortable with me standing there, despite that I really wasn’t paying much attention to her, and she felt compelled to explain why she was taking photos. I thought I knew why.

“I take pictures because a famous Chinese writer lived here.”

“Really? Who?”

“Eileen Chang.”


“Lee Ang make film of one of her stories.”

To which I brilliantly replied:

“Oh, you mean Ang Lee.”  (In the west, we know Chinese names in a different order.)

Yes, that’s who she meant. The director of such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. The woman quickly departed and I quickly went upstairs to Google this Eileen Chang. Five minutes later, I regretted not inviting the woman in to look around so I could pump her for every bit of information she had on Eileen Chang. The woman knew which apartment Eileen Chang rented (just two doors down from my own apartment), so she must have had more info. But how was I to know?

Eileen Chang, as it turned out, was an well-known and influential writer in China during the 1940’s. On her Wikipedia page it reads: A poet and a professor at the University of Southern California, Dominic Cheung, said that “had it not been for the political division between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese, she would have almost certainly won a Nobel Prize”.

Eileen Chang wrote short stories and novels, to considerable acclaim, and wrote scripts for a number of popular Chinese films. However, that was a few decades before Ang Lee made Lust, Caution, based on Chang’s short story by the same name.

As a young woman, Eileen Chang’s attitude was rather reminiscent of James Dean’s (today is the 55th anniversary of his death), for in 1944, at the age of 24, she wrote, “To be famous, I must hurry. If it comes too late, it will not bring me so much happiness . . . Hurry, hurry, or it will be too late, too late!”

In 1952 she left Shanghai, moved to New Hampshire where she married her second husband, a screenwriter named Ferdinand Reyher. She was 32 at the time and he was 61. Reyher died in 1967 and afterwards Eileen Chang worked for a number of universities, including UC Berkeley, until 1972.

After that, she apparently became a recluse. I don’t know when she moved into this building, but I learned later that she was here when I first moved in around 1979.  I then remembered seeing an older Asian woman, dressed in rather old, drab clothes, in the hallways and going down the stairs with whom I would exchange greetings.  It certainly had to be her, because there has been no other Asian lady of that age who has lived here since then. It is strange to have had such a close encounter with a famous (now) and fascinating person and have no idea who she was.  If I had known, I doubt that would have opened any door for further contact.  She seemed friendly but at the same time distant and closed-off from others.

In 1995 she was found dead at the age of 75 some miles west of here (Westwood) in what has been described by all accounts as a “barren” apartment. Her death certificate states the immediate cause of her death to be Arteriosclerotic Cardiovascular Disease (ASCVD).

You can read the details of her life here, and more here.

I can imagine that her apartment in my building was equally barren, similar to this one, what in California we call a single (one room, bath and kitchen) just a floor below:

I can picture her gazing out the window as she pauses in her work, putting the finishing touches on Lust, Caution, which took her almost 20 years to complete, or slaving over her translation of The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai (Biographies of Flowers Beside the Sea), “a celebrated Qing novel in the Wu dialect by Han Bangqing,” which was not found until after her death. She would have been able to see the Hollywood sign, the hills and the luxurious homes that dot them, and instead of the ugly apartment building that is next door now, an old Craftsman style house. She likely had a bed of some kind and perhaps a desk, although probably not much more than that. Maybe some curtains. I don’t know but I have a feeling that she wrote by hand and didn’t use a typewriter.

Chang was considered a consummate prose stylist and an interesting aspect of her literary career is that in some cases, she was also her own translator. Some of her other works in English translation include Love in a Fallen City, The Rice Sprout Song and Written on Water.

I wish I knew more about her, especially about her time  in this building. She would have been around 58. I wonder if she was a recluse then. Interestingly, this building seems to attract people of the reclusive persuasion.

Eileen Chang’s life is wrapped in a certain amount of mystery, so much of the details will probably remain unknown, although I suspect I would know more if I was able to read Chinese.

In any case, today is her birthday and I thought a remembrance here might introduce some readers to this remarkable woman and writer.

Here are a few excerpts. In the first, notice how she bridges the span of time with just a few carefully chosen words:

“The Golden Cangue”

The green bamboo curtain and a green and gold landscape scroll reflected in the mirrors went on swinging back and forth in the wind–one could get dizzy watching it for long. When she looked again, the green bamboo curtain had faded, the green and gold landscape was replaced by a photograph of her deceased husband, and the woman in the mirror was ten years older.

“Lust, Caution”

Though it was still daylight, the hot lamp was shining full-beam over the mahjong table. Diamond rings flashed under its glare as their wearers clacked and reshuffled their tiles. The tablecloth, tied down over the table legs, stretched out into a sleek plain of blinding white. The harsh artificial light silhouetted to full advantage the generous curve of Chia-chih’s bosom, and laid bare the elegant lines of her hexagonal face, its beauty somehow accentuated by the imperfectly narrow forehead, by the careless, framing wisps of hair. Her makeup was understated, except for the glossily rouged arcs of her lips. Her hair she had pinned nonchalantly back from her face, then allowed to hang down to her shoulders. Her sleeveless cheongsam of electric blue moire satin reached to the knees, its shallow, rounded collar standing only half an inch tall, in the Western style. A brooch fixed to the collar matched her diamond-studded sapphire button earrings.

“Sealed Off”

When he saw the smoked fish [another passenger is carrying with gingerly care], he remembered the steamed spinach buns that his wife had asked him to buy at a noodle stand near the bank. Women are always like that! Buns that are bought in the hardest-to-find, most twisty-wisty of tiny alleys have to be the cheapest and the best. She didn’t consider how it made him look–a man smartly dressed in dapper suit and tie, with tortoiseshell glasses and a leather briefcase, and then, tucked under his arm, these steaming hot buns wrapped in newspaper–how ridiculous!

Happy Birthday to Eileen Chang, and James Dean, well . . . as some guys once said, you were too fast to live, to young to die, bye-bye . . .


Buddhism and God

Stephen Hawking says that it’s not necessary to invoke God in order to explain the creation of the universe. I feel the same way about God and Buddhism. It is not necessary to invoke God to explain dharma.

But for some reason that baffles me, a lot of people think it is.

Now, you will hear some individuals say that the Buddha neither confirmed nor denied the existence of a supreme creator being. This agnostic interpretation is not quite correct.

First, we have to consider what is meant by the word “God.” If one is referring to the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the truth is that the subject never came up. There is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that this God, Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Allah, was known in India during the Buddha’s time. It’s possible, but there are no references to this particular God in any traditional Buddhist literature. Consequently, the Buddha could hardly speculate on something he had never heard of.

While it appears that Buddha was tolerant of native Indian deities, this does not mean that he took them seriously. At the same time, there is little ambiguity about his attitude to some other notions.

One of these was the concept of Brahman, a term that originally referred to magical power harnessed through the Vedic mantras. At some point, Brahman became associated with the power of creation. Another view of Brahman was that of an impersonal “word-soul” fused with the individual self (atman). Later, Brahman, then identified with Prajapati, an earlier creator deity, became Brahma and was transformed into a personal deity, the god of creation.

In the Brahmajala-sutta, the Buddha criticizes ideas such as the externalism of the world and the self, and world creation by a supreme being or force. David Kalupahana, in Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, says “In fact the Buddha did not consider the content of this knowledge to be identical with any Ultimate Reality. Nor did he consider such knowledge as constituting salvation.”

But the most important clue we have to the Buddha’s thinking on this subject is found in his own doctrine of causality, pratti-samppada or interdependency, in which things arise continually owing to causes and conditions. In this view, there is no beginning, only, if we must, a beginningless beginning. This basic Buddhist doctrine has often been represented as the Wheel of Existence, and in Buddhaghaosa’s Visuddhi-Magga, as presented by Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, it reads, “No God, no Brahma can be found, no matter of this wheel of life, just bare phenomena roll, depend on conditions all.”

Also ruled out is the possibility of a First Cause and a creator as such, ideas that Nagarjuna later thoroughly destroyed with his Madhyamaka dialectic: “Why would an efficacious creator be dependent? He would of course produce things all at once. A creator who depends on something else is neither eternal nor efficacious. If he were an entity he would not be permanent, for things are perpetually instantaneous . . .” [Bodhicittavivarana]

Approaching the subject from every angle, Nagarjuna demonstrated how a First Cause and/or creator deities such as Isvara are not logical and therefore, not tenable.

The plain truth is that no matter how you present it, twist it, shape or shade it, creators and supreme beings do not fit in with Buddha-dharma.

Nyanaponika Thera writes, “From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings.”

In some cases today, the word “God” is used as a reference to “being” or “ultimate reality.” However, this too must be rejected, as Nyanaponika Thera goes on to say: “On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

I don’t feel that there is any need for Buddhists to rely on this word. The vast majority of people in the world when they hear “God” cannot help but hold an image in their mind associated with the common usage of the word, that of a supreme creator being. God just has too much baggage to be useful. From a Buddhist point of view, as a term, label, concept, name, being – however it is posited, it is nothing.

Some well-known and respected Buddhist teachers, from Shunryu Suzuki to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, have attempted to either use God as a tool to facilitate dharma understanding or to show links and parallels between Buddhism and other religions. While well intentioned, it’s misguided.

Just because God as a concept is familiar to Westerners, does not mean that it is at all helpful in explaining Buddha-dharma. I think this usage is actually counter-productive as it only reinforces the notion of a supreme-being on the subconscious level. Many Westerners want to cling to the concept of God, even though they are in denial about it. That’s one reason why using God as synonym for bodhicitta, dharmakaya or any other Buddhist concept, in my opinion, is misleading.

Buddhism is not in competition with other faiths. We can debate whether or not Buddhism deserves to be called a religion, but what is incontrovertible is the fact that Buddhism stands unique in the realm of religious or spiritual philosophy. The only “religion” that comes close to approaching Buddhism is Taoism, so then linkage with other religions, especially the three Western monotheistic religions, is tenuous at best.

I must admit that I have a problem with those who want to be both Christians and Buddhists, along with similar hybrids. It seems like spiritual schizophrenia to me. It’s like being pulled in two directions. Ultimately, regardless of how “God” is conceived, it becomes outer-directed. Buddhism is inner-directed. I just don’t see how they can be compatible. However, that is a discussion involving tariki, other power, and jiriki, inner power, which must be left for another day.

And speaking of another day . . . As I write this, it looks like Southern California is in for another day of brutal temperatures. Monday was a record-breaking 113. I don’t think I have ever experienced such truly blazing heat in my life. Now I know what Avichi, the Hell of Incessant Suffering, must be like. It is at times like this that I kind of wish there was a God to invoke, to implore . . . Please God, make it cooler, make the heat go away . . . send some more clouds, send some rain, a marine layer, anything . . . please? If you could just do this one thing, I promise I’ll be good . . . just help relieve my suffering this last time and I’ll change, I swear . . . I’ll do whatever you want me to . . . Pretty please . . . God?


The Red Gate

I haven’t written a poem in quite a while, but last night these words came upon me:

life supreme
the all of true
inevitable locks
the keys to locks
shapings worn
open gates

arcane goddess
embodies the world dream
and we in soul evil
world vain
rent our knowledge
from prison darkness

open the gate
a plums song is heard
on whistles way
completing a distance
once traveled
in sweat and sleep

before we mourn
the death of dreams
let creative forces live
mending nature
let it be as itself
of soul beautiful
all beautiful
in what goddess wings

that in all fertilities
flesh forces us

then we come to a
gate like love
to denounce the
vultures of form


Tropical Heatwave

Marilyn Monroe sang about tropical heatwaves and started them.

We’re having a heat wave. 98 today. And it’s just starting. 99 tomorrow. 101 on Monday. I don’t have air conditioning. I only need it a couple weeks out of the year. Look’s like this is going to be one of them.

It’s too hot to write, or do much of anything that requires any real thinking. It’s really tough on the poor kitty. She’s been lying on the relatively cool linoleum floor in the kitchen all day. I joined her for a while. Wasn’t bad.

No fires, but there will be. A lot of dry brush out there . . . Ah, nothing like autumn in Southern California with the smell of smoke in the air and ashes floating down to earth on gentle breezes . . . Last year we had the Station Fire that lasted two months. Each day a huge mushroom cloud of smoke towered above the hills and mountains east of the city. You can see the photos I took here.

Earlier this week I was feeling a bit melancholy. September for some reason seems to the month in which big changes in my life have always occurred: geographic changes, meeting significant people, starting new jobs, and so on. One I marked yesterday was the 28th anniversary of the day that I officially became a Buddhist. I celebrated with a bowl of Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup Ice Cream. Let me tell you, on a really hot night, that is Nirvana.

So, I was feeling melancholy . . . or maybe pensive is a better word. Reflective. Anyway, I thought about this passage by Nichiren. I don’t often quote Nichiren because for the most part his writings are so dogmatic they aren’t very useful to anyone outside of the tradition which bears his name. Sometimes, though, he could be rather poetic.

This is one of those instances and I’d like to share it with you:

How swiftly the days pass! It makes us realize how short are the years we have left. Friends enjoy the cherry blossoms together on spring mornings and then they are gone, carried away like the blossoms by the winds of impermanence, leaving nothing but their names. Although the blossoms have scattered, the cherry trees will bloom again with the coming of spring, but when will those people be reborn? The companions with whom we composed poems praising the moon on autumn evenings have vanished with the moon behind the shifting clouds. Only their mute images remain in our hearts. The moon has set behind the western mountains, yet we shall compose poetry under it again next autumn. But where are our companions who have passed away? Even when the approaching Tiger of Death roars, we do not hear. How many more days are left to the sheep bound for slaughter?

Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called Kankucho which, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet, when the day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of people. When they fall into hell and suffocate in its flames, they long to be reborn as humans and vow to put everything else aside and serve the Three Treasures in order to attain enlightenment in their next life. But even on the rare occasions when they happen to be reborn human, the winds of fame and fortune blow violently and the lamp of Buddhist practice is easily extinguished. They squander their wealth without a qualm on meaningless trifles but begrudge even the smallest contribution to the Buddha, the Law, and the Priest. This is very serious, for then they are being hindered by messengers from hell. This is the meaning of “Good by the inch invites evil by the yard.”

Letter to Niike

Actually, there is some doubt as to whether this is an authentic Nichiren writing. Regardless, it’s a nice passage.


Spiritual Maturity

I’ve never felt that Buddhism was concerned with discovering, embracing or flaunting our ‘inner child,’ except perhaps in the sense of experiencing a “renaissance of wonder,” to borrow a phrase from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I may not have a good handle on what the term ‘inner child’ means, but it sounds like something that belongs with “pop” psychology and spirituality. Practicing Buddhism is about finding inner wisdom, a process that requires a certain level of maturity, and should result in an increased level of maturity.

Spiritual maturity isn’t a topic I’ve heard discussed much. As a concept, I imagine that you could easily pick it apart, and yet, I think it’s a quality that’s recognizable when you see it, hear it, or read it.

Obviously, spiritual maturity is tied in with our mental and emotional maturity. Scientists have a newly developed scan that can measure the maturity of the brain which according to reports is “an advance that someday might be useful for testing whether children are maturing normally and for gauging whether teenagers are grown-up enough to be treated as adults.” [Washington Post]

I don’t know if there’s any way to gauge something as subtle as spiritual maturity. At the same time, if they someday developed a scan for it too, I wouldn’t be that surprised.

Some years ago Norman Fischer, former co-abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation, wrote a book entitled Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up, and while it’s aimed at teenagers, I think we’re talking about a quality that transcends the measure of one’s years:

When I think about the world of the future, with so many difficult choices ahead, I know that only mature people will be able to deal with what arises. I am heartened by the many people I know – young and old alike – who are concerned with their own maturity and willing to work toward it with courage and energy. The development of human maturity does take much work and effort. But I am sure we are all capable of doing the work and enjoying the fruits. Maturity can’t be hurried or produced on schedule. Growth takes time. We have to steep ourselves for a while, like a good cup of tea. We need to go through what’s necessary for us to endure . . .

Our particular lineage of Zen, founded by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, puts little emphasis on enlightenment. It’s not that we are unconcerned about enlightenment or that we are opposed to it. Enlightenment is certainly important. Personally seeing the truth of the teachings, breaking through the habit of self-centeredness, opening out to something much wider, and having some clarity and flexibility – all of this is crucial . . . Maybe someone is not very enlightened, or not enlightened at all. But if he or she is mature, it is good enough, for as Suzuki Roshi taught us, it is the ongoing practice, carried out with balance, faith, perseverance, kindness, and willingness to reach out to others, that is the most important thing. To practice like this takes a quiet and stable maturity.

Buddhist practice should be life changing. There are concrete measures we can take to facilitate transformation and enhance our practice. Three important ones would be:

Active listening – this is a new buzzword, but I rather like it. Most of us really don’t listen very well. Active listening means to make a conscious effort to understand and interpret what we hear. This also applies to study, since reading is listening with the eyes.

Learning from contemplative thinking – reflected in the ways that we change our thinking, learn to make better choices, engage in better actions, and avoid repeating negative patterns. Learning in Buddhism is more than acquiring knowledge and gaining insight, it’s akin to the psychological sense of behavioral change, learning to use new behaviors.

Commitment to growth – spiritual and personal growth are difficult to maintain, development occurs over time and requires dedication and determination, along with the spirit to take advantage of every opportunity for growth.

Here are some more important characteristics. You might be familiar with the physical characteristics of a Buddha (the 32 Signs and the 80 secondary characteristics) but these you may not have run across before. I’m not sure where I got this list, but it lays it all out nicely, I think. After all, maturing spiritually is just becoming a Buddha:

Characteristics of a Buddha

1. Does not stumble.

2. Not harsh in speech

3. Always mindful.

4. Makes no distinctions.

5. Always able to concentrate.

6. Has an open mind.

7. Enthusiastic about things.

8. Maintains energy.

9. Mindfulness never fails.

10. Concentration never fails.

11. Wisdom never fails.

12. Deliverance never fails.

13. Thinks before acting.

14. Thinks before speaking.

15. Avoids negative thoughts.

16. Understands the past clearly.

17. Has vision for the future.

18. Lives in the present moment.