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With the Head Buddha to his left, "Mr. Joke" is surrounded by the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu boys in Dengfeng.
With the Head Buddha to his left, “Mr. Joke” is surrounded by the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu boys in Dengfeng.

In which yr. fthfl.  svt. returns to China for the fifth year to teach about Community Journalism in the hopes that positive social change, community building and civic engagement might be affected by the growth of “relentlessly local” news outlets. It’s a long shot, but the ol’ perfesser (who the Chinese call “Mr. Joke”) has no illusions about how long it will take for my “seeds” to sprout — or what they will look like! Onward and upward.


An 86-bead bracelet double-wraps my right wrist, a gift from the “head Buddha” at the sacred and ancient Kung Fu academy at Dengfeng’s Shaolin Temple. This talisman, constructed of reddish wood beads of unknown origin — each rounded bead the same yet different— for the last three years has served as my silent call to a distant home: I must return to China.

My sandlewood mala, no worse for wear.
My sandlewood mala, no worse for the wear.

And so, again, this spring, for the fifth time, I honor that pledge.

Since my first foray to China in 2012, much has changed. To China, to me, to my beads.

China has changed leaders and become…different. More open, some say. More closed, others opine.

I have grown older, powered through some serious lower back issues, and emerged relatively fit, thanks to swimming, healthy diet and a good wife — not necessarily in that order.

Likewise as well, my beads have suffered the ravages of time, been broken, shattered by a bumbling move or an unintended impact.

So what is this object I so devoutly put on each day?

Ashamed that it’s taken me this long, I do some internet sleuthing. And there it is: my bracelet is called a MALA and mine is made of sandlewood, which according to the Chopa Zen Home Gift website, “is considered auspicious for all spiritual purposes…is said to purify negative energy and attract positive energy.”

Well there you go. No wonder I’ve felt so zippy these past three years.

I read on: the Mala is a Buddhist meditation/prayer bracelet, and there should be 108 beads, with “each mala bead counts a Sanskrit prayer or meditation for a total of 108 repetitions, one for each bead, combining tactile and conscious awareness…the beads are moved sequentially in rhythm with breathing…rather than focus on counting the repetitions, the practitioner uses the beads.”

And at the end, is a larger center bead, called the Guru Bead, which signals you have completed one revolution and can turn back and start over again without ever having to count or look at the bracelet.

The site also notes that the 108 number is significant in that it symbolizes the 108 number of worldly sins. (That many! Who knew?) The number is also said to reflect “a source of enlightenments: one plus nothing plus eight turned sideways – the symbol for infinity. How perfectly zen that notion is.

I recount my beads again. I’m down to 86.

Over the last three years, I’ve lost 22 beads. Which strikes me as about right, as I too have lost a number of “beads” during my 70-year journey to this fifth journey to China. And, Zen-like, I find unity and beauty in the bracelet’s imperfection. Re-strung and re-fitted, the Head Buddha’s bracelet finds new life.

The Kung Fu boys show their stuff. (Jock Lauterer photo)
The Kung Fu boys show their stuff. (Jock Lauterer photo)
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