Thoughts from the Master’s Daughter: A Meditation on Beads and Beadwork

There is something you should know about me, something I only recently began to reveal to the people in my life: my father is a Buddhist master. I cannot fully articulate why I hid this for so long—lack of vocabulary, obligatory whitewashing, perhaps a confused, shameful fusion of both—but my self-policing tendencies always kept me at a safe, lukewarm distance from My Father’s World™.

I had been exposed to beads of a certain kind quite early on. “Buddha beads,” the Etsy stores and trendy “hypebeasts” now dub them. Wikipedia’s English page tells me they’re “Buddhist prayer beads.” Sure, whatever. Mandarin Chinese speakers call them fó zhū; I had always known them by this name. Growing up, I had seen my dad work and rework his strings of inanimate beads—he had jade ones, amber ones, different wooden ones—and craft them into spiritual wreaths, with complicated tassels and all. To this day, they are my dad’s signature accessory—luxury watches are disposable in comparison. He still wears the watches, yet somehow, I had always felt as though the beads and their rhythm were his most reliable timekeepers.

Listening to Sam Thomas recount his journey to and inspiration for becoming an Iroquois beadwork artist brought a tear to my eye, particularly when he told us of how his mother’s story became intertwined with that of his own and that of the Kenyan women. I felt an immediate sense of nostalgia as I thought back to my personal history, familial influences, as well as cultural ties to beadwork.

My father has disciples, as Sam’s mother did (in a way), and I often saw them bring him their new beads for qualitative scrutiny, for religious blessing. Unlike Sam, I never actively participated in this beadwork economy. As the daughter of their shi fu, I would receive string after string of fó zhū as gifts from disciples. These “offerings” would happen whenever I visited Xi’an (my hometown) or the temple my dad built there, but the beads would end up moving from their eager hands to a suitcase to a nondescript box of trinkets in my closet back in Toronto. They were never to be touched again, let alone used for their original purpose.

As I sat in Sam’s workshop, slaving over my lopsided strawberry and occasionally pricking my finger with the needle, I remembered something my dad once told me. He held up a string of beads to my nose (agarwood or sandalwood, I cannot recall which one): Do you smell that? He looked content. These beads darken with use; they radiate with this shine and fragrance only after their owners wear them with the respect they deserve. Just as jade becomes clearer and more luminous with use, the wood transforms. These “dead” items still evolve.

My father and his disciples infuse dead wood with oils from their hands and energy from their Buddhist chants. As Sam took part in reviving the dying art of Iroquois beadwork decades ago, so each of us sampled in turn with our tiny berries—it’s like we exhaled once into packets of red and green beads and birthed a piece of art some three hours later. It’s been years since I’ve taken any of my fó zhū out of their dust bags; perhaps I’ll soon blow the dust off and attempt some meditation of my own.

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