Discovering the Pear Garden
“Beatrice? What are you doing here?”
I was standing in line at the Hong Kong airport. I was ready to board the plane to fly to mainland China. I was being sent by a horticultural company to collect specimens of Asian pears to add to the genetic stock back in America.
“I just got a job teaching English in a university in China.”
“Congratulations. Where at?” I asked.
“In Xian, western China.” She smiled as if she knew something I did not. “Maybe we can sit together after the plane takes off?”
The plane was held up on the airstrip for about an hour. During this time I found myself seated next to an American techie. I asked him how business was working out in China.
He told me about the problem his company was having with intellectual property rights. Technology transfers were occurring without payment. He was going to try to solve the problem. Apparently he was a lawyer.
I asked him the Needham Question about why China had been overtaken by the West in science and technology, despite its earlier successes. Joseph Needham was a Bristish scientist who worked for China during WWII. His works attribute significant weight to the impact of Confucianism on Chinese scientific discovery, and emphasizes what it describes as the ‘diffusionist’ approach of Chinese science as opposed to a perceived independent inventiveness in the western world. Needham’s accusations against Confucianism can be seen as simply reflecting early Communist hostility to religion.
“It’s a stupid question” he said. It is like asking why your name did not appear in today’s newspaper. Besides you are looking at a blip in history during the time Needham was in China. I see the Chinese as very inventive and it did not stop even during the communist period.”
“But I thought they just copy what the West as created?” I was puzzled.
“No, they take existing technology and improve or transform, or readapt it” he said.
“Sounds like copying to me.” I was pleased with my response.
“Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor did the same thing. He took existing technology and improved or readapted it. Name one inventor who did not do the same. Edison stole ideas from his employee Tesla who actually was a greater and more original inventor. We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”
“You mean pick the pocket of others the way you are describing it” I countered.
“Perhaps, but genius is more often taking something old and giving it new use. The Egyptian Pyramids have children’s toys with wheels a thousand years before someone applied it to full sized ox carts.”
This was turning into a smack-down. This attorney had clearly thought about this subject much more than me. I was relieved when the plane took off and Beatrice came and sat in an empty seat on the other side of me. I turned my attention to her and began blabbing about the virtues of plant genetics. She could have cared less but at least I could maintain a superior sense of self instead of being crushed by the arguments of the lawyer next to me.
Finally Beatrice began to breathe slowly, her eyes half closed, and nearly whispered, “Ever heard of morphogenesis?”
“Morphogenesis… the way in which plants assume form. Apparently the genes of plants, crystals, or humans cannot be predicted by the information of genes. TI thought you were a horticulturist?” Now she seemed to frown.
“I am but I thought morphgenesis is biologically determined.” I was sure she was going to spring something on me.
“Rupert Sheldrake is my distant cousin. He says there is a morphogenic field that is a kind of field of consciousness…a collective consciousness if your will.” She was getting excited. I thought I would put a stop to this nonsense.”
“No one accepts his theory” I said with certainty.
“I do…..there is a kind of morphic memory that feeds the present. Haven’t you ever noticed that in the greenhouse that it might very difficult to get certain cuttings started if they have never been grown before. But once you grown them it is much easier thereafter?”
“As a mater of fact I have noticed this phenomenon. There is a kind of syncretizing the way a computer syncs with other devices. Once it locks in then there is a free flow of information. I do not know why this happens but there seems to be a kind of conservation of form…a field of information that draws the seed toward a certain form in the future. I just figured all this information is contained in the gene.”
“Nope. There is a kind of syncretic action that arises out of a field of information but it is not material.” Now she was beginning to bully me.
“Well you are not a real scientist then” I huffed.
“Never said I was.”
I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough. I am a scientist and this was way too much for me.
Xian airport was small but efficient. A colleague picked me up and we drove to the into the city. His name was Walt Benson. He was a farmer’s son who went to Washington Sate University and got a Ph.D in agronomy. He was a specialist in Asian Pears and had searched the world for a super variety. He believed he found one and my job was to bring specimens back to the West Coast of the United States and test this super variety for adaptability in the States.
On the way into the city Walt asked, “How would you like to go to the Opera tonight? Got some tickets.
“Didn’t know they had opera in China.”
“This is Chinese Opera. It is quite interesting. Might be a nice introduction to China.” Walt smiled.
“Sure. Sounds good to me.”
Once we checked into our hotel, Walt called me on the phone. He gave me directions to the hotel dining room downstairs. When I got downstairs I could not believe my eyes. Sitting next to him at the table was Beatrice. Great, another wasted hour of useless talk. I was hoping to get to work down with Walt.
“Hey, this lady says she knows you” Walt shouted across the room.
I nodded not wanted to have people stare at us anymore than they already were staring.
“Hello Beatrice.” I could hardly look at her.
“Ok, I know you think this is a setup but it is not. Walt and I met a few minutes ago just by accident. You know. Six degrees of difference. Just a coincidence.”
I was speechless and annoyed. I was even more annoyed when Walt told me he invited Beatrice along to the performance of the Peking Opera.
Turns out that Walt was a big fan of the Story of the Money King. This was the story the Peking Opera was performing that night.
The theater was not spectacular I ended up sitting next to Beatrice and I was glad I did. The Story of the Monkey King was about a supernatural Monkey who travels with a Buddhist monk to India to recover ancient scriptures. Guan Yin rescues the Monkey King and eventually this impish creature is transformed into a human being. What struck me though was not so much the story but the staging. Blossoming Pear trees adorned the stage. In fact in the printed program it said that professional performers of the Opera call themselves, ‘Disciples of the Pear Garden.’ Apparently Chinese Opera began during the Tang Dynasty in the royal courtyard’s Pear Garden. I had to laugh and I leaned over and whispered, “I see why you brought me here.” Walt seemed a little puzzled.
After the Opera we went to a Tea House. We were ritually served tea. In a way it was like like the Opera where every gesture, movement, color, odor, and instrument had a meaning and were part of a sacred order. I still didn’t know what it all meant but Beatrice was a big help. I asked her about the story of the Monkey King and what the story meant.
“Did you notice that it was all an interplay of competing and cooperating forces, Strategies of redirection, adaptation, mimickry, camouflage, false signals, and predatory warfare were all going on throughout the adventure.” She waited for an answer.
“Kind of like our lives” I laughed.
“Yah, and they are all being practiced her in China.” said Walt, I just got an email from the nursery that they have jumped the price on us and are delaying our visit.
“What do you suggest we do?”
Beatrice chimed in and said, “Wait it out. In the meantime I know of an ancient orchard out of town about 30 miles. They are not very professional but we could go visit them tomorrow while we wait.”
Sounded like a wild goose chase to me but it was a way to kill time.
The next day Walt and Beatrice met me in the lobby. Beatrice had arranged a van for us. We drove for about an hour until we were deep in the mountains. The driver made us get out and told us to get on motorcycles. The road had changed into a dirt path. Frankly I thought we were going to get robbed. We rattled our way up an even high mountain past tiny orchards and gardens. We then walked another couple miles until we arrived at the most beautiful orchard I had ever seen. We were in a mountaintop valley, fog was spilling over the western rim. A late morning sun was rising through it.
A tiny Chinese farmer emerged among the trees with a walking stick in one hand. He spoke perfect English. Turned out that he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge. He and Walt talked for a short time and then Walt turned to me and said, “He wants to take us to the Pear Garden.”
“Great, let’s go” I said although frankly wondered how much a philosopher could know about plant genetics of Asian Pears.
“There is a catch though” said Walt, “We have to pray first in the family shrine.”
My heart was beginning to sink but I was resigned to show a bit of grace before the reward. It was my dream to find this pear.
We followed the old man to the side of a hill. He unlocked a gate and we entered a cave which was more of a crevice in the cliff underneath an overhang. The limestone formation was once huge massif of soft stone. As my eyes adjusted I could see hundreds of figures. In the very center was Guan Yin with a thousand arms. Beatrice began to explain the names and purposes of all the forms. It was clear that it was a mix of figures. Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, Christian, even an image of Mani who created a Buddhist/Christian religion in Asia where it was popular in Afghanistan, Persia, and western China..
After what seemed like endless hours of praying, banging drums, bells, and lighting incense I smiled asked the old man, “So where is the Pear Garden?”
“It is here!” He turned and surveyed the images. I cast a furious glance toward Walt. But then I thought that maybe he misunderstood.
“No, the orchard where the Asian Pears are located. Is it nearby?”
“It is as close as your heart.”
Well I had about enough of this non-sense. I felt I had been tricked into praying and I just wanted to go back to the hotel.
Then Beatrice pointed to the alter of Guan Yin. “Didn’t you notice?”
There upon the alter was an Asian Pear of exquisite shape, color, and size.
The old man walked over to the altar, bowed and picked up the pear. He took out a knife and sliced off a piece of pear. The way he did it reminded me of my father who was also a farmer. For some reason this triggered a sense of calm in me. He handed the pear to me and said, “A gift from Guan Yin.”
The pear slice contained a seed. It sat on top of his fingers like a crescent moon. “Please, eat the seed too. It is good for your health. The bitterness will be transformed once inside.”
Now I knew there was a Pear Garden. I politely ate the pear slice. I could tell this not only was a true act of hospitality but it also was an act of love. I sensed this was a man without guile. He was allowing me to enter a special world.
We did see a pear garden that day but it was a kind of anti-climax. This was an extraordinary man we had met. One the way out to the road I asked him a bit more about his education. He did know a lot about horticulture, perhaps as much as me. I probed a little further. “What did you do your dissertation on at Cambridge?” I was curious to know how a philosopher could know so much about pears and create such a beautiful pear garden.
“I wrote an answer to the Needham question as to how will China come roaring into the 21st century as an innovative, compassionate, and scientific world leader? My answer is by re-invoking a previous cultural and religious principle of the Tang Dynasty: “
“Which is?” I quieried.
“What I practice every day in the pear garden of my heart and field: “SYNCRETISM!”