The Great Search by Mahmud El Sayed

On the third anniversary of my master’s death, I visited the tree his body was feeding to pick an apple. On the city-ship Safina, life feeds death and death feeds life. It’s not all that different from life and death anywhere else, really. That apple tree had been nothing but a slender sapling when they buried my master, the Honourable Kalsang Yama, 35th Panchen Lama of the Gelug-pa Path and living emanation of the celestial Buddha Amitabha, under its roots. Now, it towered over and above me, its branches reaching out like hands, its apples hanging down like ornaments. 

Namo Buddhaya,” a bulky agrotech dressed in the russet brown uniform of the Agriculture deck greeted me, pressing the palms of his soiled work gloves together. I didn’t recognize the man, but he clearly had no trouble recognizing the burgundy robes and shaved head of a fully-ordained monk of the Monastery of Waiting. 

I mirrored the anjali mudra and brought my soft scholar’s hands to my forehead.

Namo Buddhaya,” I responded, bowing to him and the Buddha-nature in him. “Is it permissible to pick an apple, kind sir?” I chanced in my best Inglez.

The beefy agrotech, half his face covered by a thick dark beard, glanced furtively around the deck. In the far distance, similarly brown-clad figures worked the fields and farms, producing the necessary crops to feed the crew. 

“Go ahead, Bhikku.” 

Artificial UV light reflected through the leaves and branches of the trees above us—descendants of trees that had bloomed on Earth and whose seedlings’ seedlings would, in turn, populate a new world. A vegetal samsara. 

I picked a fat, red apple from one of the lower branches and placed it carefully inside my satchel. 

“Thank you, brother.” 

The agrotech shrugged casually and leaned forward on the trowel he had been using to turn the earth. And wasn’t that a strange word to use on a generation ship, flying so far from home? Earth? The Earth was fifty years and five hundred light years behind us, dying or dead. Yet it’s fruits, and people, lived on. 

“The master’s tree is thriving,” he offered shyly. 

His Inglez was far better than mine, but then again, it would have to be. Inglez was the crew’s second language. Being a monk, forever shut up in my monastery, I had far less opportunity to speak it than the rest of the crew. I took a step back, comparing the master’s tree to its siblings. The agrotech was right. There were dozens of other apple trees in this living graveyard, but none so bountiful as Master Yama’s. 

“I don’t recognize you, brother,” I told him in my slow and steady Inglez. “Perhaps we have met before?” 

A logical question. Buddhists were a small minority on our vast city-ship. I would have thought that I knew all of them, if not by name, then at least by sight. 

He shook his head sadly. “I live in Damask berth. I rarely have time to visit Waiting.” 

  “Well, brother, next time you visit, ask for me. I am monk Tashi Choden. It would be a pleasure to share a bowl of tea with you.”  

The man smiled at my invitation and ducked his head. 

“Thank you, Bhikku.”

He opened his mouth as if to ask a question and then closed it again. 

“What is it, brother?” 

“Is it time?” he asked. “Is that why you’re here? Is it time to begin the search?” 

I nodded. 

“Yes brother, it is time and past time. We begin the search for the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama tomorrow.” 

*

On Earth, searching for a tulku was no easy task. A conclave would be held where monks who had met the Lama in the time prior to his death would bear witness. A study into the lama’s writings and recordings would be conducted to investigate any clues he might have left as to when and where he intended to be reborn. Monks would monitor the tulku’s body, and later his grave, for signs. A head tilting in one direction or another. Flowers blossoming in the wrong season. Birds gathering in the wrong place. But given the sheer size and scale of Earth’s population, and the number of children born in the hours, days, or even weeks, after a tulku died, the possible candidates numbered in the tens of millions. 

For who knows how long a soul can linger in the Bardo? 

The sixteenth Dalai Lama was not found until he was seventeen years old, and only after he travelled from his homeland in the North American Union to Tibet, to proclaim himself. Luckily for this humble monk, the process would be much simpler on our generation ship. 

“The clerk says, ‘here is a list of all the children born in Ziyou and Miyako berths within the specified timeframe,’” my translator informed me, holding out a data chip with a perfunctory hand.  

The translators were the bridge between crew and Administration. This one was the son of one of our lay members, full of youthful arrogance and self-regard. Spending any amount of time with him was a wonderful way to practice cultivating patience. After all, didn’t Khenpo Daisuke himself tell me that patience was not the ability to wait, but the ability to keep a good attitude while waiting?

“And I told you that we need this information for all the berths, not just Ziyou and Miyako,” I responded. Patiently. 

The translator— his name was Hiro and he was dressed in a translator’s trademark suit and tie—flicked his fringe out of his eyes and relayed my words back to the Admin clerk who frowned, shook her head, and spewed forth a cloud of rat-a-tat Inglez.


“The clerk says, ‘If you are searching for a Buddhist child, surely you must look to Ziyou and Miyako berths?’” 

I took a breath, held it in and chanted Om mani padme hum in the privacy of my mind.  “Then kindly inform her that there are Buddhist families in many of the other berths and that is why we need a full accounting. And anyway, we’ve been authorised for this information,” I added. 

The Honourable Kalsang Yama was just nineteen when he boarded the Safina to leave the Earth behind. It was agreed that the Dalai Lama would remain, and the Panchen Lama would depart. For how could humanity seek the stars without the living wisdom of a bodhisattva? That same agreement also included iron-clad assurances from Administration that they would not interfere in the search for the Panchen Lama’s reincarnated form. Everyone knew that. 

The clerk disagreed. So, too, did his immediate superior. It wasn’t until I was sitting in the office of the head of Human Resources, sipping mint tea and trying to keep my translator calm in the face of such exalted company, that we finally ironed the matter out. 

Minister Serhat handed me a new data chip, containing all the information I required. 

“The minister apologises for the mix up,” Hiro told me in an over-awed tone of voice. “He says your authorisation has never been used before.” 

“We’ve never needed to find a Panchen Lama before,” I answered.

*

The novices milling in the monastery’s courtyard greeted me with waves and shouts. I glanced up at the monumental, green-tinged statue of Amitabha which peeked over the roof of Waiting and bowed my head in its direction before heading inside. When the Safina fled the Earth, it was not just people that it took. We brought our monuments, too. That ancient statue was not even the oldest thing on the Safina. There was a black obelisk that stood in the centre of Cleopatra Square in Fustat berth that was thousands of years older. 

Inside, I could see Khenpo Daisuke was already waiting for me in the banquet hall. He was Master Yama’s oldest student, just as I was the youngest, and our master’s death had hit him particularly hard. I did not think that he had expected to outlive our master. Khenpo Daisuke had been a vigorous seventy when the Panchen Lama—barely in his fifties—re-joined the cycle of birth and rebirth. It seemed that vigour had passed with him, and Khenpo Daisuke’s health had taken a turn for the worse over the past three years. He now habitually leaned on a cane when walking, and sitting at the top table in the banquet hall, looked out at me through rheumy eyes. 

“All is well?” he asked as I sat down. 

“Well and well,” I answered, “I have the list. One thousand, three hundred and twenty-eight names.” 

Yes, I had glanced through it already. I had not been expecting so many names, but the Safina was a generation ship—producing the next generation of crew was our crew’s most important job. 

Khenpo Daisuke nodded, pleased. He took the data chip from my hand and placed it in front of him, before clasping his hands together and murmuring a quick prayer of thanks. 

“And the apple?”

I produced it. “An apple from our master’s tree.” 

He nodded slowly. 

“A fitting breakfast for a day such as this,” he acknowledged.

I passed the apple over to the Khenpo and watched as he picked up a knife and laboriously cut it into halves, and cut those halves into halves again. He placed eight apple slices carefully onto a teal ceramic plate. 

“We will find him,” he told me. “Have no fear. We will send out monks to all the berths.”

I kept the questions I longed to ask deep inside of me. Khenpo Daisuke was never one for idle chatter. If he had a plan, and he surely did, he would reveal it in his own good time, as well as my place in it. And yet I still couldn’t help but imagine being the one to find our master’s reincarnated form. Being the one to recognize and return the Panchen Lama to the Monastery of Waiting and all the acclaim that would greet me. 

No, I turned away from that. This is base pride. This is unseemly self-regard. No, Tashi, put it aside. Hold to the Buddha, the Sangha, the Dharma. Hold to the Threefold Way. Hold to the master’s trust in you. 

The other monks took their seats as I struggled with my secret, shameful dreams. Brother Delun glanced at me disdainfully as he sat down, as if he could hear my thoughts. A novice I only vaguely recognized placed the big bowl of oatmeal at our table. Around us, other tables began to fill. Outside, the novices stopped their buzzing recitation of the Migstema Mantra—Tsong Khapa, crown jewel of the sages of the Land of Snows/Lozang Dragpa, I make requests at your lotus feet—and rushed to join breakfast. 

After our breakfast of oatmeal and twice-baked bread was finished and the other monks had returned to their duties, Khenpo Daisuke did not dismiss us as usual. Instead, he held out the plate of apple slices and gestured for each of us, Master Kelsang Yama’s students, to take one. I closed my eyes as I bit into the tart apple, its tangy juice filling my mouth.

“On Earth, the monastery would send out teams of monks to search for a tulku,” Khenpo Daisuke said. “Here, we must be more circumspect. I will organize you in three teams. I will lead the first team and we will begin our search here in Huizhou. Brother Delun, you will lead the second team and begin your search in Miyako berth.” 

He looked at me. “And you, Brother Tashi, will lead the third team and look to the outer berths.” 

“But Khenpo,” my traitorous mouth exposed me, “there are few Buddhists there. I doubt many families will even let me assess their children.” 

Brother Delun snorted, as if to say, ‘Are you complaining already?’ and I shot him an irritated look. 

“Do your best,” Khenpo Daisuke told me, “and all will be well.”  

*

“Nobody is even going to talk to us,” Novice Ahmed said. “Just watch and see.” 

 Khenpo Daisuke may have split us into “teams” but my team consisted of only myself and one talkative novice. He was fifteen years old, scrawny and shaven-headed. Unlike most of the other novices though, I had heard his name before. He was the novice who had been charging money to conduct illicit tours of the Monastery of Waiting to outsiders. He had been punished with double kitchen duty for a month.


“Silence!” I told him. 

“This is going to be a disaster.” 

We were sitting on the hyperlink to Fustat berth, the carriage rocking this way and that as it travelled through the body of the ship. I clutched my satchel with both hands, acutely aware that inside lay a tab that contains the names and addresses of a few hundred children, one of whom might be the future leader of our order. 

The link was busy, full of crew heading to their various watch-stands—Engineering, Environmental, Factory, Maintenance, Agriculture. They were all part of the daily hustle and bustle of life on this ship in a way that I was not and would never be. They were a crew—the offspring of a previous crew, the progenitors of a future one, while we monks are an island of serenity in the middle of this generation ship. There is peace here, yes, but loneliness, too. Sometimes, I envied the crew. But envy is anathema to peace of mind. 

“Oh man,” Novice Ahmed said, “would you check her out.” 

So, too, are novices. 

“Novice Ahmed,” I told him sternly, “I should warn you that I will be reporting your conduct during our mission back to Khenpo Daisuke. I should also say that you were assigned to me because you speak Arabek, not to ‘check anyone out.’

“Yes Bhikku,” he answered in a falsely contrite tone of voice. 

I followed his eyes to a young woman in the blue uniform of Factory. Well, Novice Ahmed was not wrong. No, I pushed that thought from my mind and recited the Simile of the Water-Snake. Sensual pleasure is but bare bones, a lump of flesh, a torch of straw, a pit of burning coal, Tashi. It is a dream of borrowed goods, a fruit tree, a slaughterhouse, a stake of swords, a snake’s head. 

When we finally disembarked at Salam Central Station, I handed Novice Ahmed the tab and allowed him to take the lead. He was born in this berth. He knew its nooks and crannies, its streets and thoroughfares. Like many orphans taken in by the Monastery, he had not been born a Buddhist. When he reached his majority, he would have to decide whether to pledge to become a monk, or leave Waiting and join the crew proper. It was a decision that I too had to make, although I suspected that Novice Ahmed would find it more difficult than I did. Master Yama had been like a father to me. I could never have left him. 

“The first one is this way,” Novice Ahmed said with an impatient jerk of his head. “Come on, let’s go.”  

The mother would not allow us to see her child. She would not allow us to enter her home, instead she screamed at us in Arabek and gripped her hijab in alarm. 

“What happened?” I asked from the safety of the stairs. The woman was still gripping her hijab and staring at us, but at least she had stopped screaming. 

“She says we are mushrikeen,” Ahmed explained, “immoral polytheists who worship a mortal man as a God.”

“But-”

“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently, “she’s wrong. Or at least, not entirely right. But she didn’t exactly give me the opportunity to enlighten her about the Triple Refuge, did she?” 

The next three addresses on the list were much the same. At the last address, the father of the child we had come to test pushed me away and raised his fist as if to strike me. When I did nothing to defend myself, he merely pushed me again, shouting angrily in his harsh tongue. 

Novice Ahmed and I regrouped on a bench in Fustat’s tree-lined atrium. Not for the first time, I wished that Administration’s records included information about religious affiliation. But the First Crew had decided that it would be language, not religion, to divide us. 

“What did he say? The last one?” I asked. 

“He said that children are a great gift from Allah,” Novice Ahmed told me in a sad voice, “and that they are the only thing that the crew will leave behind. He said no true believer would ever give up a child of their blood.” 

*


The afternoon was the same. And the next day. And the day after that. Few parents allowed us anywhere near their children, although one Sufi man, not even the father of one of the children we wanted to assess but a neighbour, insisted on buying us lunch and debating the connections between Sufi and Buddhist practices. 

“So we agree that there is no self, there is no reality, these are illusions?”

“If there is no self,” I countered, “who just asked me that question?”

“Nobody,” he told me. 

I bowed my head. 


Behind him, Novice Ahmed rolled his eyes at us. 


Finally, we were done with Fustat berth and moved to Damask. Again, Novice Ahmed and I knocked on doors and begged for entrance. They spoke Arabek here, too, although a different dialect than the one spoken in Fustat berth. Novice Ahmed was twice a stranger here, although we were more welcomed than before. Damask, unlike Fustat, was far more multicultural, and there were Christians and Jews living alongside the Muslim majority, as well as Jainists, Druze and even Manicheans. Initially, I was optimistic that we would find some tulku candidates. I rocked babies in my arms and bounced toddlers on my knee. I looked into their innocent eyes and felt nothing. No inward sign. No special recognition. 

Our last candidate of the evening was a three-year-old who alternated disturbingly smoothly between screaming in fright and howling with laughter. His mother sighed as I handed him back and we took our leave.

“I’m tired,” Novice Ahmed said. “Let’s head back to Waiting and pick up the rest tomorrow.”

The thought of heading back to the Monastery filled me with dread. Some of the other teams had already found candidates. Last night, brother Delun had sneered at me over the evening meal as I recounted my failures. 

“One more,” I told Novice Ahmed.


“Let’s try one more.” 

He sighed audibly and then led us to an apartment in one of the new tower blocks, trudging up twelve flights of stairs in a huff. 

“Here,” he said, standing outside apartment 123-C, “this one.” 

I rang the bell and was surprised to be greeted by a face I recognised. A bulky man carrying a toddler in his arms. How did I know this man? I didn’t think I’d ever seen him around Waiting before. He ducked his head and I remembered. It was the agrotech who had given me the apple from the master’s tree.  

Bhikku, welcome,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for you.”

 

After reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, aged 12, Mahmud spent his summer holidays in Egypt trying to summon a sandworm. When that didn’t work, he decided to become a writer. A British-Egyptian translator based in London, he is keen on anything sci-fi. You can tweet him @Mahmud0elsayed.