Shen had a calendar on his desk that had ten days a month highlighted in red. These days were the Uposatha- Buddhist observance days on which practicing Buddhists and Bodhisattva like Shen observed their respective precepts. Shen had observed these days ever since he was a child, at least in part. Certain elements, like fasting, were not allowed to be practiced by children for safety reasons. But now that he was grown, Shen fasted for the ten days of Uposatha. And up until now, that hadn't been a problem.
Up until now, a lot of the things Shen did hadn't been a problem.
The life of an American college student wasn't one well-suited for a Buddhist, especially one who practiced as strictly as Shen did. It was difficult to find quiet, still places to meditate, difficult to find pure food, difficult to find those who practiced the same habits Shen did and provide him with some sense of community and connectedness. People judged the way Shen opted to live, and for the second time in his life, Shen found himself questioning the vows he had taken.
And there were a lot of them. When he was living in the monastery, Shen had undergone thirty-six vows, as all novices did; now that he was a lay Buddhist, living outside of a monastery, his Pratimokṣa was limited to the Five Precepts, along with an additional eight for fasting. Still, Shen tried to follow the ten major Bodhisattva precepts as well. He had been raised as a Bodhisattva; a person meant to achieve total spiritual enlightenment. It was easy when he was living in an isolated village surrounded by people trying to do the same, but in America, it was a full-time job. And sometimes it was just the little things that made it difficult.
It was the eight day of the lunar calendar. Shen had just gotten back from rehearsal, which had gone on for three hours. and he was starving. But it was Uposatha, so he was unable to eat. And that was completely fine with Shen.
He had just set his backpack down and was about to start on a report for his speech class when someone pounded on his bedroom door. Shen opened it and found Akali, dressed casually and holding a ladle that was about to drip sauce onto the floor. "Hey, I made bulgogi. Come eat with us."
"I can sit with you," Shen offered, following her out to the apartment's small dining room. Lee Sin was already seated at the dining room table, and he perked up when he heard Shen and Akali's footsteps.
"Are you joining us?" Lee asked, sounding genuinely excited.
Shen nearly nodded but caught himself. "Uh, yeah. I'm just gonna sit with you, though."
Lee Sin was seemingly satisfied with this answer. Akali, apparently, was not. She went over to the pan on the stove and ladled out some of the meat and rice onto a plate, which she set in front of Shen.
Despite how hungry he was, the smell was nearly nauseating. Shen politely nudged the plate away from himself and asked, "What is this for?"
Akali looked at him like the answer was obvious. "It's dinner," she said as she plated her own food. "You have to eat."
Internally, Shen sighed. He didn't know much about Akali's childhood but knew that forced religion or tradition or something had played a role in it, and now she was vehemently opposed to most forms of practiced, organized faith. It was something that Shen didn't totally understand nor agree with, but he could live with it. He and Akali got along about most other things, and they enjoyed spending time together. But she had made her stance about Shen's religion clear; she didn't respect nor understand it, and was more than happy to challenge Shen about it.
Shen was hungry and tired and really didn't want to deal with this tonight, but it was fine. Whatever. He plastered on a smile and gently reminded Akali, "I'm fasting today. For Uposatha."
"You're still doing all of that?" Akali asked, sounding incredulous. That confused Shen; had he done something to imply he had stopped doing 'all of that', or that he intended to? As far as he was concerned, apostasy was not in the cards. Shen was about to ask for clarification when Akali sat down on the other side of the table and continued to speak. "I don't get it. Doesn't that make you feel, like, suppressed? You're literally starving yourself. How is that holy? How does that make you reach enlightenment?"
"Akali, c'mon, let's just eat," Lee pleaded, his brow creased in concern.
Had her questions been genuine, Shen would have been more than happy to explain the purpose of upavasa. But they weren't; they were challenges, unspoken dares to engage. Shen knew better than to take the bait. It wasn't worth time nor energy, especially not on a day where he was meant to be more deeply saturated in his vows than most. "Akali, I'm really not-"
"No, I don't fuckin' get it. Why would you bother now that your dad isn't making you? Seriously, you're twenty and you've never had meat or alcohol or had se-"
Shen stood up abruptly, stepping away from the table and pushing his chair in. He gave Akali a faux-cheery smile and said, "I'm really glad you feel comfortable enough to share your thoughts about my faith with me, but I have some other stuff to be focusing on. I hope you enjoy your dinner."
He was vaguely aware of both Lee and Akali speaking, maybe to him, as he turned his back and walked to his bedroom, but Shen tuned it out. He couldn't bear to hear whatever they were saying.
Akali was aware that what she was doing wasn't right, but she meant the best for Shen. She cared about him, and she hated seeing him torture himself like this. Although she didn't like to talk about it, Akali knew when a person was simply going through the motions of their religious practices. She knew Shen's meditations and prayers were hollow, and that he could no longer find fulfillment in his faith like he used to. And she was worried that it was doing him more harm than good.
Still, as she watched pain and sorrow flash through Shen's eyes when she mentioned his dad, Akali knew she had made a mistake by taking this angle. It was too late to correct, though, at least in that moment. Akali had stood up to follow Shen when he turned to leave, but Lee Sin had heard the chair scraping across the floor as she stood and made a rapid "sit back down" gesture.
Once they both heard the click of his door closing, Lee frowned in Akali's general direction. "You shouldn't have said any of that."
"I know, but I-"
"I know you want to help, Akali, but this isn't the way to do it. You can't force him to make a decision or enter a conversation he isn't ready for. Shen has to figure this own on his own time." Lee sighed, dragging his chopsticks through the leftover sauce on his plate. Akali's own plate was still full, but her appetite was gone.
Lee was quiet for a moment before continuing. "And no matter what your intentions are, or whatever master plan you're hoping to enact, it's not your place to speak like that. Bullying Shen about his decision to fast won't help you feel better about your own experiences with religion."
Akali's cheeks flushed with shame. She knew Lee Sin was right. "I should apologize," she said after a moment of silence.
Lee Sin nodded, dragging his fingertips over the tabletop until they came into contact with Shen's abandoned plate. Keeping his fingers against the edge so he knew where it was, Lee stole a couple pieces of beef from it. "You should," he agreed. "But not right now. Give him some time."
For the next hour, Shen stared at his laptop screen and managed to write the first two sentences of his report. He wasn't even aware of how much time had passed until his laptop made a musical noise, informing him that he needed to plug it in if he wanted to keep staring mindlessly at it. Shen just closed the device, knowing it was pointless to attempt writing. His mind was too crowded.
Akali's words stung on a variety of levels. Ever since he had moved to America for the second time, Shen had always been self-conscious about his lack of, well, experience with certain things. Sometimes people were intrigued when he mentioned he was a Buddhist, but they tended to look at him like he'd grown a second head when he explained some of the restrictions it imposed. Like no drinking, drugs, or sex. People especially got hung up about that last one. Didn't guys love sex, after all? And surely with Shen's height and build, weren't girls all over him? What about kids? Surely he didn't plan to be celibate forever, right?
That was only the most superficial level of injury that Akali's words had caused, though. Shen had kept all his questioning and uncertainly shoved into the back of his mind, promising himself that he would thoroughly examine it later. He knew he was lying to himself, but with so much recent change in his life, he couldn't bear to add more uncertainty. Shen's faith had always been a pillar, a sturdy foundation he could always fall back on. Even when everything went to shit, he knew he could rely on meditation and scripture to calm his mind and heart. He could simply remember the bigger picture, his eventual goal of being spiritually enlightened, and that perspective would help him move past whatever roadblock was in his way.
But that hadn't worked as of late. More and more, Shen had been wondering how much of it was true. He had been raised Buddhist after all- he'd never had the luxury of deciding what he believed for himself. It had been decided for him. What if his wasn't what he really wanted? What if all this time, Shen had just been some brainwashed fool moving through motions he couldn't even know to be true and real?
It made his heart ache to think about. It made panic stir inside of him. What else was he, besides Buddhist?
Shen had gone to America and enrolled in college with the intention of answering that question. When he was leaving the monastery, having crossed the Chinese border to find an ATM and store to buy enough necessities to get him through his first month in America, that question had felt exciting. Leaving had felt bittersweet, but necessary, and almost empowering. He had felt like the world was now at his fingertips. There was nobody telling Shen what to do, or expecting anything of him.
And now, after a few months? That question terrified him.
All of he sudden, he was struck by the realization of how alone he was. He could no longer ask the nuns and monks of the monastery for guidance, and meditation and prayer seemed out of the question. His very thoughts were treasonous; surely, it would be poison to the soul for him to meditate on them. But after Akali's inquisition, all the insecurities and questions that he had locked away were at the forefront of his mind, and he couldn't banish them.
He didn't know what to do or where to go for help. Shen couldn't ask his roommates, obviously, nor could he ask friends. They wouldn't know what to say. And he couldn't ask his father, because he had forcibly disowned himself by abandoning the monastery.
That last realization stung more than anything. When Shen and Kusho had first ventured to America on a long-term missionary trip when Shen was fourteen, the culture shock had been horrific. Shen had been nauseous from the overwhelming sights, noise, and smells of the city, and completely unable to understand anything spoken above elementary English. But even then, even before he had met Zed and began to acclimate, Shen's father had been by his side the whole time. He had made it bearable.
Now Shen didn't even have him. And he wished so badly, so innately, that he did. As childish as it was, Shen subconsciously wanted nothing more than to see his dad again and ask him for advice- for reassurance that everything would work out, and that even though Shen felt lost and confused, he wasn't doomed to spiritual depravity.
But that would never happen. Shen was alone. And that hurt.
Shen buried his face in his hands, giving up on his attempts to hold back tears. At least he still had some privacy, and nobody here was going to judge him for crying. Because he was alone. There was nobody to judge him.
Time passed without meaning, and eventually Shen ran out of tears and decided to call it quits for the night. He hadn't brushed his teeth or washed his face, but Shen didn't want to venture out of his room to accomplish either of those tasks. He just wanted to sleep.
And of course, probably because of karma, someone knocked on Shen's door five minutes later. He laid there in silence, hoping it would deter whoever was knocking, but then Lee Sin said, "I know you're awake. Come open this, will you? I made tea."
Shen was allowed to drink tea, along with water, while fasting and it sure as hell sounded better than nothing. He rolled out of bed and made his way over to the door, weary that this might be an ambush, and that Akali might break in after using Lee as a decoy. He opened it a crack and saw Lee Sin holding two steaming mugs by their handles in one hand and using the other to follow the accessibility rails on their apartment's walls. No Akali in sight.
He sighed and opened the door fully, reaching out to take Lee's free hand so he could guide him over to the bed. Shen didn't say anything as he curled back up on top of the covers, and Lee didn't seem bothered by this. He just held one of the mugs out to Shen and smiled when he took it.
"It's jasmine. I know you prefer green but I think we're out right now," Lee said, leaning back against the wall that Shen's bed was tucked against. He took a long drink of his own tea, seemingly content to sit in silence for a bit.
Shen drank his own tea slowly, allowing the heat to soothe away the rawness in his throat, brought on by crying. He was nearly done with the drink when Lee spoke again.
"Akali regrets what she said."
Shen didn't know what to say in response to that. His body felt drained, and even speaking felt like a monumental effort. So he remained silent.
Lee pressed on. "I know you're probably feeling pretty shitty right now, and I can't blame you for that. Just know that we're here for you, okay? You don't have to feel alone in your own house. Akali cares about you and she wants what's best for you." He leaned in a bit closer, like he was telling a secret. "She won't admit it to you, Shen, but she thinks of you like an older brother. She can be a bitch sometimes, but her heart is in the right place."
Shen sniffled and dragged a hand under his eyes, which were damp again. "Thank you," he murmured, staring down at his mug.
Lee Sin nodded, draining the rest of the tea from his mug. He opened an arm to Shen and said, "Alright, I'll leave you alone now. Bring it in first, though."
Shen couldn't help but smile. He set his mug down on his desk and leaned forward to hug Lee Sin. Lee was a tactile person by nature and necessity, but this seemed to be more for Shen's benefit. He couldn't complain, though. Nearly four years of isolation at the monastery had left him a bit...hungry for affection.
Lee hugged Shen close for a moment before pulling away, still leaving his free hand on Shen's arm. "Would you mind helping me out? I left my cane in the living room," he explained with a sheepish grin.
Shen stood up with Lee and guided him back out. Just as Shen was about to slip back into his room, Lee Sin said, "Oh, by the way, Akali went out to grab some groceries. In case you were wondering."
That brought Shen a tiny amount of relief, knowing he had a window of time to move freely about the apartment without running into Akali and potentially reigniting this whole thing. One detail didn't line up, though. "Didn't we just go grocery shopping?"
Lee grabbed his cane and moved it in a slow arc in front of him, reorienting himself. There was a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, but she forgot some stuff. Don't worry about it."
Shen took his advice and decided not to dwell on the matter. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, then properly retired for the night. The majority of his homework was incomplete, but it didn't matter, since the only class he had the next day was a four o'clock. He would have plenty of time to wrap his assignments up before then. Everything could wait for tomorrow.
Tomorrow came, as many things recently had, with a knock on Shen's bedroom door. Shen normally woke up early to meditate or pray, but he had decided to sleep in- not that the decision seemed to matter much now.
"Hey, Shen, wake up. I made something for you."
Shen was still half-asleep and took a moment to process what Akali meant. Made something? What, had she crafted an apology note? It took him a moment to realize that she probably meant food. Akali loved to cook, especially dishes that represented her Korean heritage. Knowing that, Shen figured whatever she had made was delicious, but likely contained something he wasn't allowed to have, so he could have to politely decline.
Or maybe not. Maybe he would make an exception. Surely a bit of garlic wouldn't send him straight to hell, right?
He rolled out of bed and opened the door. Shen could smell something familiar cooking, but couldn't place it right away. "Morning, Akali."
"Morning." Akali seemed uncharacteristically nervous, shifting her weight from leg to leg. "You're not fasting anymore, right?"
She seemed a bit more relaxed upon hearing that. "Okay. Well, uhm, I made you food. As an apology for yesterday. I...was really out of line, and I know what I said was super hurtful." Akali seemed hesitant, almost shy as she spoke, and Shen couldn't help but feel a bit endeared. Akali clearly wasn't used to apologizing, but he appreciated it (and the prospective meal) nonetheless.
"It's alright. I'm gonna shower and get dressed, and then I'll come out and eat. Is that alright?" Akali nodded and padded back into the kitchen, and Shen ducked back into his room. Religious purposes aside, meditating for ten minutes in the morning was just a part of his routine, and he felt like he couldn't really start his day without it.
After Shen had gotten ready for the day, he went into the kitchen. Akali had been leaning against the counter, chatting with Lee Sin, but she immediately turned her attention to Shen when he walked in. She grabbed a bowl from the counter and removed the towel covering it, then presented it to Shen. "Here. I- um, I just googled the recipe, so it isn't anything special or anything, but..."
Shen immediately recognized the contents of the bowl. "You made me guthuk?" He asked, surprised and delighted. It had been eons since he'd had actual Tibetan food.
Akali smiled, obviously pleased by his reaction. "I tried to, yeah. And it should be Buddha-approved. There's no garlic or onion, just radish, cilantro, and some other vegetable bullshit."
Shen was starving, but he set the bowl down for a moment and walked over to Akali, pulling her into a brief hug. "Thank you," he murmured. "I really appreciate this. How long did it take you?"
"A little over an hour," Akali replied, squeezing Shen for a moment before releasing him. She poured some into a bowl for herself as well. "Lee, do you want any?"
"I'll never turn down food," Lee replied with a smile. He seemed satisfied at the way things worked out, and Shen felt the same. Despite how horrible and alone he had felt the night before, he now couldn't keep a smile off of his face.
Perhaps the reassurance that everything would work out in the end wouldn't come from his father or any of the monks or nuns that Shen grew up with. Perhaps he would have to seek it out on his own, or go without it and accept the possibility that maybe things wouldn't work out the way he had always planned. And that was alright. It had to be, since Shen didn't really have any other choice. And maybe he didn't need other choices.
He was still scared about the future, and still apprehensive to find out more about himself after thinking he knew all there was to know about himself for so many years. But now, sitting with his roommates and laughing and smiling with them over a bowl of guthuk, Shen no longer felt like he had to go on this journey alone. The help he needed may not come from the places he had expected, but that was alright.
All that mattered was that he wasn't alone.