Eaton St Torpid's disused tide mill and Daoist retreat centre
the story so far
As the next summer had come and nearly gone, the management stopped by at the old tide mill and, after the customary excellent tea, asked Lao how the retreat weekends had been going.
'In almost all respects exceptionally well. The yurts seemingly suit everyone who uses them and the arrangement with the railway to park up at the station and travel here by train is regarded as just adding an extra magical touch. Indeed, there is only one problem.'
'What's that? Can the railway help in any way?'
'Well, maybe. Although I've not worked out exactly how. And you may or may not think it's a good idea.
'OK, well try me out.'
'The retreats are going so well that the more affluent of my friends want to offer donations. That's all well and good except I don't have any need for such sums of money. And if they're paid into my bank account I'll have to pay a lot of tax on them.'
'Well, surely these payments won't come to much more than your personal allowance?'
'Well, some of these friends are seriously wealthy. Any one of the donations, added to my state pension, would take me over my personal allowance. And add them all together and I'll be in quite a high tax band.'
The management stopped and took a breath. Lao had arrived and, effectively, squatted in the then-ruined mill. And now he's effectively saying his income is more than the management's.
'Well,' the management replied queriously, 'How can the railway help?'
'I would like these donations to be for the benefit of the railway, not for me. After all, without considerable goodwill from yourself and The PM – the Property Manager, as you always call her – then the Valley Spirit Hermitage would not have come into existence, still less be held in such high esteem by my friends.
'So, instead of the donations being paid to me, me paying tax, and then passing the rest on to the railway, then I was wondering if the money could be paid direct to the railway instead.'
'Well, in principle, I can't see any reason why not, should you chose to be so generous.'
'The only condition would be that these payments would need to be kept entirely confidential. If at all possible not even your accounts team would know the names of the donors. Though I do realise that there's laws against money laundering, so just a very few people would need to know.
'All I can say is that everything is entirely legal and above board. Just that some of my friends are, shall we say, people that even the public might recognise because of their business acumen.'
'OK. I get the broad drift. I'll have a chat to our accountants and see if there's an established way to do this. We can't be inventing something new here.'
Having confirmed that these donations were often paid in US or, more often, Canadian dollars for amounts that were roughly £10,000 – but occasionally even more – and there were likely to be a couple of dozen such gifts in a year the management was decidedly puzzled about who Lao's 'friends' might be. But he'd already sworn not to be inquisitive. Lao had previously indicated that the rather expensive-looking Chinese landscape paintings on the walls of his meditation room were gifts from friends, so the idea of these people making substantial gifts of money was not implausible.
In the event the management was having a relaxed mug of tea with the Property Manager the next afternoon. In as nonchalant a manner as could be mustered, the management just dropped into the conversation that there might be a couple of hundred grand extra income coming into the budget next year, and asked if she have any suggestions how it might be spent. After the initial 'You can't be serious' response the management confirmed that, to the contrary, it did seem entirely possible.
This meant taking the Property Manager into his confidence, although he knew she was the one person within the railway team who he could trust most to keep confidences. 'What's a Daoist recluse in north-west Norfolk doing to persuade rich list Americans and Canadians to come here?' she asked. Neither could imagine. Perhaps Lao might drop some clues at a future meeting. So long as it was indeed all legal – and there was no reason to think otherwise – then the Property Manager said, 'Well keeping the donations confidential is a doddle. Get the finance manager to set up a new account called something like the 'Eaton Mill Fund' but make sure only you and someone sworn to secrecy are the signatories and no one else has access to the statements and such like. That way the generous donors will have every reason to think their money is going to Lao and his activities. But the signatories can simply siphon off the money from that account into the main railway account as and when appropriate.'
It seemed almost too simple to be true. The railway's accountants and auditors said they couldn't see any reason not to set up a separate account for donations made to help out with cost of running and restoring the mill, so long as everything was declared in the annual accounts. The management opted not to say that the sums involved would not merely help run the mill, but would be the biggest source of income for the railway after ticket sales.
The management duly reported back to Lao. He seemed pleased that it all seemed to be straightforward.
'At the risk of making things just a little more complicated, after our last meeting I realised that I should have included an additional request. In the same way that the management has kindly waived all the costs of living in this mill, by greatly over-valuing my attempts to help restore the building, I was wondering if the donations I would like paid to the railway could be used to relieve Sal of the costs of renting the coaches she uses for her "emporium".'
You see, while I cannot say more, without Sal then the retreat weekends would simply not happen in the way they do, and certainly would not be so successful.'
In reality the railway charged Sal a rather nonimal monthly rent, so waiving this small annual income would not be any sort of problem. And, indeed, if Sal's help was in some way instrumental to getting these donations, then the railway could make sure her electricity and water costs were met too. Her kiln no doubt took a lot of electricity, so would be a major outgoing for her. That said, since Lao's arrival she had constructed a wood-fired kiln outside, as well as the electric one inside, and had started making rather good tea bowls of the type used in Japan and China. When the management had asked how much she was planning on selling them for she stated a price several times what seemed sensible for the tourists in Norfolk. 'Who are you hoping will buy them at that price?' he'd rather gruffly enquired. 'Oh, Lao Weng's friends are into this sort of thing. They'll happily pay for a "souvenir" of their stay here.'
But selling some seemingly over-priced – although, indeed, rather tastefully-done – bowls and handle-less mugs to Lao's 'friends' didn't quite add up to why Lao's retreats would not be a success without Sal. Presumably she was also taking charge of catering or other 'domestic' duties. Didn't really seem to fit with Sal – the management were sure she could do such tasks if asked, but she was certainly not the 'housewifey' type. The management just added it to the growing list of things that didn't quite add up, but which weren't actually cause for any concern.
In the next meeting with Lao, several weeks later, the management's curiousity had clearly come too close to the surface. Lao, reverting to the somewhat formal and self-effacing speech which had been so characteristic of his initial conversations, said
'I'm sorry my modest attempts to establish a Daoist retreat here means that some of what we do must be hidden from you. If I told you I am teaching them to be immortal you would laugh at me.'
The management nodded.
'Well, indeed neither they nor I am so foolish, rest assured. But what we do may seem equally fanciful to those who have not spent the time in preparatory meditation. The retreats which take place here might be thought to fall into the usual beginner, improver and advanced categories. Though no one knows that there is either a second level – still less a third one – until they are invited to take part. I must stress that you treat this insight with strict confidence. Not even The PM needs to know – although I am aware you, understandably, share much of what we talk about with her.
'Would I be along the right path if I thought that you were imparting some awareness of Daoist mysticism?' asked the management.
'With all due respect, no, you wouldn't!' Lao chortled then continued
'While I have some awareness of the more mystical aspects of Daoism, it is neither what my personal practice involves nor is it what I share with my friends. If you want a label for our approach it is "quietism" not "mysticism".'
The suggestion that Lao had 'some awareness' was no doubt a smokescreen for being one of the most knowledgeable in the county, if not further afield. But the management accepted that this was not core to what Lao did, whatever it really entailed.
'At the risk of saying much too much, the retreats which result in the generous donations are those for friends who have been on the previous two. Most of my friends are only invited back for these "preparatory" retreats, not for the White Tiger and Green Dragon retreats.'
Lao stopped himself.
'Oh, please forgive me. I should never have used the alchemical cognomen of the retreat with someone who is not familiar with the significance of the metaphor. Please do not share this with anyone, least of all any of my friends. Truth to tell, you are so understanding of what I am trying to do here, that I forget you have never been on one of the retreats.
'To anyone who has not attended before, they are known only as the "Secret and Sublime Retreats". It's not just some alliterative newagey marketing speak – even though it might seem that way – but a direct reference to the source of the practices.
'Though in practice the location is indeed as secret as is practical in the modern world – all thanks to you and the railway. And, with considerable assistance from Sal, we seem to be able to accomplish something which is as sublime as is reasonable within a few days of retreat.'
Lao then turned the conversation to something entirely different and the management took the hint that this was intentional.
The management and the Property Manager decided that it would be best if both went to see Sal and outline the new financial basis for her 'emporium'. Frankly, any excuse to have a chat with Sal was welcome – she was infectiously enthusiastic about her vocation and also the railway with which it was so closely allied.
Sal was visibly moved that Lao Weng – she alone among the volunteers and railway staff always used his full name – was so considerate as to think of her financial situation as well as funding the old mill. Clearly she was not aware of the size of the donations Lao envisaged, and there was no way this could be shared or intimated. After all seemed sorted, the Property Manager, in her usual light-hearted way, said to Sal that she'd better look after Lao well as this arrangement was only for so long as Lao was alive and bringing in friends. 'If you can work out how to make him immortal, then it would be to the advantage of you and the railway,' she joking said.
Sal looked at her slightly odd. 'Don't you know that he is an immortal?' and then smiled. When both the management and the Property Manager seemed lost for words, she continued
'Not that Lao Weng or myself – or even his friends, as he always calls them – thinks this is literally true. But the formal way to address Lao Weng, although only used as a greeting, is "Your Immortality". It's just an honorific, in the same way we call the Queen "Your Majesty" or a Christian priest "Reverend". It's just the literal translation of the honorary title given to Daoist adepts throughout China.'
The Property Manager looked at the management with eyebrows slightly skew-whiff. The management mimicked her facial expression, then said to Sal, 'I fully understand from Lao – His Immortality, as I suspect I ought to be calling him – that much of what takes place at the retreats is shrouded in considerable secrecy, if only because some of the people attending need to keep out of the public eye. But whatever it is that means Lao is held in such high regard is clearly having a great benefit for not just his "friends" but the railway and, by extension, this part of Norfolk. If there's anything you think ever needs to be discussed, either ask Lao to let me know, or tip me off and I'll stop by. And the same applies to your activities at the "emporium" too.'
'Yes, it must seem odd that Lao Weng, and myself, are so secretive. It's not that there's anything illegal about what we do – far from it – it's just that without considerable preparation it would be greatly misunderstood. When we were working on the restoration of the mill together Lao Weng "fast tracked" me in a way he says he's never done with anyone else, as he thinks my experience of making pots and other craft activities means I was already very close to the underlying principles of Daoism.
'What I hadn't understood before is that Daoism isn't about dualisms – the yin and yang which everyone has heard about – but the greater unity which lies behind, beyond, underneath – whatever figure of speech you prefer. And Lao Weng's retreats are not just mind games, they are very much practical experiences of what he calls "dual inner cultivation", but which is really about exploring the undifferentiated Dao from which the dualism arises. But I think I'm beginning to say too much!'
'So what Lao teaches is some sort of Chinese version of alchemy?' the management tentatively enquired.
Sal smiled briefly then frowned.
'Lao Weng would not be happy to be termed a "teacher". He frequently reminds his friends that he has but little more understanding than they do, and all he can offer is hints about how to explore in accordance with the Dao.
'To some extent such remarks are Lao Weng's usual overly-modest way of speaking about himself. He certainly does have an awareness and understanding that is unlike anyone who comes to the long weekends. But the reality of his retreats means that no one ever feels they are being "taught". Instead his "friends" are offered hints and the most gentle of suggestions or advice, usually phrased as a question. If it is a way of teaching – and in some sense it is – then Lao Weng's retreats are as unlike a schoolroom as is possible to get!
'I suppose "alchemy" is as good a way of putting it as any, although please don't think we're trying to convert base metal into gold or anything else that involves chemicals and lab apparatus! Forget mercury, prima materia, and all the esoterica of Western alchemy. Chinese "alchemy" – if that is indeed the right name – is about the co-mingling of ching and shên by means of controlling the ch'i or "cosmic vitality"'. Not that I suppose these Chinese words mean much to English-speaking people. None of them translate exactly into Western concepts.'
'Forgive me for asking what must seem like a vulgar question,' the management interrupted. 'But why do Lao's friends want to do this? What are they hoping to gain?'
'Oh', replied Sal, 'That only really makes sense to someone who has learnt to see the world in a Daoist manner. I'm not sure I'm able to summarise it accurately, still less in words which would shed much light. But once you think of the whole of creation as being the Dao, then the "alchemical process", as we seem to have named it, is one way of attempting to experience undiffentiated Dao. The ultimate aim is known by the expression 'Return to the Source'.
The management raised their eyebrows, without speaking, but in a way which encouraged Sal to continue.
'There is a Buddhist expression which describes the attainment of Nirvana – I assume you are aware that this is ultimate aim of most Buddhists – as if a rain drop has fallen into the sea. Well, for a Daoist there is no sense of something small entering into something essentially boundless. Instead the mind of someone who has returned to the Source – or the Dao – has become one with the Source. It is something more than merely a mystical experience.
'So much as someone like me, who has not learnt to exist in that state of mind for more than a matter of moments, it is like becoming at one with whatever creative processes one is involved with. For me, making pots, of course. With more experience, as with Lao Weng, the whole of one's life can be the "creative process".
The management nodded. Not long after Lao had shared his 'secret' name for the old mill – the Abode of Mysterious Origination – he had felt if he and the whole railway had been part of that Abode where everything seemingly originates. So what Sal was trying to explain was consistent. Although that did not mean that the management felt they understood to any significant extent.
As if reading the management's mind, Sal said 'But it's really not something to be thought about too much. It's something that is to be done and experienced.'
A small light flashed on in the management's mind. So, that's why Lao referred to his retreats as 'secret and sublime'. The 'secret' made sense – at least some of his 'friends' were in need of being kept away from the prying eyes of media – and the 'sublime' was what they were willing to part with good money for. And, in all probability, the method of attaining the sublime (didn't Sal just say it was called the Return to the Source?) needed to be kept secret too.
Lao seemed to have split the finances into two: pay what was needed for 'essential running costs' upfront then make a donation afterwards if the 'sublime' was, well, sufficiently sublime. Seemingly so, if the size of the donations was any indication. Though, no doubt Lao's abilities to include 'friends' whose finances were less well lubricated no doubt meant that those who could not afford to make a donation were never asked to contribute more. Nifty!
The Property Manager was asking Sal more about the Return to the Source. Sal replied that
'It's just experiencing everything as flow, as emergence, as ever-evolving, spontaneously happening all by itself. Lao Weng's favourite way of describing it is "the realisation that water is at the bottom of everything". What he means is that just as water always flows towards the lowest part of a valley, so too the Dao flows "at the bottom of everything" too. It's all part of why he calls the mill the "Valley Spirit Hermitage". And the water flowing past the mill is part of the whole experience of the retreats. But, in most respects, it's not literally about water, that's only a figure of speech.'
The Property Manager seemed to be following this a lot better than the management. She asked if Returning to Source is also a divination technique – as much seeing what is about to happen as well simply being in the midst of the flow. Or is divination something that is done using the Yi Jing or I Ching?
'Well,' Sal hesitantly started, 'I'm not any sort of expert. I'm mostly there to help Lao Weng's friends Return to the Source. But I suppose the answer is "yes". Except it's less about divination than enchantment.'
'How so?' asked the Property Manager.
'Well, the way Lao Weng sees things is that all forms of divination are also forms of enchantment. They are just two sides of the same coin. Lao Weng has talked with the most experienced of his friends – the ones who have also studied the Yi Jing and know the attributes of all 64 combinations of trigrams – about visualising a specific Yi Jing hexagram as they Return to the Source, in the expectation that this will make the attributes come to pass. This is instead of visualising the water-over-fire hexagram, which is usually part of the Return to the Source ritual.
'It is as if the hexagrams become "imprinted" on the flow, the "valley spirit", or whatever name you prefer. I'm sure Lao Weng would put it much more clearly. Though I'm sure he wouldn't be happy if he knew I'd been trying to tell you! This is really for friends who have been on many of his retreats. Indeed, only a very few do the secret enchantment visualisation while in the sublime state. So far as I'm aware it's the most secret of the ideas he imparts. There's of course much more to the ritual, and especially the meditations to circulate the ch'i, so stating just a little of what Lao Weng imparts isn't really going to add up to very much.'
'How do you know so much if, as you said, you're not really an expert?' asked the management.
'Well, because I'm there! For the Return to the Source I provide the yin to the friend's yang. And I need to visualise the same hexagram.'
'Sounds rather tantric to me,' interjected the Property Manager. Sal visibly stalled.
'Well, Lao Weng is very keen to emphasise that the retreats are based on Chinese alchemy, not Indian tantra. Not least because it could easily be misunderstood.
'I'm sure it could,' replied the Property Manager.
'I'm sure Lao Weng would not want you to know so much. I only began to tell you this and that because both of you seem to understand more about Daoism than anyone I've met who is not involved in the retreats. But it seems you know more than I expected.'
'Or can put two-and-two together. But rest assured we won't let Lao know we have any sort of inkling,' the Property Manager responded before changing the conversation. 'Do you know who comes on these retreats? From the accents we hear when they're in the railway car park some of them seem to be American.'
Sal confirmed that some did seem to be based in California – 'They're the ones who seem to be always travelling around the world, mostly on business it seems.'
Sal then confided that
'The ones who have been coming on retreats longest – since before they started to take place at the old mill – are from Toronto. They get very offended when people think they're American!
'They also seem to have a lot of business interests, but they aren't supposed to talk about those while on retreats. It's only know because I've also taken them on guided tours to local places of interest – it helps to arrive a few days before the retreats to overcome jet lag. Though more often than not they spend a few days in London before coming to Norfolk. That said, last time they followed Lao Weng's suggestion and stopped off on the Suffolk coast for a couple of nights before coming here.
'Some of them find it hard not to check their mobile phones and deal with business matters. Lao Weng managed to buy a mobile phone signal blocker to stop his friends surreptitiously making contact with their work during the retreats. The only reason I know is that if there's any sort of emergency then I must switch off the jammer so one of us can call for assistance.'
'Well, it's not as if there's much of a signal around here in the first place,' the management retorted. Then asked if Sal was able to sell many of her pots at her emporium to Lao's friends.
'Well, most of them buy one of the tea bowls I've started making. But they don't know about the emporium! None of us can talk about the outside world.'
'But surely when they come back to the railway station to get their cars then they see your name on the emporium,' responded the management.
'But they don't know me as Sal! They only know me as Li Tao-shih.
'We are all in cognito and only use our Chinese cognomens when on retreat. OK, the Toronto ones use their usual first names when we're out and about. But they still call me "Li".
'And, as you know, my younger sister, Sara, is running the emporium while I'm with Lao Weng. So they probably think Sara is really called Sal.'
Indeed, since Sal had become increasingly involved in Lao's retreats then, with permission from the management, she'd asked her younger sister to keep her 'emporium' open during shop hours. This meant Sara could also use the pottery studio in Sal's absence, improving her skills. Seems the two of them both needed to be around whenever the wood-fired kiln was in use as, for the best part of three days and nights someone had to be continuously feeding it with wood.
There must be plenty of people who think Sara's called Sal, unless they're told. But, although they were of a similar build and height, and shared naturally curly hair, Sal was brunette whereas Sara was a stunningly bright shade of auburn – and seemingly not dyed that way.
After leaving Sal the Property Manager said to the management
'So I see now why His Immortality the Old Gent was so keen to offload the donations to the railway.'
The management confessed to having no idea what she meant.
'Because it means he can't be done by the CPS for living off immoral earnings.'
'What?' the management said, in a louder than necessary tone of voice.
'Well my understanding of Sal's remarks is that she is some sort of "tantrika". I'm sure "providing the yin" is not just some visualisation.'
The management suggested that the shape of Sal's teabowls would be considered yin, and presumably these were part of the rituals.
'Maybe that as well. But the whole female body is also yin. I think His Immortality's secret to his sublime retreats could be considered, at least by those as profane as what I am, as "sacred sex".'
'Sounds intriguing. Are you sure?'
'I was keeping an open mind until Sal divulged her Chinese name. To all intents and purposes it translates as "Priestess Li" – Li is the most common of all names for Chinese women. So she can hardly be some mere assistant to the retreats.'
'Is this something you have some prior knowledge of?'
'No need to get personal. I assume you haven't.'
'Well, there's nothing you could blackmail me about, let's put it that way.'
'But back to matters of good governance for the railway. Lao's donations may well be all above board and made in recognition of "sublime secrets" or whatever. But they could also be tantamount to bribes to keep a secret. Or payments for "special favours" – though I'm assuming considerably more than the nudge, nudge, wink, wink variety. Or some combination of all three.
'Remember that when the Mill Fund was first mooted, Lao specifically asked that Sal benefited as well as the railway. I also seem to recall that he said the retreats couldn't happen without Sal.'
'But if the scenario you are proposing were true, wouldn't the donations be given to Sal as well?'
'Presumably Sal has no idea about the size of the donations. Another reason why Lao wants them offered secretly to the railway.'
The management and the Property Manager agreed that there was no need to be too curious so long as everything was being kept suitably secret. If the worst came to the worst then the railway management had all the plausible deniability they might ever need. But perhaps they ought to assist Sal more if the need or opportunity arose.
However, so far as the management could ascertain, Lao was looking after Sal. She gave notice on her little flat and moved into one of the nicer of the older cottages in Eaton St Torpid, where there was sufficient room for her sister to stay too.
Which was handy as, not long afterwards, Sal and Sara seemingly were taking it in turns to assist Lao with retreats. Although quite what that really meant neither the management nor the Property Manager felt it appropriate to contemplate. Sara's skills as a potter continued to improve and it became difficult to guess who had made which of the pots for sale in the emporium.
Over the winter Lao, with some help from the usual volunteers, installed a wooden platform – the most rudimentary of lineside halts (by agreement there wasn't even a nameboard) – where his friends needed to alight for the old mill.
Otherwise very little else changed as the months turned into years. Except that in the autumn clumps of chrysanthemums came into flower around the old mill. Only the yellow and russet-coloured varieties but with a wide range of sizes to the blooms. Rather than being lined up in regimented rows they formed quite natural-looking clumps– clearly Lao had learnt how to make them grow in a way which appeared so effortlessly natural.
In spring and early summer, the area around the shrine where Great Master Po Yuen allegedly resided came alive with an assortment of peonies. And, at the end of the path leading away from the shrine, was a bed of parsley.
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Text and previously unpublished images copyright Bob Trubshaw 2018–2019