Sujata Gupta | Photography by Jason Moore
Malik Cotter was 36 years old when he met his master, Dr. Zhong Yu Li. It was 1989 and China had just opened its doors to foreigners. Cotter was one of two Westerners attending Chengdu Medical University. Dr. Li was the school’s lead teacher, an expert in meditation and martial arts practices, and a trained monk. But at age 74, he was wary of taking on new students, especially those who spoke limited Mandarin. Despite multiple degrees in traditional Chinese medicine, including a doctorate and years of study at Beijing Medical School, Cotter figured he didn’t stand a chance.
Then, on a fortuitous encounter with Dr. Li’s neighbor, Cotter received the invitation he’d been seeking: morning tea with the master—a 5-feet, 2-inches-tall, balding elderly gentleman. The two spent half an hour making small talk, as Cotter recalls, and then suddenly Dr. Li looked him in the eye and said, “So, you want to be my student?”
He followed with three questions. “When the body dies, what happens to the mind? What’s the purpose of life? When the body dies, is that really death?” The doctor instructed Cotter to return with answers at the same time the next day. He then stood up. Tea was over.
Cotter recounts this story to me from a small office/ kitchen space in the back of a cobblestone alley in Makawao. Almost two decades have passed since his initial encounter with Dr. Li. In the interim, Cotter’s hair has turned steel gray and wrinkles have begun to creep around his eyes. With his wife, Joyanna, Cotter now owns and operates a pairing of alternative health centers: Dragon’s Den, a Chinese herbal pharmacy, and Dragon’s Den Healing Center, his clinical practice.