Ramblings: I started school again on Wednesday this week. Added onto that and my usual part-time job, I also have an internship going on this semester, and potentially a paid job in my field if all goes well (wish me luck!). Insane doesn’t even begin to describe how busy I’ll be.
Now, before anyone panics, the answer is NO, I am not dropping this translation project. I told you guys all that to give you a heads up. Ch.1-5 were done in the last week I had before school, thus the regular updates. Starting next week though, updates will be around 1 chapter every weekend (what I’m aiming for), possibly 2 chapters if I’m summarizing any of them, or there might be none a certain week if it gets too busy.
I do wish to see this project to the end, however long that will take, so I’ll try my best. Reading your comments have been a huge encouragement, so thank you all! (That doesn’t mean I’m condemning the silent readers though). Try and stick around with me, ‘kay? I promise this novel will be worth it! 🙂
T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning.
Credits of this chapter also goes to Ari, my proofreader. My supposed beta-reader is MIA at the moment, and I don’t know when she will return, so forgive us two if you find any errors. Just leave a comment and I’ll fix is as soon as I can.
Chapter 5: Aspirations* and parallels
* See translation notes at the end
[Camel] bells rattle as the caravan makes its slow advance on the endless sand dunes. Eight days have gone by.
I wrap the shawl tighter around my head. Turning back, I put four fingers up in imitation of a camera’s viewfinder and adjust the ‘angles’ to focus. In my imaginary frame, I capture a beautiful scene: Golden sunlight shimmers atop the endless line of camels, leaving behind a long trail of footprints on the glittering sand. A strong wind sweeps by, like waves crashing onto the shore, fading the footprints into a blur on the sand.
“Click!” I freeze the scene into a timeless ‘photo’, forever stored in the back of my mind.
“What are you doing?” the little monk asks.
“Nothing,” I withdraw my hands. Unable to tell him how regretful I am for not bringing a camera, I can only sigh and say, “These footprints on the sand will soon disappear, just like the short life of a person.”
I pull in the reins and jump down. I twist my body right and left three times each, shake my head and waist in an effort to warm up, or else my muscles will suffer from cramps later on. I look up and find Kumalajiba staring at me. With a grin, I continue, “Since the footprints will disappear sooner or later, I shall make good use of each step and persevere towards the end with a smile.”
Taking hold of the reins, I tug the camel along with me on the sand. I wish to leave my footprints on this desert from a thousand years ago. Kumalajiba smiles, and copying me, he also steps down to walk. Moments later, two servants step up to hold the reins for us.
After a distance, we look back. Our footprints are lined up in a parallel. Suddenly I come up with an idea, “Come here, walk in front of me”. He looks at me confused but still complies. I trail after his footprints. He walks for a while and abruptly stops to turn around. I almost crash into him but manage to step aside in time.
“We should have been two parallel lines with no intersection in sight. By chance, the two lines are now fused into one.” To think, just eight days ago I was in a place a thousand years later from now! “Fate is really strange!”
“I think different. Having met you, that is the will of Buddha.”
I turn to him and catch his eyes, a pair of eyes as clear as a spring, the purest I have seen in twenty-three years of my life. I am just about to respond when I notice a figure approaching us from far ahead.
When the person reaches us, I realize he is a monk on an alms round*, thin as a rake, his face dusty from the sand. Along with him is a horse as thin as its owner. Kumalajiba hurries over. Jiba also jumps down and orders the caravan to a stop. Mother and son then clap their hands and respectfully greet the old monk.
*a Buddhist practice where monks and nuns go on daily round in the community to collect alms food from lay people; not the same as begging
They then offer food and water to the old monk, who receives and puts them away in the tattered bag slung on his back. After that, a conversation begins amongst the three. The old monk observes Kumalajiba for a long while and says a few words to him with a sad look. He then turns to Jiba, the both of them talking and looking at Kumalajiba at the same time, whose expression has turned disheartened.
A moment later, the old monk bids us goodbye and continues on in the opposite direction. Mother and son appear to be lost in their thoughts.
We climb back onto the camels and continue the journey. I silently guide the camel to where Kumalajiba is and ask, “Hey, what did the old monk tell you?”
Kumalajiba thinks for a bit before answering, “He told my mother to watch over and protect me. In the future I will succeed in revival and growth of Buddhism, salvation of the people, as great as Upagupta.”
“Who is Upagupta?”
“A famous monk from India, founder of dhyāna school.”
dhyāna is Sanskrit name for Zen (禪 in Chinese), a school of Mahayana Buddhism. I’m confused over the identity of Upagupta though. From what I found, he is Buddhist, but has no relation with the Zen school. Some stories in the Sanskrit text Ashokavadana say he was the spiritual teacher of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. Other sources say he is the 4th patriarch after Buddha.
“Wow, the old monk is impressive, he can even see the bright future ahead of you!” I then add, “I believe in what he said. You will definitely become a great monk and be revered by many.”
My words are from the heart. Even at such a young age, Kumalajiba has already demonstrated an extraordinary intelligence. His future will no doubt be remarkable. It is a pity that with my limited knowledge on the Western Regions, I cannot guess which famous figure he is.
Despite my praise, Kumalajiba does not seem to be happy. I have a feeling that those were not all of the old monk’s words. “What’s wrong? What else did he say?”
His gaze drifts faraway. A dejected look crosses his face. “Master also said, if I don’t follow precepts* seriously, I will be nothing but a clever monk.”
*rules of conduct the monastic have to follow, taken as vows, similar to the Ten Commandment; will be discussed more in depth by the two of them in chapter 13
“Not following precepts? How can that be possible!”
His fingers grasp the reins so tightly his knuckles turn white. His head lowers, and the sound that comes out is airy. “Master said, if by the time I turn thirty-five—” the little monk pauses, a hint of blush appears on his usually calm face, and a faint fear passes by his eyes. But it is only a moment, and soon his face is calm again.
“By the time you turn thirty-five?” His expression tells me it is quite a serious matter.
He stays silent for a moment, then he answers in measured tone, “I don’t know how to say in Han language.” That answer only makes me even more curious.
The little monk suddenly pulls his reins and urges the camel to run ahead, keeping a distance from me. Underneath the slanting sun, his thin body and flying cloak casts a dark and lonely shadow on the sand. I wonder to myself, did I say something wrong?
A small woodland starts to emerge not too far away. The caravan has gone head to get ready to make camp. The person wearing the brown robes finally stops and looks back, waiting for me to reach his side. Then he continues on with me in a more relaxed speed.
Guilt briefly passes by his face. He clears his throat before asking me, “Ai Qing, why did you call bhikkhu* ‘old monk’, but call me ‘little monk’?”
*Pali/Sanskrit word for a fully ordained monk; the female equivalent is bhikkhuni
He is obviously trying to change the topic. As for his question, it is because I don’t know any Sanskrit. What does bhikkhu mean? And his name is hard to remember, what’s wrong with calling him ‘little monk’?
I ask him back, “Is there a Sanskrit title for monk* that is pronounced similarly?”
*’monk’ here in Chinese is 和尚 (héshàng), in Viet it is hòa thượng
He shakes his head, “In Sanskrit, no, but in Khotan* (Yu Tian) they use “khosha”, which sounds similar to héshàng.”
*ancient Buddhist kingdom along the Silk Road
How interesting, it seems the term héshàng that we are so familiar with is translated from the Khotan language.
“But that only means one who has been ordained more than ten years, knows prātimokṣa* and able to ordain others. I am too far from that, how can you call me héshàng? Besides, I am not ordained, you can call me Sramanera [śrāmaṇera].”
*rules governing Buddhist monastic life
Sanskrit again. Seeing my confused look, he immediately explains, “Sramanera means those between seven to twenty years old, has taken vows of lower ordination but not the full ordination. After full ordination, they are called bhikkhu, meaning ‘seeker’*. Bhikkhu seeks dharma from Buddha and seeks alms from this world.”
*literal translation is beggar but I dislike using that word
Ah, I finally understand, no wonder these words sound so familiar. Sramanera is shāmí, bhikkhu is bǐqiū [same as héshàng], both are the result of Chinese localization. It seems even among monks, there is a hierarchy of titles. But in China, people just call an old monk lǎo héshàng, a young one xiǎo héshàng [little monk]. Even immature little kids are called héshàng. I did not expect héshàng to be such a respectful term.
[T/N: #banging my head on the table# That, my friends, is translation in all its glory. Everything made sense in Chinese and Viet, but everything is lost in English]
I cannot help but smile. This calm genius boy has helped me build up considerable knowledge in Buddhism. So, even though I am older than him by many years, his maturity and wisdom make me feel like we are peers. And thanks to him, my arduous journey has now gained many joys.
As usual, after our evening lesson, I sit beside the campfire and write. Even though the oil lamp in the tent provides enough light to write, I still prefer this open-air environment. I often feel fascinated looking at the solitary skyline of the desert in this distant past. The wind tonight has changed its temper and quietly breezes by, teasing the firewood into a crackle. Eyes closed, I take a deep breath, turning my mind into a picture of peace and tranquility.
“Every evening I see you writing, what do you write about?” Kumalajiba still sounds a bit awkward in Han, but during these past few days, he has made quite some progress, his vocabulary has become much more colourful.
“Nothing, just a letter to home.” I initially move to cover it, but then I remember that he can’t understand it anyway, so I stop my hands.
“I do not understand a word you write.” The curiosity of a youth is a passionate thing. Eyes ablaze with excitement, he speaks in an eager voice, “The Han words I learned are too few, but I will learn harder, so I can understand what you write.”
I’m not so sure, little monk. My writing is in simplified characters.
I point to a spot beside me, “Do you want to take a seat?”
He is hesitant at first but eventually sits down, careful to keep a distance from me, and extends his slender hands towards the warm fire.
“Why do you want to learn the Han language?” I ask him.
“The Han [people] has many strengths: medicine, law, calendar, and [artisan] skills are all better than Kuchan people. In my house there are many classics written in Han, I want to study them.”
He is indeed always eager about learning. I hesitate on my next question, but decide to go ahead with it, “You are so young, why a monk?”
I know my question seems out of line, but the little monk doesn’t seem offended. He looks at the fire intently and replies, “I became a monk when I was seven. It has been six years, and yet I have not thought about it until the past few days—”
“Wait!” I gesture for him to stop speaking. In a serious voice, I ask, “How old are you this year?”
Thirteen! My mouth drops open. I have thought for certain that he is at least fifteen, sixteen. His tall figure, composed face and calm personality are like an adult, not at all matching with his real age. My God, that means he learned Han when he was eight, not eleven. Five years without usage and he can still hold a dialogue, exactly how many brain cells does he possess?
“Ai Qing, because I am tall, lots of people think I’m already sixteen.” He smiles sheepishly. “Please don’t hold my age against me. I will still study Han seriously.”
“Why would I hold it against you? You are my life saviour!” I pretend to be fine, but inwardly I am not. Does that mean I am older than him by ten years?? No no no, it is he who is older, older by two thousand years. Ah, relative age and absolute age, which one applies? The more I think, the more confused I get, so I stop. Time for a change of topic.
“So, have you figured it out, why a monk?”
He opens his mouth to say something, but then shakes his head. “It’s hard to say in Han right now. When I know enough Han to fully understand [why a monk], I will tell you.”
I can see that he is lost. I dare not discuss Buddhism, but still I want to give him encouragement. Looking up at the sky full of stars, I quietly tell him the ideologies from two thousand years later, “Where I come from, there was a great man. He divided human needs into a hierarchy with five levels. The most basic of these are physiological needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. Once these needs are satisfied, people will then move on to the need for safety. They will want their lives and possessions to be safe from harm. After these needs are relatively satisfied, people will then develop needs for love/belonging: family ties, love, friendship. Next comes the need for self-esteem, including both the respect of others and self-respect.”
Those are the four ‘deficiency needs’ according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I turn to him and catch his glittering eyes. I speak the next words more slowly, “But those are not the highest need. Humans only feel the happiest when their life aspirations* are realized [self-actualization], when their full potential is reached—they can accomplish anything within their given capability.”
*same as chapter title, see notes at the end
He looks at me, his eyes ablaze, and asks in a tight voice, “Aspiration?”
I nod my head vigorously and add, “Aspiration is what you want to pursue, the aim you will work towards in your whole life.”
He stays silent for a minute, then turns his blazing eyes on me, “Ai Qing, do you have an aspiration?”
“Of course!” I clear my throat and add, “Want to know what it is?”
As expected, he is curious, his eyes probing me to continue. I jump up, spread my arms toward the open sky, and say loudly: “I wish to experience history, witness the truth, and write it down in a record as renown as Sima Qian’s ‘Records’* !”
* Tàishǐgōng shū (Records of the Grand Historian), or simply Shǐjì (Scribe’s Records) – a monumental record on the history of China, spanning over 2000 years from the Yellow Emperor to Emperor Wu of Han.
I am finally able to voice out loud my unspoken dream. If I had said this in the 21st century, people would have laughed at me. But standing here before this gentle boy, I have nothing to worry about. Noticing that he has been gazing at me silently, I smile. “Am I too confident?”
He also stands up and nods his head in affirmation. When he speaks, the sound is not high, but full of confidence: “You can [do it]!”
I look at his eyes, clear as water, and feel deeply moved. I did not expect the words of a youth like him to give me such joy and comfort. I imagine myself as an eagle, flapping my wings all around the campfire. Turning back to him panting, I laugh heartily, “You have to think about what your ambition is. One must live life with ambitions for it to have meaning.”
“Ai Qing, I still cannot fully understand what you said. But seeing you happy for having an ambition, I am moved!” Eyes glittering, he looks up at the starry sky and speaks in a louder voice, “I want to be like you and set an ambition to work toward in this lifetime.”
The crackling fire casts a shadow on his sculpted face. A breeze passes by and raises the fire sparks higher up into the air. Above, the sky is filled with thousands of stars fighting to shine. Below, tiny sparks of flame dance their way across the ground. Standing in between is this young boy with a warm smile. For just a moment, time seems to stop as I take in the captivating scene, yet another worth remembering for a lifetime.
Back in the tent, I find myself tossing and turning, unable to sleep because of the excitement from earlier. The homesickness I suffer every night has disappeared. Whenever I recall the words “You can!”, a feeling of warmth would rise in me. Softly, I say to myself, “Ai Qing, you can do it!”
Just as I am about to fall asleep, I suddenly remember that it is not until the Han dynasty does Sima Qian’s “Records” appear. I have inadvertently revealed a future masterpiece. How careless of me! I hope the little monk did not pay attention to it, and that he will not try to find the book in this era.
T/N: The original word is 理想 lǐ xiǎng (lý tưởng in Viet), which means “an ideal”, in the sense that it is a something intangible, some sort of ultimate standard, that you wish to work towards in your life.
As always, if any reader knows Chinese or is well-versed in Chinese history/Buddhism, feel free to comment on any inaccuracies or suggest a better substitute name/word/phrase. Comments on grammar and spelling mistakes are also appreciated. Or any comments at all actually XD