Ramblings: Thank you everyone for your continuing support. Reading your comments have often made my day and motivated me to keep going. It will be a long journey translating this novel, but I think it’ll be worth it with all of you guys. wink
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.
Chapter 6: The first congregation*
*refers to a reading of and discourse on Buddhist scriptures
At noon three days later, an oasis emerges in front of my eyes. The past few days, I have grown tired of the monotonous desert. So when I see the scenery change into this vast greenery, I get so happy that I jump up and scream excitedly. Kumalajiba shakes his head in a sign, then tells me with a laugh that this is Wensu.
Wensu, he has mentioned this place in our first meeting. It sounds familiar. There must be a corresponding Han name, but I cannot remember it. While I rack my brain for the name, the caravan arrives at the gates. The air turns festive with Western [Regions] music and its cheerful tunes. A grand welcoming party awaits us ahead.
Several tents are perched along the road to the gates. There are no people inside, only Buddhist statues. Judging by the sculpting skills, I can tell that they are of high-value. People on both sides of the road stand up one by one, each holding a plate of fresh flowers, which they respectfully give to the monastic mother and son. The two then take the plates to the statues and scatter the flowers around*.
*[Lương Hiền’s T/N] The author based this practice on Xuan Zang’s observance of the greeting when he was in Kucha in “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”. Xuan Zang lived in the Tang dynasty, two hundred years after Kumarajiva in this novel, so the custom probably has not changed much.
During that strange ceremony, I take note of the man heading the welcoming team. He is a man around forty years of age with a large and heavily built body. His hair is cut close to the scalp, braided at the back into long strands that are pulled into a topknot and wrapped in a gold cloth. He wears a crown carved with phoenix figures, a red gown sewn with diamond pattern and adorned with jewels. At the front are round shapes sewn with golden thread. And the pants—Oh no, my occupational disease is acting up again, always making me observe every single detail of the person opposite as if studying a lab animal.
Even though I don’t understand what they say, I guess the group, consisting of royal family members and the man I observed earlier who must be the king, is here to welcome important guests. Although Jiba is treated with reverence, it is obvious the grand welcoming ceremony is meant for Kumalajiba.
I have always thought that Kumalajiba is no ordinary monk, but he is still only a thirteen-year-old with no major achievements to his name. He must have some other identity other than a monk, like being a member of a royal family. Could he possibly be a prince? Before enlightenment, Gautama Buddha was also a prince himself.
We are arranged to stay in a grand palace, not in a temple like I thought. I say grand, but it is not comparable to the palaces in the Central Plains. The Western Regions are a dry area where houses are simple, made mostly of wood and clay, and the roofs are flat. But houses made of clay are considered a luxury that is only allocated to government offices, temples and palaces.
Where we reside is a large wing with five rooms. The king even gives us ten additional people to serve our needs. I get my own room and a maid sent by Jiba. My first instruction to the maid is: I want to take a bath.
All the things novels often talk about like hot springs, fragrant flowers, large bath tubs, are nonexistent here. In fact, the conditions are somewhat poor, including the quality of the soap. However, I still feel extremely refreshed, because after being steeped in sand for over ten days, I am finally clean.
When it is time for our evening lesson, unable to hide my curiosity, I try asking the little monk to tell me more about his background. But what I receive is an unshakeable calm face and a reply that says, “Things like eyes, nose, ears, tongue, body and mind are all not real, let alone names and identities.”
Buddhist philosophy again. Answering like that is the same as not answering. I shoot daggers at him with my eyes, “Yes yes yes, all phenomena in this world are not real. Just like Zhuang Zi* who dreamt he was a butterfly but when he woke up, he did not know if it was Zhuang Zhou [real name] dreaming he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming it was Zhuang Zhou.”
* a Taoist philosopher
I blurted out Zhuang Zi’s butterfly dream by accident, but it actually attracts great interest from the little monk, who insists that I tell him more. I guess I will have to.
“During the Spring and Autumn Period* in the Central Plains, there lived a philosopher by the name Zhuang Zhou. One day, he had a dream where he turned into a butterfly, a very happy butterfly that fluttered its wings around. Immersed in that joy, he soon forgot he was Zhuang Zhou. When he woke up, he was surprised to find that he was indeed Zhuang Zhou. Life is like a dream, so he was not sure if it was him dreaming he was a butterfly, or the butterfly dreaming that it was him.”
*approximately 771 to 476 BCE; the period’s name derives from the Spring and Autumn Annals, a chronicle of the state of Lu between 722 and 479 BCE, which tradition associates with Confucius.
The little monk is pensive for a moment, then says, “In India, there is a belief that everything is a dream of Brahma. When Brahma wakes up, the world will disappear, and everything is emptiness.”
I sigh. What a pessimistic argument. Not wanting to continue that line of thought, I ask him, “Brahma, do you mean fàn tiān?”
Brahma, it sounds very familiar. If I remember correctly, Brahma is one of the trimūrti* in Hinduism, the other two being Shiva and Vishnu, and is the god of creation. I have been to India and done some research on Hinduism, so I know a little bit about the topic.
*a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of the universe are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.
“Fàn tiān?” Kumalajiba uses a pencil and writes the word onto my notepad. “You once told me fàn means equanimity, void of all desires. Brahma is the creator of the world and all things, so calling Brahma by the name fàn tiān is very clever. Ai Qing, I heard Buddhism does not thrive in the Central Plains, but with people as intelligent as you around, its [Buddhism] development will be just around the corner.”
I stammer in response, unable to get a word out. Once again I have inadvertently stolen the translation achievement of others! Kumarajiva*, Xuan Zhang, Yi Jing and countless other Buddhist translators, I’m sorry! I did not mean to do it!
*You might be wondering why Ai Qing hasn’t realized by now the ‘little’ monk is in fact the great Buddhist translator Kumarajiva. It is because his name in Chinese is 鸠摩罗什 Jiū mó luó shí, which is what Ai Qing is using here. Kumarajiva is a Sanskrit name. Alas, she fails to make the connection between the two.
Later during the night, a thought keeps dancing in my head. I have cut through space and time to come to Kumalajiba. Do I really exist? Perhaps I am not real? Could it be I am dreaming without knowing it?
It is the first time I think about my presence in this place with such a sad feeling.
For the time being, we settle down in Wensu. I ask Kumalajiba when we will go to Kucha; after all, I am far more interested in that kingdom than this small one. However, he tells me he has been invited to hold a Buddhist congregation at a major royal temple, and that he has reserved a guest seat for me.
That is why I am sitting here next to Jiba, my curious eyes roaming everywhere. It is quite a magnificent hall. A statue of Gautama Buddha, gilded and around two meters in height, is placed on a base in the center. Surrounding the hall are narrow passages for Buddhist followers and tourists. The main hall is held up by wooden columns and clay walls. Light can only come through the main door, so oil lamps are lit everywhere in the hall. This temple design is typical of Theravada Buddhism*, which has many differences compared to Mahayana Buddhist* temples in the Central Plains later on.
*two branches of Buddhism, will be discussed by the two later on in the chapter
[the next few paragraphs are summarized]
Kumalajiba begins the congregation by chanting mantras along with other monks (nearly a hundred). Also in attendance is the royal family. I try to chant whatever little mantra I know of and repeat it five hundred times. After that, Kumalajiba begins his lecture. This reminds me of my trip to Egypt some time ago, where I visited the great Mosque of Muhammade Ali. I came right when the preaching started. However, since I was not a Muslim and did not know any Arabic, I soon became bored. But when I looked at the solemn and pious faces around me, I dared not leave, lest I cause some major disrespect. Once again, I find myself in the same situation with Kumalajiba’s congregation.
I dare not leave, not when the royal family is also in attendance. I also don’t dare to sketch or take any notes, lest I call unwanted attention to myself. So, after repeating my usual method of observing and naming things five times, sleepiness begins to overcome me. However, I cannot fall asleep in the middle of this large crowd, so I secretly shake my arms and feet on the mat, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible.
[end of summary]
I feel somebody’s gaze on me. It turns out to be Kumalajiba. I pout and stick out my tongue at him, then rub my sore bottoms. His mouth twitches, trying to hold in laughter. Then he speaks a few more words and stops completely. Everyone stands up and salutes the little monk with folded hands. I quickly follow suit.
After giving some concluding remarks, the king then claps his hands to call in the servants. A row of them immediately enter, each holding a small tray-table full of food that gets placed before each important guest. Everyone else in attendance gets food served directly to their hands [a figure of speech]. I stare at the food with a dumbfounded look.
There are fruits characteristic of Xinjiang like grapes and muskmelon1. Naan2 is also present. But what is that? This grease and wonderful aroma…grilled meat? It looks like lamb skewers3. Xinjiang’s lamb skewers are famous throughout the country. I swallow my saliva; it has been nearly ten days since I last ate meat. But strangely enough, the king, other secular guests and all the monks also get meat. The entire hall is suddenly filled with the aroma of grilled meat. The king gives order to start the meal. Chewing sounds begin to fill the air.
1 most likely referring to Xinjiang’s famous Hami Melon (Hāmì guā) a.k.a sweet melon
2 I’ve been calling it Western Regions’ bread based on the Viet version, but the Chinese text refers to naan bread (a type of leavened flatbread), makes perfect sense, I should have realized it earlier
3 Chinese text only says 羊肉 yángròu, meaning lamb, but my research found that Xinjiang is particularly famous for lamb skewers aka chuan/chuanr
I look over to where Kumalajiba is sitting and notice he too is eating meat. Even though his [eating] movements are elegant, they still give my eyes a shock. Then I suddenly recall that these monks follow Theravada Buddhism, where the rules allow monks to eat meat. I have to ask Kumalajiba later to make sure. I try to take a bite of the meat—not very tasty, seasoned only with salt, no chilli or cumin, not as good as the skewers sold at the stall in front of my school.
After eating a bellyful, I have to use the toilet. I feel depressed just thinking about the long 48 days ahead. When I return, Kumalajiba is already waiting by the door, basking under the glow of midday sun. Squinting his eyes, he smiles at me, “Ai Qing, I know you do not understand [the lecture], making you sit would be uncomfortable. I have asked the king to exempt you from the next lectures.”
Fantastic! I jump three feet high and am about to grab him for a hug, but then I remember he is a monk and halt my actions. I thank him quickly and run off. His voice chases after me at the back, “Go practice the Kucha words you learned yesterday. If by tonight you don’t remember, a hit on the palms!”
He comes to the evening lesson, punctual as always. In the afternoon, I took a nap and then proceeded to sketch the architecture of the temple, the main hall and the congregation scene that I saw. All done, I sit waiting for Kumalajiba.
I successfully pass my Tocharian test. Now is my turn to teach him Han. I quickly ask him the question I’ve been holding back the whole afternoon, “Why do you [monks] eat meat?”
He appears surprised, “We follow the Hinayana* , of course we can eat meat. But only ‘triple clean meat’ [三净肉 sān jìng ròu].”
* will be discussed later
“What is considered triple clean meat?”
“First, you have not seen the slaughter, meaning you haven’t witnessed the miserable scene of a dying animal. Second, you have not heard the slaughter, meaning you haven’t heard the dying screams of the animal. Third, the animal must have not died because of you, meaning it was not because you want to eat that it was slaughtered. For example, if you go the market and see the butcher cutting up meat, or hear him say it is fresh meat, then that meat is not ‘clean’. Or if you go to someone’s house and the host slaughtered a duck for the meal, it means a being was killed for your sake, and thus cannot be considered ‘triple clean meat’. To sum it up, ‘triple clean meat’ means when it is not seen, not heard, and not suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. * ”
* from Majjhima Nikaya 55.5 (Jivaka Sutta)
After Mahayana Buddhism spread into the Central Plains, its rules prohibited any form of killing, and thus no monks could eat meat. So in our minds, monks are vegetarians. Xuan Zang in “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions” had discussed this issue. The great monk wrote that during his journey to the West, he could not become accustomed to seeing the monks there eat meat.
“But why did we not eat any meat on our way here?” I ask. I have thought they are not allowed to eat meat because I have not seen them doing so in our journey.
“Because before we met you, we have already eaten them all.”
I nod, finally understanding. I wonder, seeing these monks eat meat like this, would the monks in the Central Plains be jealous or affronted?
“You mentioned Hinayana earlier, sounds familiar, what does it mean?”
He thinks for a moment before explaining in a series of strange sounds. I know it is not Tocharian, so it must be Sanskrit—the standard language used in Central Asia. It is also the language Kumalajiba used in the congregation today, which is why I did not understand a word.
I hear him saying another sound: Mahayana. When I travelled to India, I had brought along ‘Lonely Planet: India’ in English (the world’s most authoritative and most popular self-help travel guide series). I remember seeing ‘Mahayana’ often on pages about famous attractions [in India]. It must have something to do with Buddhism. The little monk just said he follows Hinayana, and therefore is allowed to eat ‘triple clean meat’. Ah ah ah, I remember now.
“Those words mean dà shèng [大乘] and xiǎo shèng [小乘] right? Mahayana is dà shèng, and Hinayana is xiǎo shèng.”
Seeing his confused face, I write out the characters for dà shèng and xiǎo shèng on paper.
“乘 shèng means ‘vehicle’, referring to the path of a bodhisattva who seeks enlightenment to liberate all sentient beings, like a boat that helps people cross to other side. Hinayana emphasizes on liberating oneself, thereby becoming an arhat, and is thus called xiǎo shèng [small vehicle] in Han. Mahayana emphasizes on liberating others, helping them reach enlightenment, and is thus called dà shèng [great vehicle].”
I am so proud of myself. See, I even know Sanskrit! However, when I catch the little monk’s shining eyes and knowing smile, I suddenly feel startled.
“Ai Qing, I told you, you are very intelligent!”
I, I, I…have once again stolen someone else’s translation. Jiū mó luó shí [Kumarajiva]’s translation, it seems. I’m sorry, I did not mean for it to happen…
T/N: The two main schools of Buddhism recognized today are Mahayana (it does mean ‘the Great Vehicle’ in Sanskrit, so the Chinese localization is correct) and Theravada (lit. ‘the School of Elders’). Hinayana (which does mean ‘small vehicle’) is often used as a synonym for Theravada. Xiao Chun (the author) seems to suggest the same thing here, which is not quite correct. This is not her fault since there is a lot of confusion/debate even amongst scholars themselves.
If you wish to understand more about the differences in these terms/concepts, read this resource: http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/Buddhism/Misconceptions%20about%20Buddhism.htm
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