Ramblings: Wow, look at this. Look at what excitement over a chapter can do to my translation speed. Even though I’ve read this novel dozens of times. This chapter is roughly the same length as last chapter, albeit less heavy in content. It took me almost 2 months for last chapter and only 2 days for this one lol.
Anyway, I’m sure you all are quite impatient to read so carry on! Hope you like 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.
Chapter 13: A day touring Kucha
In “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”, Xuanzang said the following about Kucha: “Kucha Kingdom spans a thousand li* from east to west, over six hundred li from north to south, and the perimeter of the citadel is about seventeen, eighteen li.”
* I simply used “mile” before, but this is more accurate. “Li” is Chinese mile, a traditional unit of distance, roughly equals 323m during Tang Dynasty (value of li changed from period to period).
Right now, I am standing on a section of that citadel overlooking the city below. In my vision I see numerous mountains that make up the Tian Shan, all covered by snow. At the foot of the range is the irrigation system and a series of neatly-formed fields, also covered by snow, although there are also spots uncovered, revealing darkish soil underneath the sunlight.
“To have such great snowfall, the Kuchan people are really blessed,” Rajiva says as he looks at the Tian Shan far ahead, his breath forming a white mist that dissolves into the air around him.
At my puzzled look, he smiles and explains, “Kucha is arid and has little rain year-round. Only when the winter is cold and there is great snowfall, will there be enough water for the crops next year.”
Ah, that’s right, this place only rains a few times a year, so most of the irrigation is dependent on Tian Shan’s snow. The snow would melt into small rivers, and as long as those rivers exist, they will be able to farm. Places that have no water will turn into deserts. The sizes of countries in Central Asia were small due to this geographical factor.
I suddenly remember that every year in Kucha, there is a grand festival called Su Mu Zhe, also known as the praying for cold festival*. On this day, various activities are held to pray for a cold season and heavy snow. During the Tang Dynasty, this festival was brought over to the Central Plains and became one of the dynasty’s major festivals.
* Sorry, I had to opt for transliteration since I couldn’t find the festival’s name.
“When does the praying for cold festival start?” I am excited at the thought of being able to witness this event.
“At the beginning of the 7th month* each year.”
* Why I did not use July is because the Gregorian calendar was not yet in use, dates and festivals were still based on the lunar calendar
“Great! I’ll definitely go!” I bring my cold hands to my mouth for some warm breath and glance up at him. “You are coming with me, right?”
He freezes for a moment and turns away to look at the Tian Shan, not speaking for a while. Strange, it’s just attending a festival, why is he taking so long to decide? If he doesn’t want to, I’ll ask Pusyseda to go with me instead.
“Ai Qing, one of the Ten Precepts says monks are to avoid music, singing and dancing. I cannot go [with you],” Eyes still looking at the Tian Shan, he speaks in a restrained voice with hints of discontent.
I am stunned. No wonder it took him so much determination to hear me sing yesterday. [T/N: refer to ch.11]. Thinking about how I had unintentionally made him break his vows, a feeling of guilt arises in my heart.
“I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with all the Buddhist precepts. Tell me what the Ten Precepts are so that I’ll be more careful from now on.”
Rajiva is silent for a moment, looking down at his feet, and finally whispers, “The first five precepts are: No killing, no stealing, no lying, no drinking [alcohol], and no sexual activity.”
These precepts sound familiar. Puzzled, I ask him, “Aren’t these the five lay* precepts?”
* lay people as in those who are not monastic but still practice Buddhism
“There is one difference between the five lay precepts and the precepts for monks.” Rajiva’s face suddenly turns red. Perhaps due to the cold wind? He quickly strides over to a low section of the fortress. I hasten after him.
“The 5th precept for the lay is ‘no sexual misconduct’, and for monks is ‘no sexual activity’.” He doesn’t look at me, his eyes glued to the wall.
Now I understand. It means that lay people can marry and consummate their relationship, while monks are not allowed to engage in any sexual relationship. Looking at his crimson face, he is probably embarrassed at having to discuss this precept. I clear my throat and ask him what the next five precepts are.
We step down from the citadel and continue walking. Rajiva explains to me the remaining precepts.
- Abstain from using high and luxurious beds and seats.
- Abstain from using floral fragrances – meaning to not apply your body with any scented products. Oh this is an Indian habit.
- Abstain from singing and dancing – meaning not watching any musical performances. This, he just explained to me earlier.
- Abstain from silver and gold – this is easy to understand, meaning they cannot have jewellery.
- Abstain from consuming food at improper times – meaning to not eat after the sun has set. This I already knew and observed.
We keep talking as we walk and before long, we have arrived at the main square west of the citadel. On both sides of the road are huge Buddha statues, around 4-5m in height, giving the air a solemn feel. If only we could preserve these statues to the modern days, what a treasure they would be.
Rajiva tells me that this is where the General Assembly is hosted every five years. This Assembly is a Buddhist custom, a gathering of the various countries that follow Buddhism. Besides the monks, the lay people can also attend. During the Assembly, there are a variety of activities such as lectures, debates, alms, fasting, etc. All expenses are covered by the king.
I understand. In the Central Plains, there is a similar assembly called “Wu Zhe Da Hui” [Open Assembly]. “Open” here means no covering, no hiding, no matter if one is a monk or a lay person, all are treated equally.
Rajiva quietly waits while I measure and sketch the square. I sketch it plainly and with simple elevation, since I’m not good at drawing and do not want to make Rajiva wait for too long. Besides, I’ll be returning here often, plenty of time to make a more detailed sketch then. Rajiva guides me to northwest of the square, where there is a small river, albeit frozen. On the other side of the river is a magnificent temple. I want to go visit it. There is a bridge on the far side but to save time, we decide to walk across the river.
Even though ice has formed a thick sheet on top, I grew up on the south of the Yangtze River and do not possess any skating skills that any northern children would know. I tremble, too scared to put my feet on the ice. A thin hand with long slender fingers extends in front of me. Without thinking, I grab it and hold tight. That warm and slightly moist hand carefully guides me along. I gaze intently at the ice under my feet the whole time, afraid that I will fall down some hole.
Finally we make it across. I let out a sigh of relief and about to look up to thank Rajiva, but I’m horrified to discover my vision is suddenly coloured with dark spots. Even Rajiva’s face is becoming obscured.
I cry out, “Rajiva, why can’t I see you?”
I feel a hand covering my eyes and the other hand on my shoulder, leaning me against a thin frame and gently guiding me to a place to sit down.
“Don’t be scared. Keep your eyes closed, they’ll be fine in a moment.”
I can feel his breath on my ear, a tingling feeling. Since young, I’ve always disliked people blowing into my ears, so out of pure instinct, I immediately move my head away. Unfortunately, I end up hitting his chin. We both grunt in pain.
“Does it hurt?” We ask each other at the same time. I am momentarily surprised but choose not to dwell on it. I bring up my hand and rub my sore head, mouth whimpering in pain. If am in this much pain, Rajiva must also feel the same, but he does not say anything. I do not know what to think.
After a while, he speaks up, “My fault, I should have told you to not look at the snow for so long.”
His breath is tickling my ear again but this time, I don’t dare to avoid it. I clear my throat in an attempt to chase away the redness creeping up my face.
“Rajiva, I won’t become blind, right?”
“No, you won’t.”
Despite his words, why is his voice trembling? Panic seizes me. I grab his sleeves and hastily ask, “What do I do if I become blind?!”
One of his Rajiva’s hands is still covering my eyes, the other still on my shoulder. It is a gentle touch, and yet I can still feel those too-thin hands through my coat. He tells me again, “No, you won’t,” but his voice is no longer trembling. I am confused. What is up with him?
We sit there for a while, then Rajiva takes away his hands and tells me to open my eyes. That pure youthful face slowly becomes clear before my eyes. His eyes as clear as bottomless lake are watching me with concern, his face flushing red. We are so close, I can see my reflection in those clear eyes. For a moment, my heart skips a beat or two.
I stand up abruptly. “I’m good now, let’s go.”
He seems to suddenly wake up and immediately moves away. His face continues to redden, the colour almost overtaking his honeycomb skin. Even his neck buried in the collar is red. Come to think of it, that was first time we have been so intimate towards each other. Not only Rajiva, even I do not know where to hide my face.
I continue to walk, pretending a calm I do not feel. He is surprised but quickly follows after me. The flush on his face has yet to fade. I clear my throat and ask in a solemn voice, “What is the name of this temple?”
Rajiva looks up, takes a steady breath and calmly replies, “It’s the Ascharya Monastery. Do you remember, I taught you before that ‘Ascharya’ means ‘strange’.”
“Why is it called ‘strange’?”
“Long ago, there was a devout Buddhist king who wanted to travel to distant lands to pay tribute to the Buddha, so he decided to leave the state affairs to his half-brother. Before the king embarked on his journey, his brother gave him a golden casket and told him not to open it until he returns. The day the king returned, he heard from others that in his absence, his brother has been debauching himself in the inner palace [where the women resided]. Furious, the king threw his brother into jail to await punishment. The brother reminded the king to open the golden casket from before. The king opened it but did not understand, so he asked his brother what it was,” Rajiva suddenly stops, making me anxious.
“What was it?” I ask him.
He makes a motion as if to speak, and then falters, a flush returning to his face.
Ah, I remember now. There was a story about this in the “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”.
“It’s the brother’s reproductive organ, right?” I rub my hands together to ward off the cold. How exciting, to think that I would be able to visit this “strange” monastery two hundred years before* Xuanzang!
* Xuanzang’s Records were written in the 7th century CE; Kumarajiva lived in the 4-5th century.
“This brother is very admirable. He already knew beforehand that there will be people scheming against him, and he would have nothing to prove his innocence, so he mutilated himself in order to preserve his life later on.” I cannot help but laugh, “But what a high price that was!”
Rajiva gives me a puzzled look. He probably did not think I would be able to discuss such a sensitive topic so easily. Thinking through, I stop laughing, a bit embarrassed [now]. “So what happened next?”
“The brother told the king: Afraid that there will be false reports against him later on, the brother was forced to make such a decision [to mutilate himself]. The king was shocked, but was soon moved by his brother’s actions. He then let his brother out of jail and allowed him to move in and out the palace freely.
One day, while travelling, the brother encountered a cowherd who was about to geld five hundred oxen. Seeing this, and reflecting that they were about to suffer just as he did, out of compassion, he decided to use his money to buy back the oxen. He felt it was karma. Soon after, the brother’s body returned to normal. Not wanting to be subject to further scheming, he decided to stop entering the inner palace [where the women resided]. Puzzled, the king asked him the reason and was told the story. Afterwards, the king decreed to build this monastery and called it Ascharya, in honour of the brother’s conduct. It has been over three hundred years since.”
I cannot help but burst out laughing again. “Unbelievable! That ‘thing’ could re-grow just like that? Maybe he didn’t actually do it, or maybe didn’t finish the job?”
Rajiva scowls, his cheeks still flushing red, and tells me in a firm voice, “The king’s brother bought all those oxen, performing a good deed, so the Buddha in his compassion returned the brother to normal, how could you say it was all a lie? Thanks to this strange tale, numerous monks from far away flocked to this monastery, giving birth to many grand masters. The king and officials were also in great support, so for the past three hundred years, the incense has never stopped burning in this place. If the Buddha was not moved by the brother’s action, if not for his benevolent power, how else could one explain such a tale?”
I gently slap my mouth in self-punishment. My carelessness has hurt his religious devotion. The tale is indeed hard to explain and since the parties involved are no longer alive, and there is no other way to verify it, they can only believe the tale to be true.
We resume our walk and eventually arrive at the monastery’s entrance. We are received by a monk, who then goes to inform the head master of our arrival. Before we even reach the main hall, the head master is already making his way towards us, followed by some senior monks. The old head master seems very respectful towards Rajiva.
Rajiva introduces me as his Han teacher and explains that since I’ll be leaving Kucha in the coming spring, he is showing me around the city. After hearing it, the head master kindly welcomes me and gives me a personal tour around the monastery. Ascharya Monastery is much bigger than the Tsio-li Temple [where Rajiva and his mom stay]. And thanks to that strange tale, the monastery receives a great number of visitors each day. The main hall’s ceiling is high and spacious. The Buddha statues are highly detailed works, and the murals on the walls are vibrant with colours and complex strokes. I keep praising them as I go around. I feel this strong urge to re-draw all those paintings to bring back to my time.
After one round, I shyly ask to stop to take care of my personal ‘business’. The head master tells a little monk to show me the way. Not wanting to make him wait for my at the door, I tell the little monk to go ahead, and I’ll find the way back by myself.
I step out of the washroom and am about to return to the main hall, when I hear two monks talking at a corner and mentioning Kumarajiva. Curious, I slow down my steps to eavesdrop. They converse in Tocharian but I can understand most of it.
[T/N: The italicized is the monks’ conversation]
“That Kumarajiva dared to bring a woman into a place of Buddha. Not only that, she is a Han woman. His Han teacher, he said. How unbelievable, that he asked a woman to become his teacher. Who knows what their relationship is really like?”
“His background is different from us, so he can easily ignore the precepts. Who will punish him for it?”
“He is well-clothed and well-fed, even has servants, unlike us who do not have a State Preceptor for a father and a princess for a mother. But he is ignoring the precepts too blatantly. Every day coming in and out the monastery without asking the head master, attending the morning and afternoon mantras whenever he feels like it. That kind of discipline, how can it bear fruition?”
“I heard that in addition to the true Buddhist way, he is secretly reading materials on Mahayana. He even debated with the masters about those heretic materials, how disrespectful.”
“That’s right, this kind of person…”
I don’t want to listen any further and silently return to the main hall.
Stories about Rajiva describe him as a person who is “straightforward and open-minded, unlike his fellow practitioners”. For a Buddhist follower, extraordinary intelligence is a double-edged sword. Rajiva’s royal background fosters his natural talents but also gives him a disadvantage. I can understand why those monks were criticizing him, but listening to them talk about Rajiva in such a manner made me very uncomfortable. I suddenly feel a bit angry.
After we exit the ‘strange’ monastery, Rajiva offers to show me other places. I look at my [time-travel] watch. Only an hour left before his afternoon mantra. Sighing, I urge him to quickly return to Tsio-li Temple. I don’t consider those precepts to be that important, but I know that his actions and words are always under watchful eyes. He cannot leave behind his Buddhist identity.
He appears surprised but after seeing that the sky is darkening, tells me that he will take me back to his father’s residence. I decline, telling him that I know the way so I can go by myself. I do not want hear others talking bad about him due to our relationship.
His face turns a little pale. He stares at me, “Ai Qing, you must have heard something.”
I shake my head.
“Whatever it is that you heard, pay no heed to it.”
He tells me not to take heed, but his tone is slightly angry. Swinging one sleeve behind his back, he holds his head high and says, “Rajiva acts not according to old-fashioned customs but to my conscience.”
I sigh. His background and intelligence have made him famous since a young age, but also created ‘conditions’ for him to sometimes ignore certain Buddhist precepts, to be a bit stubborn. But Rajiva, do you not know where that attitude of yours come from? *
* This last sentence was a bit confusing to translate, even after I verified it against the Chinese ebook. Not sure if that was Xiao Chun’s intended meaning.
That day, I stubbornly insist on going back by myself. I am merely a passerby in his life journey. I don’t want the rumours about him to add one more thing that is me.
When I return to the State Preceptor’s residence, a small form wrapped in blankets dives into my arms, chiding me and asking me where I was the whole day. I happily take his hand and play hide-and-seek with him. Laughter soon rings clear across the garden, chasing away all my worries. I play for a while, and then all of a sudden, I see brown kasaya robes appearing at the door. He is skipping his afternoon mantras again!
Ramblings: I bet you all didn’t like how the ‘date’ turned a bit sour at the end. Those ignorant monks! But what can we do, not only is our male lead a serious character, so is our female lead. In some ways, she is even more serious than him about following the precepts. This will come up as an issue again in Book II.
This chapter is actually very meaningful. It serves two important purposes. One, it teases us with a bit of romantic inclination between our main characters, which will help transitioning us into Book II. Secondly, the chapter also tells us the obstacles that their relationship will face in the future: the precepts, his devotion to Buddhism, and the public eye (mainly from the monastic community). This creates a nice tension for the novel’s plot to unfold on. But worry not, this novel is still a romance first and foremost.
Anyway, there is only one more chapter left in Book I. drum roll and then Book II is coming! Who is as excited as I am? XD