Ramblings: Apologies for the whole disabled-comments fiasco in the last post. I promise to not let it happen again, but if it does, please let me know by commenting on another post. Anyhow, here is the long-awaited ch.17!
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 17: In any case, your return is a blessing
The next day, the Persians resume their journey to Chang’an. I’m not a Persian, nor am I a Zoroastrian; I cannot continue to stay at their temple for free like this. I thus decide to take a walk around and along the way, find an inn with a spare room.
The streets are still full of people jostling towards the western gate. I seem to hear them mention Kumarajiva. I stop a middle-aged man and ask. He tells me that today, at the main square, there will be a lecture by the famous Buddhist master Kumarajiva. It is a rare opportunity, so everyone is hurrying to get a good seat. I don’t know if I actually understand anything he says next, only know that I subconsciously nod in reply, while my feet just float to go where he points to.
I return to the main square that hosts the “every five years assembly” [refer to ch.13]. The two Buddha statues that were in the procession yesterday must be kept in some temple around here.
Everyone is sitting on the ground, chattering away. On top of the dais is a golden lion throne, and on the seat is a brocade cushion made with golden threads. The threads glitter under the bright sunlight. I arrive late so my seat is all the way at the back. I notice that the crowd has more women than men. The women’s cheeks are red from excitement and they are all craning their necks to look at the dais. Ha, it seems a handsome man will always attract attention, even if he is a monk. If today’s lecturer is not Rajiva but some old monk, would there still be this many women in the audience? I remember discussing with Rajiva once about a quote from Confucius: “Master said: I have not seen one who loves virtue as he loves beauty.” [refer to ch.10] The old master was certainly right!
The crowd is stirring. The women crane their necks even more. My eyes are also looking anxiously at the dais. Someone is stepping up! It’s not Rajiva, however, but Bai Chun the king and nobles, who then arrange themselves in a circle. After that, it’s Rajiva! Still wearing the golden kasaya robe and a calm demeanor, he slowly steps toward the lion throne. Bai Chun kneels down before the throne and offer two hands out. Rajiva gently puts one foot on Bai Chun’s hand, the other foot on the king’s shoulder, and uses that to prop himself up onto the throne. The crowd is caught in surprise. Perhaps not only me, but even the Kuchan people have not seen such a display of reverence. In Rajiva’s biography, there is a passage that says: “The Kuchan king ordered for a golden lion throne to be made, and a brocade cushion from Da Qin to be placed on top. That luxurious throne serves as Rajiva’s seat during his lectures.” The words were not false.
Once Rajiva is seated, Bai Chun and the nobles cross their legs and sit on the carpet. Rajiva begins to speak in Tocharian, perhaps because this is a public lecture and the prevalence of Sanskrit is not high. Rajiva’s voice has lost the boyish touch of the thirteen-year-old. It is now a voice of maturity and gentleness. There is a certain musicality to it that seems to permeate every nerve of the audience. His introductory remarks are brief and succinct, making everyone feel at ease. His public-speaking skills have improved greatly. He must have participated in many lectures like this in the past years.
Rajiva begins his lecture. He tells the story of the when the Buddha was dwelling at Anathapindada Garden in Jeta Grove, near Shravasti [an ancient city in India]. The garden was a gift from Anathapindada [given name Sudatta, chief disciple of Buddha], having purchased it from Prince Jeta, as the residence for the Buddha and 1,250 bhikshus [fully ordained monks]. One day before noon, the Buddha put on his kasaya robes, picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti to seek alms food. When he was finished with his almsround, he returned to the monastery to eat the midday meal. Then he put away his robe and bowl, washed his feet, arranged his cushion, and sat down cross-legged. At that time, the Venerable Subhuti [another disciple] stood up, bared his right shoulder and put his right knee on the ground. Pressing his palms together, he asked the Buddha to begin his teachings. *
* This story is the beginning to the Diamond Sutra, an influential scripture in Mahayana Buddhism and a key object of devotion to Zen Buddhism. It was first translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva.
T/N: This paragraph was translated based on 2 books I found: “The Diamond Sutra” by Red Pine, and “The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion” by Thich Nhat Hanh.
Frontispiece of the Chinese Diamond Sutra, the oldest known printed book in the world (dated 868 CE), found in the Dunhuang caves. The translation on this scroll is Kumarajiva’s.
The rest of his lecture is lost on me. The beginning was a story, so I could comprehend without difficulty using my Tocharian vocabulary, combined with knowledge on Buddhism and materials about Rajiva that I managed to learn after returning to the 21st century. But the next part of the lecture is complex Buddhist philosophy. Even though Rajiva lectures at a moderate pace and articulates every word clearly, there are too many Tocharian words I have not learned, so the whole thing becomes incomprehensible. This reminds me of that time when I attended Rajiva’s first lecture at Wensu—a vivid memory, as if it happened only yesterday. Actually, all my memories of Rajiva are very distinct and fresh, because the events happened less than a year ago.
Rajiva’s movement raises one of his sleeves, revealing a string of beads on his left hand. Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Why do I have a hunch that it is the New Year’s gift I gave to him before I left? I observe that figure on the lion throne carefully. Despite the far distance, I can still see the calmness on his face. Unwittingly, I let out a sigh.
Rajiva, the past couple days, I kept chasing after illusions of you, but could never get anywhere near you. Will I become just like these women in the audience with hearts in their eyes, only able to see you from a distance? You keep going with your lecture. I promise that this time, I will not leave, but will you be able to see me?
The lecture continues on for a couple of hours. Rajiva does not have any notes in his hands. In fact, throughout the entire lecture, he does not clear his throat even once [as in to pause for a breath]. When we were in Wensu, he lectured continuously for forty nine days. Even though I only listened to half a day, I am still certain that he would never need to rely on notes. I know he is highly intelligent and is gifted with a great memory, but still I cannot help feeling awed. On my part, I painfully admit that I could only understand about 20% of the lecture and comes to this conclusion: Rajiva just lectured on the meaning of “emptiness” in Mahayana Buddhism, and the sutra he spoked about is one of his most famous translations later on: The Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sutra, commonly known as the “Diamond Sutra”.
I cannot recite the Diamond Sutra entirely, but after returning to the 21st century, I spent a lot of time studying this sutra of great importance to Rajiva. The whole text of Rajiva’s translation is not very long, not more than 5,000 words. It is a sutra recounting the dialogue between the Buddha and his senior disciple Subhuti. The concept of “emptiness” in Buddhism is difficult to express using plain words. That’s why, in the Diamond Sutra, there are many esoteric ideas used to attempt to explain the inexpressible. This sutra has six versions in total. The Chinese translation was done by both Rajiva and Xuanzang. Rajiva’s translation is called the old version, and Xuanzang’s is called the new version. But Xuangzang’s translation, a literal rendering word for word from the original, is not remembered by many. Meanwhile, Rajiva’s translation, which favoured conveying the meaning over being precise, is circulated far and wide the past 1,650 years.
In Rajiva’s translation of the Diamond Sutra, I love this gatha [short verse] the most:
“All created things are like a dream,
an illusion, a bubble, a shadow,
a drop of dew, a flash of lightning.
Contemplate them thus like this.” *
* see Translator’s Note at the end
This beautiful and elegant gatha captures the sutra’s full title perfectly—“Cutting Through Illusions – Transcendent Wisdom”. The gatha is often called the “Six Similes” verse. Reading these kinds of lines, it is easy to understand why Rajiva’s translation is so highly regarded over the centuries.
That he is lecturing on the concept of “emptiness” so publicly means that he has converted from Hinayana to Mahayana Buddhism, actively promoting the latter despite opposition from other monks in Kucha. His hard work over the past ten years has culminated. The Kuchan people are now believing and following Mahayana Buddhism. But what Rajiva doesn’t know is that after he left Kucha and never return, Mahayana’s influence will soon decline. Hinayana will rise again, until the Kuchan were forced by the Uyghur to assimilate and follow the religion of Islam. Mahayana Buddhism only existed and flourished under Rajiva’s influence, like a flower that blooms early but withers when night comes!
The lecture has ended but I do not leave immediately. Instead, I walk northwest of the square. The frozen river from before is now flowing freely under the bridge. On the other side of the river, the “Strange” temple is still standing solemnly. The temple’s roof is glittering with gold; it must have gone under renovation. I smile, recalling that moment when I took hesitant steps on the ice, clasping Rajiva’s warm hand tightly in my grasp. That was the first time I experienced “snow blindness”—a painful temporary loss of vision caused by overexposure to the sun’s UV rays reflected on the snow. I close my eyes and recall that moment of fear.
“Rajiva, why can’t I see you?”
“Don’t be scared. Keep your eyes closed, they’ll be fine in a moment.”
“Rajiva, I won’t become blind, right?”
“No, you won’t.”
“What do I do if I become blind?!”
“You have returned!”
Huh? The last sentence does not seem to be from my memory. I open my eyes and turn around. In a daze, my eyes kept opening wider and wider, until the only image filling up my vision is that figure of calmly demeanor…
“Ten years have passed, why is your expression still so silly?”
Ah that’s right, he used to say, if not because of my silly expression, I would look much more intelligent. The memory is still so fresh in my mind, but for him, it has already been ten years. My nose stings.
“What’s wrong? Do you not recognize me?”
His right hand reaches out, about to touch my shoulder, but then withdraws back. The eyes that were staring at me intently suddenly blink three times, cast down, brows furrowed. He suddenly grabs my right hand: “How?”
I follow his eyesight and look at my palm. The skin on my palm and elbow is scraped from the fall yesterday, but hidden in my clothes, they cannot be discerned from the outside. Only during yesterday’s night, when I stayed at the Persians’ temple, did I pull up my sleeves and gave my arm a cursory treatment. Right now, the scape is bruising purple and swollen. In this era, without anti-inflammatory drugs to treat these kinds of wounds, one can easily lose their life. If I cannot treat it properly, I must return to the 21st century.
I am lost in my thoughts until I felt being dragged away.
“Where are you going?” I ask.
Rajiva’s hand is still as warm and moist as before.
“To find a physician.”
He looks up at the dais. Everyone has left, only a few monks are remained cleaning up.
“The king has returned, come into the palace with me.”
“You…” I hesitate, “Do you not wonder why I haven’t changed?”
I feel weird if he doesn’t ask, but if he does ask, how would I explain it to him?
After ten years, Rajiva has grown up into a fine, handsome man. But I have not changed a bit. Then I realize he has ‘caught up’ to me—we are now both twenty-four. That man of the same age as me is pulling my hand, careful to not touch my wound. But Rajiva is a monk, and there are people there…
Feeling my steps stopping, he turns around and sees me staring at the hand that is holding mine. Rajiva immediately lets go, face flushing just as he did ten years ago. Eyes cast, he softly says: “Pusyseda said you are a fairy…”
He looks up at me, his light gray eyes as shining and pure as before.
“In any case, your return is a blessing.”
Hearing him speak, my nose suddenly stings inexplicably. I must be catching a cold!
We cease going into the palace to find a physician. I’m afraid to meet someone I knew. Rajiva doesn’t see me as a monster, but what if others tie me up and roast me in a fire? It’s better to be cautious. I do not tell Rajiva my worries, but seeing my hesitation, he understands right away.
I sling my Northface backpack on my shoulder and climb into Rajiva’s carriage. He offers to help me find a place to stay at night. His carriage looks simple on the outside, but is very comfortable inside. There are cushions to sit on and the horses are in good shape. As a monk, Rajiva should not have personal possessions, but in his whole life, he never has to worry about physical needs, always has attendants to serve him. When he was at Kabul, he was not yet ten but was already receiving special treatment: “Every day there are two dried geese, three measures of rice and flour, six measures of butter. His residence has five young monks, ten little monks overseeing general affairs and cleaning. One can thus see the respect he garnered.” * In the TV dramas I watched, the little monks often had to sweep with a big broom, but Rajiva probably does not have to do any of these trivial tasks in his whole life…
* Not sure where this passage is from, or what exactly it was saying. Even comparing it with Chinese text does not help.
The carriage’s sudden lurch cuts through my wandering thoughts. I turn around and look opposite of me. Rajiva’s face has turned red again, since when I do not know.
I clear my throat. My eyes travel to the string of beads on his wrist. The original colouring is fading, and some beads even show signs of cracking.
“So old, why are you still wearing it?”
He withdraws his hand into his sleeve. “Still wearing it, do not want to change…”
I pull out from my backpack the string of agate beads the Persians gave me.
“Wear this instead.”
Rajiva looks at the beads in my hand, appears very surprised. The beads are uniformly shaped, crystal red in colour, one look at it and you can tell it’s a valuable item. A long moment later, he reaches out to accept the beads but does not wear them and instead holds it carefully in his hand.
He looks at me with a glazed expression. I think to myself, this carriage is too bumpy…
T/N: Okay, about the quoted gatha from the Diamond Sutra. The translation I used follows Rajiva’s translation rather than the original in Sanskrit. This was done with the help of Buddhistdoor Global’s website.
According to the translation and commentary by Red Pine (Bill Porter) in the book I found from the library, the original text of the gatha in Sanskrit contains 9 similes in total. He offered a more literal translation of the gatha as followed:
“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.”
In his commentary, Red Pine wrote: “In his gatha, Kumarajiva replaces abhra (clouds) with ying (shadows) but does not include dipa (lamps), timira (cataracts), or akasa taraka (stars in space), giving him six instead of nine similes. The last line of the gatha has been moved to the beginning in all Chinese editions…” (pg. 434).
There is another English version that manipulates the words a bit to make the gatha rhymes (translated by Alex Johnson at diamond-sutra.com):
“Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
“So is all conditioned existence to be seen.”
I personally like this gatha too when I first read it. There’s something captivating about it. Taking literally, it may seem too pessimistic perhaps, this idea that life is nothing but a dream. But isn’t there some kernel of truth, of wisdom, in that gatha too? I’m amazed at the way Xiao Chun managed to weave Buddhism into the novel and captured my attention so. Perhaps it’s the inner philosopher in me, the agnostic viewpoint I have on religions.
Of all of the books I consulted for this gatha, I like this commentary by Thich Nhat Hanh in “The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion” the best:
“Composed things [or created things] are all objects of mind that are conditioned to arise, exist for awhile, and then disappear, according to the principle of dependent co-arising. Everything in life seems to follow this pattern, and, although things look real, they are actually more like the things a magician conjures up. We can see and hear them clearly, but they are not really what they appear to be…
After reading this verse we may think that the Buddha is saying that all dharmas [in the sense of ‘phenomena’] are impermanent — like clouds, smoke, or a flash of lightning. The Buddha is saying ‘All dharmas are impermanent,’ but he is not saying that they are not here. He only wants us to see the things in themselves. We may think that we have already grasped reality, but, in fact, we are only grasping its fleeting images. If we look deeply into things, we will be able to free ourselves from the illusion.” (pg. 137-138)