Ramblings: I meant to post this earlier but this chapter is just really long and filled with too many details that required research—places, historical/Buddhist figures, Buddhist sutra, Buddhist/Hindu terminology, etc.
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 19: Visiting the Cakuri Monastery
A creaking sound early in the morning wakes me up. I struggle to open my sleepy eyes and in the haze, I see a thin silhouette standing in the room full of sunlight.
“Rajiva, why so early…”
The backlight makes it hard to see his face but listening to his voice, I hear a hint of embarrassment. Rajiva hurries back out, and another creaking sound plunges the room into darkness once again.
I look at the watch. It’s only 7:30. Ah, I forgot, every day he is already up at 4, and from 5 to 6 is the morning mantra, then it is time for breakfast. For him, 7 o’clock is no longer early. But I still want to sleep… I try to catch some shut-eye for a few more minutes before getting up reluctantly.
Rajiva and I depart at around 9 o’clock. The small Subashi City is already packed with people travelling about, from local monks to traversing merchants. I do not want to give Rajiva any trouble so I try to walk at a distance from him. Rajiva walks ahead, I follow behind, and every once in a while he would stop and look back, then continues on his way.
Rajiva seems to be popular with the locals. Almost every person we see on our way would clasp their hands in greeting towards him. A couple holding a newborn even comes up to him to ask for a blessing. He pats the baby’s head and mumbles a short chant. Grateful, the couple thanks him profusely. Rajiva turns to look at me with a smile and then continues on walking, stopping here and there to greet people on the streets.
We exit the Subashi City and arrive at the entrance of the western Cakuri Monastery. My first impression of this temple is the spectacular pavilions placed on the walls surrounding it. “Kucha has more than ten thousand monks, accounting for one tenth of the population.” The Cakuri Monastery alone has five thousand monks. The prominence of Buddhism in Kucha is most evident by the magnificence of the Cakuri Monastery. However, at this moment, the temple has yet reached the peak seen during Xuanzang’s time.
When she was carrying Rajiva, “Jiva’s awareness became much more pronounced. Having heard about the famous Cakuri Monastery and that there are many great masters residing in it, she would go to the temple and light up incense sticks every day with the nuns, one mind and heart towards the Buddha.” So when he was still in his mother’s womb, Rajiva had already ‘absorbed’ most Buddhist philosophy. His great intelligence was perhaps born from this special circumstance? I stifle laughter at the thought.
We walk towards a low square wall outside the main gate. A statue of Gautama Buddha is placed inside. I chase away all improper thoughts and get into my professional mode, ready to pull out my sketchpad and begin my work.
“Ai Qing, no need to hurry. Let me show you around the temple first, and then you can return here to draw.”
“Really?” I am overjoyed. “That’s right, you are the abbot with special privileges after all! Then, I can come here every day to draw?”
“Naturally,” Rajiva smiles.
Illuminated by the light of early summer, he cannot look any brighter. I force myself to look away.
“Rajiva, where is the jade stone that contains the Buddha’s footprint located? Can you take me there?”
“You know about this jade stone?” Rajiva appears very surprised. He looks at me curiously. “[But] It’s a treasure special to Cakuri Monastery only.”
How do I know about it? The answer is simple: Xuanzang saw it with his own eyes and recorded it in the Great Tang Records. At the end of the 19th century, a Russian treasure hunter was able to uncover this jade stone. He had the foolish notion to break the stone into halves to transport it back to his country. Fortunately, the local people intervened in time and were able to protect the precious stone. After Liberation [Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949], the stone was shipped to the Beijing Museum of Natural History. The bigger half weighs more than 1,200kg and the smaller half weighs more than 700kg.
Now I no longer need to travel to Beijing to see the jade stone, and this time the stone will be whole. How can I not be excited about that? That is why, when Rajiva brings me to a small but ornate altar behind the main hall, and I get to see with my own eyes that enormous jade stone shaped like a clam and yellowish white in colour, I am filled with regret for not taking along a camera. The stone is more than 30cm in width, over half a meter in length and more than 10cm in height. The Buddha’s footprint is formed naturally in the centre of the stone. Depictions of this kind of footprint can be found in many places. [For example,] You can find the footprint of the great master Padmasambhava* anywhere in Tibet, the only difference being that the print is found on trees and natural stones, [left behind] so that Buddhist followers can feel the Buddha’s omnipresence.
* (lit. “Lotus-Born”), also known as Guru Rinpoche, was an 8th-century Indian Buddhist master.
I do not tell Rajiva these thoughts. Instead, I copy him by pressing my palms together in a gesture of respect and place an incense stick on the jade stone. After we step out of the altar, I see that there is a long corridor behind, but both sides are covered, giving off a dark and enigmatic aura that seems to stretch on forever.
Seeing my gaze, Rajiva takes a step toward me and softly says, “That is where full ordination occurs. You are a layperson and thus prohibited from entering.”
Ah, by full ordination he means upasampada! It is no different than receiving a degree from a Buddhist university! Only after undertaking upasampada are they fully qualified to become a bhikkhu [monk]. Rajiva was famous since young and his knowledge and achievements in Buddhism are rivaled by none. However, he still needs to follow the monastic rules. That is why, even though he may have understood the philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism a long time ago, he still needs to undertake upasampada like other novitiates when he is of age.
I once visited such an area [of full ordination] in Longxing Temple located near the town of Zhengding in Hebei Province, north of Shijiazhang [provincial capital of Hebei]. The temple was built during the Sui dynasty [586 CE]. However, the temple did not have long and dark corridors like the ones here. There are not many temples/monasteries that can perform upasampada. Those that can are usually large in scale. Cakuri Monastery is the only one qualified to perform the ordination in Kucha.
Stepping into that long and dark corridor, each novitiate’s mind must be filled with a myriad of thoughts? Have they decided to spend the rest of their lives devoted to the way of the Buddha? To purge all thoughts about love and desires? To take on the responsibility of promoting Buddhism? With those thoughts in mind, the novitiates will slowly walk to the end of that corridor. Awaiting them will be three masters, seven witnesses, shining razors [to shave their hair], and solemn chanting. From that moment on, they will be free from the cycle of life and death, from greed and desires, forever parting with the earthly realm…
I turn around to look at Rajiva, who is silently gazing at that long corridor with a pensive expression. Perhaps he too is thinking about that important day [of ordination]. Will you be the same, Rajiva? Will you be ready to part with the earthly realm?
We walk [next] to a dim hall. Seeing Rajiva, the other monks immediately press their palms together in a half bow. Rajiva nods in reply and speaks to them briefly in Sanskrit. This hall is not very big. At the centre is a statue of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva* and all four sides are filled with paintings. I recognize this Bodhisattva because in his hand is a long staff. Ksitigarbha was famous for this vow:
“Until the Hells are empty, I vow not to become a Buddha,
Only after all living beings are saved, will I myself attain Bodhi.”
His vow means that he aimed to liberate those poor souls in Hells. That is why, after Buddhism entered the Central Plains, this Bodhisattva’s popularity continued to grow. He is considered one of the four central Bodhisattvas along with Samantabhadra, Manjusri and Avalokitesvara. Legend says that Mount Jinhua in Anhui province was the bodhimaṇḍa* of Ksitigarbha.
* a term used in Buddhism meaning the “position of awakening.” According to Haribhadra, it is “a place used as a seat, where the essence of enlightenment is present.”
I stand there comparing the differences between depictions of Ksitigarbha in the Western Regions and those in the Central Plains. A little monk walks in with an oil lamp, hands it to Rajiva and quietly leaves. Rajiva lifts up the lamp to illuminate the paintings on the walls. I am currently in front of an image of a disabled person with broken arms and legs, their face contorted in pain, and all kinds of torturing devices and punishments. How terrifying!
These paintings depict the pain and suffering beings undergo in the eight narakas [hells].
No wonder this Ksitigarbha’s hall is so dimmed and dark. They probably wanted to send the [Buddhist] followers into a scare with these horrifying depictions of the hells. Most temples from mid-size and above have these kinds of paintings.
I know about the eight hells but cannot recall the exact names, so I implore Rajiva to explain.
[T/N: WARNING! The following descriptions of the hells are quite disturbing. I wanted to skip this part but it provides us a clear image, literally, of what beings may face as result of bad karmic deeds, and also of what the monastic may face for breaking their vows. This is what Rajiva and Ai Qing have to consider if they ever decide to pursue a romantic relationship. If you have a weak heart and/or triggers, you can skip this part. Those who feel strong enough, please highlight the white text to read.]
“This is Sañjīva, the hell of reviving. The nails of beings in this hell will turn into iron claws. They will claw each other, and when they turn mad, they will claw themselves, until flesh are no longer and blood is dried. But a cold wind will come by, their flesh will heal and the cycle of attacks will begin all over again.” A trace of sadness lingers in Rajiva’s voice. He pauses for a moment before continuing: “Those who have killed, who have committed wrongful and slanderous acts, will fall into this hell.”
I nod slightly and with his lamp as guidance, we keep moving forward. Only the two of us are remained in this dim hall. Rajiva’s warm voice rings out amidst the solemn mood and in that moment, a melancholic feeling arises in me.
“This is Kālasūtra, the hell of black ropes. Beings in this hell are tied with hot iron ropes, which are used as guides to saw or quarter their bodies. That agony is ten times worse than Sañjīva [the previous hell]. Those who have killed and committed thefts will fall into this hell.”
The oil lamp keeps moving forward.
“This is Saṃghāta, the hell of crushing. Beings in this hell are surrounded by huge rocks that will crush their bodies until their bones and flesh become fractured. Those who have killed, who have committed thefts and sexual depravity will fall into this fell.”
“This is Raurava, the hell of wailing. Beings in this hell are cooked in vats of hot oil or in ovens. Or their mouths might be forcibly opened and filled with molten copper, slowly burning their internal organs. Those who have killed, committed thefts and sexual depravity, who have lied and drank, will fall into this hell.
Buddhist followers who have broken their five precepts, regardless if they were lay people or the monastic, will fall into Mahāraurava, the hell of great wailing. This hell is much worse than the previous hell.”
I suddenly feel so cold ah. The punishments for Buddhists are so much heavier!
“This is Tapana, the hell of fiery heat. Beings in this hell are impaled atop hot iron and their bodies are crushed into pieces. Those who have broken the five precepts will fall into this hell.”
The hand holding the oil lamp suddenly stops moving and trembles slightly. With the light flickering against the wall, those images of people withering in pain become a blur.
“What’s wrong, Rajiva?”
I look up at him. There is only a foot between us. Under the dim light, I see a flicker of pain in his eyes for a brief second before it dissolves into a composed face once again. Rajiva continues with his explanation.
“Buddhist monks and nuns who have killed, committed thefts and/or sexual depravity will fall into Pratāpana, the hell of great heat, where the punishment is even worse than the preceding hell.”
There is an acerbic note to his voice, perhaps because he disagrees with the harsh punishment the monastic receives. Buddhism is very strict with its followers. Amongst those eight major hells, two are reserved for monks and nuns.
Rajiva clears his throat. The hand that dropped down unconsciously earlier lifts up again.
“This is Avīci, the hell of no intervals. Beings in this hell are punished constantly without any pauses. Those who have committed the five most heinous sins (committed murder against their mother, their father, or harm against a Buddha; intended to cause schism within the Buddhist community; or attempted to destroy the Buddha’s image) will fall into this hell.”
With that last painting, we have finished one round around the hall.
“Each of the major eight hells is subdivided into sixteen smaller hells. The crimes also divided into three levels. Those who have committed the worst crimes are sent into the major hell, and the others are sent into the smaller hells.” *
* T/N: This paragraph is originally placed after the next paragraph, but I think it makes more sense for it to be here.
Rajiva places the lamp on the altar of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, kneels down and bows three times, then exits the hall with me.
Greeted by the bright sunlight outside, all the negative feelings inside me are quickly swept away. I feel like Dante* who has just finished his journey through hells. My conclusion is: the human realm is indeed the best!
* Dante (c. 1265 – 1321) was a major Italian poet of the late Middle Ages and author of the famous literary masterpiece titled Divine Comedy (which, taken at face value, describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise).
It is almost noon. Rajiva leads me to the dining hall reserved for Buddhist followers who are visiting the Cakuri Monastery. He sits down with me to eat as well. The way he eats is very elegant, befitting a person of royal background. However, what make me uncomfortable are the secret glances people are giving us. They do not say anything, but I know what they are thinking. They make me feel uneasy.
A person like Rajiva, even if he is from the modern era, is not an ideal choice [of companion]. If he is with me, I will be able to hold my head high everywhere we go, but with him being too good, too smart, too handsome like this, he will overshadow me. I would not only have to always be cautious and on guard against every pretty girl, but also hurt my head trying to find ways to bring my intelligence to his level. What fun can be found in such a life? So my conclusion is: I.don’t.want.it!
“Don’t want what?”
I jerk my head up and catch his clear eyes like pools of water reading me. I am mortified but unable to hide my face, embarrassed but unable to explain myself.
How fortunate! Someone has come to my rescue! It is…a Han person, no, two Han monks!
The two monks engage in a conversation with Rajiva in Sanskrit. I stand by silently observing my countrymen.
Rajiva [then] introduces them to me. They are monks who came all the way from Chang’an to here to study. Their Dharma names [acquired during Buddhist initiation] are Seng Chun and Tan Chong. My eyes widen hearing those names.
Seng Chun and Tan Chong! It was these two monks! They travelled to Kucha to study and upon returning to the Central Plains, they told Emperor Fu Jian of Former Qin that Kumarajiva was a monk with great intellect, a follower of Mahayana Buddhism and whose reputation was known throughout the Western Regions. A reputed monk in the Central Plains named Shi Dao An, having heard about Kumarajiva for some time, also persuaded Fu Jian to bring Rajiva to Chang’an.
When Fu Jian decided to invade Kucha, the emperor said the following to his general, Lu Guang: “I heard the West has someone called Kumarajiva who is proficient in knowledge of the Dharma, of yin and yang, a great intellectual in the region. I find him admirable. Sages are national treasures. Send me Kumarajiva as soon as you conquer Kucha.”
This story was passed on by many Buddhists later on. They believed that Fu Jian’s decision to conquer Kucha was because he wanted to win over Kumarajiva. This is similar to women believing that the Trojan War was waged because of beautiful Helen, or Wu Sangui’s surrender of the Ming dynasty to the Qing [Manchu] dynasty was because of his Suzhou concubine – Chen Yuanyuan. To think that those large-scale wars, with tens of thousands of casualties, were waged in order to win over a person, what an exciting story that makes! I am a historian, so of course, I do not believe Fu Jian started a war to capture a monk. Did Fu Jian really understand what kind of advantages Kumarajiva would bring to him? The emperor wanted Kumarajiva just because he understood the nature of yin and yang? [That is like saying] Emperor Wen of Han only wanted a great intellect like Jia Yi in his court to read his fortune.
* Wu Sangui was a Chinese military general who was instrumental in the fall of the Ming Dynasty and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. Emperor Wen of Han (202–157 BCE) was the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty. Jia Yi (c. 200 – 168 BCE) was a Chinese writer, scholar, and official during the Han dynasty, best known as one of the earliest known writers of fu rhapsody and for his essay “Disquisition Finding Fault with Qin”.
Ah, I let my mind wandering far too long again. I turn around and see the two monks bowing in ceremony towards me. I quickly return the bow. They are the first countrymen I have met in my two time-jumps.
Rajiva introduces me as the niece of the Han teacher he had in his youth, who came to Kucha to pay my respects to the Buddha. I only exchange a few words with the monks. Since my limited knowledge of the Sixteen Kingdoms came from textbooks, I am afraid that if I speak any more, I may accidentally reveal history.
After exchanging pleasantries with me, the monks turn back to Rajiva and continue conversing about Buddhism. Because they speak in Sanskrit, which I do not understand, I turn to look at the paintings on the wall instead.
“That line can be translated into Han as followed: ‘As many beings as there might be in those worlds, Tathāgata would know their myriad streams of thought. And how so?’” *
* Tathāgata is what Gautama Buddha used to refer to himself in the Pali Canon. This quote is found in Chapter 18 of the Diamond Sutra. The English translation used here is based on Red Pine’s translation in “The Diamond Sutra: Perfection of Wisdom” with slight modification.
Rajiva is speaking in Han! I turn around and catch a small smile at the corner of his mouth. He wants me to listen to this passage? Surprised, I strain my ears to listen.
“The Buddha said, all streams of thought are not thoughts, merely spontaneous desires manifested as illusions. And yet they are called ‘streams of thought’. Why? Because it is impossible to retain a past thought, which has already passed without a trace, or to grasp a present thought, since it is still swirling. Even more impossible to seize a future thought, because it has yet to happen.”
* This quote is also found in Chapter 18 of the Diamond Sutra. Translation of this passage was done by relying on the works of Red Pine and Alex Johnson. The actual quote is shorter but Xiao Chun (the author) expanded on it a bit here, probably to help readers understand.
Rajiva is now quite fluent in Han. Coupled with that warm gentle voice, each sound is a precious pearl [metaphor], carrying every word into my heart like a gentle breeze.
“Thus there is no Dharma teaching to be explained, nor is there one who can explain the Dharma teaching.” Rajiva is standing tall in the hall. The corners of his mouth curve into a confident smile. He lightly inclines his head toward the two monks whose heads only reach his shoulder. “Rajiva’s explanations, were you two able to grasp?”
Seng Chun and Tan Chong look as if they just received great wisdom, quietly repeating what Rajiva just said in a mumble, their faces full of open admiration. I look at Rajiva from the corner of my eyes. The confidence that he is exuding and the wisdom he just displayed are too blinding for me to look at directly. Despite his young age, Rajiva’s mannerism is already like that of a grand master.
In the afternoon, we continue with the tour by visiting the northernmost hillside. There are a number of caves formed along the hill, which are used as meditation rooms for the monks. I say meditation rooms, but they are actually just small openings enough to fit one person each. Rajiva points me to one opening that has a vague shape of a human on its wall. He tells me, many ascetic monks once sat in meditation here, and over time, their figures become engraved into the rocks.
Hinayana Buddhism places a lot of emphasis on discipline [meditation]. A monk’s daily routine mainly consists of meditating in a vacant room and emptying their minds. This kind of practice is derived from the yoga* practice in India. Before achieving enlightenment, Gautama Buddha adopted an extreme ascetic lifestyle for six long years. He would sit in meditation for days and months, eating very little, and became very thin. After his awakening, the Buddha resumed normal eating habits and stopped wearing cast-off rags. However, he still kept meditation as part of his daily routine. This became one of the central characteristics of Hinayana Buddhism. That is why there are always a space for meditation in every Hinayana temple.
* not to be confused with the form of physical exercise we know today, which is all about postures. Yoga referred here is a practice in Hinduism to control the senses, the mind, to achieve moksha—liberation, or becoming one with God—through various methods, not restricted to just physical postures.
But the rows of meditation ‘rooms’ before me are all empty. When I ask Rajiva about this, he smiles in reply.
“Ever since Rajiva became the abbot, had asked all the monks to actively go out, lecture and blend in with the surrounding community. Meditations can be done when it is convenient.”
Ten years ago, when Rajiva just came into contact with Mahayana Buddhism, he received many criticisms from Hinayana followers. They denounced him for trying to study heresy. Within the next ten years, using his intelligence, his eloquent public-speaking skills and his connections with the royalty, Rajiva poured all his efforts into changing Kucha’s religious thought to Mahayana Buddhism. Records about Rajiva said: “At that time, the number of monks who converted to the Mahayana school was over ten thousand. How extraordinary that was. Since then, Kumarajiva became revered by all around him.”
“Your mind went somewhere again!”
I pull my wandering thoughts back and look up at Rajiva’s handsome face.
“Rajiva, you are no longer that confused youth who kept hesitating about converting his religious belief.”
“Indeed.” His eyes seem to have travelled to the past. A memory seemed to pass by, for the corners of his mouth are curving into a smile. “Ai Qing, if not for your encouraging words, Rajiva would not have been able to find the courage and ambition [to do this]. The past ten years, every time difficulties arise, Rajiva would recall your warm words. Mahayana emphasizes on liberating all beings and rectifies many shortcomings of Hinayana. It is the only way for Buddhism to spread far and wide, to ferry people across. Rajiva has worked tirelessly to achieve this ambition.”
Rajiva’s eyes are staring at the meditation ‘rooms’ with a faraway look. “With the Buddha’s blessing, Rajiva finally was able to persuade the royal family and many grand masters [to convert]. Hinayana, which has been rooted in Kucha for hundreds of years, has finally seen some changes.”
Standing atop this hill, one can see entire view of the Cakuri Monastery. The water in Tongchang River is rolling in waves, shimmering like diamonds under the late afternoon. The sun has begun to set in the west, casting its remaining rays of light over that tall figure. A gust of wind blows by and messes up his kasaya robes. Against the sunset backdrop, that statue-like figure of his resembles that of an eagle ready to take off into the sky. Below us is a complex of majestic Buddhist structures—his empire, and Rajiva is the spiritual leader of the thousands residing in it.
I suddenly realize that, ten years ago, I was able to converse with him about Buddhist philosophy. But now, his thoughts, especially those pertaining to Buddhism, have reached a level far beyond me. I am just an ordinary person. The knowledge I have is gained through 1,650 years of history. If we were born in the same era, like other [lay] people around him, I would only be able to look at him from far away, and dare not even dream that I can reach him.
“Rajiva,” I take a deep breath and join him in looking down from the hill. “Kucha’s population is a few hundred thousands. But in the Central Plains, millions are suffering in the rages of war, and more than ever, they need a spiritual guidance to lead them through.”
“Ai Qing, travelling to the Central Plains to promote Buddhism has always been a dream of Rajiva.” He turns to look at me. The smile on his face is like a spring breeze. “You always wanted Rajiva to go to the Central Plains, how could Rajiva forget.”
Receiving that mesmerizing smile, my stupid heart begins to beat unevenly.
It is now time for the evening mantra. I insist on returning by myself without his help. Rajiva is now the “CEO” of the largest monastery in the Western Regions, he cannot act like the youth he was, skipping [mantras] whenever he wanted. He has to set a good example [for others]. Hearing this, Rajiva nods in reply. He tells me how to get back [to Masavu’s house] and promises that when the mantra is done, he will return. I want to tell him not to do so, lest unsavoury rumours begin. But the words at the tip of my tongue just roll back inside. I know how he is. Rajiva never lets gossip gets to him. Besides, if I am honest with myself, isn’t there a part of me that looks forward to it [his return]?
That is why, when Rajiva appears at the door just past six, I find myself staring at the door this whole while. The moment the door slowly creaks open and a tall thin shadow appears under the glow of the lamp, my heart suddenly starts to beat erratically. I feel as if my heartbeat can be heard echoing all around the house.
Rajiva resumes treatment of my wound. The close distance between us, that soft smell of sandalwood, they make me feel so intoxicated…
Ramblings: Longxing Temple in Hebei province is quite a magnificent place, over 80,000m2 and a National Heritage site. It is one of the most large-scale and well-preserved Buddhist temples in China. You can access this link to see more photos (scroll past the Vietnamese words).