Ramblings: Surprise! I am back with another chapter already? I know, I’m surprised myself too :)) Jokes aside, this chapter is an important milestone in the story and one that I’ve been wanting to translate for a while. I was also able translate this chapter much faster since it required minimal research this time. However, it is much heavier in emotions, so prepare your heart, everyone!
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 words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 22: Going for a walk
Ever since that evening, Rajiva has not returned even once [due to summer retreat]. I thought I would be fine with it, but as soon as the clock hits five in the afternoon, I find myself sitting still in the room, my eyes staring at the gate until the lights have gone out and the Subashi city has plunged into darkness. Every day, I would walk around the city with my sketchpad in hand, on and on, and unknowingly my feet would always lead me to the Cakuri Monastery at one point or another. I would pace back and forth in front of the entrance for a long while until the little monk guarding the gate starts to ask after me, at which point I would ‘wake up’, bow my head and quickly run away. There is an inexplicable sadness weighing in my heart, as if there are million hands grabbing and squeezing my heart. I try to focus on sketching the city, but his face keeps appearing again and again on the pages, one portrait after another, only to be erased a moment later.
There are only two days until the Su Mu Zhe festival, but Rajiva still has not appeared. When the festival ends, I will have to leave Kucha. Before I go, will I be able to see him one last time? Even though I know not meeting again would be for the best, so that I can forget it all…
That night, I curl up in the bed, my eyes still watching the gate, my thoughts a mile away. The bookshelf that once fascinated me is right in front of me, but now it hardly piques my interest. It is ten o’clock, which in the 21st century is only the start of nightlife, but in this era, ten o’clock is deathly quiet. I let out a long sigh. Yet another night is passing by.
Suddenly I hear a knock, the sound very soft, but I could catch it still. Next comes the sound of someone talking to Masavu in the courtyard. They are talking in Sanskrit. It must be him!
My heart beating fast, I sit up, jump off the bed and out of the room. I find Rajiva talking to Masavu in the courtyard but in the darkness, I am unable to make out his expression. Worry gnaws at me. If it is not something important, he would not have come here this late at night. Something must have happened.
I catch a sad look on Masavu’s face as he returns to his room. Rajiva slowly walks toward me. Each step of his seems to take an enormous amount of will.
“This late at night, Rajiva should not have come…” his voice trembles, “But, my mind too full of thoughts, I went out for a walk, and somehow my feet led me to this place. Rajiva stood outside the gate for a long while before deciding to knock.”
He looks up at me. The weak light from the oil lamp inside the house shines on his face, a face lined deep with sorrow. Exactly what has happened to render the usually calm and collected Rajiva into this state?
He stands rooted in the spot, a helpless look crossing his face. Using my most gentle voice, I tell him: “Rajiva, let’s go out for a walk.”
He looks at me with surprise, then with gratitude, before tilting his chin down and speaks in a small voice: “You should put on a coat. It’s cold outside.”
Subashi City during this hour is the picture of silence. The street lights have gone out, but the glow from the moon overhead is enough to guide our feet forward. For a while, we walk in silence. This is the first time I have been outside with him this late at night. Rajiva must also feel a bit awkward.
Subashi is a small city that holds more importance in religion that in military, which is why it lacks the usual walls like those of the other citadels. It does not take long for us to exit the city and reach the Tongchang River. Since it is summertime, the water is rushing over rocks in rapid currents, a clear sound amidst the quiet night.
We find a boulder next to the river. I sit on it and draw my knees up, watching him in silence. The moon casts its glow on him, forming a small halo of light on his head.
“My Hinayana Master from Kabul was here recently.”
There are stories about Rajiva trying to win over his Hinayana teacher, Bandhudatta, with the Mahayana doctrine.
“How do you know the name of my teacher?”
That startled me. “I…” Of course it was because I read texts about you!
“Ah, that’s right, I once told you [of his name]. To think you’d still remember it a decade later.”
Rajiva told me this in his youth? How come I don’t remember?
Embarrassed, I quickly change the topic: “You discussed Mahayana teachings with him?”
“The past few days, Rajiva has been engaging Master with extensive discussions about the Mahayana doctrine, emphasizing on its good points, which Master has come to recognize. Master even asked Rajiva to be his Mahayana teacher, acknowledging my achievements, but no matter what, he is still my Hinayana teacher.”
I nod in agreement. In the world of Buddhism, when a person sets up a new doctrine, a new school of thought, and wants it to be accepted, then he must first win over the teacher who first brought him into Buddhism in a debate. Rajiva is no exception to this practice. This means that he must have emerged victorious in his (rigorous) debate with his own master. Even though after the debate, Bandhudatta has said that he will consider Rajiva to be his teacher in ceremony, the master still does not intend to change his own doctrine; in other words, Bandhudatta is not letting go of his title as Rajiva’s “Hinayana teacher”. Is this the reason for Rajiva’s frustration and sorrow tonight?
“Rajiva, everyone has their own ideologies. You being able to gain the master’s recognition of your philosophies is already a great accomplishment. Unless you also wanted the master to abandon the Hinayana school altogether?”
He looks at me in surprise. “Rajiva does not dare to be that arrogant!”
“Then why are you so sad?”
Rajiva turns silent, eyes fixed on the river, lost in his own thoughts for a long moment.
“My mother…” he bites his thin lips, as if he wants them to bleed, “Today, Master Bandhudatta tells me that three months ago, in Tian Zhu [India], my mother…has certified to the third fruit.”
I do not understand. “What does it mean to certify to the third fruit? Is that a terrible thing?”
“Third fruit, also known as anāgāmi, is the third of the four aspirants that a [Hinayana] Buddhist practitioner wishes to reach.”
Seeing my puzzled look, he elaborates, “Anāgāmi can be translated as ‘non-returner’. It means that having reached this stage, one will not return to the human world, and instead is reborn into the heaven of the Pure Abodes, where they will continue meditation to cut off the remaining five fetters [chains], to be completely free from the cycle of life and death [saṃsāra] and never reborn again.”
Rajiva chokes up and takes a deep breath to calm himself, but his voice continues to tremble: “My mother has attained fruition of the path, has freed herself from sufferings and pains and entered the formless realm…”
I finally understand. He has spoken for so long just to tell me that Jiva, his mother, has passed away in India.
Historical records wrote that Jiva left Kucha to India by herself. Nothing is written about her after that. Turns out she passed away in India. And this news Rajiva just learned from his master Bandhudatta.
I stare at Rajiva in shock. No wonder he is filled with grief. Jiva’s influence in his life was greater than anyone else’s. She was the one who introduced him to Buddhism, who brought him to Kabul to study and escape the empty luxurious life of royalty in Kucha, who encouraged him to follow Mahayana doctrine. His life before the age of twenty was the result of her hands. Perhaps to Kumarayana, Jiva was not a model wife, but to Rajiva, she was a great mother, the founder and guide of his path in life.
“Rajiva, if you are that sad, then you should-”
“No!” He suddenly raises his voice, breathing fast, “Rajiva is not sad. Mother has certified to the third fruit. Her wish to be freed has been realized. She has reached the formless realm, no longer plagued by sufferings and pains. How can I be sad? I should not be sad!”
Rajiva is clearly overcome with emotions, his breaths short and fast. Those words were lies, weren’t they, Rajiva?
“Rajiva,” I gently pat his arm, “In this kind of situation, it’s normal to be sad, because you have love, because you love your mother. Then why must you suppress your feelings so?”
“Love?” Rajiva murmurs the word as if it weighs a thousand tons, making him unable to fully form the sound, and what comes out is a trembled breath. “The Buddha said, ‘All things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature.’ Rajiva is a Buddhist disciple, how can I love?”
“The Buddhist doctrine tells us that life is suffering [dukkha]: birth, aging, illness, death, frustration, separation, dissatisfaction [and so on]. The origin of this suffering is attachment, or love. To reach nirvana, one must ‘extinguish’ love, and thus be free from the cycle of life and death, from suffering and pain. But, think about it: Was the Buddha entirely void of love? He had a wife and son, did he not care about them at all? He told us love is suffering, because he himself experienced the sorrows that love brings? And if one can really extinguish their desires, then why was the Buddha only able to do so at the time of his death? Nirvana, blown out, extinguished, release, without desire, without love, without craving…all these different terminologies are merely synonyms for death. Only death can extinguish desires. Is it because the Buddha was aware of this ‘truth’, and that is why he painted a formless realm, a heaven so to speak, to compensate for the all the sufferings a practitioner has to go through when they decided to cease all desires in this life? But why, why must one-”
“Ai Qing!” He cuts me off harshly, mouth trembling, his head in his hands, clearly in pain. “Please, do not speak any further…”
Rajiva turns his head to the side, not letting me see his face. His shoulders tremble under the moonlight. I can hear his uneven breaths. I move to stand in front of him and gently pull him into my arms. His body stills, and although he is not pushing me away, his breathing seems to have stopped.
“Just let your tears out. You are human, not a god. Crying because of a loved one is nothing to be ashamed of. If you feel like crying then just do so. You will feel better afterwards…”
I pat pat his back gently. Although he is tall, his body is gangly and thin in my arms, making my heart constricts in pain. I wish I can transform into Jiva to give him comfort.
After much internal conflict (I think), Rajiva slowly wraps his arms around me in return. His movements are careful and light, as if I am made of paper and will crumble in his hold.
“Ai Qing!” I can feel the sharp fall and rise of his chest, can feel his arms tightening his hold.
“Ai Qing!” He continues to call out my name in a soft tone. Hot tears begin to fall down and soak through my shoulders, only to be cooled down by the passing breeze, before the cycle repeats itself again. Rajiva has finally let go and cried like an ordinary person.
He cries for a long time, as if this is the first time he has done so. A lifetime worth of tears finally flowing out. I cry along with him. We stay in each other’s arms just like that, crying with our whole bodies, until even the earth and sky get turned into rivers of tears…
I do not know how long it takes before we can calm ourselves. I have not cried this much before. Exhausted, I lean onto him so as to not fall down. Rajiva has also stopped crying, but he still has not let me go. The warmth of his body is setting my heart aflame. Not wanting to step out of his embrace, I dare not utter a single word, lest I ruin the atmosphere.
At long last, Rajiva lets go of me. The moon has vanished, so I cannot make out his eyes, only hear his voice speaking slowly: “My mother knew that my wish is to travel to the Central Plains to promote Mahayana Buddhism, so before she left Kucha, she told me that whether Mahayana teachings can spread to the East will be dependent upon my efforts. But this responsibility brings no personal benefit for me. So what is my intention?”
I am still caught in the emotions from earlier, so I can only watch him in silence.
He pauses for a moment before continuing: “My reply was that Mahayana Buddhism aims toward the benefit of all and not just my own. If Rajiva can spread the Buddhist doctrines, help everyone become aware and liberate themselves, then even if that requires stepping into pan of hot oil, Rajiva will still not waver!”
When Jiva was still around, Rajiva was a child prodigy well-protected and cared for. Despite his intelligence, he was more or less a greenhouse flower that had not weathered the stormy winds of life. After Jiva’s departure [to India], Rajiva had to depend on his own strength and will to continue with his path. Can that ambition formed in his youth withstand the hardships? Rajiva does not know that Jiva’s worries will become reality in the near future. The price Rajiva will have to pay for promoting Buddhism in the Central Plains is the criticisms of later generations. If I can, I wish I do know what his future looks like.
“Rajiva, even though your mother is no longer by your side, she will continue to live in your heart. Whenever you encounter troubles [in the future], you will remember your promise to her and overcome those obstacles, right?”
Rajiva nods. I try to find a change of topic to temporarily avert his mind from grief.
“Rajiva, tell me some childhood stories of yours, ones I have not heard before.”
Saying I wanted a change of topic was merely an excuse, because I honestly am curious about his childhood [beyond the historical records].
We just sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, as he recounts the stories: of his strict mother and her quiet affection, funny stories about his masters and fellow disciples, stories of his travels amongst the kingdoms in the Western Regions. Each story is of great interest to me. I find out that a person possessing an IQ of 200 like Rajiva was once a child who got teased by his fellow disciples, who got scolded by his mother for not having memorized his lessons. I realize he too has a [relatively] normal childhood; previously, I thought he has always been this intelligent and mature person since young.
To make him feel better, I reciprocate by telling him stories about me, about my family, my parents, classmates, my boss, about the books I once read, the places I have been to. Obviously I had to water down the stories into a language he can understand and to avoid revealing too much about the future.
Far away, atop the Tian Shan range, carmine rays are making their ways across the sky. The starry night has disappeared without us knowing. I look at my watch. It is nearly four in the morning. We have sat through a whole night.
I turn to Rajiva, “Let’s return. It’s almost time for your morning mantra.”
Rajiva looks as if he has just woken up from a dream. “Did we really sit through a whole night? Ai Qing, are you tired?”
I shake my head. I am not tired, but my body feels frozen. My thin coat is not enough to shield me from the chilly air of early morning.
Rajiva grabs my hands. His are not any much warmer. I smile, watching him rubbing my hands together to create some warmth. Rajiva suddenly looks up and seeing my smile, he stops his ministrations and instead places my hands onto his cheeks. My smile drops, as if the tsunami waves have finally conquered the last defense to my heart, breaking down the walls at last…
We stand there in silence, watching each other. His body heat is lingering on my hands. My palms are grazing the beginning of stubble on his face. That moment, it is as if an electric current suddenly passes through me, making my whole body tremble. I finally realize it.
I love Rajiva.
That’s right, I have loved for him for some time now, ever since I met him again. It’s nothing strange. A man of his caliber, so incredibly intelligent and refined in appearance, is not hard to fall in love with. I will no longer hesitate, no longer be denial. Love is love, how can I possibly deny this basic human emotion? I am just an ordinary person, unable to extinguish desires, so there is no point in struggling and making myself suffer so.
Before, I fought with myself and denied these feelings, because I viewed love with the rational perspective of a modern person. I want a love where my feelings are returned. I used my research as an excuse, constantly reminding myself I have to return eventually, worried that if I love Rajiva, it will be a love with no future. But, what if I do not return? What if I want to stay beside him? What if I do not care about the future? Nobody said that if I love him, I cannot continue with my work. I only know that right now, I love him and I will continue to love him in my own way. I also do not have to let him know my feelings. I can also choose to return to the 21st century with the memory of having loved him once.
I just love him. To hell with what happens after. Why must I be completely rational and think things through with logic?
“A day from now is the Su Mu Zhe festival. You should start to journey towards Kucha soon,” a gentle voice passes by my ears, “Go back and rest. I have asked Kaodura to bring you to Kucha and arranged an inn for you. Though perhaps you should stay in the State Preceptor’s residence [his father’s]? After all, you wanted to see Pusyseda again!”
Kaodura? I am stunned. That is Rajiva’s own coachman!
“I will stay in the inn. I am afraid I will give people in the State Preceptor’s residence a scare [with my unchanging appearance]. As for Pusyseda, I will try to meet him before I leave Kucha.”
After the festival ends, I will find a way to see Pusyseda. Ten years ago, he was little kid that was very fond of me, but now that he is an adult, he has his own life, and I do not want to disturb that. I just want to take a look at him from afar. That will be enough.
What I most want, actually, is…
“You…you…” I hesitate and hesitate, “You…will you be coming?”
Rajiva looks surprised. He lets go of my hands.
“Master is still here, and besides-”
“I know, the precepts say you are to abstain from dancing and music.” I suppress my disappointment and try to say with what I hope is a calm tone, “I’m just asking. You…do not have to come…”
He does not say anything in return. His kasaya robes are dyed the colour of maroon due the twilight sky, the folds fluttering thanks to the gentle breeze. He stands there, looking like a beautiful Greek statue against the deep rouge of dawn.
Ramblings: The passing of Rajiva’s mother is such a sorrowful event. Rajiva’s crying broke my heart when I first read it and now again when I was translating. The life is the monastic is an arduous one. I hope no Buddhist readers were offended by Ai Qing’s words on the cessation of ‘love/attachment’ in Buddhism. She is not religious but tries her best to be open-minded, and the way she views religions is from a practical perspective of a modern person who majors in history. Her interpretation of certain Buddhist ideologies is shaped by such factors.
I had warned you all before in my Introduction post to this novel, that the story deals with sensitive topics, which in this case is whether love can exist along with piety to Buddhism. The title of the novel itself sets up this central conflict. We have only reached the surface of this conflict–familial love. Romantic love, on the other hand, is another beast altogether.
At least Ai Qing’s admittance of her feeelings for Rajiva (at least in her head) somewhat makes up for all the sadness. I bet there are many of you jumping in joy at that part, am I right? 😉 Not only has she admitted her feelings, she has come to accept them in her own way too, and this is one of the many reasons why I love her character. How often do you see a character being able to come to terms with their feelings the way she did? It is very refreshing. Way to go, Ai Qing!
That said, she is leaving for Kucha in the next chapter, so we will have to bid goodbye to Rajiva for a couple of chapters. In return, we will get to see his bratty younger brother, Pusyseda, once again. If you thought he was bad as a kid, well, wait until you meet his adult self! He is truly incorrigible, that one. His antics will make you laugh, blush (yes I did use that word), and a number of other feels~
My mid-terms are coming up the next two weeks so that will slow down my translation considerably, but I will try my best to keep up. [It may have been evil of me to tease you all about Pusyseda and then make my way underground like this, ahaha, I’m sorry :P]