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 [ ], and whatever’s written in square brackets are words I added on for clearer meaning.
A good friend of mine, vvatson, has volunteered to be my beta reader for the time being so shout-out to her for being such a champion! I have also gone back to make some minor edits in Ch. 46. That said, any remaining typos or errors are all mine, so as always, feel free to point out any glaring ones you see.
Finally, some trigger warnings for this chapter: suicidal attempt, suicidal thoughts. Please proceed with caution. I have indicated with a T/N when the warnings apply, and you can skip this portion to the next T/N for a summary of events.
Chapter 47: A precursor to a storm
We lead a full life every day. First, Rajiva would copy a passage in Sanskrit, then we would deliberate how to translate it word by word. Sometimes it would take us half a day for one word. Our progress is not very fast, because although Rajiva can communicate fluently in Han, it is harder putting words into writing, particularly the writing style of the Han from 1650 years ago. Even I, though I can read ancient literary texts, it does not mean that I can write, so I am also struggling in this regard.
But we are not in a hurry. Later, with the support of Yao Xing*, Rajiva will be able to set up a large translation team in Chang’an with thousands of participants. It is said that the Vimalakirti Nirdesa sutra alone already had more than 1,200 people participating in the translation. What we are doing now is merely practice, to help build the foundation for Rajiva’s translation career later on. Without any pressure, we are merely working while basking in the joy of each other’s presence. Only when the maid servants come to bring us food and light up the lamps, do we notice the passage of time.
* (366–416), formally Emperor Wenhuan of (Later) Qin, son of founding emperor Yao Chang
There is another essential component of our daily life: love-making. As we become more familiarized with each other’s bodies and reactions, our love-making becomes more harmonious. He is not without struggle, as a psychological battle always accompanies his mind. But aside from being a Buddhist disciple, he is also a man, with a man’s needs and wants. His struggles always end in a surrender to his body’s desires every time. Love prevails, or at least it temporarily prevails against religion.
How long this victory will last, I do not know. Abstinence from sex has been a precept since the Buddha’s time. I cannot change the values and views on life that he has formed since the age of seven. The time he has spent as a disciple of Buddha is longer than the time he has loved me. I do not want to use love to deprive him of his aspirations. I only want to inject into his subconscious that love is not a sin. That love and aspiration can co-exist.
But, can love and aspiration really co-exist? Can one have both fish and bear’s paw?* Like an unsolvable philosophical question, this paradox, whether we admit it or not, always exists. We can temporarily forget about it in this closed environment that is our house arrest, but after we get out of this golden cage, how will we face the world? I smile bitterly. It seems that this golden cage has its benefits after all.
* from Chinese idiom 鱼与熊掌，不可兼得, which translates to “You can’t have both the fish and bear’s paw”, which originates from a passage in “Mencius”, Gaozi I. Bear’s paw was a rare delicacy in ancient China. It’s similar in meaning to the English idiom “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”.
So when I write in my diary entry, I keep thinking about why Buddhism was so vehemently against sex, and what the relationship is between religion and sex.
Pre-historic religions had a positive attitude towards sexual intercourse and in fact, worshipped it, and wanted people to enjoy the pleasures of nature. Sexual intercourse was considered one of the most exalted and mystical rituals in these religions. The primary reason is that prehistoric religions were conceived in a time of primitive productions and poor living conditions. Sexual intercourse helped increase the population, thereby creating more labourers for tribes.
As the production system improved, and material pursuits no longer satisfied the spiritual need of humans, systematic religions with theoretical foundations began to emerge. Almost all modern religions renounce the present, revere the afterlife, and pursue eternity. But sex brings an irreplaceable pleasure to humans. So acceptance of this activity means an affirmation of the pleasures of the present, which will in turn affect the belief and devotion towards the [religious] concept of salvation.
Religions worship gods, and gods are superior to ordinary people. Religions advocate a spiritual life, but ordinary people like to indulge in base appetites and the joys of sex. Religions cannot be on the same level as ordinary people. To elevate religions to an esteemed level of spiritual life, we must renounce worldly pleasures, raise physical desires to a spiritual stage, sublimate it, so humans can worship and pursue it.
Hinduism advocates asceticism, and yet the [Hindu] temples in Khajuraho* are famous for its erotic sculptures. Nearly a thousand years ago, these temples were carved with hundreds of sculptures in various sexual poses. These sexual poses are not achievable by humans and can only be enjoyed by the gods.
* a town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, located in Chhatarpur District of India.
There is a story in Hinduism about a young man that likes to indulge in worldly pleasures and unwilling to practice [religion]. A god comes to question him, and he answers that he is enjoying all these pleasures in life, does not want to give any of them up to practice asceticism to go to the heavenly realm. The god then takes him to the heavens, where he sees countless beautiful women that cannot be found in the earthly realm, and tastes delicious food that cannot be made in the earthly realm. Everything is incomparable. After returning to the earthly realm, the man loses interest in the women around him and the food he usually eats. From then, he begins to practice diligently and after he dies, he gets to go to the heavens he has always dreamed of.
[T/N: I tried to find the origin of this so-called Hindu story but couldn’t. Also, apologies for the Christian-heavy terminology of heaven and earth but without knowing which story this came from, I cannot ascertain the correct Hindu term. The concept of ‘heaven’ in Hinduism is much more complicated and not confined to one physical realm.]
“I see you writing every day. What is it about?”
I close my notebook and turn around to smile brightly at Rajiva.
“My feelings. If I have to leave you one day, at least there will be these black and white words to remind me of the times I spent with you.”
“Ai Qing, we will not be apart again…”
He trembles and hugs me tightly, like a drowning man holding onto a broken mast at sea. His head rests on my shoulder, his cheeks press against my neck, and his newly growing stubble tickles my skin.
Is that really possible? Why do I always have a bad premonition? Rajiva, your IQ is higher than me, so I am afraid that you must have already smelled the coming of a storm.
“Your beard has grown again. Come, let me shave it for you.”
The precursor to a storm arrives twenty days after our house arrest has begun. Lu Guang wants to see Rajiva. I want to follow him, but he does not let me. I am about to insist, but he has quelled me with further words:
“Ai Qing, do you want Lu Guang to know how important you are to me?”
Seeing him leave with a determined gait, my heart trembles in worry. I can already guess Lu Guang’s reason for this summon: to see if Rajiva has been consumed by the luxurious life. I can also guess the outcome of the summon: Rajiva will refuse to legitimize Lu Guang once again. And I know the consequences of that refusal. Lu Guang will humiliate Rajiva publicly to supress his religious standing in the eyes of Kuchan people.
I do not know how long I wait before Rajiva appears at the entrance of the residence with heavy steps and a pale face. My heart breaks at the sight.
“You still refused, didn’t you?”
Rajiva looks up, eyes full of exhaustion: “Not to worry. I am fine…”
I cast my eyes around this opulent and lavish place, where we have been held captive the past twenty days.
“Our days of peace and full stomachs have come to an end…”
Then I turn my head back to Rajiva and say carefully: “Rajiva, if you continue to resist, he will lose his patience and there will be only one path left then.”
His face turns white as paper. As smart as he is, he must have already guessed that Lu Guang’s final method will not be pleasant.
“If he cannot use you, he will find every way to destroy your reputation, denounce your prestige in the people’s eyes in the Western Regions. That way, you will lose your hold on the people and stop being a threat to him.”
“Ai Qing, these things, Rajiva has thought of. But if I submit to him, what results will that bring?”
He glances up and looks at the blue sky outside the windows, his whole face fills with melancholy.
“Millions will fall into hardships, endless suffering and even deaths. It is better for me to weather this than to be an accomplice to the tiger.”
为虎作伥 or ‘accomplice to the tiger’ is a Chinese idiom
“He will force you to ride wild horses and mad cows in front of a crowd, so that you can fall off again and again and become laughing stock to the world.”
“That is mere physical hardship, what is there to be afraid of?”
He looks at me with a clear gaze, and the corners of his mouth are lifting up in a smile.
“Ai Qing, you have disclosed the heaven’s secrets because of me, are you not afraid that Buddha will punish you?”
“I also do not have any further secrets to disclose.”
My eyes are rimmed red, the mere thought of his future torment is unbearable. But why did the historical records only write down a few simple lines. If only they were more detailed, then we can find a way to prevent these [events].
“Rajiva, I only know that he will force you to ride wild horses and mad cows, but I don’t know when and where it will happen. I also don’t know what other cruel methods he will use against you.”
“Not to worry. That is not what Rajiva is most afraid of.”
I pause and give him a questioning look. Then what is he afraid of? He avoids my gaze and gazes at the sky outside the windows again. Occasionally, a few white birds fly by, free and happy. When will we be free of this cage? This is not only caging our bodies; it is also caging our souls.
After that, our days begin to fall into an inexplicable sorrow. We often become distracted when we translate the sutras but still, we smile at each other. At night, we become more passionate and fierce, as if each time is the moment right before the world ends, until we are thoroughly exhausted and hug each other to sleep.
[T/N: Trigger warnings begin. You can jump to my next T/N for a summary of this portion.]
Five days later, Lu Guang summons Rajiva again, and this time he is gone for much longer. When he comes back with heavy steps, there is a red swollen mark on his forehead. But what scares me is not that injury, but the despair, that I have never seen before, in his eyes.
I jump to and help support his tired form to sit down, my stomach a tangled knot. I ask him what happened, but he does not answer, his eyes bleak. I move to get medicine, but he catches me.
He looks at me longingly and moves his hand to caress my face.
“Ai Qing, once you are free, go to Pusysdeva. He will protect you with all he has.”
He suddenly pulls me to his chest. His heart is beating faster than normal.
“Merciful Buddha heard my prayer and sent you here. Even though it was less than a month, Rajiva is so grateful that he asks for nothing more.”
The finality in the words makes my blood run cold. What I was most worried about has happened. I turn around and look deep into his eyes, bite my lips to help myself feel calmer and say:
“Rajiva, tell me, are you thinking about a way to die?”
He flinches in surprise, sorrow surges to fill his eyes, but he quickly looks away. Tries his best to still his trembling shoulders.
“Ai Qing, don’t speak such nonsense. How can I-”
“Rajiva, have you forgotten about your life’s mission to promote Buddhism and help ferry the people across?” I interrupt him and shout with all of my strength. “Have you forgotten that there are still countless people suffering in the Central Plains? … And I, I was willing to abandon my family, heedless of the radiation, and crossed a thousand years to stand next to you, all of that is not to only exchange for one month with you.”
meaning to reach nirvana
I growl, feeling angry like never before: “If you love me, live like it’s great to do so for love! Dying is the easiest thing to do. To survive, to live and fulfill your life’s mission, only the strongest can do that.”
I grab his hand and bite down hard. A salty taste pours into my mouth along with tears, bitter and sour.
I lift my head up and watch him trying to suppress the trembling of his body. I shout: “Rajiva, don’t forget, your mission is more important than your life!”
Rajiva finally looks at me head-on, clouds clearing in his eyes to make way for warm rays of hope. He suddenly bursts into bright laughter, then speaks in a light-hearted voice:
“All right! Ai Qing, let’s live, let’s both live!”
Glancing down at the teeth mark on the back of hand, he nods more firmly: “After this, Rajiva will never mention the word ‘death’ again.”
Then he returns to his usual tenderness, laughter turning into a gentle smile: “Ai Qing, you always know how to wake Rajiva up.”
I exhale in relief, but immediately go to find medicine to rub on his wound. I originally only intended to leave a teeth mark, but I do not know why I was unable to control myself earlier.
“Ai Qing, you were willing to abandon your family, heedless of radiation and cross a thousand years to be with me. Is a thousand of years the distance between earth and heaven? Is your family waiting for you in the heaven? And what is ‘radiation’?”
The hand that is rubbing medicinal cream on him suddenly trembles. I look up into his questioning eyes.
He gently puts a finger on my lips, and the other hand pulls me into his chest.
“Disclosing heaven’s secrets is no small thing. You will be penalized by the Buddha. So you must be more careful in the future. Even with me, you should not say it.”
That night, I struggle to sleep. The sentence most commonly said by heroines in Qing time-travelling stories is: I know the results but not the process. For me, 1650 years compared to the reign of the Qing dynasty is too vast of a difference in history. Even the brief thousand of words in the history books are insufficient to ascertain truths, let alone the few lines we have about Rajiva from autobiographies. What is the process behind those few words, I cannot even guess.
In the middle of the night comes a faint sigh. It is his. Perhaps he can also feel my restlessness. However, we understand each other and silently wait for morning.
Only a day later, Rajiva is summoned by Lu Guang yet again. As soon as he leaves, a maidservant immediately brings a change of clothes for me, saying that these are the latest fashion. She even pats them, her eyes and movements clearly giving me a hint. Curious, I lift them up and find a piece of cloth with writing on it hidden inside the layers of clothes.
The Tocharian characters are messy and hurried scribbles:
Yesterday, big brother* had argued fiercely with Lu Guang. Lu Guang then used you to threaten him. Big brother slammed his head against a pillar in anger, trying to kill himself, but was quickly stopped. Lu Guang has given up on persuading big brother and instead will now find ways to harm him. In three days, big brother will be taken to the Cakuri Temple together with an entourage from Lu Guang. No matter what Lu Guang asks, you must persuade big brother to acquiesce for the time being. Now, only you can persuade him. Remember that!
* meaning Rajiva, a commoner’s way of referring to a man
Slammed his head against a pillar in anger…so that bruise was… The cloth falls out of my hands and flutters onto the ground like a dead leaf. The sky outside is still blue, the hot winds of afternoon blow in. My back is sweaty and making my clothes stick to my skin, extremely uncomfortable.
[T/N: Summary of events: Rajiva is summoned by Lu Guang again five days later. This time, Lu Guang used Ai Qing to threaten him, which was what Rajiva was most afraid of. Angered, Rajiva responded by doing something reckless. However, he did not tell Ai Qing when he returned. She only found out when he got called away again the next day, and a maid slipped a note into Ai Qing’s change of clothes. The maid said Lu Guang will make Rajiva accompany him to Cakuri Temple, and that no matter what, Ai Qing should persuade Rajiva to agree to his requests for the time being.]
Lu Guang used you to threaten him.
Is this what he is most afraid of? Things suddenly become blurry in front of my eyes, and my nose stings. Such a thin body is willing to weather the storm just to give me a day without rain. Ai Qing, oh Ai Qing, you are a person from the 21st century, so forget about history and use all your power to save the one you love!
He returns quickly this time, his face still pale like all the previous times, but his gaze is firm.
“Ai Qing, he has promised to let you go. You can leave tomorrow.”
Joy briefly crosses his sorrowful face. He brings up a hand to touch my cheek—a gesture he often uses when we are together.
“Once you are out, go and find Pusysdeva. I will come to you when I am freed.”
“Rajiva, what have you promised him for him to let me go?”
“Three days later, I will accompany Lu Guang to Cakuri Temple.”
I turn my face away and swallow down the tears that are ready to flow. Take a breath, then turn back to him.
“Rajiva, you were willing to harm yourself in front of him for me. Wouldn’t he know that he can easily use me to threaten you, so why would he let me go?”
I sigh. Rajiva is smart, but he always believes that people are inherently good, so he does not understand these wily methods.
“I’m afraid that once I leave this door, I will not be able to reach Pusysdeva’s place.”
His face turns paler. He bites his lips and closes his eyes in pain.
“I thought I could at least help you. It’s not that Rajiva has not thought about that danger, but I honestly don’t know any other way to help get out of here, so I can only will myself to believe in Lu Guang just this once.”
He opens his eyes and looks sadly at me. “Sorry, Rajiva is incompetent and cannot protect you…”
“Don’t worry about me. I have a way to escape,” I lean into his embrace and listen to his heartbeat, “Just, I am thinking about how we can escape together.”
We nestle together on the carpet as the night falls. The maids enter to light up the lamps, but Rajiva tells them to leave. It is now September, the hot summer has long gone, and a night in autumn is not unlike a winder day in minus Celsius*. In this huge palace, we can only seek warmth from each other.
* minus Celsius or below 0°C, meaning below 32°F