Published at 4th of October 2016 05:56:43 PM
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Chapter 12

 Chapter 12: Why a monk

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[T/N: Quick recap – in the last chapter, Rajiva went home early to meet with the king for some matter, and after that he stopped by Ai Qing’s room for the usual lesson. Ai Qing got embarrassed after singing/dancing and due to his smile, so she changed the topic by asking him why the king summoned him.]

“The king asked me to return to secular life and assist him in handling state affairs,” Rajiva answers.

“You declined, right?” Because how else would we have a great translator monk later on?

“How do you know?” Rajiva looks at me with probing eyes.

“Because you are Kumarajiva!”

Only modern [era] people would understand my words. I immediately change my tune: “Because you are not just seeking self-liberation from the cycle of life and death and self-cultivation; you also wish to aid others in reaching enlightenment, to better the lives of those around you.”

During our days on the desert, we used to spend our time discussing these philosophies. Back then, I did not know that he is Kumarajiva, so I dared not speak. But now, knowing his real identity and having read information about him, I understand what he is worrying about.

I have always felt that Buddhism is an interesting religion and that its disciples are in fact philosophers.

Before he passed away, Gautama Buddha did not leave behind any consolidated sacred text like the Bible (Christianity) or the Qu’ran (Islam). Besides, Buddhism at that time was merely a small religion amongst other major practices in India. But since Gautama Buddha’s era, Buddhism has begun to branch out into numerous schools, such as the one led by Gautama Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta.

Even Buddha’s disciples themselves have differing opinions on the doctrines of Buddhism. Those who hold different thoughts would then write their own texts and establish their own schools. So after thousands of years, various texts from various traditions kept piling up, and to read them all would require generations. Mahayana, Hinayana, and Vajrayana are the main schools, and there are countless smaller schools.

[T/N: Ai Qing then listed out a long list of different schools (over 10) that I’m not going to translate because I didn’t want to try, or feel it was necessary for your understanding.]

One can see that the founders of those schools are all highly intelligent philosophers. Buddhism is a religion that greatly attracts people of such calibre. Think about it, if you are someone whose intelligence far exceeds that of an ordinary person, whose basic values do not go against the broader framework, using religion, you can express your profound insights and your understanding of the spiritual world, garnering thousands of admirers and followers. It is such a great thing. For a Buddhist disciple, to be able to consolidate all their learned knowledge and their written works into a comprehensive collection, and establish their own school, it would be the greatest achievement in Buddhism.*
* If you are a bit confused over this paragraph, don’t worry, because I was too. The overall meaning makes sense somewhat, but the wording is quite befuddling, even in Viet.

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Rajiva is a highly intelligent and deep thinker whose reasoning resembles that of a philosopher. He too probably wishes to become a teacher and a spiritual guide for lay people to help them reach what he considers the highest attainment. Despite being only thirteen, he has already identified his own values and viewpoints.

Lost in my own thoughts, I fail to see the silence that has settled around us. When I come about, I find Rajiva staring at me intently, his lips trembling, and his eyes seem to direct all their light into mine. Eyes that are full of appreciation, of emotions, that seem to say he has found a kindred spirit at last.

“Ai Qing, what kind of fortune does Rajiva have to meet you amidst the crowd?”

Embarrassed, I give him an awkward smile in return. It is only because I have read materials about him. I know that in the beginning, Rajiva studied under the Hinayana tradition but later on changed to the Mahayana. What I just said to him were simply general statements on the rough nature of differences between the two traditions. In addition, having seen his troubled face on this matter before, I surmise that his hesitation now must be in regards to his changing philosophy.

“Ai Qing, you remember that night in the desert, when you asked me why I decided to become a monk?”

Rajiva’s eyes leave my face and drift into a distance. I sit up properly and listen.

“I was seven when my mother went on an outing and saw a graveyard of crumbling bodies and withering bones. She realized then that greed is the root of all suffering. Humans’ desires resemble the fires in hell, fires that will reduce humans to ashes scattering across the fields. She did not want to suffer such endless torment and vowed that if she could not shave her hair and join the monastery, she will cease to eat and drink. My father was vehemently against the idea, but my mother was equally determined. On the sixth day, even when her breath is as light as the wind, my mother still refused to eat. Terrified, my father could only concede to her will. Afraid he will change his mind, my mother requested her hair to be cut before she consume anything. She underwent ordination the next day, moved out of our house and into the Tsio-li Temple.”

Having known Jiva’s reason for joining the monastic life through Rajiva’s biographies, I gently nod: “So you then followed your mother’s footsteps?”

Rajiva shakes his head. His eyes linger on the swaying candle inside the lamp for a long moment, as if recalling something.

“After my mother joined the monastery, longing to see her, I often went to visit the temple. When she and the other monks chanted mantras, I would sit near and listen to them. For some reason, those texts, I only needed to listen once to remember every word, to everyone’s amazement. When the grand master Fú Tú Shé Mí asked me the meanings of the verses that I read, I would answer fluently. He praised me as a prodigy of Buddhism and later talked with my mother, expressing his wish to take me on as a disciple.”

Rajiva’s great memory manifested since he was young. I remember one biography describing him at age seven as followed: “Each day memorizing a thousand verses, each verse thirty-two characters, totalling thirty two thousand characters.” Think about it, a boy only seven years old who each day can learn thirty two thousand characters, not just any characters but ones from difficult Buddhist texts. That kind of genius can only be compared to that of Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. I think, if Rajiva ever attempts to learn pi (π) decimal digits, he would probably break the current Guinness record*.
* Back when this novel was written, probably. Not sure if he can beat the current record—70,000 digits, recited in India by Rajveer Meena in 9 hours and 27 minutes on 21 March 2015.

“My mother asked me if I would like to join the monastery. Thinking that it means I can be with her, I nodded.”

His answer surprises me, but after some thought, it makes sense. No matter how clever he may have been, Rajiva was still a child, a child who did not wish to be separated from his mother. That is a simple truth. But Rajiva’s life was determined by that nod when he was seven.

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Rajiva’s gaze moves away from the candle and returns to me, a puzzled look reappearing on his face.

“Last time, when you ask ‘why a monk’, I realized that I did not know how to answer. Because I want to be with my mother? I am no longer a seven-year-old. In a few more years, I will have my own ordination and become a bhikkhu. But in the past days, every night I kept asking myself, for what reason did I become a monk for?”

“Have you found an answer?” I ask, curious.

“Back when I was just learning about Buddhism, my teachers all told me that through self-discipline and practice, I can attain liberation from the cycle of life and death, from earthly desires, and be able to reach Nirvana. When I was in Kabul, I followed the great monk Bandhudatta in learning about Hinayana. There are four million verses regarding ways of realizing the fruition of the Buddhist path. But…”

Rajiva stands up and steps toward the window, unconsciously putting one arm behind his back. That thin silhouette gives off such a solitary feeling. Even though he is young, he is already showing signs of a great master.

“On my way back to Kucha, I saw white bones filling up the desert, thieves running amok everywhere, and people experiencing so much suffering. I wondered to myself, I may reach self-liberation through the path of Buddhism, but what about those people? The thieves continue to commit all kinds of evil, while the people continue to suffer sorrows, illnesses and bitter deaths. What, then, is the use of me following the Buddhist way?”

I also stand up and come to where Rajiva is. In a soft voice, I tell him: “Hinayana withdraws, Mahayana engages.1 That is the reason why you feel Mahayana resonates with your ideals more. Ksitigarbha2 one said: ‘Until the hells are emptied, I vow to not reach Buddhahood.’ Are you the same, wishing not to cross by yourself but ferry people across?”
1 This sentence took me a long time to translate as I struggled to find the correct words to fully encapsulate the meanings. I decided on “withdraw” and “engage”, and if anyone is confused, here is the long explanation. “Withdraw” here means to withdraw from worldly affairs/desires, to attain self-liberation. “Engage” is the opposite; it means to interact with the people, and help them reach enlightenment.
2 One of the 4 central bodhisattva [someone who wishes to enable everyone to reach enlightenment] in Buddhism, often known as guardian of hell, deceased children and fetuses; popular in China and beloved in Japan.

Rajiva abruptly turns to me, his face alight, clearly touched by my words. “Yes, Ai Qing. When I was in Kashgar, I studied under the master named Suryasoma. During my stay, I first came into contact with Mahayana and was deeply impressed by its teachings. The past few days, as I discuss Buddhist philosophies with you, using your words to describe the two traditions, I yearn for more [knowledge], but…”

A trace of unhappiness crosses his face. Even his voice becomes more muted. “But after returning to Kucha, every time I mention Mahayana beliefs, my teachers would dismiss them as heresy. This saddens Rajiva.”

I can understand that feeling. The Hinayana tradition has existed and thrived for centuries in Kucha. In the beginning, the strife between these two traditions was vast and fierce. At the time, trying to promote Mahayana, which was only a small school back then, was considered “wrongful” behaviour by a small group of monk “extremists”. That said, one can understand what kind of resistance Rajiva must have faced from others, the inner struggle he experiences in his own mind, over this matter.

“Rajiva, Mahayana in fact developed on the foundations of Hinayana. On a fundamental level, these two traditions are not in opposition to one another. Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism to challenge the Vedic religion* and the caste system, so his doctrines were quite simple. At that time, the common practice was asceticism, which emphasizes personal efforts in reaching release [from worldly matters]. But society is constantly developing and changing. The limitations of Hinayana are slowly coming out.”
* The Vedic religion was the religion of the Indo-Aryans, and existed in northern India from c. 1750 to 500 BCE. It is the predecessor to Hinduism but they are not the same.

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I step near his side and give him my sincerest look.

“Hinayana emphasizes ‘self-liberation’, wishes to attain release, so they have to join the monastic life. Those who follow the Hinayana tradition do not participate in production [as in agriculture] or do not have offspring. If everyone follows this tradition, there would be no countries, and humanity itself will cease to exist. So when Buddhism conflicted with the ruling power, Mahayana was developed to resolve that conflict.”

I lift my head and continue, “Furthermore, the Mahayana tradition is about helping people cross. Just by looking up to the Buddha and reading sutras, you can become a Buddha. That way, even without joining a monastery, Buddhists can still reach Buddhahood, thereby resolving the problem of productivity. Buddhists can also marry, which satisfies the human need to reproduce. Only when the ruling power accepts it can Buddhism spread far and wide and attract followers. That is when the light of Dharma shines and saves the people.”

Rajiva seems to weigh my words in his mind, face full of contemplation. I don’t know how much he understood. I only gave him my analysis of the relationship between religion and productivity, between religion and the ruling power. A moment passes. I further add, “Rajiva, your wish to convert to another tradition is right. Mahayana is more responsive to the changing of times and is able to satisfy people’s spiritual needs more fully.”

Given his generous personality and progressive mind, Mahayana beliefs definitely suit him more. His conversion later on is thus inevitable.

Rajiva looks up to me. A hint of worry passes by his youthful face. “What about the Central Plains? Will the Han people welcome Mahayana?”

I laugh, “Of course. The Mahayana tradition is widely circulated in the Central Plains from generation to generation.”

Ji Xian Li1 once said: “A religion’s popularity and duration are often dependent on its development in China. The more the religion appeases the people, the more faith it will gain from followers and eventually the ruling power as well. Hinayana asks people to undergo arduous discipline even though becoming a Buddha is not certain. Meanwhile, the Mahayana tradition, especially the Zen Buddhism branch promotes self-awareness. ‘Even Icchantika2 can reach Buddhahood.’ That’s why, as long as one is devoted to Buddha, to learning sutras, Buddhahood is attainable. How much more relaxing that is!”
1 The famous contemporary Chinese professor I explained about in ch.11
2 An base, deluded person. Some sutras say this kind of person can never reach nirvana, others say the Buddha will not abandon any beings, even if they are from hell

Rajiva’s face has lightened up. From his determined look, he must have reached a final conclusion.

“A few days ago, in an abandoned hallway in the Tsio-li Temple, I discovered by chance a sutra, a Mahayana sutra. Unable to help myself, I secretly picked it up and read the contents. Afraid my mixed feelings will negatively impact the lectures and the masters’ teachings, I have not been able to tell anyone about my wish to convert. But today, after talking with Ai Qing, I now know what to do. When I return, I will read the sutra to the masters and the older students. After that, spread the Mahayana teachings, liberate and help more and more people attain enlightenment.”

The sutra he mentioned seems familiar. “Rajiva, the sutra you found, was it the Golden Light Sutra* ? And were there malignant spirits wrapping around you, trying to make you give up [reading]?”
* Suvarṇaprabhāsa Sūtraalso, also known by the Old Uygur title Altun Yaruq. In Sanskrit, the full title is The Sovereign King of Sutras, the Sublime Golden Light.

Records about Kumarajiva had the following passage: “When Kumarajiva opened the Golden Light Sutra, the characters on the wooden scroll suddenly disappeared. The master knew the spirits were interfering, so his wish to read the sutra increased even more. The malignant force failed, the writing returned and the master continued to read. But there was a voice whispering to him, ‘You are a wise person, why would you read this kind of sutra?’ The master replied, ‘Evil spirit, begone! My will is as solid as the ground, nothing can shake it.’”

Of course I do not believe he actually met evil spirits. Hui Jiao wrote such a story in the biography to further emphasize that Kumarajiva encountered many mental obstacles when he decided to convert traditions. Changing one’s long-held beliefs is a difficult thing. He must have hesitated, struggled and maybe at times wanted to give up. These kinds of ‘demons’ in the mind are the hardest to conquer.

“Golden Light Sutra?” he exclaims. Then after saying out loud the sutra’s name in Sanskrit, he nods. “That is a good translation. The Buddha radiating light, shining over the people.”

He thinks for a moment. “This sutra says, to spread Buddhism is to give the blind sight, the deaf sounds, the mute a voice, to help the hunchbacks stand straight, the mad become sane, the anxious become calm, the ill get cured, the sick get healthy, the old become young again, and the poor get clothes. The Buddha’s light shines over all beings equally, treats everyone like parents, like siblings. It means that the path to reach Buddhahood is the liberation of all beings, rather than self-liberation. I agree with these profound values.”

His brows furrow, “But what do you mean demons wrapped around me?” A hint of smile passed by his eyes, he re-thinks for a second and then continues, “If there were demons, they were probably my inner turmoil. I did not know if I should study the Mahayana tradition. Ever since I found this sutra, I kept hesitating again and again, whether I should read it. After I read it, I also hesitated. Should its teachings be widely distributed? Not until today were I able to eliminate those ‘demons’.”

“Do you remember that night, when you asked me what my aspirations are?” He takes a deep breath and leans forward. “Now, like you, I can finally say out loud what my aspirations are.” He pauses for a moment, then raises his voice, “To spread Buddhism everywhere I set food to, to create new doctrines, to liberate the people, that is my aspiration.”

Rajiva holds his head high, and even the oil lamp’s dim light cannot not hide the self-confidence on his face. My eyes could not stop staring. Self-assurance and intelligence glow on this precocious teenager, and just by looking at him, I feel as if I can see the bright future ahead, a sky set ablaze with the vibrant forces of life, radiating everywhere.

“Very ambitious!” I clap my hands and praise him loudly. “I admire people who have aspirations, ambitions. Keep going forward towards your goal, you will certainly be successful.”

Rajiva suddenly turns to my side and gives me a respectful bow, surprising me. When he looks up, his cheeks were flushed, his eyes sincere and full of enthusiasm. “Ai Qing, Buddha’s mercy has allowed me to have someone great like you as my teacher to guide me on my path. I vow to never let you down.”

He has never shown me such great respect. A spark suddenly ignites in my heart inexplicably, and in a flash, spreads out my entire body. Without thinking, I use my hand as a fan. Why is it that despite being in winter, the air suddenly feels too hot?

That evening, after finishing with the lesson, as he takes a step out the door, Rajiva glances up at the sky full of stars. “Tomorrow’s weather will be fine,” he says.

Then he turns to me with a smile full of spring, “Ai Qing, tomorrow I will give you a tour* around Kucha.”
*Tour? What tour? It’s a date.

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