Excerpt from Southern Rain: The Alluring Bodhisattva

The next scene foreshadows the meeting of the hero and heroine. The image is by Satomi Kamei.

Watching Nanjing fume from the sky or from the ground, neither Peng bird nor human would have noticed the elderly nun on a donkey cart making her way through the smog from Cock-Crow Temple on the north side of town to outside Treasure Gate, the southernmost portal of the city wall. Though missiles whizzed by her, she maintained her dignity, as did her cart driver, who seemed to have absorbed a bit of her gravitas. The nun was called One-Eyed Jingang, for partially blinding herself while studying the Diamond (Jingang) Sutra, and she was Cock-Crow Temple’s abbess. While unaccompanied women raised eyebrows if they ventured abroad on most days, the Spring Festival provided One-Eyed Jingang not only with the cover of smoke but also with an excuse to be out, for clergy were often called upon to offer prayers for the New Year. In fact, One-Eyed Jingang was expected at another place of worship, a monastery named the Temple at the Edge of Heaven, where a prayer meeting was planned for that morning. Before the chanting began, however, she wished to consult with the abbot on a matter of some delicacy.

Arriving at the Temple, One-Eyed Jingang alighted from the cart, paid its driver a little extra for the New Year, walked through the main gate, and ascended the stairway to the Mahayana Pavilion, where the abbot, whose dharma name was Baichi Shi’ai, or “Idiot in the Service of Love,” greeted her with ebullient good cheer. Fearless of gossip, he invited the nun into his office.

“Wisdom to you,” he saluted her, offering some tea. “Big Sister is a bit early. Have you come to help me choose today’s reading?”

“No, Big Brother,” the abbess returned, as she sat down on a stool. “I’m sure you’ve already found something appropriate. As it turns out, I’ve come to discuss something…inappropriate.”

She placed on Baichi Shi’ai’s desk the bulging sack she’d been carrying, which the abbot had assumed to be filled with boxed or string-bound folios of sutras. She untied the twine at its neck, just as somebody in the neighborhood set off another string of firecrackers like a drumroll.

The sack fell away, revealing a statuette of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, sculpted from rosewood. The carving stood about a foot tall, but its subject did not stand, nor did she sit cross-legged in stolid meditation. Rather, she lolled in a sultry position with one leg arched upward at a right angle, her arm draped over her knee. Although she was Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, she posed in the style of Tara, Mother of Liberation; but whatever compassion or liberation she offered her worshippers, it was of a primal, physical sort. Her sexuality was total, not of parts. It sprang not from flaring hips or curvaceous breasts but from her unworldly air of assurance and utter lack of inhibition. Against all convention, this Guanyin held her eyes open, inviting her faithful to advance and be saved. A mandorla of fire radiated from her body, a manifestation of the power of her love.

Baichi Shi’ai knew better than to resist the goddess’s charms. Instead, he gave rein to his native enthusiasm. “Oooh! Hail, Guanyin Bodhisattva!” he crowed.

“Yes, she does rather demand devotion,” observed One-Eyed Jingang. “I’m surprised you haven’t fallen to your knees.”

“Whose hands crafted such a powerful image?” asked the abbot. “Or was it a bolt of lightning striking a grateful tree that did the work?”

“Actually, it was created by one of my novices, a brilliant girl. Always reading, trying her hand at something new. I noticed her chiseling away at a hunk of wood from that old column we had replaced and decided to give her a bit of rosewood to see what she could do with better material. This is the result.”

Baichi Shi’ai nodded, still absorbed in Guanyin’s smoldering expression. “Where will you display it?” he asked, after a while.

“Display it?” the abbess exclaimed. “Good brother! It’s hard enough to protect the reputation of my convent without having something like that on a pedestal. Why give the next scandalmonger a chance to start yapping about the ‘lewd nuns of Cock-Crow Temple’?”

Baichi Shi’ai rounded his mouth. “Oh? You think this Guanyin is lewd?”

“No, I do not, but a lewd man would, and I’m tired of hearing lewd men talk nonsense about decent nuns.” One-Eyed Jingang cleared her throat. “So I was hoping that you, Teacher, would take this Guanyin off my hands.”

“And keep her here?” the abbot giggled. “My monks would explode! Even if I hid her away, they would sniff her out like tom cats.”

“You have that little faith in your brothers?”

“I have that much faith in my brothers.”

One-Eyed Jingang slumped. “Yes, I suppose we face the same difficulty. Since our calling is to free people from desire, it’s bad policy to introduce an object of desire into either of our sanctuaries. So what should we do with it?”

Baichi Shi’ai grinned. “You talk as though she were a problem to be gotten rid of, but Guanyin Bodhisattva cannot be a problem. Yes, neither of our temples is the proper place for her, but remember: Guanyin embodies compassion for the world.” He raised both his arms, in an encompassing gesture. “Let’s put her out into the world, then, where her compassion can do its work. If some starry-eyed lad falls in love with her, so much the better. Everyone in the world needs to be receptive to compassion, after all.”

One-Eyed Jingang thought for a bit and then nodded. “Yes, Brother, you are right. We should allow this Guanyin to play her part. I will consign her to the marketplace, to await the first receptive soul that comes along.”

She put the Guanyin back in its sack and tied it closed.

“So what will be today’s reading?” she asked, but her host didn’t answer, and both devotees of dharma continued to stare at the enshrouded idol for a long time.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

From the Black Creek River to the Grand Canal

The episode with the Mississippi egrets described in my last posting was incorporated into my novel, Southern Rain, now available via Kindle and at selected bookshops in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; it is also available for pre-order, in advance of the general release of the print version in January.

The appearance of the Mississippi egrets, transposed into Chinese cranes, foreshadows the meeting of the hero, Ouyang Nanyu, and the heroine, Ouyang Daosheng.

Just beyond a tributary called Witch Mountain Spring, Nanyu noticed two white cranes flying upstream and then perching on the embankment. When the boat drew close to them, they took off again, swooping on ahead, before coming to a new resting place at the side of the Canal. Nanyu reckoned that the cranes moved ten times this way over the course of an hour—leading and waiting, leading and waiting—as though luring him ever onward. They didn’t seem to be feeding, and if they were migrating north, Nanyu wondered why they didn’t just get on with it, without waiting for him to catch up. If they wanted to stay on the Canal but were afraid of the boat, then why didn’t they fly to the side, to allow it to pass? For the rest of the day, Nanyu was sometimes invited to share food, sometimes asked for help maneuvering through a lock, and then, he would forget about the cranes; but whenever his activities were finished, he’d look up and there they would be, still scouting out the route.

Nanyu continued to see them after he closed his eyes that night, but in the morning, they were gone.

Image

Passages: From I Served the King of England, by Bohumil Hrabal

After I bought cans of food, salami, and a huge round loaf of bread in the store, I would stop off at the pub, and the pubkeeper and villagers would come and sit down at my table and ask how I liked it here in the mountains, in all this solitude. I was enthusiastic and told them stories of things that no one had ever seen before but were actually there, and I told the stories as if I were only passing through by car, or had come for two or three days, I talked as though I were on vacation, like a nature lover, like a city person who babbles romantic drivel whenever he comes to the country about how beautiful the woods are and the mountain peaks in the mist, and how it is all so perfect that he would like to settle here for good. And I talked in a jumbled way about how beauty had another side to it, about how this beautiful countryside, like a round loaf of bread, was all related to whether you could love even what was unpleasant and abandoned, whether you could love the landscape during all those hours and days and weeks when it rained, when it got dark early, when you sat by the stove and thought it was ten at night while it was really only half past six, when you started talking to yourself, speaking to the horse, the dog, the cat, and the goat, but best of all to yourself, silently at first — as though showing a movie, letting images from the past flicker through your memory — and then out loud, as I had done, asking yourself questions, inquiring of yourself, interrogating yourself, wanting to know the most secret things about yourself, accusing yourself as if you were a public prosecutor and then defending yourself, and so arriving, in this back-and-forth way, at the meaning of your life. Not the meaning of what used to be or what happened a long time ago, but discovering the kind of road you’d opened up and had yet to open up, and whether there was still time to attain the serenity that would secure you against the desire to escape from your own solitude, from the most important questions that you should ask yourself.

Passages: From Love in a Bottle, by Antal Szerb

“Do you love me?” I asked doubtfully, and stupidly.

She burst out laughing — with the same unfathomable drunken laughter that had so charmed me earlier. It did not charm me now. Back on the veranda, that earlier laugh had somehow soared into the summer sky, an endearing cry for help addressed to some far-off Dionysus. But now she was laughing at me, and into me, the way any woman might laugh at any man held in an embrace of perhaps half an hour. It was a common, rather vulgar, laugh, an utterly godless laugh, one that could have been heard a thousand times at that moment in any of the parks of Paris and the banlieue — and how was I any different from the thousand other poor wretches who at that precise moment were preparing for the stereotypical games of love?

— from the short story “A Garden Party in St. Cloud”

Questions for St. Augustine

The key passage:

To your grace and to your mercy I ascribe it that you have dissolved my sins as if they were ice. To your grace I ascribe also whatsoever evils I have not done…. Who is the man who will reflect on his weakness, and yet dare to credit his chastity and innocence to his own powers, so that he loves you the less, as if he had little need for that mercy by which you forgive sins to those who turn to you. There may be someone who has been called by you, and has heeded your voice, and has shunned those deeds which he now hears me recalling and confessing of myself. Let him not laugh to scorn a sick man who has been healed by that same physician who gave him such aid that he did not fall ill, or rather that he had only a lesser ill. Let him therefore love you just as much, nay even more. For he sees that I have been rescued from such depths of sinful disease by him who, as he also sees, has preserved him from the same maladies.

Confessions, II/7/15

*****

They kept me far from you, those fair things which, if they were not in you, would not exist at all.

— X/27/38

So that which is of God both keeps us from and calls us to him?

*****

Joys that I should bewail contend with sorrows at which I should rejoice, but on which side victory may rest I do not know…. You are the physician; I am a sick man. You are merciful; I am in need of mercy.

— X/28/39

God is the Composer, and his symphony contains both dissonance and consonance, the former to resolve into the latter?

Passages: From Closely Watched Trains, by Bohumil Hrabal

My great-grandfather was born in the year eighteen thirty, and in eighteen forty-eight he was a drummer in the army, and as a drummer boy he took part in the fighting on Charles Bridge. The students dug out cobble-stones from the paving there to throw at the soldiers, and they hit Great-grandfather on the knee and crippled him for life. From that time on he was granted this disability pension, one gold piece every day, and every day he spent it on a bottle of rum and two packets of tobacco, but instead of sitting quietly at home to do his drinking and smoking, he went off limping about the streets and the field paths, taking a special delight in turning up wherever there were people slaving away at some hard labor. And there he’d grin and gloat over those workers, and drink this rum of his, and smoke his tobacco, and what with one thing and another, never a year passed without Great-grandfather Luke getting beaten up somewhere, and Grandfather having to wheel him home in the wheelbarrow.

But Great-grandfather only bobbed up as fresh as ever and soon was off again bragging about who was the better off everywhere he went, until somebody beat him up again in the same unchristian way. Until the fall of Austria put a stop to this disability pension he’d been drawing for seventy years. Until his allowance under the republic dwindled so much that it wouldn’t run to his bottle of rum and his two packets of tobacco any longer.

But even then, never a year passed without somebody beating Great-grandfather Luke unconscious, because he still went on dragging himself around the district flaunting those seventy years when he’d had his bottle of rum and his tobacco every day. Until the year nineteen thirty-five Great-grandfather did his bragging in front of some quarrymen whose stone quarry had just been closed down on them, and they beat him up so badly that he died. The doctor said he might very well have been with us a good twenty years yet. That was why there was no other family that stuck in the town’s gullet like ours did.

*****

The station-master rode away on his horse, accompanied by the groom. He crossed the tracks, and the two white horses trotted along the hard field-path; you could hear the ring of their hooves, but their whiteness merged into the whiteness of the snowy plane, and all that was to be seen was an absurd rear view of the station-master and the groom, those dark clothes and splayed figures sitting, as it were, on empty air.

*****

“Viktoria Freie.” She bowed and held out her hand.

“Viktoria Freie?” repeated Hubička in wonder.

Passages: From The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb

“Your way of life isn’t compatible with premeditated murder. I don’t think you’d even pick a flower, you have such a horror of any form of violence. I don’t intend any praise by this. You are neither a good man nor a bad man: the intellectual type cannot be forced into either category. You could be capable, out of selfishness or love of comfort, of omitting to do things which any decent man would do for his fellow creatures. But you would be incapable of doing anything which might deliberately hurt another. You’re too passive for that.”

*****

For two days she might be seen with a Chinese engineer, then for a week with a Canadian farmer, who made way for a French gigolo, who would himself be replaced by an aging German classical philologist on tour and a Polish ping-pong champion simultaneously. And all these lovers, and myself, would be told about all the other lovers, in hair-raising detail and with a total absence of emotion, though she did make occasional reference to das Moralische, which versteht sich von selbst (I never quite discovered where the self-knowledge came in) – but it was all perfectly objective, quite terrifyingly objective.

*****

At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him. Just minutes before, he had said that what distinguished man from the animals was the capacity to see beyond appearances. The animal sees his mate as simply another animal, but man views his as more than human.

And for a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered; that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her. For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received: far, far worse is the failure of judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality. And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion, in the face of every contradictory circumstance, lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.

That was why, for all his self-control, he gave way to superhuman rage when anyone attacked the Eileen myth.

*****

It was dark by the time we reached the car and got in. The wind searched impatiently among the trees in the woods beside the road, and every so often the bloodshot face of the full moon lit up the clouds, as they chased each other eastwards in a wild, silent ecstasy.

*****

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True. I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.”