Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It was raining. Inside a Korean market the noodle shop was near empty, for it was half past two in the afternoon. We sat near the entrance door, eating miso ramen. My bowl had large shrimps; his bowl had none, just ramen. He liked it that way.
He was an ex-Buddhist monk, an ex-convict. I was interviewing him about the training of a Buddhist monk. I’d heard that he was a peculiar man, a hard man; so when he agreed to be interviewed I felt grateful. After all, my late father once saved his life. Back then my father would culture a special kind of tea mushroom which he soaked in a glass jar with sugar and black tea. Within a week he bottled the fermented tea and brought it to the man’s house and the man drank it three times a day while suffering enlarged prostate glands. He told my father he could hardly make water and his urine smelled to heaven. He lived alone and had no medical insurance. But after he drank the fermented tea for a week, the pain went away. He could urinate, his urine was clear. He was back to his old self.
Now I watched him pick up from a side dish a pickled piece of radish and crunch it. Then he slurped the broth in his bowl. He set down the bowl, leaned back and prepared a pipe. Looking at him I couldn’t tell his age. Fiftyish? He had some gray hair in the sideburns but his face was wrinkle-free. Thin lips, pointed chin, ink-black eyebrows, lively eyes clear and cunning. There was nothing soothing about him that told me he was once a monk.
He puffed on the pipe to get the tobacco glowing and spoke through a mouthful of smoke, “Were you surprised that I was a monk at one time?”
“Not really,” I said. “Why?”
“How much d’ya know about Buddhism?”
“Very scanty. But that’s why I came to you.”
“Many things would be over your head anyway. Well . . . what crap was I talking about?”
“What will be over my head?” I fixed my gaze on him. “Buddhist doctrine?”
“Nope. That stuff will damn fly over your head. I studied it. Years. Sick of it. I like bad stuff.”
“Really?” I forced a grin. Then my finger pressed the recording button on my tiny voice recorder on the table. The green light blinked.
“Yeah. I was handsome once. I hated it. A girl told me, ‘Not many people were born with eyes like yours. You should be proud of them.’ So she covered half of my face with her hand so I could look at myself in the mirror. Half the face with one eye. Then she covered the other half. She told me most people were born with unsymmetrical eyes and each eye tells a different personality. I guessed I had but one personality, one burden. Wouldn’t you say?”
He looked into my eyes. My left eye was smaller than my right one. So did I have two personalities?
He flicked his finger at the pipe’s bowl a couple times, slouching on his elbows on the table. Then he puffed and puffed on the pipe. I leaned back to get some space.
“You want to know about the ordination, eh?” he said. “Well, here goes like this if I remember it right. On that stupid day, I had to listen to the ten regulations. Damn ten of them I violated time and again. Okay. There I stood with my dumb face turned westward and bowed three times to the imagined emperor.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “Fucking puppet emperor. Then I turned northward and bowed three times to my imagined father and mother. But who were they? If they cared for me, why was I a foundling? You know where people found me? At the gate of a temple in a bamboo basket. And here in my first bow I had to imagine the loving kindness in their eyes. In my second bow guess who I had to imagine? The
Buddha magnanimous in his standing posture with one hand raised skyward in that self-liberating symbol. In my third bow nothing. Understand? Nothingness was the nature of my self. How grand is that? You follow me so far? That was the last time I was to bow to my imagined parents, and the patrons from all walks of life. After that I ain’t to bow to no lay people no more. They were morons. Their spiritual lives were nothing but the fucking empty sounds of mantra recitation and sutra chanting. Without a religious temple, what’d have become of their spiritual lives? Eh?”
He lifted a toothpick and stirred the ashes in the pipe’s bowl and took a quick draw. It glowed and sent up a smoky raisin-scented smell.
I tried to gather my thoughts. He didn’t believe in the emperor, for he was only a puppet of a declining dynasty ruled by inept monarchs for a century and a half. He didn’t believe in the patrons whom he saw as a herd of simpletons. He didn’t believe in those who gave him a body, a life in this world.
And he was a foundling.
I felt like laughing. Him imagining the loving kindness in the eyes of those who gave him this life?
“I was a novice at fifteen,” he said, straightening his back, the toothpick between his fingers, “being sworn to the shramanera regulations. They scissored off the tuft of hair I hated most from the top of my head. From that day on it was fucking tough. My eyes always stung from lack of sleep. Bedtime was at nine forty-five in the evening, except that you just sat on your sleeping cot in lotus position and recited the Amitabha Sutra, and then meditated on your own mind before lights were out. Most of the time I’d fall asleep during my meditation, and there was this superintendent monk checking on us. He’d poke me in my midriff with his stupid stick. I’d have five and a half hours to sleep and then the great bell tolled, then the gong for the predawn sutra session. I’d fight to stay awake, pulling on my earlobe, holding my breath till my head hurt, and still I’d fall asleep. I lost count of how many times the superintendent monk jabbed me in the shoulder with his stick, but it was all recorded. Then the abbot would recite the incidents of my improper behavior. I never made it to the bhikshu ordination.”
“By falling asleep?”
“That was minor. You know what it takes to be ordained a bhikshu? First you must be twenty years old. Then in front of eight jurors, you’re asked if you’re a homosexual or a eunuchoid or a castrated eunuch. Fuck. I was neither. But to honor the 250 regulations as a bhikshu, I must serve my novitiate with impeccable conduct and a sound understanding of the dharma. And I broke all ten regulations for the novice.”
“What are those?”
“The ten acts that you don’t commit: killing, drinking, lying, stealing, reveling, snacking, using perfume, self-indulgence, eating meat, wheeling and dealing.”
“So,” I said, “you didn’t stick around long in the temple?”
“What’d you mean long? I grew up in the temple. Well, till I was twenty-two.”
“Then I screwed this young girl. She was sixteen. Had a stillbirth. We left town. Later she fell in love with another boy, and I fought him and killed him. Thing is, I didn’t have a knife, but I took his away from him. A judge found me not guilty.”
“Oh,” I nodded, “because I’ve heard that you were an ex-convict.”
“Shit yeah. But not from that incident.”
“Shit no. I married this woman when I was thirty. Then for some fucking reason she cheated on me. But then the dude who caused me this entire headache suddenly died one day. When his family and friends stood at his grave trying to mourn him, I walked up and looked down at his open casket. They all thought that I was paying respects, and I just opened my fly and pissed on his coffin.”
“That was how . . . Okay. And what happened to your marriage?”
“There wasn’t one after that.”
“I thought for a moment that you killed the dude,” I said laughing.
“Nah. He just dropped dead one day.”
“Nah. Was smoking a pipe. To this day, no one could figure out his death.”
“What were you doing back then? Your job then?”
“Was translating the Buddhist sutras in Vietnamese into English for this temple in
. Been doing that since I came here. A-M-E-R-I-C-A.” Washington, DC
His laugh had me grinning.
“Where was the temple that you grew up in?” I said.
. Nha Trang Central Vietnam.”
“Must be an old temple.”
“Two hundred and some years old. That old enough?”
“That’s about three generations. Old enough I must say.”
“I used to live behind that temple when it was barely ten years old.”
“What’d you mean ten years old? You or the temple?”
. I was a fox. I lived behind that temple.” Temple
I laughed. “Aren’t we talking shit here?”
“Does shit smell?”
“It isn’t shit if it doesn’t smell.”
“Does it smell now?”
“I don’t know. You said you were a fox. Now you tell me if it isn’t shit. Say it.”
“I wouldn’t care less. Lots of things are shit to a layman like you. You know what’s funny? You believe the
Buddha is real?”
“Yes. All Buddhists do.”
“But many people don’t believe that ghosts are real. Why is that?”
“I don’t know. Really. Superstition?”
“What superstition? If I say all
Buddhas came from ghosts, is that superstition? Because that’s how things are. You fuck up so much you’d become a ghost. You cultivate yourself, you’d become a Buddha.”
“Okay. It’s not superstition.”
“Shit no. If there’re no ghosts, there’re no people, no
Buddhas.” He paused to take a deep drag on the pipe’s stem and blew the smoke over my head. “Before I was a fox I was a mei ghost.”
Mei ghost. The kind that lied a lot when he was a human being.”
“So I possessed a fox. I was attracted to animals, those with weird essences. This fox went on to posses a woman. It’d come into her room at night and fuck her. When it left she’d bleed from her eyes her nose her mouth.”
“You mean YOU, not the fox?”
“I just used the fox’s body to get me into the human world.”
“Then what happened?”
“A monk exorcised me so I left her. When my karma as a ghost was paid up, I was reborn as a fox. I lived behind that temple.”
“Ah.” I nodded.
“When I paid up my karma as a fox, I was reborn as a human being. Here’s this thing. Buddhism said that when foxes took human forms, they were born as simpletons. But I wasn’t. You know why?”
“No damn clue.”
“I’d sown a good seed when I was a fox. While I was living behind the temple I heard the bell and sermons every damn day.”
“So you lied a lot when you were a human being? Was that why you were reborn as a fox?”
“Nah. I had a mind that doubted everything. I was fucking skeptical of every little thing. And so I argued, I fought, I was fucking defensive. That’s how a fox is.”
I looked at him. He looked at me with the pipe’s stem between his lips. Then he spoke, barely moving his lips, “All these doubts, suspicions came when I was a demon. I had many blessings so I was born in the demon heaven. Heaven number six of the six desire heavens. Then when all my blessings were used up I fell to the animal realm, became a fox. Why a fox, you might ask? This kind of transformation is inherent with demonic energy.”
I shifted on my rump, leaned my shoulder against the wall. “How in the world did you know what you know?”
“When I went into samadhi . . .”
“Deep meditation. There you’ll see what’s beyond your time, beyond your realm of existence, I mean this fucked-up world.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“I’d been to the
Himalayas when I was in samadhi. You’ve heard of human beings who lived in fucking remote places like a hermit and lived like hundreds or thousands of years on this earth? They were there. I met this hermit fellow and he must’ve been like a thousand years old. But he didn’t look that old. Not like his skin was wrinkled up into creepy folds or something. All he ate was grasses and herbs and he made them into pills and swallowed them every day. He weighed as much as air and he flew through air. Another recluse I met was this fellow who practiced stillness. He turned his essence into energy during his meditation and this energy just flowed throughout his body and then he turned his energy into spirit. When he melted his spirit to emptiness, he was free. He could go out from the top of his head into space. Anywhere in space. Another fellow he must’ve been ten thousand years old but he looked like a child red cheeks and all. He internalized his breathing and directed all his saliva to flow down his stomach. What he did was resting his tongue against the roof of his mouth and collected this heavenly sweet dew. Then he meditated on his essence so it formed a cluster on the top of his head to nourish his brain. He was one of the immortals who could travel to heavens.”
I nodded. This interview had certainly taken a new turn.
“Are you still capable of this seeing whenever you’re in samadhi?” I said in a neutral tone.
“Yeah. It’s fucking depressing unless you’ve got nothing else to do.”
“What you see is your own fucking state of existence, this and those beyond time. It’s like smelling your own shit.”
“You could see what you’ll be doing. And you still do it when the time comes.”
“Like a fixed pattern?”
“Kinda. Like one time I saw myself prepare a pipe but not for myself. I was dropping a baby two-steps snake into the pipe’s stem. You know what they are?”
“Not a clue. Poisonous snake?”
“The most deadly snake. If you get bitten, you might make it in two steps before you die. Anyway, I watched myself going through all this motion. I kinda understood that I was planning for the snake to grow in the narrow air tube of the stem. Saw myself feed it bits of insects to keep it alive. It kinda lit up in me that the venom it built up over time inside that tiny space would eventually be breathed as vapor. One inhalation of it would kill you. That was the notion planted in my head. The only opening the snake could come out of was the air hole of the bit.” He curled his lips and drove out little rings of smoke. “Then I saw myself assemble the pipe by capping both the bowl and the bit. Then I saw a man take my pipe and light it up. Well, I felt an unbelievable heat in my head just like I was inside the pipe. I saw the heat drive the baby snake out through the air hole of the bit and into the man’s mouth. Its vapor dropped him instantly.”
“Fuck yes!” He threw his head back with a ringing laugh. Then he leaned forward and looked me in the eye. “You think you could figure out his death if you were a coroner?”