There was a monk who lived by himself, cloistered in the high mountains. Where the mountains existed does not matter; everywhere, nowhere, it does not matter. What matters is that every day the monk ventured down into the timberline and rummaged for his food— mushrooms, nuts, berries, and dandelions—and every day he fetched water from a limestone well in the cave where he slept. This was how he lived. This was all he knew. It was enough.
The monk was an ascetic in his isolation. The only belongings he possessed were his robe, his straw mat, and the bucket with which he drew water from the well. He lived for decades by himself, nor did anyone deign to visit him, for no one knew he lived in the mountains. His only conversations were with his echoes in the well. These conversations were very one-sided, but the truth was that he was unsure which side these conversations actually took place on. He listened as much as he talked, for the well echoed with his words. It was very much like a form of meditation, for through the echoes he could see how he was, himself, an extension of the world, and see how the world was indeed an extension of himself.
The monk was not a solipsist, but he was a philosopher, and a poet, and the theologian of his own religion. His philosophy was very wise, his poetry very beautiful, and his religion very true. In fact, the monk’s religion was the truest religion ever known upon the earth, besides the self-correcting religion known as Science. The monk could not abide falsities, and so his religion had to be irreproachably truthful. If it had not been, he would not have abided it. He would not have believed anything at all.
Sometimes the monk spoke for hours into the well, lecturing the well so the dark hole could in turn lecture the monk. It was as if the earth itself was revealing its heart to him, and all of its secrets. At other times the monk would be silent for weeks and listen to the winds talk amongst themselves, carrying word from around the world like a gadfly-gossip. He appreciated, too, the chatter of squirrels and chipmunks, the howling of wolves and even the growling of bears. Whether fierce or funny, all conversations were his to learn from. Therefore, there was much to listen to, even when isolated in the mountains.
But however much he learned and lectured, the monk was mortal and, in one especially cold winter, he passed away. No one knew what his religion was, or what he had heard in the wilderness, nor the heart of the earth and its unburdened secrets. Not even an echo remained of him, spiraling up from that deep silent well. Why, then, does this monk matter? Does he matter, or was his life simply another Koan— the deferral of meaning?
There was an oni that lived in the mountains. He did not like humans, but he had grown accustomed to hearing the monk talk. In fact, the oni lived in the well, and sometimes he played tricks on the monk, altering with his own voice the echoes that rose up in return to the monk. It was not that the oni was spiteful, nor that he really wished to deceive the monk. It was only a bit of mischief to pass the time, and the monk seemed contented with the echoes that rose up to meet him. The oni had lived for thousands of years. He knew about humans, and he knew about the material world. Long ago he had nearly become a Bodhisattva, but turned away from the Path after succumbing to baser impulses. He had also traveled the world, and had learned many religions and their various facets of Truth. Thus, he had imparted the monk’s words with real truths about the earth, and about mankind. He lied, yes, by falsifying the monk’s voice and throwing his voice with words not the monk’s own, but he spoke truths among those words. His echoes, thus, were true insomuch as they spoke to the Truth.
When the monk died, the oni wept for a year. His voice echoed out of the well and rumbled in the mountains. His voice became as thunder and his tears became as rain. The storm of his grief brewed over the mountains for a long time. Yet, no one visited the mountains, so no one heard him or his grief. When he had finished grieving, the oni left the well and took his echoes with him. No one knew the oni had existed in the well— not even the monk whom the oni mourned. Why, then, does the oni matter? Does he matter or was his life simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?
There were mountains that were somewhere, or perhaps nowhere at all. They may have been, or may never have been. A monk may have lived among them, and an oni may have also, or they may not have. There may have been echoes in the deep bosom of the earth. Or there may not have. Yet, of them this was written, and writing is but the echoes of things that may or may not have been. Why, then, does writing matter? Does writing matter, or is it all simply another Koan—the deferral of meaning?
The torii gate was faded gray and green between the vines that grew from its poles and lintel. It was not maintained like those on Mount Haguro or Yudono with their fresh red paint and ritualistic upkeep. There were no shrines here for tourists to visit and crowd around, week to week, milling like ants on a hill, bustling about and chasing away whatever peace and sacred silence once inhabited there. Ayumu chose this Northern mountain because it was abandoned to the spirits.
It was dangerous, they said.
Haunted, they said.
Forsaken, they said.
Perfect, he thought.
He had taken a train from the overflow of Tokyo out to these isolated mountains to escape the too-treaded paths of a world overpopulated with people and thoughts and lights and sounds. He could disappear into these mountainside woods, inhabiting the silence and letting the silence inhabit him until his very self disappeared, fading within the foliage and the bushes and the shade where twilight dreamed on, even at midday.
A crow cawed from atop the torii gate as Ayumu walked through it. He glanced up to the lintel from the other side, but the crow had gone, and so he continued slowly up the overgrown trail of the leisurely-rolling incline, the buckets in hs hands not so heavy now that his spirit seemed so lightsome. He was Ascending.
Ayumu had shaved his head. He had abandoned the shelter of his apartment for the mountain, and forewent his salary suit for the robe of a Buddhist monk. It felt good. He felt alive for the first time in a long time. He felt like he had shrugged off the weight of the world and was soon to lighten his spirit even more. For the mountain would shoulder him, and weightless would be his earthly presence forever after.
It was to be a long hike, he knew. The mountain was tall and hard to navigate. That was why the temple crowning it had been abandoned for so long. No tourists came here, nor many holy men. Ayumu might have been the first person to venture its wooded slope in years. Who knew?
But he was not as alone in the woods as he had thought. He came to a clearing beneath tall, slender trees where stones were ringed in a circle. In the center of this circle sat an old man in red priestly robes. Atop his head was an eboshi, its black plume darker than any shadow in the forest.
“Hello,” the old man said.
It was too late for Ayumu to circle around the priest without giving offense. Reluctantly, he approached the old man.
“It is rare to see a pilgrim on this mountain,” the old man said. He sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. He appeared to be meditating, but there was a smirk on his thin-lipped face. His hooked nose overtopped a small cup from which he occasionally sipped.
“I am seeking Ascension,” Ayumu declared. His voice seemed very small in that vast forest, and he felt foolish. He set down his two buckets beyond the ring of stones. “I am to become a sokushinbutsu.”
The old man smirked more broadly, and sipped his drink quietly. He did not open his eyes.
“That is why you carry pine needles and resin,” the old man said. “Mokujikigyo. You will be a tree-eater.” He opened his eyes. They were dark black in the shade of the tall trees. “But there is more to becoming a holy man than shaving one’s head and putting on robes and making a meal of trees.”
“I am prepared to do what is necessary,” Ayumu said, testily.
The old man nodded. “We shall see.” He set aside his own cup and reached behind himself, another cup grasped in his knotted hands. His fingernails were long and sharp as he offered the small cup to Ayumu.
“Habushu,” the old man said. “To celebrate your Ascension.”
Ayumu stared at the cup, and its dark yellow liquid. He had never had habushu before. Drinking alcohol was never something he did. But he knew about habushu, or snake sake, and so he took the cup in hand and stared at it in the overlapping penumbrae of the forest. The small cup appeared bottomless with deep shadows.
“Come, come,” the old man said, impatiently. “Drink up! It is privilege, that wine. Not many will taste of its like.”
Ayumu sighed, then downed the cup in one gulp. The sake burned and he doubled over, coughing and gagging, his hands on his knees as he dropped the cup. The old man laughed loudly, his caws eaten with static like a crackling radio station.
“It burns,” Ayumu said, still coughing.
“Pungency is important,” the old man said. “It reminds us that we are alive.”
Ayumu was angry, and opened his mouth to retort. But through his tears Ayumu saw that he was alone. Still reeling from the drink, he straightened himself up and glanced around the forest. The old man was gone. Only the ring of stones remained.
No light penetrated the trees to dapple the forest floor. All was blue shadow and a ceaseless twilight dream. Night never came, nor morning. Ayumu may have been hiking only for a few hours, or for several weeks. Time held no dominion here in the stillness of this sacred land. There were no clocks, no schedules, no deadlines, no expectations.
He did not miss Tokyo. To the contrary, the thought of its loud, bustling heights and depths inspired anxieties in him anew. The silence of the forest assuaged these anxieties and he focused his mind on appreciating Nature as it sprawled around him.
He saw the monk at a distance. The monk wore an orange robe, like a Shaolin, and walked with graceful surety in every step, no matter how treacherous the dirt or the grass or the fallen leaves. Ayumu slowed, afraid he would intrude upon the monk’s solitude, and that the monk would intrude upon his own solitude. To his great disappointment, the monk suddenly stopped and waited. Ayumu slowed, too, and then stopped. The monk looked back at him, hands on hips, and Ayumu knew it was no good to linger longer. He approached the monk reluctantly.
“I am not following you,” Ayumu said. “And I did not wish to interrupt your walk.”
“Was it that you feared interrupting my walk, or that I might interrupt your walk?” the monk said.
To Ayumu’s surprise, the monk was a woman, her head bald and her eyes gleaming in the veiling shadows of the trees. Even bald, she was beautiful.
“I am seeking to Ascend,” he said stupidly.
She looked at the buckets in his hands, filled with pine needles and nuts and resin. “You are a follower of Buddha, then?”
“I aspire to be one of his greatest followers,” Ayumu said as modestly as he could.
The female monk gave him a small, knowing smile, then gestured farther up the trail. “Let us walk together,” she said. “And talk of Buddha and the Path and other such wonderful things.”
Ayumu accepted this offer, walking beside the monk up the lounging mountainside. The air was fresh and clean here, redolent only of earth and grass and wood. They walked in silence for a time, but he could not focus on the hike itself. He was distracted by the female monk. She reminded him of someone, though he could not recall who.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like a rice cake?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be the last earthly food I eat before I commit myself to the diet of the ascetics.”
“Of course,” she said.
Much to Ayumu’s dismay, the monk parted her robe and reached between her surprisingly large breasts, withdrawing a rice cake. Ayumu could see her translucent bra within her robe, and her nipples poking through that thin material, as she handed him the rice cake. She was slow in covering herself once again. The rice cake was warm with the heat of her bosom.
Distracted, Ayumu nibbled the rice cake absentmindedly. His lips and tongue caressed the rice cake as if it was the woman’s breast. Eventually he shook himself out of his sensual stupefaction and ate the cake in a succession of hasty bites.
“The Path is a hard one,” the monk said. She smiled at him sidelong, her dark eyes like black almonds in the shade of the forest. “You must have a vigorous spirit to dare such a destiny. It is not for the weak-willed and the…impotent.”
“I will not be deterred,” he said. “I will be the next Buddha. This I vow.”
Ayumu puffed his chest out, unconsciously, as he continued to walk, holding the buckets up higher than before.
“Yes,” the monk said, eying him steadfastly. “You are quite…virile in your faith. I can see the strength in your spirit…and your body.”
Ayumu’s pride swelled, alongside something else. The heavy robe he wore only partially concealed his manhood and he began to slow his stride, physically uncomfortable and greatly embarrassed by his body’s impudence. Amidst all of this discomfort, he suddenly remembered who the monk reminded him of. There was a young lady in Tokyo who was lovely and kind to him, and he visited her once a week, paying for her attention in the Soapland brothel where she worked. Ayumu had never had a relationship with a woman, but visiting her was quite enough for a salary man such as himself. The bathhouse brothel was quiet, refined, and discreet, but the young woman was the superior personage of that establishment. Within the steamy silence of the private room she would tease out all of the anxieties and stress that knotted into his core, slathering and slithering along his rigidity with her supple manners and motions and manipulations.
It was a marvelous place, mostly. The spa music had trickled on koto strings, and the crushing wall of Tokyo’s panorama was sealed away behind cool, tranquil lighting and lapping water and the mesmerizing feline eyes of the young lady in the kimono as she undressed, stepping out of her silken skin and burnished and laquered in oil and steam and foggy lights. Yet, heaven had no place in Tokyo. Ayumu often felt the presence of thousands of men crowding that soft-chiseled space between spaces; a thousand men riding every square inch of her naked body, crowding him out until he was an outcaste in his own session of massage and sexual release. He could not escape the multitude.
And as she dragged her petite body up and down his own— her swelling curves filling up the shallow flatness of his slight frame—he felt not joy or lust nor relief, but the weight of a million people pressing down upon him with their demands and anxieties and expectations. Moaning, he had shoved her off of him and floundered like a broken-backed demon on the slick, inflatable mattress, his hostess shrieking for help.
“Something wrong?” the monk asked.
“No,” Ayumu said. “I was only thinking.”
“About what?” She eyed him suspiciously, her eyelids hanging heavy over the slits of her eyes. She did not have a very pronounced nose. It was more like two slashes in the smooth snout above her wide lips.
“About Tokyo,” he said. “And my life there. It was not a life. It was a death. I hated it. That is why I am here.”
“What is wrong with Tokyo?” she asked.
He frowned pensively, then sighed. “Everything.”
They rested on two smooth rocks that stood side by side beneath a cherry blossom tree. The pink petals hung over them. Strangely, it was the only cherry blossom that Ayumu had seen upon the mountain. All the other trees were cedars and oaks and such. Framed by the pink foliage, the monk woman’s profile was beautifully picturesque. Such an image would enchant all of Japan were it captured in a photograph, and would be subsequently debased as a tourist greeting card sold in shops all over Tokyo. It was a depressing thought.
And yet Ayumu’s eyes were distracted by something in his periphery vision. Turning away from the monk, he saw white tattered bags from a distance. Garbage! All the way up here! Amidst so much sacred purity! It was sacrilegious! He was about to give word to his fury when the monk suddenly rose.
“Why do you carry those buckets?” she asked.
“For my Ascension,” he said.
“So you can become like those men in the temple,” she said. “Those dead men.”
“They have reached Nirvana,” Ayumu said. “That is the ultimate goal of the Path.”
She snorted. “Tell that to their husks,” she said. She began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To make water,” she said. She gave him a knowing smile. “You can make your own, I am sure.”
She said nothing else, but disappeared behind a copse of trees. Ayumu looked away, lest he be taken for a pervert, and returned his eyes to the garbage snagged on some bushes and roots. Standing, he went to pick them up.
But as he approached the crinkly white scraps he saw them more clearly in the perpetual twilight of the forest. Bending down to one knee, he discerned that the scraps were large tatters of snake skins shedded off along the forest floor. Not garbage at all! He picked it up and turned around. The monk woman stood there, looking aghast. Before he could say anything, she bolted through the woods and disappeared.
She was gone. Ayumu had not even inquired after her name. Strangely, her bra remained behind. He knelt and picked the thin, translucent material up from the forest floor. It was scaled like snake skin.
Ayumu hated Tokyo. Among the crowd his heart quickened, the anxieties running riot to the war drum rhythm in his chest. Sometimes he loosened his tie and forgot about its slovenliness until his supervisor reprimanded him halfway through the workday. Sometimes he wished to strip free of all clothing and spend the rest of his days meditating beneath an ice-cold waterfall, its downpouring roar drowning out the inane noise of the world.
Traveling through Tokyo was the worst necessity. He slept in his office every other day, returning to his small apartment only to take baths, and despising the jostling railway train where he was packed in among other people like grains of rice in an overstuffed bag. Solitude was nowhere to be found, yet loneliness was everywhere. It was a terrible paradox that defined the city. His cubicle was a place closed off to the world and open to the world. He was never alone, yet always seeking the peace of a recluse. Most days he just worked, from sunup to sundown, the time of day told by the small scrap of light that touched his cubicle wall through the windows on his office floor. He never had a break from the long spreadsheets that wallpapered the prison of his life.
And so he thought becoming a sokushinbutsu would be easy. The pine needles would not be much worse than the noodles he often ate while working through his lunch breaks. The sedentary meditation would not be worse than the endless glare of the computer monitor that stared back at him from his desk. The mountaintop solitude would be wonderful compared to the loneliness of his life in the city. Everything would be better in the end.
Or so he thought.
“There is a venom in you, and it brews deliciously.”
Ayumu was so startled that he nearly dropped his buckets with jumping.
The old man in the red robes was right beside him, grinning. Ayumu was too flabbergasted to speak.
“Like habushu,” the old man said. “But how will it be prepared? Will you drown alive in the wine or will they freeze you and gut you, day to day, slowly, keeping you half alive and half dead on ice, and then thaw you out in the future, when you will startle awake and strike, once, in desperation before you die? Either method is good for a tantalizing drink.”
He grinned mockingly, his teeth sharp beneath the hook of his long nose.
“You scared me,” was all Ayumu could say. The rest of what the old man had said made no sense to him.
“You are just like all of the others,” the old man said, grinning. “You think you are special, and that you deserve recognition and honor and a place in history, but what have you to merit such distinctions? You will climb halfway up this mountain, grow bored, and then return to your life, ungrateful for the world you live in.”
Though taken aback, Ayumu was slowly understanding that the old man was mocking him, and it angered him.
“I will Ascend,” Ayumu said, trembling in anger and fright. “I will follow the Path to its culmination. I have the faith and the discipline.”
“A faith and discipline built upon hatred,” the old man said. His eyes remained closed. His face was mottled with age spots, but also red with splotches. It was a long walk for an old man. “I know what kind of man you are. The venom brims in you. It will overflow.”
“What sort of petty priest dismisses a man seeking higher realms?” Ayumu demanded. “Leave me be, you crazy old man. I came to this mountain for solitude, not for company from doddering fools.”
“You seemed fond of that woman’s company,” the old man said. He opened his eyes, and they were blacker than night. “Anyone could see that.”
Ayumu flushed red, but whether with anger or embarrassment or both, he did not himself know. “You befoul this sacred silence here,” Ayumu said. “Go elsewhere and ramble. I am tired of listening to you.”
The old man had gone, as if vanished into thin air. Ayumu felt disconcerted and anxious. But he pushed away thoughts about the weird old man and continued walking, focusing his attention to the moss underfoot, and the trees overhead, and the fresh air in his lungs. He would not allow himself to be disturbed by an old coot lost in the wilderness.
His thoughts drifted, but now they drifted to Nature to Nature. He thought of the other mountains and forests around Japan where he had hoped to visit someday. Mt. Fuji. Mt. Asama. Mt. Aka. He had wanted to visit various natural goshintai, too: holy objects such as rocks, trees, waterfalls, and even mountains themselves. He had deeply contemplated, too, visiting Aokigahara and Ascending there, as thousands had before. Yet, their ghosts would not have let his rest. It, like most of Japan, was overcrowded with other people. He wanted a place of solitude and silence unto himself. But even here, in this abandoned wilderness, there were madmen to intrude upon his much-deserved tranquility.
How he hated Tokyo! His coworkers were nothing but red-faced Oni bullying him about, as were his neighbors and all of the people on the streets of Tokyo. Aggressive, loud, jostling and bustling and tiresome, snorting and frowning and judging. They were an Oni parade marching out of an endless nightmare. His neighbors in his apartment complex were the worst. He had been arrested once, for a crime he had not committed— the kidnaping of a little girl, no less— and though he was proven innocent and released after the real kidnapper had been caught, his neighbors nonetheless persisted in treating him as a guilty pervert. They would not speak to him— and shunned him in the hallways and on the stairwells like a plague. One of his neighbors was a coworker, so the rumors of what had happened had also spread to the office. He nearly lost his job and had to procure a statement from the police declaring his innocence. Even so, everyone looked at him askance, suspiciously, glaring like demons whenever he passed them in the halls. Soon afterward he shaved his head, gathered his bucket of pine needles and tree resin and prepared for his trip to Northern Japan.
Ayumu smelled delicious aromas upon the air. His mouth salivated and his stomach churned, growling plaintively about the emptiness aching within its pit. He was woefully hungry at the scents that wafted through the mist-skirted woods. Stepping through a cluster of dense trees, he found a clearing wherein a man sat, huddled next to a fire. The man wore a tengai and a straw cloak. Ayumu could not see his face, beneath the rice straw dome, and wondered how the large man could eat while wearing such a hindrance atop his head.
“Welcome, stranger,” said the man from within the dome. “Please, sit. There is enough food for the two of us.”
Without thinking, Ayumu set his buckets down and sat on the other side of the fire. A pot hung above the flames, and a stew bubbled redolently within it. The delicious smell of the stew was entrancing. Ayumu had difficulty focusing on the man on the other side of the fire.
“You are a pilgrim,” the man said.
“Yes,” Ayumu said, staring at the stew. “I shall become a buddha.”
“Ah,” the large man said. He stirred the stew with a ladle. “I once knew that old dream.”
“You are an adherent to the Buddha?”
“And aspired to become one, yes,” he said. He snorted. “Not worth the bother, to be honest.”
This bit of blasphemy focused Ayumu’s attention on the man once again. Staring past the stew, Ayumu saw that the man was large, chubby, his big gut hanging out of his robe with uncouth abandon. His face was still hidden behind the interlaced straw of his tengai, but Ayumu could sense the man’s hidden eyes watching him. His hands and gut were very hairy, as were his feet. He wore straw sandals that looked old and worn with walking.
“But Enlightenment…” Ayumu said.
“What of it?” the man countered. “I can find peace right here on this plane of existence.” He held up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. “Would you care for a meal? Rabbit stew with shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ingredients, too. Ginger. Wild onions…”
“No,” Ayumu said, his voice cracking almost unto a wail. “I am on the Path. I must…I must not partake of such delicious fare.”
The large man shrugged and lifted the bowl to his face. Tipping the tengai back, he poured the scalding-hot stew into his mouth; his mouth obscured now by the bowl. He slurped the stew down with a guttural gurgle in his swelling throat. When he had finished, the tengai concealed his face as before. He sighed long and loudly, making Ayumu peevish. The way he ate, and the tantalizing smells of the stew, reminded Ayumu of all of the foods he could never eat in Tokyo because the restaurants and vendors were always too crowded with other customers whenever he went out for his supper. More often than not he had settled for vending machine noodles while everyone else around him— not suffering from his social anxieties— ate very filling meals that he could only appreciate vicariously. Resentment bubbled up in his bilious throat.
Ayumu stood, taking up his buckets again.
“May the Buddha watch over you,” he said. “And lead you again upon the Path.”
“Going so soon?” the man said. “Good luck upon your Path, then.”
Ayumu turned away from the fat man— and his seductive stew—and plunged up the mountainside, through the towering trees and deeper into that eternal twilight.
The cataract hurled itself from the overhanging crags like a frothy, pearl tongue, splashing amidst the pool to settle into serene idleness. Ayumu saw a kindred spirit in that desperate act and hoped to become like that pool as he himself rushed headlong toward the tranquility of the Path.
Feeling so much kinship so keenly, Ayumu decided to take a dip in the calming pool. He set aside his buckets, stripped off his robe, and waded into the cool green waters of the pool. It was deeper than he had thought, the ground disappearing suddenly beneath his bare feet. He floated like a lotus upon the tranquil depths.
He drifted for hours, it seemed, surrendering himself to the weightlessness and the mist that breathed over his face from the waterfall. The gentle roar was purer than any white noise or music or insect chatter. It filled up his senses and he could have simply accepted the waters into himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the pool and never surfacing again. It was a peace of selflessness— of Zen negation.
And then something bumped against him in the water. Thinking he had drifted upon the embankment of the pool, he pushed himself off of it sluggishly with his languid muscles. It was not the bank. It was like a tree trunk, but flexible as rope. And it was moving Suddenly something grabbed him with a thick, corded coil, entwining him and dragging him under. His peace gave way to terror, but he had succumbed to darkness before his last gasp of bubbles had broken upon the pool’s surface.
He did not wake all at once, nor remember himself or acknowedge what was happening to him but in smattering glimpses of images and sensations. He had vague impressions of pleasure, and horror; of surrender and struggle. He longed for the climax of death, and was embraced by it— in a manner of speaking—at last emptied unto oblivion afterwards. He became like a dead root within firm soil; numb to all things and tied down to the earth.
After a time his eyes cracked open, reluctantly like clams clamped tightly shut, and he saw through the bleary twilight the forest floor, glistening wetly all around him. He himself felt hot and damp. Torpid, he moved his head only slightly and saw the monk woman slipping her naked, gleaming body into her orange robe, her long coils disappearing into the folds of her garments. Dressed now, and human, she approached him, kneeling beside him and putting a cold palm on his flushed cheek.
“Do not seek the Path,” she said, her voice a susurrous sibilance in his ear. Her long forked tongue in and out between her lips. “Stay here with me and let us seek pleasure until the end of all earthly days.”
He tried to speak, but his numb tongue rolled ineffectually in his mouth— parched, lax, half-dead with the expenditures of desire and dread. He managed only a mumble.
“You will rethink it all before it is too late,” she assured him. She then walked away, her body swaying left to right with a serpentine swagger that belied the simian subterfuge of her stride. She disappeared into the misty woods.
Kosaru was an aspiring monk in service to the legendary yin-yang diviner Kamo-no-Tadayuki. He was a devout student and keen to become a powerful diviner himself. Tadayuki had confidence in Kosaru and was proud to have him as a disciple.
One day Tadayuki was summoned to the Emperor’s palace in Kyoto. It seemed the Empress was suffering from a terrible malady and only the best yin-yang diviner could heal her. Tadayuki brought with him Kosaru to learn how to handle strong evil spirits, and to help him in the pursuit of cleansing the Empress. Thus, Master and Pupil traveled many miles by horse and came to the Emperor’s palace within a week. When they arrived, Tadayuki insisted that they see the Empress at once, rather than rest and eat after such a long ride, and so they were taken to the East Wing of the palace by several women-in-waiting. The Empress sat behind a screen, attended by her servants, and the Master and Pupil conducted their rituals on the opposite side, so as to afford her strict privacy and not commit any improprieties.
The rituals were intricate and taxing. Tadayuki was overcome with fatigue after the long journey to Kyoto. He felt he must rest, but in the meantime he instructed that Kosaru— being such a prodigal adept—should continue in his stead. And so Tadayuki retired while the young monk labored energetically, wanting to both prove himself and not disappoint his Master.
Late into the evening did Kosaru conduct the rituals. The women-in-waiting succumbed to sleep as night fell, and yet Kosaru persisted. After a time the Empress began to giggle. Kosaru thought her possessed by a fox spirit, for he could see her silhouette through the candlelit screen, and her silhouette appeared to be shedding its skins. Soon, he thought, the fox spirit would flee and the Empress would be saved.
Instead, the Empress stepped around the screen, standing denuded before him. She had not shed her skins—she had shed her robes! Kosaru stared in disbelief at the beautiful woman standing before him, her voluptuous body as ripe fruit and her skin glowing orange in candlelight. Having borne the Emperor an heir had not left any mark upon her, save a little puckered curve of belly fat which only accentuated her navel and the curves of her body. She was as pristine wilderness longing for a traveler to glimpse its vistas.
Kosaru gawped for a time, and the Empress smiled as if in invitation. He felt himself stir, but remembered his vows— and the Emperor’s fury—and so sat upon the floor, cross-legged, covering his eyes with both hands and rocking back and forth like a monkey sitting precariously upon a tree limb.
At length, Kosaru uncovered his eyes and saw that the Empress had returned to the other side of the screen, assuming her robes once again. Temptation now passed, Kosaru hurried to find Master Tadayuki, the Empress’s giggles echoing after him.
Tadayuki had forewent all else and retired to bed with a fever. He was not to be disturbed. A servant to the Emperor relayed to Kosaru that Tadayuki had entrusted his best Pupil with attending to the Empress until the old diviner had regained his strength. Feeling at a loss himself, Kosaru went to his own guest room and lay down to sleep. He told no one of the Empress or her salacious behavior. Instead, he tried to sleep. Sleep did not come but fitfully. He tossed and turned all night, unable to escape the haunting smile of the Empress, and her gleaming torso and legs. Anxious, he paced his room for a time, then went to the palace shrine before daybreak.
Kosaru had intended to invoke aid from benevolent spirits and the Buddha. Yet, as he tried to meditate he found his mind scarred with the candlelit form of the Empress. Before he knew what he was doing he had reached into his robes and began to pleasure himself to her figure. He knew he should stop, and yet he could not. Forcefully, he chaffed himself— half in pleasure and half in frustration— until he had finished. Red-faced as a snow monkey in rut, Kosaru wiped his hands clean on his robe and left the shrine, his eyes averted from the statue of the Buddha whose face, in a furtive glance, was full of disappointment.
Kosaru had slept little, but ate a lot. Servants inquired after his success and he demured, saying only that further rituals were required. Thereupon, he was escorted again to the East Wing to continue his services to the Empress. All day the young monk undertook the rituals. His bald head gleamed with sweat and drooped with fatigue, yet he persisted. Once again the women-in-waiting succumbed, one by one, to sleep, until only Kosaru and the Empress remained awake. Hereupon, the Empress doffed her robes and brazenly stepped around the dividing screen. Kosaru once again sat cross-legged and covered his eyes. Yet, the Empress knelt beside him, whispering in his ears of things he knew he should not hear.
“I am your Empress,” she said, “but you may call me Okame, for I find that I can trust you with my sorrows, young man.”
Kosaru held as still as possible, staring straight ahead of himself; trying not to gaze upon her nakedness. His body trembled with fear and desire.
“The Emperor has no fondness for me,” she said. “I am overripe fruit in his eyes. Unplucked and young is how he prefers his persimmons. Now that my son is a man, and is away in training to ascend after his father, I am a forgotten possession misplaced in the corner of my husband’s palace. I have not seen my husband for a year, and even then only to speak in formalities.”
She leaned closer to the monk, nearly kissing the lobe of his ear.
“I have not known the touch of a man in fourteen years,” she continued, “and even then but a greedy fumble of fingers and a slight pain between the legs. I have had more joy from my own hands than anyone else’s touch. Before I die I wish to know true passion. Will you grant me this boon, handsome boy?”
Kosaru could hear her still, and so pressed harder against his ears.
“You are a shaman,” she said, “and so you explore the boundaries between Heaven and Earth. Why not explore my boundaries. I believe we will find a Heaven of our own in such Earthly pleasures…”
More such scandalous whispers followed until Kosaru pressed his hands over his ears as if to crush his own skull. He deafened himself this way for a time, and it hurt him grievously. Eventually, the Empress returned to her side of the screen, speaking no more. She donned her robes and went to sleep. Hesitatingly, Kosaru stumbled out of the East Wing and found himself at the shrine once again. He slipped off his robe and pants, swathing and blinding the Buddha’s head with his clothes, and stood and gripped himself with both hands, angrily abusing himself as he imagined Okame’s husky voice rising and falling in pitch to the rhythm of his strokes. When he had finished, he dressed himself and stumbled off to bed. Sleep did not come easily, for his desires burned ever afresh. He moaned while abed.
“I feel I must climb to the highest mountain peak and bury myself in the snow,” he said, “and still this burning would not abate. I burn for her embrace! I must throw myself into an icy river and let it freeze over me, drowning me in its cold waters to slake my passions! And still it would not abate!”
The next day, before dawn, Kosaru returned to the shrine to pleasure himself to her image and her voice. He then ate a great deal, once again, and checked on his Master. Tadayuki remained a convalescent, though he was now able to drink herbal teas and speak weakly in a few words. He asked his favorite Pupil if the Empress had improved. Kosaru could not tell his Master of the Empress’s shame, nor his own, but assured him that she was growing in confidence. Tadayuki then fell asleep and so his Pupil returned to the East Wing to continue his dubious rituals for the betterment of the Empress.
The day proceeded as the two days before. Kosaru was diligent and tireless, even if sleepless and fatigued, and he worked his rituals from his side of the screen while the Empress’s women-in-waiting observed him for the sake of propriety. However, they fell asleep once more as the day darkened to night, and once more the Empress let fall her robes and tempted Kosaru with her beautiful body and her beautiful words.
“My handsome boy,” she said, kneeling before him, “you need only ask and I will pleasure you as only Paradise can. Can you not see how I adore you? How I crave you? I know you crave me, too. I can see it in your eyes, and in the way you tremble so. You need only say you want me, and I will gladly give myself to you. I am Empress Okame, and I ache for you. Do you not ache for me?”
Kosaru’s mouth moaned of its own compulsion, but before the moan could become a “Yes” he slapped his hands over his lips and bound himself voiceless. The Empress cajoled and whispered and pressed her breasts out toward him as offerings, but his words were silenced behind the cage of his hands, imprisoned mercilessly behind his clamp-like fingers and sweaty palms. She was a great persuader, and so he fled before she could sway him with her comely body and sweet words and gentle touch.
For a week or so Kosaru tended to Empress Okame. At night, and in the morning, he sequestered himself in the palace shrine— not to be disturbed by anyone—and satisfied himself to image and sound and touch of her. Sometimes he would weep with shame afterwards; sometimes he would not. Sometimes he wept with frustration, or screamed and roared until nearby servants thought him wrestling demons within the shrine. Nor was this a total misconception. Rather, Kosaru knew that oni and tengu and other malicious spirits were most interested in holy men and aspirants, for they were more challenging and the vexation they caused more rewarding. While holy men were indeed stronger against such spirits they were also most susceptible, the paradox being that suppression implicated exploitable weaknesses and, so, it led to greater chances of corruption. Tadayuki had warned Kosaru several times about temptations and the traps therein provided to evil spirits. That was why Kosaru had vowed to abstain from most pleasures, including those between a man and a woman. By denying himself pleasures he hoped to display his devotion to the Buddha and thus be granted greater powers over wayward spirits. Yet, it was easy to be celibate in a monastery where no temptations dwelled. It was much more difficult when a beautiful woman tempted him with every visitation.
Tadayuki gradually improved. In time he felt so hale and hearty that he resumed the rituals once again, dedicating himself to curing Empress Okame of her mysterious affliction. He said he was impressed with Kosaru’s dedication; so much so that he let his Pupil have the day off. Kosaru was conflicted, naturally, since he both wanted to see the Empress again and since he did not want to see her again. To keep his mind off of her, as much as he might, Kosaru went into town. He walked about for a long time until he came to a small temple that resided near a larger Buddhist temple in Kyoto. What caught his attention were the amulets hanging from the small temple’s ornamental eaves. The talismans were kukurizaru, or hanging monkey amulets. They looked like little cloth balls formed like monkeys with their hands and feet bound together with string. There were hundreds of them dangling from the small temple. Kosaru had heard of such amulets before. He knew they were supposed to help a man with a wish, if he only sacrificed a desire to them.
Kosaru looked around the temple, and noticed that he was the only one there. Reaching up, he took a monkey ball down and hung it from the belt of his robe. As he was leaving the small temple, he noticed a graven image of wood serving as ornamentation upon the temple itself. It depicted the Sanzaru, or three wise monkeys, and he knew this was a good omen. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil— that was what he desired, after all. He would sacrifice his desire for the Empress and in return be granted his wish to become a powerful yin-yang diviner.
Feeling reassured now, Kosaru went upon a walk near a bamboo forest. He was pleased with himself, and his good fortune. The air never seemed so fresh, nor the bamboo so vivaciously green with life. Birdsong enchanted him and he felt at ease. Suddenly overcome with the toil of the week, and the exhaustion of his desires seemingly unburdened, he laid down in the cool shade beneath a copse of bamboo and quickly fell asleep. He slept for an hour or so before the chattering woke him. It sounded as if drunkards were laughing. Opening his eyes, Kosaru was surprised to discover a group of monkeys playing nearby.
There were several monkeys, their faces red and their furry bodies either white or brown as they chased each other around playfully. Kosaru said nothing, but quietly thanked the gods, and Buddha, for yet another omen to confirm that his wish would be granted. Yet, as he watched the monkeys, the monkeys took notice of the young monk. They were all alerted by his stare, but instead of fleeing in fear, the monkeys laughed louder and frolicked wildly. They rolled and somersaulted and leapt over one another like jesters in front of a king. Their behavior only reassured Kosaru’s conviction that he was blessed. Then their behavior changed. The female monkeys walked themselves backward toward the male monkeys, their tails raised and their buttocks red. What followed horrified the monk. The monkeys yammered and laughed and howled, and the monk fled in disgust and fright. He did not stop running until he reached the royal palace.
Sweating and breathless, Kosaru heaved and coughed until the pain in his ribs subsided. He began to weep again, for the monkeys were an ill omen. Clutching the monkey amulet in his sweaty, feverish hand, he prayed that the deity Sarutahiko would grant him guidance. Sarutahiko was the god of the crossroads, and the Mediator between Heaven and Earth. Kosaru pleaded to that great deity to save him from himself.
From somewhere in the thin, blue air he heard the wild laughter of monkeys.
Master Tadayuki succumbed to sickness yet again and had to retire to his room to recuperate. Kosaru was once more obligated to attend the Empress, and the Empress was once more obliged to tempt Kosaru with her body and her delicious promises of pleasure. Kosaru lost sleep and, like his Master, was prone to fevers and shakes, albeit fevers that did not overtake him with illness. His loins burned hotter than any hot spring, his complexion so ruddy that it seemed he cooked in the flame of his fevers. Meanwhile, his inability to sleep and his lack of appetite cut deep grooves around his eyes, hollowing his sockets while emboldening the ridge of his brow. His solemn-lipped mouth became inexpressive and drooped seemingly down to his chin. He failed to shave his pate and a strange white mane grew very thick very quickly upon his scalp and down his temples, and even thickened around his cheeks. The women-in-waiting were all aflutter upon seeing him, for he both repulsed them and thrilled them with his strange, handsome features. As for the Empress herself, she could hardly contain herself, and gyrated upon his lap as he sat, cross-legged, whenever he came to perform rituals to cleanse her. Kosaru, however, never succumbed to temptation, and tactfully withdrew every night to the palace shrine where he vigorously exorcized himself of her seductions. His arms grew larger during these rigors, and longer, and his back bent over with the exertions of the motions and stance, his legs bowed. His manhood increased manifold, his priapism ungodly and not to be concealed, even as he swathed it in his monk garb.
And then the farce worsened. Word reached the Emperor and he dispatched his samurai to apprehend Kosaru for his indecent appearance and behavior. Taking him by force, they locked him away in a cage made of wood and bamboo, binding him with threaded rope until Master Tadayuki recovered and could come see him. When his Master finally did arrive, Kosaru’s priapism was larger than ever before.
“My greatest Pupil!” cried Tadayuki. “And now my greatest shame!”
Kosaru would have wept, but his mind was consumed with thoughts of Empress Okame.
“I must perform a cleansing ritual on you, my friend,” his Master said. And so he began, burning incense and arranging talismans around Kosaru’s cage. He performed many rituals in the morning, before attending Empress Okame, and then retired to bed. Tadayuki was old, and had just recovered from sickness, but his supernatural powers supplemented his age and natural vigor.
Kosaru did not improve, and neither did the Empress. To the contrary, the Empress lashed out at her women-in-waiting, becoming temperamental and angry. She refused to eat, and only drank water occasionally. Falling ill, she nearly died, despite Tadayuki’s efforts. She cried out for Kosaru in her sleep, as he called her name throughout the night. At last, the Emperor had Kosaru taken away from the palace, keeping him caged in a remote area of Kyoto. Since he was so far away, Tadayuki could no longer visit him, and so Kosaru’s condition worsened; or perhaps it worsened because he was so far away from the Empress.
And then one night, while Kosaru’s guards were drunk on sake, monkeys from the bamboo forests gathered around his cage, mocking him with their play and their mating. Kosaru tried to ignore them at first, but their laughter and their mockery became too much for him. He roared wildly, his face brightening to an unnatural crimson, and white whiskers sprang from his chin and eyebrows, and all over his body, the mane upon his head thickening all the more, and a white tail sprouted from the base of his spine. His body grew much larger, and his muscles and sinews elongated and engorged like the branches of trees. His shoulders broadened, tearing open his monk robes. He easily snapped the ropes that bound him and smashed through his wooden cage. Guards ran to meet him, but upon seeing him totter upward, growing even larger, they fled in terror. His face, too, grew, extending longwise until his nose was nothing more than crescent slits in his flattened face, and two giant horns rose from his forehead. The oni transformation should have been agony, but his mind was already pained with the all-consuming desire for Empress Okame. He hollered maniacally, then hastened toward the palace, loping like a giant ape, his priapism like a dowsing rod seeking the Empress’s sacred waters.
Where he loped, terror and destruction lay in his wake. He leapt over the palace walls and hurried to the East Wing. Now the size of a man-and-a-half, he smashed through the hall and came to her chambers. Her women–in-waiting roused at the commotion, then fled, screaming as the whole household was beset with terror and panic, everyone scattering like insects in sudden light. All except the Empress. She rose, in her fine kimono, and dared to gaze at the large demon heaving before her. She was scared— it was true—but then Kosaru knelt before her, trembling and moaning in abject prostration.
The humble monk was an oni now— a demon born of untempered desire. Empress Okame recognized in his weeping red face the eyes of her Kosaru. She saw, too, his engorged manhood, and though alarmed at first, she at last smiled and, with calm, easy motions, undid her kimono and let it slip from her body. She took his ruddy cheeks in her hands and pulled him down with her to the floor.
The servants of the Empress were in hysterics as they rushed through the palace, begging help from anyone who would provide it. Quickly word reached the Emperor and he commanded his guards, samurai, and anyone else who could wield a weapon to hurry to the East Wing. Master Tadayuki attempted to intercede on his Pupil’s behalf, and nearly lost his head for it. If not for his spirit companions spiriting him away, he would have fallen to a samurai’s blade.
The Emperor’s small army went, en masse, to the East Wing with a collective war cry heralding their advance. However, they lost their momentum, and their bravado, when they entered the Empress’s chambers to see her in joyful congress with the demon. Stunned, they stood aside for a moment, glancing around everywhere but at the oni they were ordered to slay.
“Mediate between Heaven and Earth!” the Empress cried. “Mediate until the Earth and Heaven are one!”
At length, the most hardened warrior among them— a samurai who had strewn the earth with many corpses— stood forth, breaking free of his disgust and horror. He raised he sword and charged the large ape demon rutting upon the Empress.
Kosaru withdrew from the Empress and presented his gigantic phallus against the warrior’s blade. His phallus grew larger still, and struck the blade with a counter slash. The sword shattered to the hilt and the seasoned samurai was thrown against the other men, knocked insensate upon the floor.
Three more swordsmen, rallied by the warrior’s bravery, approached the oni, attacking Kosaru all at once. The monkey monk broke two swords with his priapism and caught the third sword with his horns. Meanwhile, the Empress gyrated upon the floor, moaning for Kosaru to return to her. The other men approached now as a mob, at last driving the Oni back with the flashing flurry of their blades. He roared defiantly, ready to fight them all for his mate. Suddenly, the Empress’s moan transformed into a roar. She rose from the floor, her body elongating and sprouting white fur also. The men had seen enough and fled. No one remained behind as the two oni embraced once again.
The oni remained in rigorous congress for a week until the East Wing was set ablaze by the apoplectic Emperor. This fire would consume the entire palace, forcing the Emperor’s staff and guards to relocate to another palace. The Emperor was never quite the same again. His desire for sex with virgins— and sex with any woman for that matter—was utterly ruined. He suffered terrible dreams at night, and it was said that the image and the sounds of the two oni haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.
After the fire, Kosaru and Okame were never seen again, but it was rumored that they lived on in the snowy peaks of the mountains, away from human eyes and ears and gossip. Master Tadayuki later told his son of his greatest Pupil, confessing that he believed Kosaru to be the avatar of the monkey god, Sarutahiko, and stating that he believed the Empress to be the avatar of Ame-no-Uzame-no-mikito. When his son asked him why he had not attempted to save his Pupil, he responded that gods needed no saving, and did as they pleased. It was fate, after all, and no yin-yang diviner could interfere with fate, nor was there wisdom in trying to do so.
His son eventually married and became a powerful yin-yang diviner in his own right. Some say he became powerful despite having married and raised a family. Wiser people claimed he became powerful because of his wife and family, for they helped temper his life with a balance that many holy men fail to observe. He would later confirm, with his own eyes, that his father had been correct about his father’s former Pupil. Kosaru and Okame dwelled in the mountains, given to their bestial pastimes. Being witness to such things could ruin all but the most godly of appetites, but when Tadayuki’s son returned to his wife he found that he was not ruined in his amorousness for her. Rather, he knew that immoderation in one extreme or the opposite was the death of balance. And what was a yin-yang diviner but someone who strove for balance?
Forewarning: This story plays with the idea of Buddha’s beginnings for the sake of horror. If you are offended by irreverence then you should not read this story. It is not meant to insult anyone’s religion, but is rather a “What-If?” scenario that combines Buddhism with Lovecraftian horror.
Life is misery. Life is sorrow. Life makes thieves of us all, deluding us with its flawed-flesh and its wheel of concatenations. Samsara. We take from the air. We take from the water. We take from the earth and the plants and the rocks and the soil. We take from animals, and from each other. We use force. We use violence. Only through the negation of the self might we find peace for the self— by killing want we liberate ourselves from samsara and cease the struggle that is life. To deny the self is to free the self. This is the way toward Moksha.
My family name was Gautama. My name— before my ascendance—was Siddartha. My father had tried to shield me from the world, from reality. From suffering. Even so, as a prince within a castle I knew of life’s sorrows, though I had yet to experience them for myself. For nearly three decades I remained in seclusion, in my silk-and-oil prison, every want provided except that of freedom. I tired of marriage and fatherhood and the harem that warmed my bed when my wife’s belly became written with wilting youth and her thighs curdled with the stresses of indolence. I did not need to be told of senescence to know the decay of mortal beings. The flowers that decorated my world withered. The silks that softened my world frayed. Mortality, though kept secret from me, was written upon my own father’s face, even as he denied me the wasteful waning of the material world.
My mother was queen Maya of Sakya. It was recounted to me several times how my mother gave birth to me while standing and holding onto a branch of a sal tree. Perhaps it was not a sal tree, though. Perhaps it was a fig tree. Perhaps it was the Bodhi tree. Perhaps it was something else entirely.
Regardless of the nature of my birth, I was bathed in water by the gods themselves and it was prophesied that I would either become a great emperor or a religious teacher. Such did my aunt vow. My mother died seven days after my birth. My father married her sister, my aunt Pajapati. As I grew older I desired coupling with her, for she was so like my mother and it would have been a small revenge against my father for imprisoning me.
But why did my father imprison me? I was no daughter dispossessed of volition; I was no doll to be bartered for wealth and alliance. I was a boy that would become a man— a willful man. No, my father plotted as a contrarion to fate. My father, fearing that I would become a religious teacher, kept me from the world. He wanted me to be a powerful emperor, as my aunt vowed I might, and so indulged me in everything except religion and morals. He feared such flimsy philosophical systems would limit my means of power, and weaken me, not unlike a tiger ensnared by a million fine strands of silk.
My father’s designs were all for nought. Instead of a tiger emperor, my father found himself the sire to a lecherous goat. In my leisure I indulged the redolence of lust. Eventually, however, I would be shown a new passage in life. I was to become the end of samsara and the cruel cycles of rebirth. Through the Bodhi tree’s teachings I would empty the world of Man, liberating souls from suffering.
Life was full of fragances, musicians, and attendants. My harem of glistening girls, all athwart each other in their olive-oiled limbs and breasts, satisfied my earthly gratification. Wonders of flesh were provided, as were the idle entertainments of a princely life. As an heirloom of jewels I was polished with tender care and wrapped in cashmere for safekeeping.
But my aunt despaired at the stagnation of my existence. As I have said, she vowed that my mother, Maya, had given birth to me while standing, holding onto a sal tree, and having visions of my future. I was, the gods foretold, to become either a great emperor or a great religious teacher. My father wished for me to become an emperor, and strove to prevent me from learning of religion for fear it might thwart my course. But little did my father understand that by becoming a religious leader I would thus become an emperor, too, even as I was a puppet of a great destiny beyond my mortal longevity.
I may have been cloistered, and provided every comfort, but my existence was not spared insights into the truer nature of Man and his insatiable impulse toward violence and misery. I heard tales from servants of warlords butchering each other’s men, and of blood spilling, and of women wailing as they were dragged away from dead children to be raped again and again as their cities burned around them. Death was a shadow that reached far. I sometimes felt its clammy touch upon the nape of my neck, like the cold brief touch of a Rajput’s blade on a criminal’s nape. And Death dwelled in my commands. I could have killed any untouchable I wanted without reason; I could have had any woman I wanted, and any bauble of great worth, and yet it was always from within a cage. My life staled within it, despite its innumerable pleasures, and so I ached for the wilderness beyond those walls. I ached for freedom and the chaos of life.
My father had imprisoned me because he feared that my capacity to rule would be tainted by empathy. He feared religion would weaken me and maim my princely heart. But he was wrong in this. He should have trusted his own breeding. What tiger ever baulked at scripture? My proclivities were mine, and no religion would ever incite regret in me for my pleasurable pursuits or my unfeeling heart. I was of a mind about myself, and about mankind. I did not believe reform could change a man, nor Man. I thought structure and order caged that beast, but it did not tame it, however many and myriad the creature comforts it provided. The idle hours and the consummate comforts nonetheless allowed the beastly intensities to persist. Nothing would change that— not philosophy or religion or God. No Veda ever stopped a tiger from killing a child. No Veda ever stopped a man from mounting the world.
But once I felt the Bodhi mark upon my brow, and my mind’s eye was opened, I knew I was wrong.
My aunt, Maha Pajapati, kept me happy and saw to my every indulgence, as did the servants and the harem girls. When I lusted for my aunt, my father gave me my cousin to wed. Her name was Yasodhara. She did not appease my lust, for my lust was born of deviancy and wished for the spice of rotting morality, but Yasodhara was near enough her mother’s facsimile to manifest upon her my perversions and thus appease my jaded appetite.
For a time.
Yasodhara swelled with child, and with her fruitfulness came the realization of my own rot. My son I named Rahula, for he was a chain upon my life, as was my wife, and I despised the obligations which they signified for me. I despised the incessant wailing of my misbegotten son. And I resented what he signified for me— mortality and supplantation, as much as I represented such things for my father.
Seeing my son’s youth disgusted me, as did his wailing like a pig and soiling himself. I would never again be so helpless and weak and repulsive. His dependence upon others was as an ugly parody to my own, and whenever he wailed and shrieked for attention and attendance I could not dissuade myself from the thought that he was mimicking me in hateful mockery. Yes, he mocked me. There were times when I wished to take him up in my arms and bash his skull upon the bedchamber floor. Where there once were sounds of sensual pleasure, now there were wails of existential distress and helpless impotence. His shrill voice echoed after me, following me in my most secret chambers of solitude and my harem chambers of plenitude. Life, I realized, began in obnoxious sorrow. All life, it seemed, save for my own. My son seemed more knowledgeable about the world than I. It was a demeaning revelation.
Lush and luxuriant though my life was, I felt the keen absence of needful conditions. Pervasive pleasure brought pervasive contempt, and longing for something I could not define in my experience. So, at the cusp of my third decade, I abandoned my palace and stole away with the aid of my charioteer, Chana. He did not help me for sake of fealty or frienship, but for promises of wealth. Nor did I escape my silken life to seek enlightenment. Even now they say I saw a corpse upon the road, and an ascetic, and from the twain derived awareness. But what would a corpse and ascetic know of life, one being denied life and the other in denial of life? No, I sought amusement. I sought to feel emotion again. You see, apathy is the antecedent to atrophy, and I had become quite disaffected in my paradisaical life. The abstractions of suffering tempted me toward the pursuit of actual suffering, hoping their contrast would once again impart meaning upon the pleasures that I took for granted within my princely world. Truly, I had partaken of life’s myriad pleasures and found them curiously empty upon conclusion. Wants were wanting, and wanting was thus my want. A paradox it was, and pungent at that.
No, I had experienced undue pleasures and now sought to balance them with suffering— my own suffering rather than that of my servants. Perhaps, I thought, this balance would awaken my heart and flesh to life once again. When I spoke to yogis and ascetics about my intentions they mocked me, saying I was founding the “Middle Way”, which was what every other human being had experienced beyond the opulent gates of my palace. I was, thus, a newborn babe to them, throned only in my ignorance. They, frankly, asserted my naivete about the world at large, and I allowed their pettiness to persist to a certain degree, but had lost my temper on more than one occasion because of their insolence. Within breaths, I had rendered a corpse from an ascetic, thus exemplifying the extreme by which contrast I knew the Middle Way toward enlightenment. Through my voyage abroad I would steel myself as a finely wrought blade and cut through my own ignorance to the truth, shining brightly upon my bladed self. I would slice through the desires that imprisoned me like a khanda through air, thereby liberating not only myself, but the world from its benighted squalor. No longer would I be the newborn babe wailing about the world from a cradle of ignorance.
Wealth without pretext, or an entourage of soldiers, brought suspicion and, more importantly, unwanted attention. I removed my golden earrings, and let my stretching lobes dangle freely. I doffed my silk robes and replaced them with roughspun cloth. The uncertainties and discomforts of this newfound beggarly life were overbearing at first. My naivete was in believing that miseries would immediately pique the potency of my princely pleasures once again. But it was not so. There was a certain exhaustion in begging— not only physically from malnutrition, but mentally and spiritually. You saw in the eyes of others your own lowborn meaninglessness. Material deprivation was only partial in its devastation, whereas the social deprivation was catastrophic. Were every town a town of beggars then no one would be the wiser, or humbler, but when you witness the hostilities and prejudices of the wealthier citizens exercised against your own person, then you come to recognize a debilitating scorn. And this scorn was as a raging fire that burned away all pretensions of worth, including that of self-worth. You become as you believe, and you believe as others teach you. Society was, after all, a loom of many threads of destiny, and those threads wove around you, confining you; binding you to the waft and weave of intersecting presuppositions. Thus, I became as they perceived me rather than perceiving myself as I ought. It was, therefore, my first goal to disconnect at once from the societal self if I was ever to learn more about the wretched world.
Where once I bathed in fragrant oils and was massaged by comely women untouched yet by maiden blood, I was now bathed in my own sweat and itched by fleas. Conversely, I came to realize that religious beggars enjoyed the most freedom. They went where it pleased them and did nothing for their food but speak religious nonsense. Thus, I babbled for my bread, brokering small mercies with audacious proclamations. The more nonsensical was my gibberish, the greater the portions allotted by those inclined toward charity. Never before had useless chaff produced such a delicious harvest. Each mouthful of stale bread was sweetened by the pangs of hunger. Perhaps I was delusional in this; perhaps I was too proud to admit to myself that I loathed my newfound existence.
I was wistful for my pleasure palace at times. I even became wistful for the sagging flesh of my wife. This informed me that I was upon the right path toward pleasure again. Hoveling in the streets, and begging alms, I sometimes recalled to myself my many myriad comforts, weeping and touching myself, or raging and spitting in spite of myself. Soon, many a passerby eschewed me, thinking me a madman. I stole with impunity, at times, and at other times was beaten like a dog. Part of me welcomed the beatings as I would have welcomed copulation. I exulted in my bodily debasement. To be beaten was to feel a climax hitherto unknown in my luxuriant palace life.
Chana abandoned me in Magadha, realizing that he had erred, for he would receive neither riches for bringing me out into the world nor clemency were my father to discover it. He returned home and, so far as I knew, told no one of my location. No one came searching for me, except for myself. And I did search for myself amidst the rags and the ruin of my former life. It was a glorious degradation, like sickness unto a holy man preaching his virtues. My self-loathing was as pure and simple as any believer’s trust in his gods.
Eventually, I was arrested and brought to a prison cell that was very different from the one my father had given me. It was a bitter, sordid hole, and when the guards mocked me I told them I came of the Sakyas and was a prince among my people. They mocked me more loudly, but when I demonstrated my ability to write they marveled and sent word to local officials. I was brought to King Bumbasara’s palace where I met him. I recognized him from a few years ago when he and his entourage visited my father’s palace. He remembered me, also, having desired me years ago when I was but a boy, and recognized the remainders of what he desired beneath the filth and the starvation. He spoke to me affectionately at first, stating that he wished for me to be bathed in oils and fed sweet fruits. I declined this offer vociferously, speaking of my journey toward enlightenment. His temper flared, then, and he taunted me.
“You seek enlightenment?” he said. “A prince in rags?”
My pride swelled, rallied by spite and self-loathing and hatred against the fat pederast.
“Enlightenment beyond all holy men in this depraved country!” I vowed.
My outburst had amused him. His sneer curved into a mischievous smirk among his oiled beard.
“Why worry about enlightenment when you might have a whole kingdom to rule?” he said. He fluttered his fingers toward a corner of his courtyard where large stacks of silk pillows were amassed. There came from that heap— in feline bearing and suggestion— his daughter. A comely creature, her hips swaying with the gyrations of her smooth thighs. Unlike her father, she was a creature that I wished to embrace upon the instant. Yet, the offer infuriated me, for it was offered by King Bumbasara, and nothing he could offer could induce me to accept it. Perhaps he knew that. Perhaps he was mocking me with my own pride.
“I will not accept her,” I said.
The King grinned vastly. “Such pride amidst such squalor.” He motioned toward the guards. “See that the prince returns to his ‘path of enlightenment’.”
“I will find enlightenment!” I vowed, raving and brandishing my fists. “And when I do, I shall return Magadha and make you grovel at my feet! You will grovel, Bumbasara!”
I was in tears as I left his palace, the King’s laughter following me out as the guards threw me to the streets once again. I vowed, then and there, that I would indeed become enlightened. The inclination had only been vague and self-serving at first, but then— my pride brought low— it assumed the hardened shape of a blade against my enemies and their many mockeries. I would slice through their tongues unto a reverent silence, and that silence would be my deafening cheer of victory.
I returned to religious begging and discipline. I traveled. I experimented. I tried protracting my breath, and thinning it, and strangling myself while gratifying myself. But my headaches were unbearable. I found food not forthcoming, either, and began to starve and lose my hair. Something in my demeanor— or more than likely, the prejudices of the people—prevented me a sufficient diet as a beggar. Perhaps I sabotaged myself, seeking a vainglorious death. My pride was always the sacrificial altar to which I offered my bowed head. Nor did it reconcile itself with rejection easily. When I preached of extremes being destructive, the people mocked and jeered me for a hapless naif. Nothing impressed the jaded masses.
“The Middle Way,” I proclaimed, “is the means to enlightenment! To do anything to the extreme is to suffer!”
“My child knew that on his own,” one woman said, holding her baby to her breast. She pinched the child’s cheek— softly at first, the diminutive creature giggling—but then she pinched its cheek harder until the ill-conceived creature wailed and squealed like a pig. She then pulled out her teat and quieted the fat dwarf with her dung-colored nipple, going on down the street with a disquieting satisfaction. I vowed to have her eventually, and to suck upon her unwilling breasts while her pig-faced child wailed in hunger.
To another woman I announced my great revelations.
“Desire is the beginning of suffering,” I said, “and desires originate in the center of unrest known as self. To want what you cannot ever have is misery.”
“Everyone is born knowing that,” a repugnant woman said, “except perhaps for princes kept in pillowed lives with everything given to them.”
Her observation cut sharply, and I found that my desire as of that moment was to split that tigress open and wear her haughty skin as a robe. But then a merchant passed by, his neck and ears and fingers adorned with flashing jewelry. They were not half so lustrous as the jewelry that gilted my personage in the palace, and yet the sun glinted off of them so insultingly that I could not abstain from admonishments.
“Cast off your wealth to purchase the true value of a contented life!” I said, turning away from the repugnant woman. “To wreathe yourself in material things is to bind your soul to hardship and suffering!”
“You look like you are suffering more than I am,” the merchant quipped. He then laughed heartily, as did several men and women in that marketplace. Their laughter was as a suttee flame that burned away my heart alongside whatever dead dreams I formerly entertained as a wiseman. Their laughter was so merciless that it drove me from that village and settled me elsewhere. How many such villages expelled me in like manner? Too many to count, no doubt, and so my journey taught me more earnestly of humility, and humiliation.
Many drugs had I known, all with their aspect of bliss and release, yet all were temporary— their brevity returning me once again to the monotonous reality I knew, now even more banal and colorless, vexing and baneful in its tedium. I studied meditation to achieve euphoria, but this was much less successful than the mildest opiate. I longed for a reality teeming with sensations exponential and infinitely transcending the previous. For what height was ever so thrilling the second flight? What mountain was ever so excited the second climb? What woman was ever so titillating the second night?
Upon my journey I met two ascetics who taught me little. Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramputta.. They wished for me to stay with them, saying the would teach me more, and wished that I would teach them, but I knew that they were lovers of boys the instant I saw them, and only humored their advances to ultimately mock and deride them. That is not to say that I did not learn from them. To the contrary, I learned their manner of semblance. And semblance was a crucial aspect of attaining the aspect of a wiseman. As with anything important in the social minds of people, presupposition is more important than substance. Mimicking Alara and Uddaka, I gradually embodied forbearance and self-possession, even as others might test me with their skeptical derision. It was a gradual battle, of course, overcoming skepticism in the minds of men and women too arrogant to witness one’s transcendence, but I gained traction and was capable in my slow-marching campaign. Nor was I a general unprepared for such spiritual warfare. I studied beneath several fools that deemed themselves yogis. They taught me nothing but how to pick pockets with one’s tongue. And yet that was enough…for a while, at least.
Yet, King Bumbasara’s words echoed after me, taunting and angering me from day to day.
It was my little village girl, Sujata, that changed everything for me; her skin as pale and smooth as the milk she had offered me. Here was a creature more naive than even I; almost as naive as I had been when of equal age. And so I turned upon her all of my self-loathing and hatred and self-ridicule and took her delicious innocence, divesting upon her my vengeance against my own ignorance.
Sujata did not want me. In truth, she was too young to want any man. But her lack of desire, of want, made the bedding of her all the more desirable. Many among my harem also loathed my coupling, but they came of sycophantic families seeking favor in my father’s heart, and so accomplished their duties with the conceit of pleasure. But my sweet Sujata was all wide-eyed terror and abhorrence, unmitigated by the needful theatrics of political posturing. Her pure innocence and horror piqued my desires more greatly than any opiate or perfume. Her innocence rendered her all the more delicious, each muffled scream beneath my hand a Vedic song that Kali herself could not have equaled. My lust proved my worth to the pipal tree. It appeared to me shortly thereafter, its eight branches towering over me. I was exhausted with the exertions and it was the darkest of hours. I let Sujata return to her parents, sobbing and trembling with her childish complaints. Overcome with fatigue, I laid beneath the tree, hoping to be found and punished in the morning. I had no wish to live after so much disappointment in my journey as a wiseman. Death was welcome to its claim.
Death came, but Death did not come for me. The pipal tree was Death. It spoke to me from its all-encompassing dimensions. But I was, at first, irreverent.
“You seek to be more than you are,” it said. “I will help you realize what you wish, if you only worship me. Serve me. Obey me.”
“Of course,” I said. “I promise to worship you. Why not? You are only one more god among the thousands in this land’s crowded, stinking air.”
“You may call me Bodhi,” it said. “For I know what you most desire and I offer to awaken you to Nirvana.”
“A tree that knows the path to Nirvana, hm?” I said, grinning in nihilistic disregard. “The ascetics will be jealous, then. No matter how enlightened they are they can only meditate in one spot for so long, yet you are rooted in place. No man could ever meditate like a tree.”
The tree said nothing else. One of its branches reached for me. I tried to flee, but it clasped me against its trunk, nestling me in its roots. I felt I was being drawn down, even as I felt my consciousness surge upward—heavenward and beyond. The pain and the ecstacy obliterated my sense of self and all that remained was a distant awareness of cosmos and nebulas and stars as my mind was flung across the living void of Brahma’s breath. I lost sense of self, of meaning, and of life, and with this loss came liberation. I felt free at long last, for I did not feel myself at all. I was, instead, consciousness amplified beyond mortal measure and limit; such as cosmic gulfs without end, achieving total union. Non-distinction. It was as if I was a bird taking flight, and then I was the sky, and then I was all spaces within and without, elevated beyond form and temporality.
But the Bodhi tree did not wish for but a minor expansion of my being. Soon I was nailed into my wretched corporeal form once again with a pain I had never known. That pain was living, and I knew I was living because of that pain. It was as a bore through my forehead; a nail driven between my eyes so that my consciousness was trapped once again in profligate flesh. It gave me a fig— not for my hungry belly, but for my hungry mind. It opened my mind’s eye, drilling into my imperfect meat and prying open my senses to the radiance of the cosmos. I screamed in silence, the gulfs gaping before me and within me. With a trembling hand I gently touched the spot where I had been forcibly returned to myself, and I found a fig embedded in my brow; a fig connecting me to the Bodhi tree, and thus a fig that connected me— however fleetingly— to that outer cosmos of liberated consciousness. Thereafter, I existed on two planes of consciousness; one that was woefully human and the other that was sublimely not.
The experience winnowed me like straw. For forty-nine days I slept beneath that tree. I rested. I recuperated. In the meantime, the tree illuminated for me the world beyond, and the world within, and the world that was not. Brahma was revealed, and the war of the gods, of which the pipal tree was one, but weakened and now having chosen me to spread its enlightenment. I would be the plow for its seeds, it told me. I contemplated this fate. I did not look forward to the next life, knowing I would be reborn as an Animal or a Titan, or worse.
I saw the tree’s many branches dance and sway in their array above me. They were branches, weren’t they? Yes! Of course they were, though they reminded me of the trunks of several elephants, yet engorged and ever more limber with their undulations.
“You and I are alike,” it told me. “We have suffered. We have fallen far from what we once were. We are starved. We have been cast aside by those who we sought to aid. We are frayed strings, but together entwined we will ensnare the world.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“Worshipers,” it whispered to me, each whisper resounding loudly through the unvaulted caverns of the cosmos. “They must give themselves to me willingly. They must worship me with their imperfect bodies, and their perfected souls.” The Bodhi tree writhed as it said this, and I felt terror and exultation twinned together at long last. I felt everything so powerfully after my Awakening. “Let them come to me as cups emptied of all but form, pouring their hallowed emptiness into me. Let them come as the higher realms exist: full of void. Brimming with sacred hollowness…”
“There was once a man who believed ardently in Humanism,” her father said. “He believed so utterly in Humanism that he ventured forth into the wild jungle, where it was said man-eating tigers stalked the shadows. He brought with him no protection except several books on Humanism. Once there, he preached to the jungle on the value of a human life, reading from his many books of all the merits of letting humans live and thrive. Many of the tigers passed him by, indifferently. But a few tigers began to gather around him, watching him very intently as he lectured them. He even preached to their cubs, thinking the next generation of tigers would know better than eating human beings, if only they were taught to be Humanists.
“An expedition discovered what remained of him a few weeks later, his bones surrounded by books and his skull’s sockets gaping wide, as if in abject surprise.”
“He was naive,” his daughter said. “He should have known better. Predators don’t care about that stuff when they’re hungry.”
“True,” her father said. “But you, too, should know that you are living in a jungle. That is why I want you to bring more than just books with you to ward off the tigers.”
It began so simply, as many things do, and it grew unto complexity, like a sheet of paper, blankly white and smooth and flat, now folded into an origami animal. Miyazaki’s anger burgeoned from workaday irritation to blinding rage as he waited in the subway station at Shinjuku. And the irony of the situation was that as he stood waiting, steeped in his own aggravation, he attempted to take a deep, Zen-centering breath and release the rage in dissipation— he really had tried— only for the nearby commuter to breathe out a cloud of cigarette smoke which Miyazaki inadvertently breathed in, coughing uncontrollably while the other commuters stepped away from him; stepped away from him as if he had some fatal airborne illness for which he needed to be quarantined. It was then, as he coughed and cursed and chewed the grudge of that terrible year spent as a twelve-hour-a-day cubicle jockey— it was then that the yokai possessed him, at long last, and drove his fist through the smoker’s heart, tearing its vermilion core out while bystanders screamed and scrambled to flee from the horrific carnage wrought by the long-horned demon that suddenly stood amongst them, glaring with red eyes as he rushed about, in gorilla-fisted fashion, rampaging throughout silver-edged, neon-lit Shinjuku until later that afternoon, killing many people in his wake until finally finding himself at Hanazono Shrine and, by entering it, expelling the demon so Miyazaki could sit down and empty himself of his negative emotions. Indeed, he emptied himself so completely of negative emotions after that terrible indulgence that he transcended the mortal plane and passed on to a higher plane of Enlightenment. Many people, consequently, have since concluded that Enlightenment could be achieved as much through devastating debauchery, excess, and sin as much as through years of abstinence, purification, and meditation. Zen Buddhists and Shinto Priests cannot reconcile themselves either way and, it is feared, many such esteemed personages were denied Enlightenment because of this troublesome anecdote.