Monkey | Chapter 12
Stories Retold: Journey to the West
In this chapter, the unfortunate couple Liu and his wife Blue lotus, who having being returned to the land of the living, finds that her soul has been placed in the recently deceased Princess Jade Bud's body.
Kwan-yin Finds Her Man
The gates to the Underworld creaked open, and the demon escort ushered Liu and his wife Blue Lotus through the gap and past the long queue of the recently departed on their way in.
The demon took them airborne, and soon they arrived back in the city of Chang-an. Liu was taken to the Emperor’s throne room and rather unceremoniously dumped onto the floor, whilst the demon took Blue Lotus to the gardens at the back of the palace. The Emperor’s youngest sister was taking the air under the ginseng trees; as she bent down to look at a peony, the demon escort placed his foot on her rear end; with a shove, he tipped her over and sent her sprawling.
She was dead before she hit the lawn. He yanked out her soul and pushed Blue Lotus’s soul into the princess’s body. Of course, the ladies-in-waiting standing nearby could only see their mistress keeling over for no apparent reason. They rushed up to her, shouting and wailing in alarm. Seeing her pallor, they immediately assumed she had died, and sent for the Emperor.
By the time he arrived, the ‘princess’ was reviving, however. As the Emperor made to help her up, she screamed at him to let her go: she had no idea who he was. Well, no doubt you can imagine the confusion as she tried to flee these unfamiliar people, whom she believed were trying to kidnap her – not as unusual an occurrence as it may sound. The Emperor and the assembled courtiers reckoned that the fall must have bashed her senses and made her forget herself.
At that moment, Liu arrived. When the Emperor saw him, he remembered, like a man waking from a dream, what the Judge of the Dead had said about his little sister not surviving long – and the plan to give Blue Lotus her body instead. Although it might seem a rather extreme form of recycling, the Emperor could not deny that it was sensible. Restraining his grief, he had the princess’s chattels packed up, and both she and Liu – as her husband –were sent back home with the Emperor’s blessing.
Recalling now all he had promised to the officer in the Underworld, the next task was to return the money he owed, gifting the dead. A party of ministers and guards was given enough gold to cover the debt from the Imperial Treasury, and then sent off with instructions to call on a certain water carrier in the city named Hisang. Hsiang and his wife were poor but very pious, and lived frugally. They gave all their extra money to the temple, as offerings; hence, although poor on Earth, they were in fact extremely wealthy in the afterlife. However, such was their piety, and so used were they to a life of frugality, that they adamantly insisted they could not take the Emperor’s gold.
When so informed, the Emperor wondered what to do. “Such virtue is truly rare amongst the rich,” he mused. After careful consideration, he decided that it would be most fitting to use the money to build a temple dedicated to this pious couple. This was duly carried out.
Finally, as prayers for the dead had been promised, the Emperor gathered together his most senior priests and asked them who should be selected to conduct the prayers. Unanimously, they chose Hsuan-tsang, that holiest of priests, who was foremost amongst them in meditation practice and unrivalled in zeal. Hsuan-tsang was summoned, and started on the preparations immediately.
Meanwhile, the bodhisattva Kwan-yin was searching for someone to travel to India to collect the Mahayana scriptures and bring them to China, as part of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s mission to alleviate the suffering of the world. The Buddha gave her a number of holy gifts imbued with power for her task: a brocade cassock; a walking staff with nine bells; and three magic fillets (iron rings placed on the crown of the head). She put away the last item for safekeeping, but took the cassock and the staff. She and her assistant, Moksha, disguised themselves as poor, ragged monks and descended to Earth.
As they entered Chang-an, out rode the Imperial Guard, headed by the Emperor’s chief of security. Seeing these two impoverished monks bearing such a cassock and walking staff – clearly expensive items – he stopped and enquired whom they were for.
Kwan-yin replied that they belonged to whoever would be prepared to pay the price. Intrigued, the chief of security asked the cost. Kwan-yin replied that some would be unable to suffer the cost, whilst to others, the items would cost nothing at all.
“Why is that?” asked the official.
Kwan-yin replied that should any wicked person wear the cassock and wield the staff, he or she would suffer long torment in the deep Hell realms; but virtuous users would be protected from wild animals and other attacks.
“Oh, well, in that case,” remarked the security official, “you should take them to our chief priest, Hsuan-tsang, who is just now about to lead all the priests of the city in a great prayer offering to the dead, on behalf of our Emperor.”
Guanyin was curious to see this chief priest, and she and Moksha hurried along to the temple. At the end of the ceremony and dedication of merit to the dead, Hsuan-tsang came forward and preached the Dharma to the crowd. As he came to the end of his sermon, Kwan-yin stood and shouted at him: “Why do you not preach from the Mahayana scriptures?”
Hsuan-tsang remained equanimous, and said: “What are these scriptures of which you speak?”
Kwan-yin explained that these were the wonderful teachings of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who promised to lead all beings to Full and Perfect Enlightenment – in other words, Buddhahood for all.
Hsuan-tsang and the crowd were astonished to hear this news, and wanted to know how to obtain these scriptures. Just then, the Emperor arrived, having been told that two scruffy monks were causing trouble and interrupting the prayers. When he heard about the scriptures that promised Buddhahood for all, he too was amazed, and wanted to know how to get hold of them.
“They are in India, at the Temple of the Great Thunderclap,” said Kwan-yin. “Someone will need to go and get them and bring them here, so that you, too, can attain Full and Perfect Enlightenment.”
Kwan-yin and Moksha then rose into the air, revealing themselves in their full splendour. Kwan-yin held her usual accessories – willow-spray and vase – and Moksha, his walking staff. Kwan-yin bestowed the holy cassock and the staff with nine bells to Hsuan-tsang before ascending once more into the Heavens.
“But I am not worthy of such an honoured task,” said Hsuan-tsang, when it became clear that he had been chosen to undertake the retrieval of the Mahayana scriptures from India.
“It is a long and difficult journey to India,” retorted the Emperor. “There are dangerous animals and all sorts of scoundrels on the road. But you are protected by your cassock and staff; it seems only right that it should be you.” After a few more failed attempts to declare himself unworthy, Hsuan-tsang bowed and agreed to go. There was a lot of packing to do, and it took several days to prepare for the journey to India.
“How long will you be gone?” asked one of Hsuan-tsang’s disciples.
“One, three, five or seven years,” replied Hsuan-tsang. “If you see the branches of the pine tree bend towards the East, then you will know that I am returning. If you do not, then you will know that I shall never return.”
When all was ready, the Emperor came to Hsuan-tsang bearing a wine cup. The priest made to refuse it, saying he could not imbibe, for his kind was forbidden to drink wine. But the Emperor took a small handful of earth instead, and deposited in the cup, saying: “It is said that when one travels far, a handful of earth from one’s own country is worth more than ten thousand pounds of foreign gold.”
Smiling, Hsuan-tsang took the cup and drained it to the dregs.
If you want to know what happened when Hsuan-tsang set out on his journey, you must read the next chapter.
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