Entry for short story contest, October, 2010
THE VERY SHORT STORY OF A BUDDHIST NUNWith apologies to Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
Many years ago, in a small, Asian city, a young woman decided to become a Buddhist nun. She wanted nothing in this world except to become enlightened. In fact, until she had learned about what the state of enlightenment involved, as it was taught in her religion, she had never wanted anything at all. She was born into a rich family in a poor country, and from infancy she was given anything she wanted. She had extraordinary toys to play with, and was dressed in the most magnificent robes a child could wear. As she grew older, she was taught by brilliant and doting tutors, and when she got older still, she was sent to the finest schools. She excelled at all her studies, and even at sports; she was always the fastest and the best. Adored as she was by everyone who met her, she appeared to want only reasonable friendship, and of those, only a moderate amount. From the age of 13, however, she found that some of her friends, usually male, offered her ever more insistent attention. By the time she came of age to marry, she had turned down at least two great fortunes as well as more ordinary men of all descriptions, who fell at her feet with passion, and who, when she refused them, (which she invariably did), committed hara-kiri or drank themselves to death or gave away their belongings and went into permanent retreat. If they were already married they left their wives and families and followed the same path when she turned them down; all for what they called their adoration for this woman, whose grace and beauty were peerless.. Wherever she went she was pursued by men, and sometimes by women as well, all of whom were overwhelmed by love for her; there was nothing she could do to escape such attention. Even when she declared that she wished only to take Buddhist vows of celibacy, and retreated to the strictest of all monasteries in her country, she was pursued by lovesick priests who swore to renounce their vows and way of life if only she would consent to give them a single hour of favor, or even, just a single smile. But after a year spent in great austerity, she began to come to the realization that even there, she could do nothing to curtail the tide of endless pursuit that encircled her; no way she could live in oblivion of her own physical presence and its appeal. And with the distraction caused by people of all descriptions falling at her feet, from schoolchildren to grandparents, kings to paupers, she knew she would never be able to reach the state of awareness and understanding for which she longed. So one day, she asked her special teacher of meditation, a very old man who was also blind, if she could go into retreat in an isolated cabin of which no one else knew the location. When she got there she sat in meditation for many hours beneath the moon, and then, just before dawn, she took out a carefully wrapped package she had brought with her. Her teacher had insisted on touching it, to make sure that she had not brought a knife and was not thinking of suicide, because he knew the breadth of her despair. But the package contained only a single object, which he didn’t imagine it could do her any harm. It was a tiny lamp, which she had filled with fragrant oil . She said she needed it to see her way in the dark, but she did not light it until dawn. Then, just before the moon set, she lit the wick and, bending her head gently back as if for a tender kiss, slowly and gently poured the oil onto her tilted face, scarring herself irreparably. “Now I will be free,” she thought, despite the searing pain. She refused to allow herself even a single cry, because this, she believed, was no act of self mutilation brought on by madness. It was the ultimate effort she could make to surpass her limitations. And it was achieved only in the pursuit of something far more precious to her than human beauty, or the attention it called to itself. .
“I felt only that the limits of my physical body had been scorched away,” she would later tell anyone who cared to listen. ”And with those limitations gone, I was able to overcome the outer layer of my being, the part that does not exist except to distract us from the ultimate truth of this life.”
She returned to the monastery, a changed woman. At last she could go about the accumulation of wisdom, the pursuit of enlightenment. But what happened to her after that? No one knows. The storytellers leave her there, with her scarred face and her eager heart.
I wish I had known that woman; I wish I had been able to tell her what I think is true. That the beauty which drove all those people to long for her, to renounce their own vows or try to kill themselves , was itself as doomed as her cheek as she poured the oil onto its tissue. Was as doomed as her beauty itself had been. Even without the oil it would have lasted no more than a summer, or maybe two. And enlightenment might have come to her then, had she waited, had she allowed her beauty to fade of itself and the passions it evoked to subside. And the people would have gone away and left her as she had always been: alone.
Then everything might have come to her. We might have spoken of her now as one who had the patience to let enlightenment come of itself. But we do not. Her name is now forgotten. She’s a scarred old woman in a story, in our memories. Scarred, and nothing more.