Way of the faith is a lonely path, but what happens when a stranger, a woman, enters a geshe monk’s life?
We’re honored to publish D.Natsagdorj’s classic short story, “A Venerable Monk’s Tears”, on our website. Like the previous one, this story comes courtesy of scholar Simon Wickham-Smith, who translated classic Mongolian short stories in “Stories from the Steppe.”
D.Natsagdorj, born by Gun Galuutai Lake in 1906, is one of the founding fathers of modern Mongolian literature. He lived in Germany to study the culture of the Weimar Republic and, mostly notably the literary movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit. He died in 1937, when he was only 31 years old. Natsagdorj’s poems, plays, and short stories have been, and still are, a must-read for every Mongolian.
When Geshe Lodon, who meditated on the world as being empty, who kept the monastic vows and who had preserved with his robes of yellow and red, came down the eastern terrace at Gandan, it happened that a young woman called Zi Bai-hua, or Tserenlkham, whose determined study of song was an education in the sharp heat of passion, was coming in the opposite direction, in a shimmer of white and black, down a muddy street out of the Western Traders’ quarter of Urga. Zi Bai-hua’s supply of opium was used up, and so she was going to sell a golden ring for some money. By chance, she saw Geshe Lodon, and the plan came like lightning to her that this must surely be one of the sangha and, knowing already that such people were lighthearted and easily lead, she went straight up to him and anxiously said, “Please, venerable monk, please, my old mother is sick and on the verge of death. Please come to our house and pray for her.” And the monk said, “I am going to attend a ritual in the eastern monastery. I don’t have time now. Ask another monk.” But he saw how panicked she was when she asked him and, thinking that she would give a large offering, he set off with her in the direction of her home to say some prayers.
In the summer, although they might light a thousand bundles of incense, the smell of urine and faeces in the muddy streets of the Western Traders’ quarter was truly ineradicable. Geshe Lodon covered his nose with his shawl and splashed after the young woman. Before long, they went through a pale door, he could taste the salt of cured hides in the air, wool fluttered in the wind and stuck to his clothes. They passed down the narrow space between two mud houses and entered a house, facing eastwards on the right. The young woman invited the monk to sit on a chair. “I’ll bring tea,” she said. The monk was neatly made, the coverings looked to be of fine quality colored cotton. Behind him, there was a small, square tab, spread with white cotton, on which was a large clock and a fgew pictures. The ceiling was so very low that, had Geshe Lodon gotten up, he would almost have hit his head. Two sheets of Chinese paper, ornamented with red paper cutouts, covered a small window. Although it was daytime, the room was very dim. There was a small hole in the corner of the window, where one might watch the people passing in and out. Soon the young woman came back and, having given him a cup of tea, she asked him, “Kind monk, please find it in your mercy to cure my mother.” The monk looked at the young women and, while outside in the light of the sun her face had been pale and white, now she had come inside the building, her two cheeks glowed red and she glowed with a beauty like the picture of Green Tara to whom he prayed every morning, and gradually a worldly haze rose into the monk’s mind. Very politely, he asked her, “So, miss, where is your mother?” and the girl, who, in the interim, had installed her mother in bed faking illness, said, “She is here,” and led the monk into the other room, where the old woman was lying, covered in a blanket. On the altar, he saw two framed pictures of the Buddha, thick with dust and dirt. Before them were two red candles placed in the Chinese style.
Then, needless to say, the monk recited prayers and did some medication. When he had finished his recitation, it was already dark. The mother appeared to be recovered and she praised what she called his “monk’s compassion.” The young woman also seemed to have developed a faith in the monk. Moreover, her speech and her smile were charming. She pretended to flash her black eyes, and each time she did so, a spark of fire strove to catch in Lodon’s mind. She understood what was happening, and she said, “Venerable monk, since it’s already evening, please take some food with us.” The monk was a little tired and, since it is traditional that monks take food after reciting prayers, he agreed and followed the young woman into the next building.
The young woman summoned her cook to prepare food. As she enteretained the monk, she became more and more familiar, and moved closer and closer to him. As they spoke together, he spoke with ever greater enthusiasm for the monastic life, but in the space of a single evening, he forgot his four-walled cell in Duinhor and his several framed images of Buddha. Then the young woman said to him, “Now it is evening, and we have no transport to take you home. Also, it’s raining. Would you do us the honor of staying with us tonight? You can go back in the morning.” The monk did think for a moment, but it was indeed evening, and it was raining, and it was amusing here, and so he decided to stay the night. The young woman was happy with this and prepared a cover and a pillow for him. When they had each fallen asleep in their own bed, the girl began to crouch gently, yet obviously. The monk couldn’t sleep. Though he wanted to touch the woman, he had barely mixed with women of any age since he had reached manhood, and so he was somewhat reticent. Unable to endure his feelings, he got up and went out, pretending that he needed to urinate, intending on his return make love to the young woman. When he came back in, he listened intently, but there was silence. He pulled on the door.
“Just a moment, Venerable monk,” the young woman said. The monk lost his patience, wetted his finger and, making a small hole in the room’s paper window, looked inside. The young woman was on the coverlet, taking off her underclothes, in the candle glow it was a beautiful sight. The monk’s feelings were moved and whatever thoughts he might have had concerning the quality of emptiness were consigned to another world, and his vinaya flows left for Lhasa, and the pleasurable effect of the world on his mind was indescribable. Though he left by morning, he would be back again by evening, and this continued for many months. A brand new route had been opened up between the Western Traders’ quarter and the terrace at Gandan.
And while Zi Bai-hua, who didn’t really love Lodon, thrashed around hopelessly with the virtuous Geshe’s virtue, she was not satisfied. Lodon, though, was caught in the world’s net, and he did not go against what the young woman said, who held him in her grasp. Gradually the monk pooled his house at Gandan, and everything which he had set aside to fund a higher degree, and he set up a lovely and elegant house for himself and Zi Bai-hua.
One day, Geshe Lodon came home to find the door of the house bolted from within. He looked through the window and saw Zi Bai-hua locked in the embrace of a swarthy young man. As soon as he realised that this was what Zi Bai-hua’s close affection for him meant, he flew into a rage, he burst through the door, intending to take control, and thus caused a great commotion. But the young woman, not the least perturbed, told the monk why she didn’t love him. She cursed and threatened him, and the monk, driven outside, said that he would take her to court, but because he had broken his monastic views, his case was groundless. He hung onto the door and said,
I love you, my child,
where should I go now?
No matter if you love another man,
just don’t abandon me!
And, from his two eyes, there dropped dark worldly tears like the rain.
12 October, 1930
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