Mankind longed to soar in the sky like the winged creatures since the early days, and Mongols were no exception. In this short story, a boy monk achieves the impossible.
We’re honored to publish Byambyn Rinchen‘s classic short story, Bunia the Parachutist, on our website. This story comes with the courtesy of scholar Simon Wickham-Smith, who translated classic Mongolian short stories in “Stories from the Steppe”.
Byambyn Rinchen, who was born in 1905 in Altanbulag soum, is considered to the founder of modern Mongolian literature and a defining scholar of many areas, especially linguistics. His other stories include, “Letter of Betrayal,” “Queen Anu,” “Zaan Zaluudai,” and the screenplay for “Tsogt Taiji (1945)”, a period film about the political struggle of the last Mongol khan’s dynasty.
It was the tenth year of the Manchu Haan the protector of Heaven. The Manchu governor, based in Uliastai, was interested in seeing the monastery at Erdene Zuu, which had been built by Avtai Haan, and during the broad summer season, when the monastery was holding the tsam celebrations, he came on a visit.
High ranking Mongols and commoners came from the neighboring districts to watch the tsam, and the monastery was extremely busy. The Manchu governor saw the many tents pitched here and there, the finely dressed men from the steppes, their faces bronzed, their chests wide, the elegant women with exquisite faces, how they rode in on horses with neatly-trimmed manes, with smart saddles and cruppers, how they galloped together on the wide steppe. He saw that these Mongols, with their horsemanship, their physical prowess and their strong wills, were a people who loved freedom, whose cultures was more ancient than the Manchus’. He thought that, without a certain amount of skill, it was difficult to govern them, and he felt that the policies of the Lord Protector of Heaven, informed by the teachings of the yellow hat sect, exhibited great wisdom. He looked with wonder at the superb crafting of the tsam masks at Erdene Zuu and was delighted at the skill of its artisans.
The Manchu governor, who had participated in the war against the two aimags in the west, and in the restructuring of their borders, was slight of body, but a serious horseman. He slept little, and rose early.
He went out of the ger, which had been erected for him in accordance with an instruction from the abbot, and looked around in the sunshine, breathing the air, scented with the lovely flowers of the steppe. As he gazed at the roofs of Erdene Zuu’s many temples, he saw what appeared to be a bird, and he was amazed that someone would go out onto the temple at the crack of dawn, but indeed it was a man.
He stared, wondering what such a man was doing up there, and it appeared that the man was jumping down from the top of the temple. On his back there looked to be something like a parasol, like a spider he was flying in a web on this clear autumn day, his parasol carried on the gentle winds of dawn, his arms spread out across the parasol, slowly disappearing from sight.
A little while passed and again he saw the man very clearly, in the morning air, on top of the monastery’s main temple, and again the man jumped. The Manchu governor thought it was very strange, he waited for him to jump once more from the temple roof, but to no avail. His attendant officer came out and paid his respects. The governor nodded in reply and went into his own ger, thinking that he would come out at the same time the following day and see what there was to see.
And so the next morning, the man again leapt from the temple. Maybe he thought that everyone was asleep. Because there was nobody around him to disturb, he jumped unseen for a fourth time, and the Manchu governor, who had watched him from a distance, was amazed. Because all the dancers had already returned home, the governor was also returning that day to Uliastai and, at farewell ceremony given in his honor by the governors and the high ranking monks of Erdene Zuu, he spoke with wonder to the abbot of what he had seen those past two days.
The abbot, a plump man, given to beating his many students, listened to what the old and imposing Manchu governor said to him.
“I’d guess it’s these rowdy monks misbehaving,” he said. “I’ll look into it, and let you know how I punish whomever it is who has so ignored his discipline.”
Mom’s stroking my back, her hands are so gentle, thought Bunia. He opened his eyes and looked, his whole body was stiff, there was an unbearable pain in his lower back. He was surprised to find that he was lying in the lonely mountains, placed in the “reclining lion pose,” hi right arm stretched out, his left arm underneath him, as was the old custom with dead bodies. But it wasn’t his mother stroking his back with her gentle hands. A shaggy dog was licking him. When the young monk had moved, it had come up close to his face and licked him, it had sat there and wagged its tail and, with blinking eyes it looked at Bunia as though to say, Try to get up!
Bunia recognised the brown stray as a dog to whom every day he would throw scraps of meat and bone. His whole body ached as he moved to stand up, his mouth was dry and he felt so sick that it seemed his head would break apart. His whole body felt smashed to bits, he opened his eyes again, his eyelids were swollen like cowberries, he was surprised that the earth looked as it had before, that it was the place where the bones of the monks of Erdene Zuu were placed. There were a few clouds in the sky, a fresh breeze was blowing, soothing the sick young man’s body like a fan.
Bunia’s mind was unraveling, like a tangled mass of ribbon, and he wondered how and why he had arrived at this graveyard. Why did the earth and the sky, which he already knew, seem strangely yellow? How long have I been lying here? he wondered, and suddenly he recalled everything that had happened to him.
The morning following the governor from Uliastai’s departure, the sky had been overcast. Bunia had gone out, carrying his parachute up to the top of the main temple of Erdene Zuu, so that he could once again fly down. He fixed the lines under his arms and leapt down, each time steering himself in a different direction. As he landed, he would quickly roll up his parachute and run barefoot back up into the temple. That morning, he caught sight of a small statue of a monk, flying with his upper robe spread out towards the Buddha’s abode. And so, following the example of his teacher’s old parachute, he stealthily patched together old pieces of cloth which had been used to wrap religious books. At daybreak he leapt from the top of a fence. He made a hole in the center of the parachute for the air to pass through, which increased the size of the parachute. He trained and trained, jumping from ever higher buildings and, when everyone had gone to sleep, he secretly carried out repairs.
At daybreak he jumped from the top of the temple, as though it were merely a small building. Again and again he jumped without respite from the high temple, more and more he thought about flying higher and higher. He thought about how his eyes had been opened that morning after the official had left, he was ever more encouraged by his flying but, as he climbed the temple once more to fly, he looked down, and saw some of the brawny monastic caretakers lurking on the stairs at the entrance to the temple, looking up at him. That’s done it, he thought and extended his arms into the air, like a spider in a net, following the wind. He wished that the wind would cast him over the walls, and he heard the sound of footsteps behind him.
Now they’ll get me – help me sky, help me wind, throw me over the walls, and he was grabbed at the legs, someone shouted “Get him, get him,” and he was dragged down, helpless.
“You scoundrel, what are you doing?”
A heavily built, pockmarked caretaker had his arms tight around Bunia, while some of the other caretakers were pulling his parachute away, and they took him before the discipline master.
This is bad, Bunia thought, and his heart raced as the caretakers took him on both sides and forced him towards the discipline master, a monk who went to sleep early, and who now sat turning a prayer-wheel.
“What have you been doing, you wretch? You have made a lot of trouble for the monastery, and your lawless behavior has come to the attention of the governor. You’ll be thrashed severely, as a deterrent to the other students.” He viciously scolded him, and sent his students to inform the abbot about this renegade monk and his lawless conduct. They returned and said that the abbot wanted to see for himself how it was that Bunia flew.
They brought Bunia to the temple, from where he had flown, his parachute fixed under his arms, and all the community had come together as one, and they had him kneel, fearful, before the abbot.
The abbot said to him, “Try to fly for us, show us what sort of demon possesses you!”
Bunia’s whole body felt terror at being so scolded, and again he climbed onto the temple, and fixed the parachute under his arms and, because he was so afraid, it seemed as though he was fading in and out of consciousness. As he looked down from the top of the temple, he looked down at the senior monks in their red and yellow robes, they looked to him as small as sparrows, and he nodded when the discipline master indicated to him to jump; as he jumped he whispered to himself, Mother, make my parachute like the great Garuda’s wings, let it carry me seven mountains away. This Bunia remembered happening.
The parachute spread out, it lifted Bunia and bore him upwards, showing how he had flown so many times, and he guided the parachute along the path of the gentle winds of dawn. And, as he passed over the senior monks, sitting on the green lawns below, their heads were clear to him, brown and bald, like ladles of brass, and they were pointing at him in amazement, and there were vague sounds coming from them, and he came in to land at the base of a wall, along which stood many stupas. He looked with fear at the many monks coming towards him. This Bunia remembered happening.
That day, the discipline master addressed the community, lashing out with his staff at a pillar. He spoke about those actions which were incompatible with the monastic vows. He had Bunia’s parachute burnt and had him given a hundred lashes on the back, with the caretakers being the ones to begin the punishment. This Bunia remembered happening.
His friends watched, terrified, as he withstood the inevitable pain on his back, Mother, mother! he cried and, as the voice of the caretaker counted the beatings ten, eleven…fifteen, sixteen…he lost consciousness…and now he realised that he was lying in the resting place of the monks of Erdene Zuu. He thought, they dumped me here because they imagined me dead, and he raised his head, and it seemed that his back was cut, that the back of his neck was sliced. As he groaned, the shaggy dog stood there, wagging its tail, licking Bunia’s chapped lips.
He got up, but the pain pounding in his body was unbearable. Bunia briefly lost consciousness and again came to, and it seemed to him that he was completely alone, that the shaggy dog was not there. He was crying, the tears coursing from his eyes, he screamed until his throat was hoarse, until there was only the sound of wheezing. “Mother,” he whispered, “mother!” and he licked his dry lips and in vain kept opening his dry mouth. His back was beaten and red, it looked as though it had been scorched with iron, the boy’s entire body was feverish, his head felt as though it was tied up with iron, and his temples seemed to be beating thump thump thump. It seemed to the child that he was lying in their old tattered ger, close by his mother. It seemed she was telling her son that that year he would become a monk, that she was sad, she was stroking his back, her gentle hands stroking upwards from his feet, and all his pain grew less and it was as though his body was quite light. Bunia imagined that he was floating in the air, suspended beneath his parachute, Mother, he was whispering, and then, just before he lost consciousness for the final time, there was his dead mother’s voice, My son, come here, where are you? calling him as though from far away, and he said, I am here, his throat wheezing, and he stretched out his legs, his whole body at rest.
Eighteen years after the establishment of the Mongolian state, I was travelling through the western areas of Mongolia with the German Mongolist Erik Hänisch. At the Geser temple in Uliastai there was a very interesting museum, run by a Russian named Tseren, and I presented a wooden seal given by the Sudar Library committee. In one of the rooms at Tseren’s museum, I noticed with interest the old accounts written by the governors of Uliasti. In the account concerning the eleventh year of the protector of Heaven, I discovered information concerning a monk at Erdene Zuu named Bunia, who had flown using a parachute. It was sad to read from the Uliastai governor’s account, how Bunia, this bright little monk at Erdene Zuu, who had through his own effort predated the German Otto Lillienthal’s attempts at parachuting, had been mercilessly beaten to death, and it’s a shame to think that talented men such as Bunia were not able in previous times to practise their skill.
It was twenty-nine years ago that I made some brief notes in my pocketbook from the account written by the Uliastai governor, held at the museum at the Geser temple, of how Bunia had flown his parachute in the eleventh year of the Protector of Heaven, and how he had been beaten to death. I wrote this story during the final month of this summer of 1957. Two years ago, I went with the Czechoslovak scholar Pouha to visit the museum built by the Russian Tseren in Uliastai, but it was no longer there, and nor was the Geser temple. The original manuscript of the Uliastai governor’s account was not available at the regional archive, which had been renovated during the preceding few years and this account of the Mongolian parachutist was unfortunately not part of the historical record, but I have written this story to remind future readers of this young monk’s name. I wrote this basic narrative as though by a serious monastic official, the tone of Bunia’s account is very much the language of a young man of about fifteen years, and I treated with gravity the details of his terrible punishment and death. I remember clearly even now what the Russian Tseren told me about the stories which the elders had told during his own childhood, but I have long forgotten the fine language of the original account.
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