受戒 / Ordination, Pt.1
by 汪曾祺 trans. KW
It's been 4 years since Ming Hai left home.
He came here when he was 13.
The name of this place is a bit odd, called An Zhao Village. Zhao is the surname of most residents here. Village because the homes are scattered. Over here you see two, three homes, and over there two, three homes. You can see your neighbors from your doorstep, but it takes a while to get to them. That's because there isn't a road, but only winding trails that pass through the farm lands. An, because there is a nunnery (An). It's named Budda An, but over the generations people started calling it the pudding An. Even the monks here call it the pudding An. “Where's your residence?” “pudding An”. An's are for nuns – monasteries for monks, nunneries for nuns. But the pudding An houses monks. Perhaps because it's small – big monasteries, small nunneries.
temple in Bei Hai, Beijing
His family call Ming Hai “Sunny” at home. He knew since little he'd be leaving home one day. Where he's from, people don't say “leave home”, but “to become a monk”. Where he's from exports lots of monks. Just like some places export butchers, some places export basket weavers, some place export barrel makers, some places export musicians, some places export painters, and some places export whores, his place exports monks. A family with a lot of sons would send one to become a monk. Becoming a monk also needs networking. Monks from here travel far: some go to the Temple of Hermits in Hang Zhou, some to the Temple of Calm in Shanghai, some to the Golden Mountain Temple in Zhen Jiang, some go to the Temple of Peace in Yang Zhou. But most of them stay around town. Sunny's family doesn't have a lot of farm land, so his three brothers are just enough to take care of it. He's the youngest. When he was 7, his uncle – also a monk – visited.
He discussed with Sunny's mom and dad for him to become a monk. Sunny was there too, and he thought it all made sense. It's good to become a monk: first, you get fed. Every temple feeds their monks. Second, you can save up some money. As soon as you learn to do the funeral ceremonies and the prayers, you'll get paid. Save up enough money, you can then quit and get married. If you don't want to quit, you can go buy some farm land with that money. But it's not easy either to become a monk. First, one must look handsome – eyes still as the full moon; then one must sound good – voice bright as the morning bell; finally you must be smart and have a good memory. His uncle took a good look at Sunny, told him to walk around and shout out some cowboy hollers, then decided: “Sunny for sure will be a good monk, I'll take him!” To become a monk, you need to invest – study for a few years. What kind of monk can't read! So Sunny started school, reading the Scripture of the Triplets, the Names of the Centurions, the Collection of Proses, the Classics for the Young, Confucian, Meng... Everyday he would write a page of copies. People all say he writes well – every stroke dark against the pearl white paper.
Uncle returns as promised, with a Monk's Shirt of his that he asked Sunny's mom to trim short for Sunny. Sunny puts on the shirt, together with the purple pants he wore at home as well as a pair of new shoes. He kneeled for his mom and dad, and then left with his uncle.
When he was at school he got a School Name, called Ming Hai (Clear Sea). His uncle said it will do as a Monk's Name too.
They sail across a lake. What a big lake! They walk through a town. A busy town: spice shops, tax offices, butcheries with slices of pork, a donkey in the sesame mill (the smell of sesame spills onto the street), a clothes shop, people selling flower seeds, a barber, someone selling embroidery and threads, a man with medicines, someone blowing out figures from syrup, a woman with a snake... Sunny wants to see them all. Uncle has to push him: “let's go!”
They come to a creek. Here a boat awaits them, and onboard stands a skinny old grandpa in his 60s, and a girl Sunny's age sits in front. She's peeling a lotus flower to eat the seeds. Once Sunny and Uncle sit down, the boat slowly begins to move.
Sunny hears someone talking to him. It's the girl. “Are you the one going to the pudding An to become a monk?” Sunny nods. “They have to burn tattoos onto your head! Aren't you scared?” Sunny's not sure how to answer, so he shakes his head. “What's your name?” “Ming Hai.” “No, I mean what do they call you at home?” “They call me Sunny” “Sunny! I'm Dandelion! We'll be neighbors. Grandpa and I live next to the pudding An. Here you go!” Dandelion tosses the rest of the lotus flower to Sunny, who takes over and peels out the seeds to eat.
Grandpa rows stroke by stroke. You can only hear the oar hitting the water: “Hoo-Shoo! Hoo-Shoo!”
by temple in Bei Hai, Beijing
The pudding An sits on a nice spot on top of a hill. The hill overlooks the area, so it was picked by those building the nunnery. A creek flows pass before the gate. Outside the gate there's a large wheat field, surrounded by tall willows on three sides. Behind the gate lies a yard, where a Buddha statue sits. Someone famous wrote a pair of proses hugging the gate:
a big belly withholds what's hard to bear a hearty laugh serves those funny to meet
Behind the Buddha stands the Sacred Carrier, and past the yard is a skylit garden, where two apricot trees grow. Each side of the garden hosts three rooms, and past the garden is the temple, homing the Buddha of the Three Worlds. Even with the frame the Buddha is only just over four feet tall. To the east lies the Head Residence, and to the west is the storage. A hexagonal doorway opens up eastwards to the outside, with white doors and green characters that read:
one flower conceals an entire world look thrice and you will see three Buddhas inside
Inside the doorway is a thin, long stretch of garden – some rocks to form a bonsai mountain, a few pots of flowers, and three small rooms.
The young monk has an easy life. Every morning he wakes up, opens the gate, and sweeps the floor. The floor in the nunnery is made of smooth bricks, so it's really easy to sweep. Then he burns some incense for the Buddha and the Sacred Carrier, as well as for the Buddha of the Three Worlds in the temple. He kneels thrice, chants Namu Amida Butsu thrice, and sounds the bell thrice. The monks here don't care about morning and evening prayers, so the three bells by Sunny would suffice. Then he goes on to get the water and feed the pigs. At last he waits for the Head Monk, who is Sunny's uncle, to teach him to read the Scripts.
to be continued