The Bodhisattva’s Blessings
by Justin Haselden
I cursed as the rain came again, soaking through my straw coat. I placed the next rice ball in the hand of the waiting bodhisattva statue. Well, not completely rice. Food is so expensive these days. My wife stretched out our leftovers with paste to make enough offerings. I don’t think anyone can tell from looking.
Spring was late. It was still cold at midday. The gray sky glowered over the highway, intermittently pelting me with bursts of heavy rain, then chilling me with gusts. The twenty-five little bodhisattvas smiled, heedless of the weather. I wondered if anyone else was as stupid as this Horii Makoto to be out in such weather. I wiped the accumulated detritus — bird crap, dirt, decayed bits of other peoples’ offerings, and the like — off the gray stone.
I barely registered the sound. I tried to tie the little red bib around the statue’s neck. It was harder to do than you might think with numb fingers.
Good. I blew on my hands, standing back for a moment. I thought about lunch, but my wife had sent sweet bean buns and milk. I hate milk. I figured it would be less bad if I were hungrier.
I sighed and started back, fitting the statue’s tiny head with a matching knit cap. A lot of people give offerings to the bodhisattvas, but I don’t think anyone ever took the trouble to make a matching set for the lot of them. Perhaps they’d work their miracles for good ol’ Makoto and the rest of the town while they’re at it. That’s what they do, right? Miracles and blessings. That’s what all the stories say anyway.
And we needed all the blessings we could get: business was bad, hard times for pretty much everyone, and a lot of unrest. Besides, I thought it would look a lot better when folks came into town. In fact, I wouldn’t have bothered that day, but I had some bigwig potential clients coming soon. I wouldn’t have had another chance before they arrived.
Working my way down the row, I reached out to place another faux rice ball in the hand of the next bodhisattva.
“What are you doing, sir?”
“Gyah!” The voice was so close and oddly unexpected that I jumped, dropping the rice ball. I had known that there was a monk around somewhere: I had noticed the gentle “ching” of a monk’s staff while I was working. It was the sort of staff quaintly topped with metal rings that jingle, supposedly to warn small creatures not to get crushed by the footfalls of the person carrying it. Kinda silly, I thought. I hadn’t noticed that the sound had stopped.
The work was dull, and I had been distractedly imagining what a monk might say to me upon passing: perhaps a smile and placid nod, perhaps a few brief words of commendation for my charity in hard times. Perhaps you also make up conversations in your head when you are working. It’s the sort of thing I imagine when I am bored.
I had not imagined that the monk would silently creep up behind me. How long had he been standing there?
“Er... what?” I stammered.
He stood there in a grey robe, a straw coat like mine and a wide kasa-hat, like a shallow upside-down basket on his head. He was carrying a baby, for some reason. The hat hid the top part of his face and shielded the baby from the falling rain.
“What are you doing, sir?” he asked again. His voice was low and soft, as if accustomed to comforting children, yet perfectly audible over the wind.
I looked back at the bodhisattva statues — seven now adorned with bright new clothes and fed with fresh not-quite rice balls — then back at the monk. “Um... I’m giving offerings to the bodhisattvas,” I answered. He stood silently as if waiting for more explanation. “For their compassion and protection,” I added.
We stood for a moment. The baby, held tightly against the man’s chest, fussed softly in its sling. The monk gently shushed the child, perfectly content to ignore me in favor of the baby.
I don’t like awkward silences. Meditation and introspection are not my things. I talk for a living. I sell things. Emptiness is a thing I prefer to have filled.
“That your boy?” I asked. I immediately regretted the gaffe. Monks are supposed to be — but rarely are — celibate and chaste. Asking if he had a child was rude. The monk’s air was unnerving in a way I could not quite put my finger on. My glib merchant’s tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
He glanced away as if he needed to think about it. “In a manner of speaking,” he replied.
I exhaled a bit. He had not taken offense. But why would...?
I should not have relaxed. Something about the monk caused me to blurt out my thoughts. “Oh, I see! One of the whores from the slum pawned off her little bastard on you. For your monastery, I guess. That’s nice.”
I cannot imagine what made me so honest. Now, that was exactly what I thought, but I would not have said it until telling this story in much different company. Even the derisive tone and slight sneer was just as I might have said it to my partner back at the shop. I swallowed. An uncomfortable moment passed.
“The sangha is a refuge for any,” he said mildly. He shifted the baby. “May I ask you a question?”
“Uhhh... yeah. What is it?”
“May I know your name first?”
“Um... Horii. I own the silk shop in town.”
“Mr. Horii, what is the merit of showing compassion to stones?”
I knitted my brow and glanced around. “Is that a riddle?” I asked.
“No, sir.” His gaze swept the twenty-five tiny statues. “I see you have gone to some expense to provide food and clothing for these icons. I wondered why. I hoped I might learn something from you.”
“Um... well... I guess...” How to explain that people give offerings to the bodhisattvas to receive their blessings and good fortune? Shouldn’t he know that?
“Sometimes our beliefs are not so easily put into words. May I speculate?” he asked. The staff jingled.
Not sure what to say, I said nothing. He waited. I gave a quick couple of nods, grunting an assent.
“Do you believe the bodhisattva gains actual nourishment from the offerings you provide his icon?” he asked. His tone was sincere, so much that I doubted for a moment that what he had just said was ridiculous.
“No. I suppose not,” I replied. “Does it?”
“Not that I am aware, sir.” The wind blew, and he pulled the baby tighter to himself. His gaze passed again over the rows of little smiling statues. “Hummm... Do you provide rice balls here so that they might be received by those in need without the risk of inflaming your vanity?”
My mind flicked to the memory of the lanky, sunken-eyed youth I had shooed away from this place earlier.
“But I perceive they are in large part paste, so I assume you do not mean them for consumption.” He looked at me, expressionless.
My mouth hung open stupidly. I looked at the not-completely-rice ball I had dropped when the monk had first spoken. I smeared it with my foot, exposing its innards. Even knowing what they were made of, I couldn’t tell they were not all rice just by looking. How could he?
“No... yes.” I stumbled over my words. “You’re right, they’re just for show.” I bit my lower lip.
“Is it to test the pride of the bodhisattva? That you should offer food when there is so little—”
“No, no, no, no, no,” I interrupted, shaking my head. “It’s an offering, a gesture... like in the kasa-hat story.” I was tired of the monk. I wondered if he was playing a joke on me or if he was just stupid. I guess they take idiots at monasteries, too.
The baby woke and began cooing. He seemed unusually small and thin, now that I looked at him.
The monk glanced downwards. I imagined his furrowed brow. Rain dripped from the wide brim of his straw hat.
“The kasa-hat man story?”
I rubbed my head and exhaled. “Nice old man. Gives hats to the bodhisattva statues?”
“Everyone’s heard it.”
“Perhaps I know it by a different name.” He shushed the baby, who had become fussy. “Would you recount it for me, sir?”
“O-okay.” I licked my lips. It didn’t want to waste any more time, but I didn’t know how else to get rid of him. “So there is this old man and his wife who are kind but very poor.” I began and paused. Did this man really want me to tell him a story? The monk nodded and waited, bouncing the baby slightly. The baby giggled. At me, I thought.
“Well, it’s New Years and they don’t have any rice cakes. So, the old man and his wife make some kasa-hats to sell, so they can buy some... some rice cakes.” I wondered if he’d got it now.
“Yes?” That was all he offered.
“Sooo, he takes the kasa-hats to sell, but when he passes the bodhisattva statues, it’s snowing, see? And they’re all covered with snow. So he thinks that’s sad how they are all out in the snow with no hats. So he brushes off the snow and puts the kasa-hats on them, but there is one too few, so he gives the last one his kasa-hat and goes home.”
The monk was rapt.
“When he gets home, his wife asks why he is back so soon and what happened to the hats. He tells her what he did, and she says, ‘That was sweet of you. We didn’t need rice cakes anyway.’
“They go to bed, but in the middle of the night they are woken up by someone singing: ‘Where is the present-giving old man? We have a present for him!’ The old man and his wife look out and see the bodhisattvas, still wearing the kasa-hats, have left rice cakes and lots of other food at his doorstep.”
I nodded, having reached the conclusion. Not a great retelling, I thought, but I had been put on the spot. The wind blew, and I pulled my coat tighter around me.
The monk hesitated. “A priest told you this?” he asked.
“No. No, it’s... it’s just a story. I think I heard it from my parents or at school.” I kicked at some crap on the ground to fill the emptiness that followed and stared at the monk.
Just as I was about to make an excuse to end the conversation, he spoke again. “Forgive me, I did not want to speak hastily.”
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t help it.
“But this story sounds like snake oil. It soothes the conscience when the conscience should be inflamed.” He shushed the baby, bouncing him and humming gently for a few moments until he was again still.
I squinted at this strange man.
He looked up. “You seem skeptical, Mr. Horii. I ask you: where are the neighbors who have left two senile old people to starve in a hut? You again look surprised, but consider: that a man gives his hat, much less his only source of income, to a statue is less a mark of compassion than of dementia.”
That’s a downer, I thought. But the monk had a point.
“Indeed,” he continued, “when the first snow flake hit the man’s bare head, he suffered more in that very instant than the statues would have in ten thousand years of rain and snow. Not to mention his wife, who would likewise go hungry. The old man may have been kind, but he was clearly unwell.”
I found I could not disagree.
“You are a businessman. How would your wife respond if you had given away your silk business to stone icons?”
“Unhappy,” I said. It was quite an understatement. I shuddered a bit.
“Of course.” He chuckled. The baby cooed. “Yet here the old man’s wife is mildly resigned to starving, senility, or despair; or perhaps all three. It is almost as if one author crafted a satire, and another misunderstood it and imposed a facile moral upon it.”
“Yeah, but isn’t the point that kindness is rewarded? It’s just a kid’s story.” This was annoying. If this monk didn’t have anything better to do than navel-gaze about fairy tales, fine. I, on the other hand, was a busy man.
“Oh? But sir, didn’t you say this children’s story was why you labor here in the rain?”
Asshole. But again, he was right.
“Besides, if that is the point, the story fails: the kind old people die hungry.”
It became clear to me that I was talking to a moron. That was absolutely not what happened in the story.
“Or do you interpret differently a host of spiritual beings bringing a feast to old people who have gone to sleep with no food?”
“Well, I guess I thought the statues literally brought food. I never gave it much thought.”
“But why would a bodhisattva use a miracle to bring food when there was a village full of people who should have? I have never heard of such a thing, except in silly stories. This story lulls well-meaning people into relying on magical thinking in place of right action.” The staff jingled.
I was in no mood, standing in the wind and cold, to be preached at. “Look. Are you trying to tell me I shouldn’t be doing this? If so, just saying it would have saved a lot of time.” The clothing and the rice, even adulterated as it was, had not been cheap. The baby began to cry. The monk softly shushed him. I glanced at my feet.
The baby did not cry long, but while it did I stood fidgeting a bit, looking at the little stone statues I had been feeding and clothing. I felt foolish.
“Without knowing your purpose, I could not advise you on how to achieve it.” He bowed slightly, so as not to disturb the baby. “I have offended you, Mr. Horii. I apologize.”
Raising his eyes, I saw them for the first time, bright, penetrating and unfathomably deep. For a moment, I imagined I gazed into the bodhisattva’s own eyes...
“May I render a professional opinion in recompense for your time?”
“Please.” His smile was warmth.
“Thank you. If I may, what you are doing is unnecessary. The bodhisattva will strive just as ardently to ease your suffering without these offerings as with them. Go get dry.” His head declined slightly and his eyes were again veiled by his kasa-hat. “And for what it is worth, you have my blessings, sir.” He adjusted the baby in the sling. “I must be on my way.”
I was embarrassed that I had raised my voice over something so stupid. I didn’t want to end on that note. “Hey, it is terrible weather to travel with a child. I’m sure one of the inns would put you up until it clears off. Or... I guess you could stay at my place.”
“We have far to go. One does not reach the goal by lingering where one has no more business. But thank you for your concern, sir.” He turned to start off.
“What about some food? You can take my lunch, and by chance, I have some milk the baby could have.” Why did my wife send milk today?
“No. Thank you. I am fine, and... he is not hungry anymore.” The monk’s eyes turned towards the baby. He turned and started off, singing a soft, sad and lilting song in a language I did not know. I watched him leave.
Ching... Ching... Ching...
I turned, looking again at the twenty-five little faces, smiling heedless of their offerings. I gathered my things and left.
* * *
I wound my way through the slums back to my home. The road through nicer areas is longer; this path saved me a lot of time and was not particularly dangerous during the day. The cold rain motivated me to hurry.
I rounded the corner not far from my house to a commotion. Folks gathered round someone — a woman — shrieking. I did not catch the mutterings of the crowd, but as I hurried by, I glanced at what the spectacle might be.
An old woman tried desperately, with no success, to calm another, younger woman. The young woman shrieked and wailed unintelligibly, batting away her comforter and clawing at herself. She had torn away her clothes, exposing her emaciated ribs, heaving as she gasped. Long scarlet streaks crisscrossed where her nails had raked her face and flat breasts. Before her, a tiny corpse lay in the mud.
I did not know her. I had never seen her before. But the baby... He seemed so terribly familiar... I hurried on.
* * *
I do not give offerings at the statues of the bodhisattva anymore.
Copyright © 2015 by Justin Haselden