Karma is a bitch, a cruel, fickle bitch. I’m 28 years old and nothing has ever gone right for me. Sure I’m next in line for the throne, but only by default because my brother abdicated. And look at the country I will some day “rule”—it’s a second-rate backwater province. Travel 50 miles and who has even heard of Shakya?
Last week was my birthday, and do you think anyone so much as batted an eye? Sure, there was a festival with 100 of my father’s most delectable dances, but what of it? When my brother, the magnificent Siddhartha, turned 28, he was greeted with much, much more—the most sumptuous feast, exotic dancers and skilled musicians, everything our dear king and queen could afford. No expense was spared. But do you think my parents would pamper their second son with such lavish treatment?
Oh the injustice.
Once word was received that big brother was returning to Shakya with his retinue of stinking monks, all memory of my birthday celebration went down the Ganges. In my father’s eyes, no one and nothing can compare to his precious Chakravarti, his firstborn Siddhartha.
“Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
What? Abandon my wife and newborn child in the middle of the night? I don’t think so.
“Siddhartha would never say anything that crude. Why can’t you follow in his footsteps?”
Neglect my duties as prince and run off with a band of wandering destitutes?
So what if my parents don’t actually say this; I can see the recriminations, the disappointed comparison in their eyes.
I’ll never measure up to their beloved Siddhartha, the so-called Buddha.
Oh cruel fate, why was I ever born to walk in his measly shadow? They fawn upon his every movement, every look, ever gesture. How could I ever hope compare to him?
In a thousand years, I’m certain people will still be talking about this “Buddha,” but will anyone remember his half-brother? No, I will disappear in the annals of time, long forgotten, rotting in an unmarked grave,
Oh the injustice of it all! What did I ever do to deserve this? Karma, the Buddha teaches; we are the inheritors of our past actions. What rubbish. Karma is a fickle wench who favors the unworthy and cheats the noble.
But wait, I can hear the bhikkhus—my brother’s “sangha,” as he calls them—arriving.
I step outside on the balcony and see the procession of dirty souls marching down the promenade towards the palace. What a pathetic sight! Grimy, patch-robed monks in sandals, all carrying alms bowls, a sea of saffron. How pathetic, a prince begging in the streets. By the gods, I can’t understand why my parents are so proud of this prince of urchins.
Someone knocks on my chamber door. I turn; it’s Ananda, my cousin, a young whelp all starry-eyed at the prospect of meeting his cousin again. I think he even plans to “leave home,” as the bhikkhus call it, and ordain with the verminous sangha. How pathetic.
“Are you coming?” he asks, all out of breath.
He’s gone before I can answer, rushing off down the hallway.
I sigh, take one more look at the winding tail of monks now filling the palace courtyard, and shake my head. Here we go again; the circus is back in town. The air is heavy with the droning sound of murmurs, interrupted with the sharp peal of my father’s minstrels.
After I drag my self to the courtyard, the air is hot, another robust Shakya day. I spot my parents dressed in their finest silks. My mother rushes through crowd, towards her favorite son, or step-son I should call him. He’s really her nephew, the son of her late sister, but she treats him like he actually sprang from her own womb.
The sea of filthy monks parts, revealing the “Buddha” at its heart. Ananda already stands beaming at his side. She embraces her son warmly, despite his attempts to remain decorous. The monks start murmuring at the sight, uneasy that their vestal Buddha is touching a woman, even if she is the woman who raised him.
Siddhartha stands tall and noble, embodying all of the best qualities of the Shakya clan. He’s handsome, intelligent-looking, and wears a beatific smile above his saffron robes. I won’t deny that he’s more handsome and athletic than I. Not even years of fierce asceticism could rob him of that. Where he’s tall and lean, I’m average height and a bit soft around the edges. His eyes are dark and piercing, mine the color of mud. He’s stately, I’m portly. If he is Lord Brahma, I am Brahma’s mule.
It’s no wonder why my parents favor him. Oh, curse you karma!
Behind him stands Devadatta, our oldest cousin. He’s a slimy rat of a man, about as trustworthy as a viper. He’s my favorite relative. We see eye to eye on a lot of things, including my beloved brother.
My father flashes me a warm smile out of the corner of his eye as he makes his way to Siddhartha. I paint a smile on my own face and begin the torturous journey to my mortal enemy.
I’m halfway through the stinking crowd when I hear a chorus of screams from my right. There is some sort of confusion as monks scatter in all directions. I’m only a few feet away from the illustrious Buddha when I discern the source of the ruckus.
It’s Govinda, my father’s prized elephant. He’s trumpeting loudly and stomping our way. What’s he doing here? All of my father’s other elephants are dressed for the occasion, but Govinda, half-blind and rumored to half-mad, is gray and unadorned.
I glance over my shoulder. My mother’s face is wracked with fear, and my father’s with urgency. Siddhartha’s, however, is as calm as our cows before a vegetarian feast.
Strangely, I can make out Devadatta behind him. His face, usually puckered like he’s sucking on a sour tart, is screwed into mask of anxiety. Not so much in fear as in…anticipation?
I don’t have time to process any of this though, before I can feel the thunderous footsteps of Govinda’s approach.
I turn just in time to see his eyes, milky white with cataracts, set dead ahead.
I swallow and pray to the gods for some miracle—a retinue of devas, a freak lightning storm, anything—to save me from being trampled to death. But nothing happens. No surprise there.
I raise my hands to ward off the beast and yell, “Wow!” the only word that comes to mind in the face a one-tone charging mammoth. Surprisingly he stops in front of me.
Maybe it was the sound of my voice he recognized, or my scent as royalty. Either way, I might just survive this catastrophe. He’s so close that I can feel his hot breath washing over my face.
I gulp, feeling my heart beating in my throat. My head feels light; I think I might pass out from fear.
I toss a quick glance over my shoulder and see that I’ve bought enough time for my mother and father to escape. But not Siddhartha. He stands as resolutely as a statue, his face beatific and serene. Figures.
Devadatta is poking his head from around Siddhartha’s shoulders, his eyes grim and jaw set in a scowl.
Govinda trumpets and draws my attention back. Raging elephants have a way of doing that.
I stare at him, his ancient tusks mere feet from my face. That’s when I notice a barbed dart in his right quarters. That’s what must have caused his tantrum.
Who is responsible for this? And why is Govinda outside of the stable?
I raise a tentative hand to pull out the dart. If I can calm the beast, I’ll be a hero. Maybe my parents will respect me as they do Siddhartha. I will be known as the Elephant Master. I like the ring of that.
My hand is trembling, only inches from the dart—and immortal fame—when Govinda’s mood changes yet again. He snorts, rears on his hind quarters, and blasts me with a tide of hot air.
That’s when I know it’s all over.
His feet crash to the ground and before I can take two steps, he gores me with his tusks. I’m tossed ten feet in a heap of limbs, crashing to the ground near a banyan tree. I can hear screams everywhere. Somehow, out of the corner of my eye, I see Govinda storming towards Siddhartha.
I pat my chest and feel its slick with hot blood. Great, just what I needed today. My vision is blurring and my mouth is dry, my throat constricted. I can barely breathe. The world is growing black around the edges, but I can just make out Govinda kneeling before my brother. Maybe he is the Buddha
But enough about him. This is just my luck! After I die, no one will probably even remember my name, let alone this day.
Damn you cruel karma…
* * * * *
I’ve been a worm, a hungry ghost, and a dog. A monkey, a fish, and a god. But none of those lives have lasted; everything is impermanent. I’m fortunate to have been born as a human. A human birth is rarer than finding a lost needle in the ocean. And even rarer is meeting the Dharma.
That’s what the man tells me. He’s a tall, dark foreigner, who speaks with a strange accent. He wears an old dirty robe and has a faceful of wiry hair. I’ve never seen anyone like him before. In the sunlight, when he turns a certain way, bald pate gleaming, his hair even looks…red.
I don’t believe him, though. I’m the only girl in a house of boys. Some days it feels like my father would trade me for a pig. Father doesn’t like it when I talk to the stranger, with his weathered face and broken Chinese. He thinks the man fills me with all sorts of strange ideas. The craziest of all is that a girl is just as important as a boy.
The foreigner, whose name I can’t remember because it doesn’t make any sense in Chinese at all, has been staying at our inn for a week. He spends most of his time in his room, silent as a barn mouse.
Today he’s leaving on our ferry across the river. It’s a few logs banded together with vines, with a rope that runs from either side of the river threaded through a mounted staff like the eye of a needle. I begged Father to come so I can see the stranger off. Father barely agreed, and has been keeping a careful eye on us the entire trip across the water. He must think the stranger has dishonorable intentions, but I know better.
For all his rags and calloused hands, he’s a holy man. Anyone can tell that, except Father, I guess. But that’s no surprise; all he can think about is money.
Soon we’re on the opposite bank and I’m wondering if I’ll ever see the stranger again, if maybe all his talk about being reborn is true or not. He talks about this force called karma that has brought us together, but I don’t know. What good is this karma if it made me the thirteen-year-old daughter of a poor innkeeper, a motherless child with three brothers and not a friend in the world, except for a dark-skinned barbarian?
I don’t think I want anything to do with a force like that. It sounds like the gods that Grandma used to tell stories about before she lost her mind and started talking to tree spirits.
The stranger shoulders his bag and stands up. There are a few farmers and a mule on the ferry with us, all ready to hop off the ferry. My father drops a stone anchor and soon everyone is trudging through the shallow brown water on their way to the riverbank. Everyone except the stranger.
He ignores my father’s scowl and drops to one knee in front of me. I want to tell him to take me with him, but can’t find the words or the courage. I can feel my father’s angry eyes boring into my back.
“Listen, child,” the man says in that gruff voice of his that I have come to almost love. “Someday you will be a great teacher like me. Just be patient. And practice hard.”
I nod, feeling my eyes well up with tears. For some reason I can’t explain, this hurts worse than when I lost my mother five years ago.
He takes my hand in his and pats it. His palms are rough like tree bark, but I like the way they feel; they’re strong and comforting.
“Watch your mind like an eagle. And know that there is no truth outside of it.” His breath smells like a mixture of sawdust and earth.
Then he is off, plunging into the knee deep water. I take a hesitant step after him when I feel my father’s hand fall heavy on my shoulder.
“Are you crazy?” he hisses in my ear. “You’ll dishonor us all. Think of your mother.”
It is that last part that freezes me in my tracks. I take a long, deep gulp of air. If what the stranger said was right, then we will meet again. If not in this life, then in another.
I nod and hear my father plod off, the echo of his hand still heavy on my shoulder.
All of the passengers off, we begin our return to the far shore.
The stranger’s words echo in my mind: You’ve been a worm, a hungry ghost, and a dog…
Maybe so, but I can’t accept this karma. That means that I deserved this life, for my mother to die, to be stranded in a remote backwater village. What could I ever have done to deserve this?
If what the foreigner said is true, then all I have to look forward to is my next life. Maybe that one will be better than this one.
* * * * *
A human birth is rarer than finding a lost needle in the ocean. And even rarer is meeting the Dharma. And even rarer than that is meeting a Dharma Master
I am that Dharma Master.
I have lived and died countless times in the past, practicing for endless kalpas. Now that I have achieved the Great Enlightenment, I am free. Liberated. I have finally put an end to the wheel of rebirth, samsara, and karma. I am a Buddha.
I sip my tea and gaze out the window at the temple grounds. I am Master of the greatest monastery in all of China. The thought warms me more than my tea.
A knock on the door wakes me from my thoughts. Annoyed, I say, “Enter.”
In walks Po, a mousy novice of two years. He bows at the door and I motion for him to enter. He does, closes the door, and humbles himself before me.
I finish my tea, then clear my throat and smooth my robes.
He chews on his bottom lip, his eyes locked on the floor two feet in front of him. “Ahhmm…”
I move my hand in a circle.
He sniffles. “I have a question, Great Teacher, one that has been burning in my mind for many years.” He looks up and stares me straight in the eyes. I feel the hair on the nape of my neck stand on end.
He continues: “Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?”
I sigh, amused at my sudden agitation. I don’t know what I was expecting—a question I couldn’t answer, perhaps; as if one existed!—but anything more than this, I am sure.
“No, such a person does not,” I say with certainty. I should know; I am no longer subject to cause in effect, to the laws of karma.
He sighs and his shoulders sag, as if unburdened of a heavy load.
“Is that all?” I ask with a faint smile on my lips.
“Yes, Great Master,” he says, postulating his way out of the room.
Alone now, I turn back to the window. The sun is beginning to set across the mountains. I am about to stand when I see a dark shape streak across the courtyard below. I lean closer to the glass, curious. It moves quickly, with the agility of a cat; but it’s too large to be one.
That’s when I recognize it’s a fox. How curious. I haven’t seen one in years; I thought the local hunters had ferreted them all out.
I guess I was wrong.
* * * * *
Mother is sick and Father is dead. The only way I can earn money is by chopping wood, a task I am more than eager to do. I only wish that I could provide more for the woman who gave me life.
I don’t know what I did in my past lives to deserve such a fate, but I am truly blessed. I am fortunate enough to be able-bodied to help Mother.
I am seventeen, healthy, and my only wish is to make my mother proud. She has done so much for me; I vow to repay her with equal kindness.
I kiss her on the forehead while she still sleeps, as I do every morning at dawn, and make my way to the stable. It’s freezing today; I can see my breath on the air. I shiver and turn up my collar against the cold. In the barn, I load the cart full of firewood and harness the pony.
I sit atop the cart and gently urge the horse with the reins, enjoying the brisk morning air. The cart splashes through icy puddles and ambles around bends as we approach town. Smoke puffs from village chimneys as townspeople begin their mornings. The streets are still empty. I rein the horse at our first stop, the blacksmith’s.
By midmorning the town is thawing and the streets bustling with activity. I have only one more stop to make, my favorite—Mr. Chen, the cobbler, an old friend of my father’s—before I return home to Mother.
I pull the cart to a halt outside his store. I hop down and begin unloading the last of the firewood when I hear Mr. Chen singing inside. He has a pleasant voice, and often sings at the town festivals. His voice drifts through his open door:
“Let your mind flow freely without dwelling on anything.”
My heart freezes and my eyes bulge. I drop the firewood; it falls on my feet, but the pain is miles away.
The bottom has fallen out of the bucket.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commins flickr user: LexnGer.