Monk Tue (1939), Khái Hưng

This is a short story by Khái Hưng,
published on Ngày Nay, issue 182, 7th Oct 1939
Translation by James Banerian

All at once Ham Pagoda had become famous. Not because it was situated on a wonderful site or at a famous landmark. It was, in fact, merely an ordinary newly-built temple in a remote village by the sea. There was nothing unique about it to make one stand up and take notice, whether for its architecture or aesthetic value.

But Ham Pagoda was famous for its monk, Tue. This pious individual was a young man past thirty, athletic of build and handsome of face. Just glancing at him, one could tell that he did not belong to the class of ascetics, who ate only red rice and pickled vegetables all their lives. Broad and even shoulders, a hearty chest beneath his thin brown robe, plump cheeks, ruddy complexion, lips so red they looked made up, eyes clear and sharp – these were the marks of a life full and leisured, and even happy.

Yet this outward appearance did not dampen or diminish the monk’s devout life. His fame spread far and wide, across all the provinces of the central region and even to the North. [1]

Many travelers going to Hue would stop along the way to visit Ham Pagoda to meet the man who rumor had it was very enlightened. And returning North, they would be full of praise for the faithful monk, with regards to both his austere lifestyle and his book learning.

Austere was his life, and tourists who came to the temple found Monk Tue working in his garden, a small pleasant-looking garden that he himself had designed and his own hands cultivated after he had personally chosen the flowers to be planted. When the monk was first assigned to the Superior of Ham Pagoda, it had been only a vegetable garden, every year growing the same thing. It was the new monk who felt that before the door to Buddha one should not plant those things which are fertilized by unclean substances. For this reason, the monk turned it into a flower garden. As visitors passed the temple gate each day, they had to stop and gaze on the fringes of the fine green “fairy’s hair” surrounding plots of ground shaped round, square, half-moon, five- or six-pointed star, within which grew uniformly flowers of “cinnamon rose,” white rose, the “ten thousand years” and “one hundred days” trees, clumps of “tiger hide,” “panther hide,” “crimson flower” and bo trees. The flower garden was a thing new and strange to the village of Ham…. and a source of pride to Ham Pagoda. Whether in the cold or the hot season, every day one would meet the monk in his garden, digging the soil or watering the plants with a metal watering can that the monk himself had gone to buy in the city. And who was not moved to see him sitting in the hot broiling sun of the fifth and sixth lunar months, feet bare, upon his head a three-layer conical hat, or standing for hours in the chilling rain of the twelfth and first months digging the earth around the roots of his roses in full bloom?

As to the education of Monk Tue, well, that was a source of clamorous notoriety for Ham Pagoda The extent of that erudite learning no one could say! People only knew that beside the Buddhist scriptures in Chinese characters, the monk as well read numerous volumes of investigatory literature concerning the religion written in French and English. His library, you might say, was a jumble of Eastern and Western thought. On the shelves one would discover such names as Oldenberg and Davids standing right beside the famous Asian scholars of Buddhism. Uncounted numbers of visitors came to that library, in a well-lit thatch hut with glass windows on all four walls, to hold discussions with the monk at his wooden desk covered with books and periodicals weighted down by snail shells big and small and of all colors. But rarely did the monk speak about Buddhism, perhaps thinking people knew nothing about the subject and were not worthy of his discoursing on it. Despite that, the monk was always happy to respond to visitors both respectfully and modestly. His speech was smooth and coherent, almost as if he were preaching from a prepared set of notes. But if one should happen to drop in a line or find fault with some idea, the monk would fall quiet and listen and watch attentively, as if taking in precious words while he waited for his opposite to finish the thought. Never did he interrupt or smile in silent response to a mistaken opinion. He remained always serious- even when he smiled, revealing a set of white shining teeth, that smile, too, was grave and frank.

In general, the monk retained a composed appearance – not the arrogant composure of those who set themselves above others, but the natural composure of an unassuming soul.

And in addition to his virtues of austerity and erudition, a third shining mark of this holy man was his love of physical exercise. He was quite disciplined in the movement of body and limbs. That was surely the reason he was so hearty and handsome. Morning and evening you might see him taking a few turns on the brick road on his bicycle. In the beginning that bicycle had been the butt of violent ridicule from his neighbors. But after a while, people grew used to it. Besides, when the sweet name of the monk traveled in all directions, then every gesture, every movement – including his bicycle riding – became extolled and revered by the people. Then the bicycle was mentioned alongside the various strange things of the strange holy man, placed on the same level as the shelves of religious books in English and French.

Truly, the sobriquet “the bicycle monk” was more often spoken and easier to identify than “the Western monk” or “the modern monk.” In some counties of the North and Central regions, if you said “the bicycle monk” everyone would know at once that you were talking about Monk Tue of Ham Pagoda.

Need I say that Monk Tue was a Western scholar? Naturally he did not set out to become a novice from the time his little boy’s head was shaved, all but for a pronounced tuft of hair, as did the majority of religious aspirants. Monk Tue had only become familiar with the lofty and esoteric path within the past six years. But it was not true that as a result of this he did not grasp his religion as profoundly as his fellow monks. On the contrary, with his wide learning, his intelligence and especially his faith, Monk Tue could justifiably feel secure in saying that among the devout in Vietnam, hardly a soul had achieved his degree of religious practice. That faith was the most important and difficult aspiration of any monk, 100 or 1,000 times more difficult than attaining a profound learning. Without that belief, a person cannot comprehend religion. It was for this reason that Monk Tue did not wish to argue Buddhism with his curious visitors, no matter how well-versed they might be in the study of the religion. “People understand religion from the heart rather than from the brain,” he used to say. And he would go on, “The greatest thoughts of Mankind emanated more from an ardent love of Mankind than from minds full of big learning.”

Monk Tue was himself a mind full of learning, while perhaps not “big,” nonetheless quite extensive. After achieving his baccalaureate in literature and being appointed clerk in one province in Central Vietnam, Khanh – the monk’s lay name – continued to pursue his studies diligently and laboriously. Even as a child he knew a little Chinese. He still purchased Chinese books and greeted degree-holding visitors warmly to practice his skill. In only two or three years, because of his expeditious intelligence, he was able to grasp classical Chinese poetry. As for French and English books, he could read them forever without growing weary of them. He loved most books of inquiry and research in the areas of literature, sociology, philosophy and religion. Being unmarried, he could live frugally in order to save money for more books. That was his one interest or hobby in the past. But it made him rather tight with his money. He even dared refuse money to a sick friend out of fear it would have a dilatory effect on his book buying. And those books were his private lover that he would not let fall into the hands of another. He protected them by schemes quite clever and meticulous, such as not cutting the pages of new books and struggling to read in between the undivided sheets so that when a friend asked to borrow the book, he could reply that it was brand-new, and that he himself had not gotten a chance to look at it, so that the friend would go away trusting him since the pages were still folded together.

With a forceful hobby such as that, it was no wonder that Khanh was extreme in his faith in the religion he loved, especially when one considered that he truly enjoyed reading his books on philosophy and theology.

But the two periods of study and religious practice were not joined, as most people thought. Between them came another, middle period, one which prepared him for his life of religious practice. That was the time of love. Khanh loved, and loved madly, just as he had studied madly. But alas! He loved nearly to despair. For the woman Khanh loved was the wife of a good friend whom he did not want to deceive.

Did this woman share his sentiments? Khanh did not once dare ask himself. But to him, her words and gestures were so intimate, so loving, that he never for a moment doubted her heart. He felt the two need not confess their feelings for each other – warm glances, secret smiles, words pregnant with meaning were enough to express their passion.

This went on for some two years. Khanh lived in love and it seized his soul. No longer did he care for his study! His bookshelf remained closed and silent for months. He opened it only to allow others to borrow the books, for now he did not hold them or treasure them as he had before.

If this had gone on, Khanh could have lived forever peacefully in love, platonic and uncommitted. Yet one day in a fit of madness, Khanh bold the woman of his feelings. And to his great anguish, she, too, was in a similar plight; that is, for some time she had been deeply in love with her husband’s friend just as he had been in love with her. If their love had simply been one of burning passion, they would have committed a sin. But their many feelings had had the time, over a year, to simmer well in the minds of two intelligent and thoughtful persons. For this reason, once they understood each other thoroughly, anew sensation rose fiercely in their souls. It was the heart of sacrifice. They would strive to forget each other.

And that was the reason that Khanh joined the monastic order. He wished to go far away from his lover, far into another world. That world, if not the one of the dead, could only be the world of those who shave their heads and follow the Buddha.

In the beginning of his acceptance of the rule, Khanh already felt this third fondness of his life to be stronger than the two previous ones, for he saw that he loved the religion of Buddhism the way he loved books or a woman. But he had not yet learned that religion is more dogmatic than all the sources of human enjoyment. It does not allow you to apply this or that reason to define it for understanding. It forces you to obey it completely. So hard this proved for Khanh – a keen and clever man, whose mind had been transformed by the study of philosophy into a mind of ethics and science! Many times, following the pattern of the old monk, he sat in silent meditation seeking the truth and peace for his soul. But there was no way he could be at peace – he reflected more in the mind than in faith.

He understood at once that he still lacked belief. And he did not hold back as he disciplined himself to attain that faith. He recalled the meaning of a line from Pascal: “One must constantly have the movements of religion and in time one will believe.” Day after day, he carefully, reverently and with all the sincerity he could muster, performed all his tasks at the temple, just like all the others: adhering to a strict diet, reading scriptures, praying to Buddha, making offerings around the table of vegetarian dishes, doing all the things that once he had felt were not appropriate to a great and high religion like Buddhism. He no longer wished to reason, but rather to close his eyes and follow in faith.

After two years, faith came naturally to him. He felt peace, tran-quility and coolness gradually seep into his soul.

Now he suddenly became a devout follower. For three years the elder monk assigned him to a place by himself. The elder hoped Monk Tue would convert the new wave, the wave of Western-educated folk whom he compared to a tree without roots. “A man without religion is like a tree without roots. And one day, his soul shall dry and wither like that tree.” The elder hoped to save their souls, to take them to Nirvana, the place of escape. But that great task no one could accomplish without the aid of a monk who had a modern education and wide learning like Monk Tue. As for Khanh, he had a higher and more distant ideal. That was to reform Buddhism. With a band of young monks he dreamed he would enthusiastically raise the foundations of the mysterious religion that most of the ignorant monks had consists ently lowered and mixed up with the dribble of witchcraft. He believed that sooner or later he would succeed, or if not, after he achieved Nirvana his followers would continue the activities that he had initiated. His faith could not become any stronger, or any more secure. So firm and strong was it that he no longer feared reasoning and argument No ground or cause could ever shake his faith.

Now his faith was not a delusory one, but an enlightened one. Khanh’s mind was always clear and orderly. He thought up a practice he could keep and follow until he achieved his goal. That program was divided into three parts. One part was to work with his hands and discipline the body. He did this because he believed that the greatest and deepest thoughts and truth itself must be extant in a healthy body and wholesome mind. The Buddha had discovered the truth only after having abandoned a religious practice that was too austere. The second part of his program was to study Buddhism in books old and new, Eastern and Western, to expand his learning, to love more the religion he had given his heart to. Thirdly, he would chant and pray so that his mind would be at peace and his soul completely abandoned the noisy and complicated earthly life.

Monk Tue put that program into effect from the moment he returned to Ham Pagoda and he vowed to follow it until he reached his goal.
But one night as he was chanting scriptures, Monk Tue looked up at the altar and suddenly his eyes became fixed on the face of the statue of the Jade Fairy. All at once a whole dim past appeared in the mind of the devout monk. In trepidation, he buried his head in his scriptures and raised his voice, while striking hard the wooden fish [2] to wipe out the images of the past. But the fresh and pleasant face, the keen eyes and deep red lips of the statue caused the monk to recall each feature as if it were drawn upon a page with big letters. The monk shut fast his eyes and recited from memory several pages of scripture, but the pretty face only became more pronounced. And finally, there flashed before him a name in Vietnamese, the name of the woman from long ago.

It was not a person from the realm of the dead returning to be with someone from the living. Rather, a person among the living appeared to one in the world of the dead, the world of religious practice!
The next day, Monk Tue meditated, prayed and contemplated, his thoughts upon the Buddha. But the devout man’s mind was always on the woman, her gentle words and intimate manner.

The monk gave himself up to his flower garden, digging, turning the soil, pulling weeds without stop for one full day to exhaust his body so that his mind would no longer have the strength to think. But that night, he fell asleep and dreamed of the woman from the past.

That woman became almost an obsession, appearing before him day and night like a phantom….

For an entire month he lived in that state, in that invisible prison.
Then one day, without a word, Monk Tue ran away from the temple.

Autumn 1939
Translated from the story SƯ TUỆ.


[1] The Vietnamese refer to three major regions in their country: North, Central and South.
[2] wooden clapper in the shape of a fish struck with a gong during Buddhist prayers

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