- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byKim Seong-Dong
“Idiot!” I shouted, hurling his notebook. The pages fluttered like the wings of a bird, its body sucked into the fire. I could see the transparent tongues of flame glowing through the swirling and dispersing smoke. Red as blood. Pale and pure as soju. Jisan would be lying there, all alone, on the dazzling altar.
I threw his toothbrush.
I threw his towel.
I threw his tattered underwear.
I threw his photo album.
All into the burning hermitage.
I grabbed the small Buddha image he’d whittled out of wood. I was about to throw that, too, into the fire, but instead I stuffed it inside the travel sack under my butt.
I grabbed Jisan’s empty sack and threw that into the fire.
And now there was nothing left to toss into the flames but the Heart mantra and a prayer for a good rebirth.
Om migimigi yayamigi sabaha
Om migimigi yayamigi sabaha
Om migimigi yayamigi sabaha . . .
When my death comes to me in this place,
May I pass with ease to the Pure Land.
May the Bodhisattva Maitreya find favor with me,
And may I know the time and place of my awakening.
The flames spread, crawling up the walls to the ceiling. Sharp explosions pounded against my ears. Slivers of wood exploded upward, embers flying, clawing at my face, smoke stabbing and burning my eyes. Tears poured down my cheeks. I grabbed my travel sack and got to my feet, putting my hands together in prayer.
. . . O Jisan, departed one. Where are you going, setting out from the fiery wrath of these Three Worlds of fire and pain? Are you going to the Fourth Blissful Heaven, or are you going to the Hell of Solitude? It is said there is no single eternal existence—everything comes into being and dissolves into the Four Great Elements, and man enters and exits this world following his karma. But you, O monk, where have you come from and where are you going? Living is but a fragment of a dream and dying but another fragment. Mountains and rivers across the vast earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, all shapes, all forms—there is nothing that is not the Buddha. Every hill, every stream is His body; every blade of grass and every flower is His mind. Now, what do you declare is your original face? Do you understand the reason why the Buddha Shakyamuni thrust his feet out of his coffin in Magadha and held up the flower on that Himalayan peak? Why Bodhidharma sat for nine years facing a blank wall in the cave in China and why he walked across the Pamir Plateau carrying one of his shoes in his hand? Do you know the reason why? It is said that those who follow the Way of the Buddha will be born in the realm of the Buddha; those who accrue merits through the ten virtues are born in Heaven; those who believe in the karma of cause and effect are born in the human world; those laden with the karma of anger will descend to Hell; those who carry the heavy burden of avarice and greed will fall into the world of hungry ghosts; and those who are thick with ignorance and stupidity will be born as beasts . . . What is your final destination? Where will your body appear next? Answer, O departed one! In what land will you incarnate? Speak, O departed!
Tears, hot with fire, flowed down my cheeks, and now the flames shot upward with renewed fury. The hermitage looked like a blooming flower, a dazzlingly beautiful mandala of Paradise. Everything was burning—the eyes for light, the ears for sound, the nose for smell, the tongue for taste, the flesh for touch, the heart and mind—all burning. Earthy lust was burning. Watery sorrow was burning. The wind of longing, burning. Ah, the 84,000 afflictions, all burning.
Somehow snow was pouring down like a rainstorm. Above the towering flames, the snowflakes shuddered and vanished without a trace. The tears on my cheeks dried from the intense heat of the fire and then they flowed again over the gritty traces of salt.
. . . O monk, are you departing toward the Western Paradise? Are you casting off this evil world of five impurities on your way to Nirvana? . . . Surely, you shall be born again. Born again as the son of a man who loves and cherishes the world, a noble and great man of letters. And you shall therefore become the father of a man.
Then I saw something fly out from the mass of flames. It was a small bird. Its body was that of a bird, but strangely, its head was that of a man. The bird with a human head perched atop the highest blossom of flame, its wings bent upward like bows. It stood erect, powerful legs outstretched. I heard it flap its feathery wings. And then, its sharp talons clawing at the flames, it flew upward into the sky like an eagle. A single, long, clear cry tore through the empty air. Flapping its dazzling golden wings, the bird cut through time and soared high across space. Toward eternity. Ah, I got a taste—my whole body contracting, convulsing, my lips cracking—like the time I had touched electricity with a wet hand. It’s done! I cried. It’s over now! But the words did not come out of my mouth—they swirled around inside. I gulped, swallowing a mouthful of fresh saliva. I felt my limbs contort, and my heart pounded violently. An unbearable emotion swelled in my abdomen. I clenched my eyes shut. Stars poured down from the sky. My body floated upward. I felt something sticky on my thighs. Ah. It was that “bird in a bottle” that once choked out its desperate and sorrowful cries, not knowing how to fly, perched in one spot as if it had been nailed there.
Suddenly there was a clap of thunder. I woke up from the illusion, back into reality. The pillars of flame were collapsing.
Ah, was it all just a phantasm? As I ran down the hill, something hot flowed down my cheeks.
Cold drops of water abruptly slapped my face. It was raining. With another peal of thunder, a sharp light slashed across the sky and the rain came down in torrents.
I stopped and turned around. The last flames, thinning in the dying pyre, finally lost their strength and went dark, a single thread of smoke rising upward.
Translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl
Kim Seong-Dong’s childhood was spent in the turmoil of the Japanese occupation, independence, and the Korean War. He dropped out of school in 1965 to join a Buddhist monastery, but was excommunicated on charges of defaming his order when his short story “Moktakjo” was published in the Jugan Jonggyo weekly in 1975. His writing career took off when he won the Korean Literature New Writer’s Award in 1978 for the novella Mandala. Mandala was adapted into a movie in 1981, and has since appeared in translation in France, Bulgaria, Germany, and Argentina.