People malign them as monsters- temptation- Mara- fate. But how can you become a Buddha- a boddhistiva- without making a true choice?
I draw up the fish traps with a steady hand, piling them onto the boat. As I release the fish from the inside I thank Buddha for this blessing, for this bountiful harvest from the river that will feed my family.
Whenever I return to my family from the sangha my beautiful spirit is stretched and strained. Still they want me to be a dutiful daughter and marry. I have tried to tell them that I have no desire for men, but father accused me of being o-moi- a lover of women. Mother clapped her hands over her ears at his cursing and I left home without a regret in the world.
But on the day of thanksgiving for parents I find myself returning home, and the tranquility of the sangha is stripped away from me.
I row the boat towards our stilt house. Breathe in, breathe out.
I am fresh. I am a flower like that water lily still closed in the river.
I calm my heart down before I go like a supplicant to my father with the fish traps and the fish inside them.
Father sees me before I reach the jetty, his hard brown body bent like an accusation.
“What’s the point of you getting fish? Aren’t you supposed not to take life? Only morning glory greens for you!”
He’s determined to make me miserable and instead I force on a smile for my mother who indeed has prepared me greens satueed with garlic.
I miss my mother’s cooking even though the monks are talented at making fake beef and chicken. The smells waft through the house making me hunger and thirst.
I help mother in setting out the places, one for our deceased grandmother, and places for the family including me.
“You should eat more! Your legs are like chopsticks!” mother chides, but behind it I hear love. Behind my father’s words I feel only anger.
I bow my head and try to radiate compassion towards him like the Buddha. I am his only daughter and I try to understand. My brother, a younger spoilt child has already aimed his chopsticks for the fish eyes, a delicacy.
My father tolerates this, as he tolerates all things from Hoc because he is a boy.
Sometimes I wish that I could appear as a boy in front of my family. He would not have trouble joining the sangha.
My father’s eyes strip me like varnish from wood. As always I feel naked in front of him even though the grey robe of an initiate shields me. His face is red from temper.
Without ceremony he plops some fish onto my grandmother’s empty plate and then carves some of the roe delicately to give to my brother.
“You need to be big and strong to attract a healthy obedient wife,” my brother is told.
Silently I move my lips to thank Buddha for my meal and my family.
Father stares at me until I stop and look up.
“No muttering mantras in this house!” he yells. “No more pious nonsense! You should honour your father!”
“I do honour you father,” I say my voice shaking. “By being of the sangha we honour all human beings…”
“What rubbish have they brainwashed you with? Next you will say you will self immolate because of the Communists!”
“Don’t speak ill of the martyrs father.” My voice has grown bold.
Beside me mother is eating her meal quickly as if she can ward off the coming blows.
Father switches his attention to her.
“This is all your fault! You raised her to be this eunuch with a shaved head…”
“Don’t blame mother. It was my choice…”
“It is not yours to choose! You are my daughter and you will do as I say! I control you!”
I stand upright almost hitting my head against the roof.
“No one controls me except myself.” I reply and walk out of the house quickly before I can change my mind.
She watches from the riverbank the people coming and going. The richer ones on motor boats that stink up the river with noise and petrol. Most are in rowboats, laden with vegetables and fruit for the markets, fish and fish traps and occassionally the odd foreigner carrying an expensive camera, snapping away at the shadows of the mountains that reach for the sky.
One day she is outside a stilt house when she hears an explosion of noise. A monk initiate is driven from a house in anger. This is so unusual that she follows the monk when he clambers into a rowboat and clumsily rows downstream.
Then she hears sobbing drifting across the water.
Curious she floats closer to the noise. The initiate is trying to master his tears.
The rowboat is riding the currents.
She has never seen a monk in distress before. Usually they are calm and otherworldly much like herself.
Only when humans are vulnerable does she find them interesting.
Slowly she allows herself to go towards the boat and begins to change form.
Being on the river was always an escape from my father. I could feel the water currents running down my spine and I imagined the water running down the spine of Vietnam to reach all the corners of the world that I could not go.
I wipe away tears, tears I thought I would never shed again. My father could not hurt me anymore, I told myself but I still felt like he had hit me at my weakest point and I would crumple into the bottom of the boat.
Trying to release my emotions, I practice non attachment.
This rage is not me. It will flow through me and out of me. I am not my rage.
It sometimes feels that all I have ever been is angry. I fear to grow up and be warped like my father.
I look over the side of the boat into the muddy brown water, hoping for a glimpse of my reflection. I see movement, like the flickering of fish.
Then suddenly the boat tips. I lurch clinging on to the sides of the boat and before me a beautiful woman appears with white skin.
My mouth falls open. Her eyes are dark and enchanting, her breasts full under a clinging ao dai.
“At least you’ve stopped crying,” the woman says the echo of the river still in her words.
She observes her effect on the initiate and is pleased with herself. He is agog, his hands gripping the boat for dear life.
“I am a river spirit,” she introduces herself. “I’m here to help you.”
The boy fumbles with his words, pulling his robe together.
“I do not need help,” the initiate says.
“Then why do you cry?”
“Mara!” he cried out naming her. “Have you come to exact your punishment from me because I could not honour my father?”
“No. I have come to help you.” she said softly my voice at one with the wind.
His eyes were agog, reflecting back her silvery form.
“Perhaps being a monk is not your true calling.”
“Temptress!” he scolded her, and she was not offended. Many men have not liked the initial sight of her.
“But you are right. The Buddha says that you must embrace your enemy. I cannot embrace my father. I hate him!”
The spirit watches as the initiate tries to still himself and let go of his anger. He is not succeeding.
“My father does not respect my choice.”
“You are still virgin,” the river spirit replies and is pleased to see the boy turn red.
“How can you renounce something that you have not even tasted?”
The monk turns pale.
“You are tempting me? I have no need for…”
The river spirit bends over and kisses him. His lips are as soft as a woman’s.
The monk thrusts himself away from her and scrambles to the end of the boat.
“I am not…I am not….” the monk shakes his head and wipes his mouth with a back of a hand.
She is able to corner him easily in the boat and she puts a hand on his chest. Then the river spirit gasps in surprise. She finds her hand on the breast of a woman.
“I’m not o-moi.” She cries and the river spirit jumps back at the vehemence of the words.
“I’m sorry,” the river spirit says horrified.
“I thought you were a boy. You are wearing a boy’s robe.”
“In the eyes of the Buddha it does not matter if I am a boy or a girl.” The monk tells the spirit and fastens his robe together. Her hands are shaking.
“I’m sorry,” the spirit apologies and reaches out to the girl to help her with her robe.
The girl knocks her fingers away roughly and flinches.
“What’s wrong?” the spirit inquires.
“Don’t hit me,” the girl says cowering.
“I’m not going to hit you, I only want to help…” the river spirit implores.
“What do you want?” She straightens up shaking.
“To assist you.”
“Because you are young.” The river spirit would have said she was beautiful but it would not be true, this girl has shadows under her reddened eyes and is plain to see.
“Why do you cry?”
The girl looks at the spirit then across the water over her shoulder.
“Does he hit you?” the spirit asks.
“Yes. He does things to me.” At this confession the girl suddenly sinks to the bottom of the boat.
“He says that I’m o-moi that I’m no good. He wants me to marry but I do not like men. I do not like the way they touch women…”
The river spirit puts her arm around the girl as she sobs. Now that she is touching the girl and smelling her, the spirit knows the girl is not a virgin.
“Who raped you?” the spirit asks even though she knows the answer.
“Father.” The girl confirms muffled in her shoulder.
The spirit strokes the girl’s back with a hand. At first the girl stiffens at her touch then she relaxes.
I give myself up to the spirit’s comfort. She smells of clean water and her touch is cool.
She strokes my face and makes me want to dissolve into tears again, no one has been this gentle to me since I was a little girl.
My worst secret has come out and the spirit has still accepted me. I knew I was still angry and I could not show my father compassion. I thought it was a flaw in me. But instead I would dedicate myself to the worship of this spirit.
I tell her as much and she shushes me.
“You worship me by allowing me to touch you.”
The girl stiffens under the spirit’s caressing fingers.
“Mara!” The monk cries and tries to push her away.
“Temptation…you can call me that,” the water spirit sighs. “But what I want to show you is gentleness, tenderness. Then you can renounce me and practice genuine non attachment.”
The girl is angry, her face red with embarassment and rage.
“Pleasures of the flesh are a waste of energy,” she asserts to her.
The water spirit pauses then looks at me with silvery eyes. She is beautiful, unearthly in the evening light. Well is she named temptation.
But she has been the nicest being to me for days.
“Thank you for offering your gift,” I say formally. I do not want Mara’s anger.
“But I must refuse it.”
Refuse gentleness and understanding? Not even the monks at the temple know that I have been defiled by my own father. They have accepted my vow not to touch and be touched.
The spirit lets me go. Immediately I want her to hold me again.
No, I tell myself. I want my mother to hold me again. But she will not go against the will of my father. No one will love me. Ever. The world of love is not for me.
The spirit holds her head to one side as if she can read my thoughts.
“To show compassion one must have felt compassion.” The spirit whispers to me. “Have you felt compassion?”
I find myself crying again, salty wet useless tears.
“You shed bitter tears for one so young,” the water spirit embraces me again.
This time I yield to her. She has said the words that have opened up my soul.
The next morning I wake up in my rowboat alone. In my memory is the silver sliver of the water spirit. I feel my loss as if something dear has been taken from me.
“Mara?” I ask the empty air.
Maybe she is misnamed. I did not want human touch because it came with violence. But now I yearn for it.
I begin the long journey back to the sangha.
The words of the spirit are with me. How can I truly renounce something unless I have felt it?
I cry tears again as my oars splash in the water. But this time they are tears of joy.