|Illustration by Doã Dung
by Hoang Cong Danh
The Buddhist monk was sitting in a study room to prepare for an upcoming Dharma when novice Sanh rushed into the room in a hurry, snatching the monk's robe and saying:
"Come quickly! You have to see this!"
The monk wanted to please the novice even though he didn't know what it was he had to see.
When they reached the veranda, the monk saw a couple sitting on a stone bench under a ficus tree in front of the pagoda. They were leaning on each others' shoulders.
"If you had come a bit earlier, you could have seen it!" Sanh said regretfully.
Sanh was punished by the monk, who assigned him to pick up fallen ficus leaves in the pagoda yard. So from then on, the yard was swept clean once a day, in the early morning. When the monk asked the novice to pick up any leaves that fell and put them into a rattan basket, Sanh went around doing the job. When there was no wind and no leaves fell, he looked skywards:
"Blow now, wind, so I can pick up the leaves!"
It seemed that the novice liked the job, which the monk called "picking up fallen leaves from the heart".
"Dear monk, is it true that when I pick up the fallen leaves, these young couples feel confused and don't dare to come here anymore?" Sanh asked.
"Just pick them up. When you find that there are no more fallen leaves, you'll understand," the monk smiled.
"How can I pick up all the fallen leaves when there is such a large canopy?" Sanh wondered.
The pagoda was small with only the monk and several devotees, but the number of visitors was not small at all. One day, a 40-year-old female worshipper came to the pagoda. She looked smart and wealthy with a gold necklace, heavy make-up and fragrant perfume. The monk invited the visitor to have a cup of tea as usual. He believed all visitors should be equally respected when they came to the Buddha's gate. The rich and the poor should enjoy equal footing. Even from just glancing at her face, the monk could tell that the female worshipper had something bad in her heart. Actually, whoever came here had something unhappy in their hearts. Some could not confide their sorrows at first, but day in and day out, they came to the monk with open hearts and the wish that the monk could help them neutralize their sorrows.
"Please have some tea! This tea was lotus scented last night, and it's still very fresh!" the monk said.
The woman sipped the tea and said it was delicious. The monk told her that behind the pagoda there was a lotus pond, where he put tea into the lotus flowers at night. The night dew was absorbed into the tea and the lotus flowers. When day broke, he came to pick the tea and put it into the pot.
"Flowers are like human beings. They can be noble or humble on the surface, but the inside is fragrant no matter what. So with only a bit of skill, we can get to know each other's hearts," the monk said.
Thus, the monk received the guest in a natural manner. Without being able to enquire about her family situation or her frame of mind, he let the guest open her heart. When she first came to the pagoda, she did not say a lot. She said she came to have a look at the pagoda; that was it. When the monk saw her off in the yard, the woman met Sanh running to and fro.
"What a funny novice!" she said. After saying this, she suddenly became sad, so she bowed good-bye to the monk and left immediately.
After several conversations, the monk found out the woman's family situation. She used to be married, but unfortunately she had no children, so they got divorced and her husband remarried another woman. She had lived alone ever since and sold materials in the market. She looked so sad whenever people with children came to buy her goods. Often she did not accept money from these shoppers. As she told them, seeing children made her happy. That was enough for her.
Such people had come to the pagoda before. Some of them asked permission to take the abandoned children living there home and bring them up. Others came to get their heads shaved with the aim to enter a religious order. If they insisted, the monk had to allow them to stay. But usually they listened when he advised them that the Buddha's gate was always wide open, so there was no need to be in such a hurry.
However, this woman was quite strange. She had not come to the pagoda for those reasons. On the first or the fifteenth day of every Lunar month, she came to the pagoda and sometimes stayed there for the whole day. Sometimes she said that while the monk did not seem to have any children, he actually had so many children. They were the novices, the worshippers and others who came to see him, who always addressed him as children speak to their father. She was a once-married woman without a child, she said, smiling with a deformed mouth.
The visitors who frequented the pagoda and found the woman always present began to spread rumours. Such a pretty and wealthy woman coming to the pagoda alone so many times – there must be some reason behind it, they said. They assumed she had fallen in love with the monk.
When she came to the pagoda the previous month, she was the saddest the monk had ever seen her. He believed she was about to cry, so he took her outside to get fresh air and invited her to take a seat on the stone bench under the ficus tree. The monk did not yet know what the woman wanted. She had not asked for an abandoned child to raise and she did not want to get her head shaved. So what did she want? All of a sudden, her eyes were wet with tears; her head drooped onto the monk's shoulder.
"Sometimes I just want a shoulder to cry on, you know!" the woman said.
The monk remained sitting there like a statue.
Another day, she came to the pagoda and asked for permission to lean on his shoulder for a while. That was all she wanted. She just wanted to close her eyes and let her mind drift into peace while leaning on his warm shoulder.
From then on, the visitors to the pagoda became fewer and fewer. People gossipped that the monk should be replaced. The devotees no longer believed in their monk and they begged for permission to go to practice Buddhism in other pagodas. The monk agreed and told himself that there was no need to justify his injustice.
Even though the monk had lived a religious life for a long time and his heart was at peace, he felt a bit sad to see his devotees taking leave of him one by one.
"All of my children are now leaving me. Maybe one day I will become childless like that woman. But isn't that the meaning of transience? Everything is empty," the monk thought.
Only Sanh stayed with the monk. It seemed that the novice did not understand what was going on. Or, on the contrary, did he understand it much better than the others?
The monk was standing in front of the pagoda, thinking in confusion, when the novice came to him.
"Look what a strange thing!" Sanh said, pointing to the ground. "See, there are two fallen leaves leaning back to back. Even though the wind is blowing hard, they are not separated."
"Yes, it's strange," the monk said, rubbing the novice's head. "From now on, you don't have to pick up the fallen leaves anymore."
"What? So who will pick them up?" Sanh asked doubtfully. "All the devotees have gone. Or will you pick them up yourself?"
The novice's aimless question startled the monk. He remained silent.
Then Sanh remembered the young couple the other day sitting on the stone bench. He jumped for joy: "Yes, I remember now! Let them lean on each other's shoulders. Why should they do anything different? Right?"
It was a rainy and windy night. Leaves were falling outside. Sanh lay awake thinking that he would get up early tomorrow morning to sweep the pagoda yard with the monk, and then he drifted into sleep. In his dream, Sanh saw his fellow bonzes returning to the pagoda and many more people coming to visit. In front of the pagoda, there was nobody picking up fallen leaves, and yet the yard was clean with not a single leaf on the ground.
Translated by Manh Chuong