Kwan Yin and the Swallows
by Dharmadasa Karuna
"Kwan Yin is one of the most universally beloved of deities in the Buddhist tradition. Also known as Kuan Yin, Quan Yin, Quan'Am (Vietnam), Kannon (Japan), and Kanin (Bali), She is the embodiment of compassionate loving kindness. As the Bodhisattva of Compassion, She hears the cries of all beings."
*** *** ***
The cloud blue crests of Jianshan Mountain leaned into the morning light. Flaxen rays reached into the window of a young woman sleeping on a bed of straw. Her hair was the color of the night sky, and lapped over her belly and hips. Her skin was the color of the sun. She awoke and walked outside. The nest of swallows on her windowsill was empty. It was the end of summer.
Her bare feet pressed into the fallen leaves on the ground. She entered the woods in search of a cluster of white flowers with purple stems. Mother seemed unsure of herself this week, and Dong Quai would calm her nerves. She closed her eyes and let the forest guide her. She found the flowers in the silence.
“Kwan Yin, where are you? Talking to your birds again?”
“Coming mother.” The young woman emerged from the woods. “I was gathering a tonic for our tea.”
“I have to go wash clothes at the river for Mrs. Lim. Save the tea for lunch. We’re having visitors.”
“Madam Hong and her son.”
“Why are they coming? We don’t need visitors.”
“The fortune teller said you were a good match for Madam Hong’s son.”
“Mother, you know I don’t want to marry.”
“You are a woman now, and while your hair still falls down your back and your breath is sweet, you must take a husband.”
“I’m going to enter the nunnery.”
“That is a child’s dream, Kwan Yin.”
Kwan Yin looked down and did not answer.
“We are poor Kwan Yin, and the Hongs are wealthy. They are an honorable family. Do you understand?”
“You have never been with a man and….”
“I know it is my duty to care for you.”
“They are not all as kind as your father was. After you clean the house and cook the meals, they will make you cut wood, carry water, and milk the goat. Then you must lay with them every night. Your work is only done when you sleep.”
“Mother, I know. I know what I must do.”
*** *** ***
“Ma, I’m hungry. Are they going to have food?”
“You had three bowls of rice porridge and five eggs for breakfast, and you are ready to eat again?”
“Riding in the cart makes me hungry.”
“Everything makes you hungry. When you have a son I hope he is smaller than you. Small people eat less. It is better for long life. Stop the cart, Guoping. We are here.”
“That’s a goat shack, not a house. What kind of girl lives here?”
“One that will give you a son. Now tie up the ox and come with me.”
Madam Hong walked carefully to the door, navigating the goat dung, and holding a scarf with dried flower petals under her nose, to mask the smell. Before shecould knock, Kwan Yin’s mother opened the door. “Please come in Madam Hong and honorable son.”
Madam Hong entered.
Guoping stood in the doorway and blew his nose on his shirtsleeve. The goat nibbled at his pant leg. He kicked at the goat and missed. The goat charged and Guoping hurried inside, still wiping his nose. “This is where you live?”
“Excuse my son, Mrs. Li. He meant that we were not sure this was the right house.”
“It is simple but you are welcome.”
Madam Hong craned her neck to survey the house. Kwan Yin stood in the shadows. “Is that a ghost I see?”
“That is my daughter. Kwan Yin, say hello to Madam Hong and her son.”
Kwan Yin stepped forward, holding a wood board with two, chipped teacups. She knelt before Madam Hong and lifted the board up, offering the tea.
Madam Hong looked into the cup. Steam rose up from a swirl of black tea leaves. Black, like her father’s eyes the night she was born, when he looked at her and turned away in disappointment. A daughter.
“He wanted a son.”
“Madam Hong. I am sorry, ” said Kwan Yin’s mother, “ what did you say?”
“A son. I mean the sun.”
“Yes Madam Hong, the sun is hot today.”
Kwan Yin offered the tea to Guoping.
“Is that all you have”, he said. “I’m hungry.”
“Guoping, where are your manners?” Madam Hong turned to Kwan Yin’s mother. “Please forgive him.”
“Let’s go Ma.”
Guoping walked to the door and his mother turned to follow him.
Kwan Yin’s mother grabbed Madam Hong’s sleeve. “But we have…”
Madam Hong pulled her arm away, and brushed off the sleeve. “I’m sorry Mrs. Li. This was a mistake.”
Kwan Yin saw her mother’s eyes fill with tears. “Wait”, Kwan Yin blurted out. “Please, honorable son.”
Guoping stopped. He turned and looked at Kwan Yin.
“I have something else to offer.” With outstretched hands, Kwan Yin cradled a fiery red peach. “This peach is sweet and fresh, like none you have ever tasted.”
Guoping’s eyes followed Kwan Yin’s hands, to her arms and shoulders, and the curve of her neck. He looked into her eyes and a wave of crimson blush swept up his torso and face. “I…I…”
Kwan Yin slowly cut the peach open, and brought it to Guoping. A lock of hair fell in front of her face. Sunlight penetrated her roughly woven blouse, and he saw the outline of her breasts and stomach. “Would you like to taste?”
“Yes…yes…” Guoping grabbed half the peach and bit down. Juice spilled from the corners of his lips.
Kwan Yin stepped directly in front of him. Her skin glistened and its moist perfume filled his nostrils. “Master Hong, would you like more?”
He nodded. Kwan Yin placed the other section of peach in Guoping’s mouth. He wiped his face with his shirtsleeve. Madam Hong and Kwan Yin’s mother watched without blinking.
Madam Hong cleared her throat. “Well… uh… we… uh… understand that Kwan Yin was born in the year of the dragon. Yes… and… uh… Guoping was born a pig… I mean in the year of the pig. So he is Yin and she is Yang.”
“Yes…” Kwan Yin’s mother chimed in. “Master Hong is water and earth and Kwan Yin is fire and heaven. A perfect combination.”
“Perfect, except for one thing”, warned Madam Hong.
“What, Madam Hong?”
“Dragons. Dragons have secrets.”
*** *** ***
“Kwan Yin, where have you been”, asked Madam Hong.
“In the woods”, replied Kwan Yin.
“Doing what, listening to the birds again?”
“No Madam. Gathering herbs for you and Master Hong.”
“Do not waste your time with such things. We don’t need medicine. We need a son. You’ve been here for one year. One year and no son. Maybe it was your mother who had a secret. I thought she was a dumb washerwoman but she outfoxed me. I got a barren daughter-in-law and she got the honor of joining my family.”
“Yes what? Yes you tricked me? I know you do not love Guoping. Is that why you cannot bear a son? You are trying my patience Kwan Yin. Now, go feed your husband. At least you can give him that satisfaction.”
Kwan Yin ran into the kitchen. The servant girls giggled and whispered. “If Kwan Yin can’t give him a son, maybe I can. He watches me everyday when I clean the floor. I know what he wants but he’s too scared to ask.”
Kwan Yin prepared a pig for Guoping’s dinner, and cried in silence. He always ate alone, and she served him in his private dining room.
“Kwan Yin, do you love me?”
“Master Hong, I am your wife.”
Guoping sneered. “Mother says if you loved me you’d give me a son.”
“Does your mother know you will not lay with me?”
“Don’t be disrespectful, peasant girl. If you loved me then I’d be with you. I told you never to speak of that to anyone. Do you understand?”
He tore a leg off the pig and waved it at her. “Leave. Now.”
Kwan Yin cleaned the kitchen while he ate. The servant girls ignored her. She returned to find Guoping passed out, his head on the table, with a fist of meat in one hand and a knife in the other. Pig grease was smeared on his face and hair. Kwan Yin opened his fingers to release the meat from his hand. Guoping grunted and swept his arm across the table. Plates of food and a goblet of wine crashed to the floor. He opened one eye, and flickering candlelight seeped through his pupil, into his brain. As Guoping tried to stand up, he slipped on the food and fell to the floor, stabbing his leg with the knife. He cried out and Kwan Yin rushed to remove the knife. Madam Hong stormed into the room and found Guoping covered with food and wine and blood, writhing on the floor. Kwan Yin stood over him with the knife in her hand.
Guoping blurted out, “She almost killed me! Keep her away!”
Kwan Yin dropped the knife. Madam Hong screamed, “finally, you show your black heart!” She grabbed Kwan Yin’s hair and dragged her into the courtyard. “You tried to kill my son! Get out! Get out of this house!” Madam Hong slammed the door. The servant girls watched from the kitchen and laughed.
Charcoal colored rain oozed out of the sky and soaked Kwan Yin’s clothes. She crawled across the courtyard and stumbled into the road. She walked until morning, in a daze. Her feet were caked with dirt and blood. She arrived at her mother’s house. It was covered with vines and thorns, and the goat was gone. At that moment, she realized her mother was dead. Madam Hong never let her visit and never told her she died. Kwan Yin knelt and touched her head to the ground.
A man ran up the road and called out, “good neighbors of Woolong, I bring news from Chengdu. Kwan Yin, daughter of your village, attempted to murder her benevolent husband.” The neighbors emerged from their houses. “She stole his strength with a witch’s potion and tried to drive a knife through his heart.” Gasps rippled through the crowd. “Before her evil deed was done, the ancestors of the venerable Hong family rushed from the nether world and held her arm back. Now, the fearless Madam Hong has banished this sorceress forever. Oh wise neighbors of Woolong, be forewarned. Shun this creature. Give her neither a crumb of food nor a drop of water. Do not let her rest.”
The crowd surrounded Kwan Yin and a neighbor admonished, “you shame your family and village. Leave us and never return.”
Another yelled, “we don’t want trouble with ghosts.”
A third screamed, “go live in the forest where witches belong.”
Kwan Yin stood and walked slowly past the villagers. They glared at her until she disappeared, into the woods.
*** *** ***
Kwan Yin walked aimlessly for a week. Her clothes were torn and her hair was tangled with leaves. Her body convulsed from the cold. She finally collapsed from exhaustion, and curled up by a boulder. She slept for two days. When she opened her eyes, there was a brilliant, orange dragonfly sunning itself on the boulder. It slowly opened and closed its double pair of translucent wings.
Kwan Yin stood up and followed the dragonfly to a stream, where she removed her clothes and let them float away. She lay down in a shallow pool and closed her eyes. Her hair spread out, and rested in the soft water. The dragonfly waited on a lily pad. When Kwan Yin arose, the dragonfly led her downstream to a bed of flowers with fragrant fruit. She fell to her hands and knees and ate.
Kwan Yin followed the dragonfly through the forest for three weeks. Her menstruation stopped, and the softness of her hips and breasts disappeared. Each day, her body became more angular and sinewy. And each day, her hearing became more acute. She heard the brush of leaves in the wind, the stream lapping over stones, and the dragonfly beating its wings.
On the night of a full moon, the dragonfly stopped at a jagged, stone wall. Kwan Yin stood before a massive timber gate with iron hinges. The dragonfly circled three times, and flew away. Kwan Yin hid in the bushes by the gate, and fell asleep.
She awoke to the sound of swallows. The morning light revealed thatched nests, twined with twigs and thread, along the top of the wall. The gate shuddered open, and crimson robed figures emerged. Kwan Yin was afraid to look into their eyes, and watched only their feet. They touched the earth in silence, like ghosts gliding above the ground. The last pair of feet stopped at her bush. An old man bent down and placed a folded robe on the ground. Then he left with the others.
Kwan Yin put on the robe on and walked to the wall. She rubbed her hair against the stones, moving her head closer and closer, until all that was left were jagged lengths of hair like leaves. She spread the hair on the ground and returned to the bush. The birds flew down and retrieved the locks for their nests. When the sun rose to the top of the trees, the robed figures returned. The gate opened and each entered, save the last. The same old man placed a bowl of rice with glazed vegetables on the ground in front of the bush. Then he walked through the gate and it closed.
Kwan Yin took one bite and closed her eyes. She slowly ate half the bowl and spread the rest on the ground in front of the wall. The birds flocked to the food. The old man watched from behind the gate and smiled. He opened the gate and called out, “you who shares your only meal, come forward and tell me your name”.
Kwan Yin emerged from the bush and knelt before the old man. “Kwan…I mean Kang Lin. My name is Kang Lin.”
“I am the abbot of this monastery, Kang Lin. Bring your begging bowl, and come.” Kwan Yin walked through the gate into a courtyard. Before them was a great hall with dragons lining the roof.
“Don’t be afraid”, said the old man. “They protect the prayer hall from hell dogs and hungry ghosts.”
Clouds of incense and the drone of chanting wafted out the doors. They walked past freshly washed robes, hung on a rope between two trees, and entered a long, linear building. Lining the walls were low cots, each with wood slats.
“This is where you will sleep.”
*** *** ***
Kwan Yin awoke to find a monk lying on the next cot, staring at her. He sat up when she did, and mimicked her every move. She thought she was looking at herself. He held a small bird in his palm.
“This bird told me a secret. Guess what it said and I’ll spare its life.”
Kwan Yin sat up. “I don’t know. Please don’t harm it.”
“You don’t know? Or you don’t want to share secrets?”
The monk squeezed his hand shut. “Maybe later.” He dropped the crushed bird on Kwan Yin’s cot and left.
Nausea swept through Kwan Yin’s body. She ran outside and vomited. Then she buried the bird behind the building.
Monks were walking to the courtyard and Kwan Yin followed. The abbot addressed them. “Oh monks, we eat but one meal a day, and must never forget that we depend on the kindness of others. We start our day with gratitude, and the villagers start their day with charity. So we begin alms rounds.”
As the gate opened and the monks left, the abbot said to Kwan Yin, “keep your head down and do not talk to the villagers, it is considered improper”. The monks walked through the gate in single file, and Kwan Yin searched for the one who killed the bird. She followed the monks and the gate closed behind her.
They entered the village and stopped at houses where villagers waited with freshly cooked food. The monks at the front of the line had their begging bowls filled first. They were given so much that some carried fruit in the crook of their arms. Kwan Yin avoided eye contact with the villagers. They stopped in front of the largest house, and the abbot nodded to a man at the doorstep. The man bowed. It was the mayor.
Kwan Yin kept her head down, and saw two delicate feet appear within her vision. She raised her gaze and saw long black hair as she once had. She dared not look up. Suddenly, a clay pot of rice fell to the ground. Kwan Yin began cleaning it up.
A young woman bent down and said, “please Venerable monk, do not lower yourself. I will clean it.”
Kwan Yin continued to pick up shards of pottery. The young woman looked into Kwan Yin’s eyes and touched her hand. It was the first kind touch Kwan Yin received since she left her mother. She looked at the young woman and, with tears in her eyes, said, “thank you”.
The abbot stood above them and the procession of monks stopped. The mayor glared from the doorstep. The abbot motioned at Kwan Yin to follow him. She stood up, lowered her head, and followed the abbot. Her bowl was empty.
The monks returned to the monastery and the abbot said, “I want everyone in the courtyard. I have something to say.” The monks circled around him. “What occurred this morning broke the monastic rules. We must never speak to the villagers on alms rounds. They must have a feeling of veneration towards us. Especially grievous is a woman touching a monk. Kang Lin, I know you understand this.”
Kwan Yin said, “but master, I am not…”
He cut her off. “You are not what?”
“Nothing master. I understand.”
A monk laughed aloud. The abbot looked at him and said, “and you who finds this so amusing, what have you to say?”
Kwan yin looked at the monk in shock. It was the one who killed the bird. He stepped forward and said, “does the mayor feed us out of kindness, or does he seek merit so he won’t be reborn as a dog?” The monks next to him turned their faces into their robes, trying to muffle their laughter.
The abbot glared. “Enough! Whatever the intention, it is an act of kindness. That is all we need to know.”
The next day, Kwan Yin avoided the young woman’s gaze when they stopped at her house. The abbot and the mayor watched. The mayor’s daughter carefully ladled a portion from her pot.
The monks returned to the monastery and sat at a long, roughly chiseled, dining table. They held their bowls above their heads and chanted, “in accepting this meal, we vow to abstain from evil, to cultivate good, and benefit all beings”. Kwan Yin fingered the food from her bowl into her mouth, until she bit something hard. She hid the small object in her robe until she was outside the dining hall. It was a scrap of wood with the words, “meet me tonight”, carved into it. Kwan Yin looked around to see if anyone was watching, and then buried the scrap in the garden. When she left, a hooded monk emerged from behind a tree and retrieved it.
Kwan Yin joined the monks in the prayer hall for evening chant. She mouthed the word, “tonight”. Why? Did the woman know her secret? Did she know what happened? Kwan Yin could not disobey the abbot. She scratched the words, “I cannot see you” on another piece of wood, and hid it in the sleeve of her robe.
The young woman waited for her caller. At nightfall, she saw a hooded monk walking down the road. She ran to him and took his hand. They entered a shed behind her house. She removed his robe in the darkness and lay down on a bed of blankets and straw. The next morning on alms round, at the moment the young woman was going to serve her, Kwan Yin let the piece of wood fall from her sleeve into the pot.
*** *** ***
The young woman’s breasts grew round and she was sick in bed every morning. On the day the baby was born, the mayor brought it to the abbot. “Our village has always supported the monastery but now that is in jeopardy. I have lost all merit and shamed my ancestors. You know who the father is. You must banish your new monk and this ill-begotten child forever.”
The abbot called Kwan Yin to his office. “Kang Lin, do you deny that you are this baby’s father? “
“Master, that cannot be.”
“And why not? Did the mother not give you this?” The abbot held up the scrap of wood. “Yes, I know you are surprised. One of the monks found it while working in the garden. You did not bury it deep enough. What other secrets have you not buried deep enough?”
“I am…” Kwan Yin lowered her head.
“I am grateful for your kindness, and want no evil to come to you. I will leave the monastery with the baby.”
Kwan Yin cradled the baby in her arms and felt a warmth flood into her breasts and groin. She walked through the courtyard with her head up, looking straight ahead, as the monks watched in silence. The abbot closed the gate behind her. She walked to the village and a forest mist that shrouded the ground moved with her. She saw no one, but heard voices through the mist.
“He stole our food.”
“The monk with no shame.”
As she walked by the mayor’s house, the mist engulfed her, and the voices grew louder.
“He wears robes to steal our daughters.”
“We’ve lost ten thousand years of merit.”
“The baby is doomed.”
The door to the mayor’s house opened and a voice boomed. “You are the leech that took my food, seduced my daughter, and stole my honor. You sucked the blood and life from this village. How will these good people find dignity again?” The mayor stepped forward. His face was red and his eyes were black. “Answer me.”
Kwan Yin held the baby close, and turned away.
“Answer me, you coward.”
The mayor’s daughter stepped forward. “Who will marry me now? I hate you.” She picked up a rock and threw it. It struck Kwan Yin’s back. Kwan Yin draped her body around the baby, protecting it within her robes, and kept walking. She heard the villagers.
People on either side of the road picked up rocks and threw them at Kwan Yin. They hit her eyes and ears and mouth, until she could walk no further. Kwan Yin bent down to shield the baby, and it started to rain. She heard all their voices at once.
“Don’t let him escape…”
They were upon her, striking with stones, bludgeoning with their fists, clawing her back. They tore off her tattered robes. Their hands were covered with blood.
Kwan Yin felt the rain seep into her, until there was no more blood. Only rain. Her body slumped over and the villagers stared in silence. A woman.
The mayor lifted Kwan Yin in his arms, and his daughter cradled the baby. They walked slowly to the monastery, tears streaming, with the villagers behind. The mayor laid her down in front of the gate. Hundreds of swallows swooped down from the monastery walls and covered Kwan Yin’s body with crimson threads. All the villagers prostrated, and then they heard her voice in the rain.
“Remember me when it rains, I am always near.
Remember me when you are troubled, I will calm your fear.
Remember me when you cry, I will always hear.”