I. Miss Dong
A cloth bag in my hand, I walked through the street market.
"Lamp oil, incense sticks..." As I mentally listed off each of the khenpo's instructions, I thumbed through the cloth bag, confirming nothing had been missed.
But when I passed by that restaurant, a sea of people spilling out its doors, a sudden gust of music captured my attention. The melody had a profound beauty to it; the lyrics hid deeper meaning. On the stage, young women danced to the music, their long sleeves fluttering in the air and intertwining into a mural come to life.
I could not help but stop and watch.
A few lines of Sanskrit that just barely matched the rhythm escaped my mouth.
"So even a monk thirsts for beauty?" Such a teasing comment sounded by my ear. I turned my head and saw a woman standing by me, a scroll in her hands.
I brought my palms together and bowed slightly in greeting. "All living things desire beauty. No one would find it strange to covet it."
Saying this, I paused a moment as a thought came to mind. "Besides, what I like is the music. I found it beautiful and in tune with zen."
The newcomer considered my answer briefly, then responded, "Is that not prohibited?"
She tilted her head, deep in thought. "Can a monk... so easily say such a thing?"
"Are you speaking of my liking of something?"
I gave her a strange look. "It is not against the law, nor does it break monastery rules. Neither does it bother anyone else - why would it not be allowed?"
Hearing this, the woman suddenly broke out into gentle laughter. "Perhaps you're right. If it doesn't bother anyone, there's nothing wrong with saying you like something..."
With that, she extended her hand - then, as if she'd suddenly remembered something, she stopped herself and brought her palms together instead, performing a small bow. "Greetings, master monk. My name is Dongtang, but most call me Miss Dong."
Seeing this, I shook my head and returned the greeting. "I am no master. This humble monk's name is Butter Tea."
Back at the monastery, I continued my peaceful and uneventful daily life. The melody I had heard in the market had long retreated to the back of my mind.
No matter how long a human lifetime may seem, a food soul's is even longer. The number of lives I brush by are uncountable; this was merely one of them. With that in mind, I accepted the scripture roll from the khenpo and returned to the inexhaustible and endless study of dharma.
Yet one morning, I discovered a familiar figure in the scripture library.
"Miss Dong?" After a moment's hesitation, I called out to the silhouette of the person so engrossed in reading scripture.
"Eh?!" Dongtang turned around and waved her hand at me. "Ah, it's Butter Tea."
After finding a quiet courtyard, I walked slowly with Dongtang. Her hands still held scripture rolls; from time to time, she would peek at them.
"Why did you come to the monastery?" Fiddling with the prayer beads in my hand, I expressed my confusion.
"Because of you." Dongtang cast a glance at me, saying those words entirely casually.
"Oh." I stitched my brows together, turning those words to-and-fro in my head. "But I don't remember asking you to meet me..."
"..." Dongtang looked at me, mouth open in an incredulous expression.
"...nothing. Butter Tea, you're really not the same as them."
Dongtang rolled up the scripture, simultaneously dismissing the conversation. "It's nothing - it's merely that I always thought Buddhist scriptures were all obscure and monotonous. But when I talked to you that day, I found you quite interesting. So I wanted to know - are the things someone like you reads just as interesting?"
Saying this, Dongtang cleared her throat and seemingly picked a libretto at random. Her demeanor changed entirely; she gently trilled out a lyric. "You see, I also enjoy music theory."
Startled, I nodded slightly. "So I see."
"...ha." Dongtang brought her sleeve to her lips to hide her giggle.
"Miss Dong, why do you laugh?"
She did not answer, but rather turned to a different question. "Butter Tea, are the other monks here all as interesting as you?"
I thought about it, but I realized I did not understand what she defined as interesting. Instead, I could only answer uncertainly. "Perhaps?"
Dongtang had already lowered her sleeve from her face, but the corners of her mouth still held a smile. "Then I almost want to take vows."
I considered her statement and gave a honest response. "If Miss Dong wishes to become a nun, she will have to find a convent."
"..." Dongtang fell silent for some time.
"You are quite dull."
Slowly, I found myself spending more and more time with Dongtang.
Unlike most pilgrims who came to burn incense at the temple, Miss Dong did not believe in Buddhism. However, she always respected others' beliefs, which gave me a very good impression of her.
As well, she was unlike the girls in the city, who were often lascivious or vulgar - they harbored poisonous hatred and left me ill at ease. She understood the joys of poetry and literature; her etiquette was perfect, yet not excessively reserved.
All in all, of all the friends I'd made since I entered the monastery, Dongtang was the one who most soothed my heart.
But it seemed my friend had recently run into trouble.
"Rumors?" I inquired as I poured tea for Dongtang.
"Right. In the city, there is a rumor circulating about me."
"What is it about?" I had never paid much attention to gossip; in my eyes, those were only the product of the wicked thoughts ordinary people could not rid themselves of. But this one was different. She had told me these rumors had something to do with her.
"They say I'm always acting so high and mighty in front of people, but I'm hiding a secret relationship with one of the monks in the monastery."
As I listened to her, I carried the tea cup over to sit besides her. "If you explain it clearly, everything will be fine."
"You're quite calm about this."
"In the end, there is nothing in my heart I am ashamed of."
Changing the topic, we discussed the incorporation of Buddhist prayer into music. When we finished, I deliberated for a moment. "Do you want me to help you explain the situation?"
"Ah, don't you see? In the end, it's those of low intellect who are the most annoying."
"...even though that's not a very respectful thing to say... you're not wrong."
As the sky grew dark, Dongtang said her goodbyes and I returned to my studies. As I flipped through the scriptures, I chanted the words in them over and over again.
"...feeling, thought, will, and consciousness, are no more than thus."
Strangely, a few ripples appeared in that still pool I called a heart.
"Perhaps... I should still help? But... would it be suitable..."
"Ah... where did I leave off?"
Once again, it was time to go out and buy supplies. As usual, I received a long shopping list from the khenpo.
As I passed through the flow of people, I contemplated scripture - and also Dongtang's situation. After all, a friend as close as her was rare. Was there nothing I could do?
A monk could ignore gossip and insults; as long as they knew their conscience was clear, their heart could be as still as a mirror. Perhaps such a trial could even be considered a way to cultivate the soul.
But Dongtang was no monk.
Fiddling with my prayer beads, I sighed and walked towards the last store I had to visit.
Perhaps I should wait for Dongtang to make her decision. Perhaps I should wait for her to talk to me first.
As I pondered this, I walked by a teahouse. "Water Pavilion Poetry Circle." I silently read the sign hanging outside it. Unconsciously, a few thoughts came to mind.
If I were Dongtang, would I find this interesting?
Ah, she would be interested in the poems, but not the circle.
As I pondered this, I looked into the building - and surprisingly, I saw her standing inside. Her eyebrows were practically standing up and her cheeks were stained bright red with anger.
So I had to check it out. The moment I stepped inside, I heard them arguing.
"Don't smear the innocent. If it were just me, I'd let it go, but you won't even let a monk by."
I had never imagined Dongtang could get angry like this.
But the woman standing against her had no intention of stopping. "Oh, look at you, still claiming innocence. I think you were just seducing a monk who didn't know better, like some slut trying to act the holy virgin..."
Whatever she still had to say did not matter. Her mouth had been covered by my palm.
"How did you..." To the side, Dongtang seemed to have frozen in place because of my appearance.
I shook my head towards her, then turned to the woman whose words had been so unpleasant. My face was the very picture of sincerity.
"To call love an illicit affair is too much - it is merely a beautiful sentiment." I paused before continuing. "Miss Dong does not love me. Between us is only an innocent intimacy."
"What are you doing?!" The woman pushed my hand aside, her face red with anger.
Pressing my palms together firmly, I made a sincere bow.
"Forgive my sudden action, but this humble monk could not condone someone treating my friend thus." Saying this, I raised my head and looked her directly in the eyes. "Miss Dong has always only spoken with me about music theory and scripture; she has never been even half involved in what you accuse her of."
"Ha, who knows?" The woman laughed coldly, flicking her fingers. "Perhaps the heart of this monk is unclean as well."
I shook my head and responded seriously. "This humble monk's heart has no other feelings but simple love."
The entire audience was stunned. I looked at them with some confusion; I had no idea why they were so surprised.
Even Dongtang's face was frozen.
I knitted my brows together and continued. "I love Miss Dong, just as I love you, young lady. Buddha loves all."
"I hope all present may be as pure of heart as Miss Dong and be deserving of this love."
The atmosphere seemed to have solidified. Perhaps they had no way to accept such a sincere suggestion.
I sighed. "The world is lost in their mistakes; the world is difficult."
With that, I tilted my head towards Dongtang, expressing that she should leave with me. We walked out of the teahouse, the silence heavy between us.
A moment passed...
Dongtang exploded in somewhat improper laughter.
"No... It's just that I realized you really are interesting."
V. Butter Tea
Photinia Monastery was located in a rather remote part of Light Kingdom.
Butter Tea was the first disciple of its khenpo - and also his food soul. Thus from a young age, he was already on the path to becoming a very qualified and proper monk.
Chant, meditation, labor.
It was a life as regular as the ticking of a clock. Day in, day out.
But Butter Tea never found it tedious. Rather, he developed an intense fascination with the study of dharma. Yet no matter how deeply he delved into Buddhist teachings, he could not change the inherent fact that his soul was just like that of a human youth.
So when Butter Tea occasionally encountered music theory outside of his studies of scripture, he found himself drawn to this entertaining and yet still serious discipline. And because of this, he met another food soul - Dongtang.
A voracious reader gifted in both song and dance, Dongtang gradually became intimate friends with Butter Tea; they talked about everything and held no secrets from each other.
And of course, when Dongtang sank into the maelstrom of gossip and slander, Butter Tea came to her help without hesitation.
At first, they thought the waves had calmed. Heart at ease, Butter Tea busied himself preparing for the next dharma assembly - and so, he never realized that ripples were once again forming around Dongtang.
And when he finally noticed...
"Good sir, about the bookstore that used to be here..." Butter Tea stopped a passerby and asked almost absently, his eyes fixed on the empty storefront.
"Huh? Didn't you hear? That bookstore closed a long while back. The shopkeeper was biting the hand that fed them. They screwed that store owner over real bad, man."
"If you want to buy books, you'd better try another store."
"No... I'm the store owner's friend..."
"Friend? Then you should be careful. Folks are saying this whole affair's not that simple.'
>"Supposedly someone took a fancy to that bookstore owner and hatched a plan to make her theirs, so she had to book it."
With that, the passerby twirled his sleeves and sighed, lamenting that things weren't like how they used to be. He walked away slowly, leaving only Butter Tea staring dazedly into space.
The next day, Photinia Monastery had lost a monk.