It’s been a year since I’ve posted here. A long year. A year of journeys and joys, a year of surprises and sorrows. And now we are at the intersection of a time and place that seems stranger than fiction. Except I feel like I have read a similar story . . .
During this unprecedented global pandemic that has inaugurated our new decade of 2020, I have been drawn to reread Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002). Robinson’s novel presents his reader with an alternative history: what would our world look like if over 90% of Europeans had died during the 7th century onslaught of the Bubonic Plague? In this surreal science fiction novel, he posits that Chinese Buddhism and Islam would fill the power void which in our reality was held by Europe and Christianity.
The novel is organized in ten “Books” that span more than twelve hundred years, from the 7th century to the turn of the 21st century. The storyline is linked together by rebirths of characters, and reborn characters are identified by the same first letter of their name in each successive book. The iconic character Monkey from the vernacular Chinese novel Journey to the West (16th century, Ming Dynasty) is the progenitor of this rebirth pedigree chart. This first chapter, especially, reads as if it is a post-modern continuation of author Wu Cheng’en’s fictional (quasi-historical?) retelling of the pilgrimage of the real monk Xuanzang’s journey from China to India in search of Buddhist texts. In the novel Journey to the West, the protagonist Tripitika goes on a journey with his disciples – including the character Sun Wu-kong the Monkey – from China to India in search of Buddhist teachings (sūtras) to propagate in the East upon their return. Sun Wu-kong (Monkey) translates to “awake to emptiness.” Robinson begins his novel with “Book 1: Awake to Emptiness” thusly:
“Monkey never dies. He keeps coming back to help us in times of trouble, just as he helped Tripitika through the dangers of the first journey to the west, to bring Buddhism back from India to China. Now he had taken on the form of a small Mongol named Bold Bardash, horseman in the army of Temur the Lame.”
The character Bold (Monkey) in The Years of Rice and Salt is a true rebirth of the character Monkey from Journey to the West. The name choice Bold Bardash is significant in this iteration of Monkey’s story, but I will leave it to your reading of the novel to come up with your own interpretation. For now, I wish to point out the meta-nature of Robinson’s science fiction. The real monk Xuanzang, whose pilgrimage from China to India and back inspired Journey to the West, brought back many texts from India and translated them from Sanskrit into Chinese over decades of work. The most famous of these texts is the Heart Sūtra (short for The Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra). And in the fictional pilgrimage of Journey to the West, the Heart Sūtra is given to Tripitika and Monkey as a companion and guide for their journey. So it is not surprising when the character Bold (Monkey), in Book 1 of The Years of Rice and Salt, invokes the Heart Sūtra to help him through the shock and trauma of a dark discovery. While out on a reconnaissance mission to the west, Bold and his troop come across “a black silent city. No lights, no voices; only the wind.”
“It was different to come on a town where there had been no battle, and find everyone there already dead. Long dead; bodies dried; in the dusk and moonlight they could see the gleam of exposed bones, scattered by wolves and crows. Bold repeated the Heart Sūtra to himself. “Form is emptiness, emptiness form. Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond. O, what an Awakening! All hail!”
Bold (Monkey) has known the sūtra for many lifetimes, and in this scene uses it to try and comprehend the sheer void of life created by the plague he encountered. This is another reason why the chapter is entitled “Awakening to Emptiness.” Bold awakens to the emptiness caused by a plague that killed over 90% of the population of people in Europe. His journey to “the West” in this rebirth is potentially lethal. During the ride back to the military camp from the plagued towns and cities, Bold conjectures whether he will die of the plague.
“Plague had struck in India a few years before. Mongols rarely caught it, only a baby now and then. Turks and Indians were more susceptible, and of course Temur had all kinds in his army, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Tibetans, Indians, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians. Plague could kill them, any of them, or all of them.”
It was at this point in my rereading that this fictional story seemed all too real. How many times in the early days of the current pandemic did I think, nonchalantly, the novel corona virus would be like SARS or MERS and never make a journey to the west. But we are such a small world now. And how many people have we heard comment that, even as the virus traveled the globe and reached pandemic proportions, they may be somehow immune? Bold was not immune to the effects of the plague in his story. While he did not catch it and die from it, he suffered the aftermath of decimated populations. Right now, if we are lucky, we are Bold (Monkey). And yet he suffered greatly.
While returning eastward to Temur’s camp, the plague followed Bold and his fellows. Robinson describes it in the form of an enormous wall of cloud that “reared up the western half of the sky. Like Kali’s black blanket pulling over them, The Goddess of Death chasing them out of her land.”
Robinson deftly characterizes the plague as Kāli, a Mahavidya (Tantric goddess of great wisdom), a Vajrayogini (literally, diamond female yogi, a female Buddhist deity), and always the fearsome Kālikā, a Shakti goddess of chaos and creation. I can think of no better personification. COVID-19 has certainly caused death and chaos across the world. And I wonder how our world will look in the aftermath. Will we learn anything? Will we take the opportunity to resume life in a more thoughtful way? Will we be better humans? Will we change negative patterns, not just individually but as whole societies?
Now, as the days become fluid, imperceptibly rolling into and out of each other, everything seems like a science fiction novel. Watching the pandemic proliferate from a shelter-in-place, socially distanced perch seems too surreal. But it’s all too real. So many are suffering from the pandemic’s path of destruction that this seems like the perfect time for a story that invokes the Heart Sūtra as a balm to the chaos of Kāli. As I pause to marvel at how Robinson’s ingenious, interdiscursive transmission of Buddhism across global social imaginaries is an all too appropriate science fiction novel for our times, I too invoke the phrase: “Gate Gate Pāragate Pārasamgate Bodhi Svāhā!” and pray:
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May all beings rejoice in the well-being of others.
May all beings live in peace, free from greed and hatred. (Metta Sutta)
And to this I would add, for our unprecedented times, may all beings be safe.
* All novel excerpts are from Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Years of Rice and Salt: A Novel. Reprint edition. Spectra, 2003.