Poetry / May 2010 (Issue 11)


by Rosanna Oh

Living a life of prayer and meditation,
a young apprentice wanted to torment a fish
by tying a small stone to its fin.
That was not enough. Shortly after,
he did the same to a snake.
For a while he let them struggle in the creek,
where his master silently observed him.

The next morning, the apprentice discovered
a large smooth rock tied to his back.
The master told the boy to return to the creek.
The fish lay dead, the snake dead in a cloud of its own blood,
preyed upon by another animal. Holding his rock
tightly in his arms, the boy wept alone in the creek.

There is a question we are forbidden to ask a monk:
Why did you run away to the temple?

In the hierarchy of monks, he was at the bottom,
scrubbing the floors, washing the elders’ dishes,
collecting firewood to burn.

He remembers one spring, the temple was overcrowded
with young men.
Women weren’t allowed, of course,
but a few sick girls stopped by the temple from time to time
not to see the monks, but to be healed
by the Buddha.

In the summer and autumn that followed,
the sound of drumming filled the forest,
louder than ever.

Swayed by the wine at dinner, the head monk offered to read the novices' palms,
as though he were performing a party trick.

And will I live a long full life? One novice joked.
That information, the monk replied while still holding his hand,
is not for a person so young to know.

A novice asked the monk why he ran away to the temple.

His answer: I read a book that a great monk wrote.

In his middle age, the apprentice, now a monk,
found a woman with a shawl wrapped around her face and her baby son
at the door. Trying to leave in the middle of the night,
she stumbled into a hole in the ice the monk dug earlier.

When he found her body, the monk tied a stone to his back
then climbed to the summit of a mountain
that he judged to be the tallest.

Finally, one cycle ends to initiate another:
wandering into the rocky hills, a boy shoves stones
into the mouths of a fish and snake.



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