by William Page
Among my father’s papers when he died was an account of a picture he had bought in a Shanghai flea market. This was a framed painting of Kuan Yin Pusa, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, “She who heeds the cries of the world.” Unlike most pictures of Kuan Yin, this one depicted her dressed entirely in blue. The frame was made of gilded wood, but was notable for a small carved head at the top center. It was the head of Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.
My father had felt attracted to the picture as soon as he set eyes on it, and once he got it home he installed it among the images and photos on our family altar. My mother usually burned incense on the altar in the morning and evening. My father rarely went near the altar, except to bow before it every morning before leaving for work. He was a conventionally religious man who believed in the Confucian injunction to “worship the gods, but at a distance.” And despite his initial attraction to the picture of Kuan Yin, once it had been installed on the altar he forgot about it.
It wasn’t more than a month later that my mother noticed that the picture had started to fade. Kuan Yin’s dress had originally been a dark blue, but now it was lighter; and her smile, which had been benevolent but somewhat enigmatic, faded in such a way that it appeared even more enigmatic.
My mother mentioned this to my father over dinner that evening, but he merely grunted. “It’s an old picture,” he said. “Small wonder if it should fade.” But the next morning, when he bowed before the altar before going to work, he examined the picture and found that it had faded much more quickly than anyone would normally expect.
My father was not what you would call a superstitious man, and this phenomenon puzzled him. But he was preoccupied with his business affairs, and as soon as he left the house he put the matter out of his mind.
Not so my mother. If my father wasn’t superstitious, my mother was, and she considered the fading of the picture an ill omen. She was not an educated woman, and as the picture continued to fade, she regarded it with increasing fear. Eventually she removed it from the altar and put it in the attic.
The next day, my father noticed that the picture was missing and asked my mother about it. He sent her up to the attic to fetch it, and when she came down she was in a state of near panic. The image had completely vanished. You could see your face in the glass; it was just like a mirror. And the background, which had originally been light blue, was yellow. Not a faded, aged yellow, but a bright yellow that seemed almost to glow.
My poor mother was terrified. She had no idea what all this portended, but she feared that a calamity was about to befall us. My father comforted her as much as he could, but he had to rush off to work.
I was very young at the time, and have only a faint recollection of the whole business. It was not until my father died and I went through his papers that I was reminded of it. The account was fairly detailed; it told the same story I have related here. It was such a minor incident that I was surprised my father had bothered to keep a record of it.
That was before the revolution, of course, and when the revolution came everything was turned topsy-turvy. By this time my mother had died, I had recently married, and my husband and I fled Hangchow to Chungching and ultimately to Taiwan. Both our families were well connected, so we did not fare as badly as others. We got our most valuable possessions out, and all our gold. In the aftermath of the revolution, that was important.
My husband was not like some other people, who thought that our stay in Taiwan would be only temporary, and that President Chiang’s forces would soon retake the Mainland. But neither did he think the Communists would try to invade Taiwan. He foresaw that we would be here for a long time. So he invested heavily in land, and as a result we gradually became rich.
The years passed, I had children, and our family prospered. Then one day my youngest son, Hsiu-hsin, came home from school with some things he had bought in the Shihlin market. The next day, when I went into his room to check on whether the maids had cleaned it, I saw on his bureau an old mirror in a gilded frame with a carving of the head of Bodhidharma on top. The background of the mirror was faded yellow.
My heart gave a jump as soon as I saw it, and when Hsiu-hsin came home from school I questioned him about it. “It’s just an old mirror, Mama,” he said. “I saw it in the market, and I bought it because I like it.”
The coincidence seemed unbelievable. The mirror looked just like the picture of Kuan Yin after the image had vanished; only the background was more faded than my father had described it. Was it possible that the picture had survived the turmoil of the revolution, somehow been carried to Taiwan, and ended up in the Shihlin market? That seemed highly improbable. It was more likely, I thought, that there were many pictures and mirrors with the same kind of frame, and that I had been misled by the similarity.
I should mention that my Hsiu-hsin is a very religious boy. He was only eight, but he wanted to be a monk when he grew up. My husband and I were not keen on this, of course: we wanted him to go into the family business like his brothers. Almost as soon as he learned how to read, Hsiu-hsin was delving into popular translations of the Buddhist scriptures. We were not unduly alarmed by this. After all, he was very young—plenty of time for him to change!
But about a week after he came home with the picture, Hsiu-hsin said to me over breakfast, “Mama, Kuan Yin Pusa is in the mirror I bought.”
My heart jumped again. “What do you mean, dear?”
“Whenever I look into the mirror, Kuan Yin Pusa smiles back at me.” He slurped his beancurd milk.
“Can you show me, dear?” I asked.
He got up and led me into his room. The mirror was still on the bureau, but now the yellow background seemed much brighter. Hsiu-hsin looked into it. “See, there. There she is,” he said, pointing.
I looked into the mirror but saw nothing: only my own reflection staring back at me. “I don’t see anything, Hsiu-hsin,” I said.
“Yes, see, there she is, she’s very clear,” Hsiu-hsin said. He brought his palms together in homage.
I looked again, but still saw nothing. “Tell me, son: what sort of clothes is she wearing?”
“A long gown,” he replied. “Same as she always wears.”
“But what color, dear boy?”
I am not a superstitious woman, but at this point I burst out in a sweat. What could all this mean? I sent Hsiu-hsin off to school and avoided his room for the rest of the day. When he returned in the late afternoon, he went into his room and I could hear him chanting. It seemed he was praying to Kuan Yin.
The next morning, before breakfast, I could hear him chanting again. When he came out, I greeted him and asked, “Praying to Kuan Yin Pusa, little son?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. His face was shining. “She talks to me, Mama.”
“Indeed!” I exclaimed. “What about?”
“She tells me not to be afraid of anything. She’s always watching over me. She’s like a big sister to me, Mama.”
“Well, that’s nice,” I said. But I sent him off to school with a sense of foreboding. I had no idea what was going on here. My husband was away in Hong Kong on business, so I couldn’t consult him; and my elder sons were at boarding school, at Morrison Academy down in Taichung. There were only the maids, the driver, and the gardener.
Ultimately I decided to confront the situation head on. I went into Hsiu-hsin’s room, placed an incense pot on the bureau in front of the mirror, lit a few sticks of incense, waved them in front of the mirror, and chanted a prayer to Kuan Yin. Then I placed the incense sticks in the pot. And as I did so, I noticed that the background of the mirror was even brighter than before.
I got down on my knees and joined my palms in homage. “Dear Kuan Yin Pusa,” I addressed the mirror. “If you are in the mirror, please show yourself. I beg you to tell me what you want with us—with me, my family, my son.”
And I knelt there, waiting, for a long time, concentrating on the name of Kuan Yin and praying inwardly for some sort of revelation. Gradually the yellow background of the mirror became richer and deeper; it seemed almost to pulsate and glow; and finally I was able to discern the faint blue outline of Kuan Yin’s form emerging from the glow.
She spoke, but her voice was faint. Very musical, though: like the tinkling of wind-chimes. “It has been a long time since I have been worshiped with real fervor,” she said. “Your son’s devotion brought me forth. Your anxiety has brought me forth again. And I can tell you that if your father and mother had worshiped me with true devotion, I would not have vanished so many years ago.”
“What do you want?” I asked. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears at this point.
“Simply to be worshiped in this picture. But worshiped with real devotion, not just a perfunctory waving of incense sticks and a quick bow every morning.” Her voice seemed to be getting stronger; and her form, which had previously been just an outline, became clearer.
“Nothing else? Just to be worshiped?”
She smiled. Her image was still faint, but she had the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. “It is my business to manifest myself in the world of human beings, to show them compassion and help them in their struggles. Now I manifest myself in this picture. But if you worship me with faith and devotion, I will move from the picture to your heart, and manifest myself there instead. Do you see this vessel I hold in my hand?” She pointed to the vase that Kuan Yin is traditionally depicted as carrying.
“I want you to make your heart a vessel like this vase, for me to pour my spirit into. All the gods, arahants, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas can do nothing, we are locked up in heaven, unless you human beings open your hearts and invite us to dwell there. Close your heart, and you kill the Buddha. Open it to him, and you give him life.”
This was certainly a new idea to me. “And if we do this, what then?”
“I will manifest myself through you, and you will become a blessing to the world. I will work through you, and give you great joy, and that joy will overflow from you and flow into others.”
I hesitated. This sounded very much to me like spirit-possession, and of course nobody wants to be possessed by a spirit—not even a benevolent one like Kuan Yin Pusa. “Do you mean you want to take over my body and turn me into some kind of zombie?” I asked.
She laughed. “No. We will be two spirits dwelling in the same body. But I will guide you and teach you, and you will follow me. Any time you get tired of this arrangement and want to reassert yourself, I will make way for you and depart.”
I considered this for a moment. That was easy enough for her to say now, but who knew what would happen once she got control over me? She might like living inside me and never want to leave. And since she was more powerful than I am, there would be nothing I could do about it. In effect, if I consented to this outlandish proposition, I would be making myself her slave. I’d be nothing more than a robot, and I didn’t like that idea one bit.
So I had to find an excuse, and that was easy enough. “I don’t think I can do this,” I told her. “I am not a religious woman. I also have my family responsibilities. I have a child to raise and a household to supervise. And how could I have sex with my husband, knowing that you are living inside me? It would be sacrilegious.”
She smiled. “When I dwell fully within you, you will feel such joy that you will not feel like having sex.”
I couldn’t help laughing. “Kuan Yin Pusa, you may know a lot about gods and arahants and Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but you know nothing about men. I may not feel like having sex, but my husband will. What am I to do—refuse him? Then he will go find someone younger and prettier than I am. And that’s not hard to do, since I’m getting old.”
Now her expression became grave, and the image seemed to fade. “I can see that you are not enthusiastic about this,” she said. Her voice was getting fainter. “If you are unwilling to receive me, do not refuse me your son.”
This was what I had been afraid of. Hsiu-hsin was only eight years old, he already wanted to become a monk, and this Bodhisattva was going to encourage him. She was going to snatch my son away from me. “Pusa, he’s only a little boy,” I said. “Don’t take him from me.”
“I won’t take him from you until he comes of age,” she assured me gently. “But you must understand that he is already mine. I would not have manifested myself through this picture again had it not been for his devotion. Don’t think of it in terms of my taking him away from you. When he becomes a monk, you can visit him at the monastery, and at times he will come home to see his mother.
“And there’s another thing you ought to know. Hsiu-hsin is a reincarnation of Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. He has been born specifically to renew Chinese Buddhism. If he becomes a monk, he will be the greatest monk of his time. But if he does not, if he resists his destiny, he will be the most frustrated man alive, because he will be going against his own nature. Do you want him to be perpetually unhappy? Through me he will find great joy, and will become a blessing to the world. Without me, he will become just another businessman, obsessed with buying and selling. You already have two sons whose souls you are going to sell into slavery to the god of wealth by making them become businessmen. Why not let this one remain free?”
As a matter of fact, I didn’t think being a businessman was such a bad thing, but I couldn’t tell that to a Bodhisattva. And just then a new thought occurred to me. This would be extremely good for our family. My elder sons, Hsiu-tsai and Hsiu-ming, would become businessmen, so our family would prosper in this life. By bequeathing Hsiu-hsin to Kuan Yin, we would certainly be rewarded in the next. Most Chinese worry a lot about the afterlife, but as the family of a reincarnation of the First Patriarch, none of us would have to worry about a thing. We would have good connections in heaven, so to speak.
So I consented. “Very well, Pusa, he’s yours,” I said. “He’s yours anyway, I know, but I give the whole business my blessing. Just let him visit me occasionally when he becomes a monk, and let me visit him; and let him never forget his mother.”
The image began to fade. “Very good,” the voice said, and now it was very faint. “But I will tell you frankly that the thoughts you have been thinking are unworthy of the mother of a saint like the one Hsiu-hsin will ultimately become. You are a calculating woman, and it’s lucky I didn’t try to make my home in you. We would have been fighting all the time.”
I smiled. “You’re right, Pusa. I told you I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. There would have been constant conflict between us.” She smiled faintly, raised her hand in blessing, and vanished.
I said nothing about my encounter when Hsiu-hsin returned from school. He immediately threw his books on the kitchen table and went into his room to chant and burn incense.
The next day, while Hsiu-hsin was away at school, my husband returned from Hong Kong. I was certainly glad to see him. My husband is an intelligent man, very good at business, and I was sure he’d know how to handle the situation. He’s always made the right decisions for our family, and even though he’s now in his late forties, he’s still a handsome man, in my opinion.
When I told him the story, he was incredulous. “Ah-lan, you don’t mean to say you saw Kuan Yin Pusa and talked to her! This is nonsense!”
I hadn’t expected such a strong reaction. “Yes, it’s true,” I assured him. “Come, let’s go into Hsiu-hsin’s room. I’ll show you.”
I took him into the room and showed him the mirror. He looked at it and said, “Well, it’s just an old mirror. Nothing unusual. Where is Kuan Yin?”
“You have to burn incense and pray to her,” I told him. “And you have to really want her to appear.”
“No longer necessary!” said a woman’s voice, and the image of Kuan Yin appeared in the mirror. Now it was clear and strong. She was wearing a dark blue gown and carrying a golden vase. Her skin was very fair, and she had the most beautiful eyes—almond-shaped and full of love—and a bewitching smile. Her face was oval. “I need the blessing of both of you,” she said briskly. “Ah-lan has already given me hers. Now, Chu-tsai, I need yours. For it is a basic principle in Buddhism that no one can become a monk without the permission of his parents.”
My husband’s mouth fell open and he tried to speak, but all that came out were a few strangled sounds.
“Come!” Kuan Yin said. “Cat got your tongue? Never mind, just give me your blessing. I can’t stay long. Your mind is a mess—full of calculating, buying and selling! Ugh! Quick, give me your blessing, I have to be going. Oh, I can’t stand the smell!” She held her nose and began to fade.
My husband just stood there, dumb as an ox, his mouth open and his face turning red. Finally he managed to speak. “I have to think about this,” he said.
“Oh! Think all you like, I can’t stand it anymore,” she said, and vanished.
My husband stared at the mirror, which was now bright yellow. “This is impossible,” he muttered. He seemed to be in a daze, but I led him into the living room and we sat down to discuss things. At first he couldn’t think straight, he was so overwhelmed. But once his mind started functioning, it went in one direction.
“Ah-lan, listen to me,” he said, taking my hand. “We can make money from this. This is a miracle. People will come from all over Taiwan—and Hong Kong, Japan, Korea—to see this. We can charge admission. Our other businesses are nothing compared to the money we can make from this.”
This was too much for me. “Husband, you are really a fool,” I scolded him. “Kuan Yin will never permit herself to be used in this way. She was right, your mind really is a mess. And even if she permitted it, what would our lives be like? Hundreds of people tramping into our living room, staring and gawking, trying to get a glimpse of Kuan Yin in the mirror, thousands more lined up outside, trampling on the lawn, tearing up the flowers in the garden, clogging the driveway, stealing things from the yard for souvenirs, reporters besieging us for interviews. Our lives would be chaos. We’d never have any peace and quiet. All the money in the world can’t pay for the hell our lives would become. Just think about it for a minute.”
He thought about it, all right, and in the end he had to agree with me. “But I don’t understand this business about my mind being a mess,” he grumbled. “She said it, and you said it, too. This is really insulting. I’m the head of a household. I have to think about business. That’s my job. If I didn’t do that, none of us would have anything to eat.”
I reached over and gave him a big hug. “Darling, I know that, and you’ve always been a good provider,” I assured him. “Just don’t let it take over your mind entirely. Save a corner of your mind for Kuan Yin Pusa.” I don’t know why I said that; it just came out.
He smiled, and stroked my cheek. “You’re a good wife,” he murmured. “The best. But we’ve always wanted Hsiu-hsin to be a businessman.”
“Hsiu-tsai and Hsiu-ming are already going to be businessmen,” I told him. “And listen, dear, if we let Hsiu-hsin become a monk it will be good for our family.” I explained my theory about how this would guarantee a good future in the afterlife for our whole family.
He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, I suppose it would, assuming all of this is real and we’re not just suffering from hallucinations,” he murmured. He thought some more. “All right,” he said finally. “But there’s one more thing. I want to see how strongly Hsiu-hsin feels about all this. After all, his happiness is at stake.”
When Hsiu-hsin came home from school he threw his arms around his father and greeted him ecstatically. “What did you bring me from Hong Kong?” he asked.
My husband laughed, went into our bedroom, opened his suitcase, and brought out the presents he had bought. Hsiu-hsin was pleased with them, but then he said, “Papa, did Mama tell you about Kuan Yin Pusa, and how she appears in the mirror?”
“Yes, she did, my dear boy. Do you love Kuan Yin Pusa?”
“Oh, yes, Papa.”
“And do you love your father and mother?”
“Oh, yes, Papa.” He hugged his father and buried his face in his shoulder.
My husband embraced him. “Now, dear boy, what would you do if I asked you to break the mirror?”
I was astounded. Break the mirror! Destroy Kuan Yin! Why should he want to do that?
Hsiu-hsin disengaged himself from his father’s embrace and looked at him solemnly. “Do you want me to break the mirror, Papa?”
My husband hesitated. “I am merely asking what you would do if I asked you to,” he said.
“Let me think about it,” Hsiu-hsin said. He climbed off his father’s lap, went into his room, and shut the door. Soon we could hear the sound of chanting coming from inside; then silence.
When he came out, half an hour later, he was carrying the mirror. Only somehow it had changed. The face of Bodhidharma was missing from the top of the frame, and there wasn’t so much as a scar to indicate it had ever been there. The background behind the glass was no longer yellow: it was absolutely blank.
“Well, father,” Hsiu-hsin began, addressing his father formally, “if you wish, I will break the mirror. Only you must give me your blessing to become a monk and carry Kuan Yin Pusa within me forever.”
Imagine something like this coming from an eight-year-old boy! My husband was startled. “My dear boy, whatever you want to do with your life, you will always have my blessing,” he said in a husky voice.
“You are a better father than Ching-fan,” Hsiu-hsin remarked with a smile.
My husband raised his eyebrows. “Ching-fan? Who is Ching-fan?”
Hsiu-hsin smiled again, and cradled the mirror in his arms. “Ching-fan was the father of Sakyamuni Buddha, who tried to prevent his son from becoming a Buddha by keeping him locked up in the palace. But you haven’t done that. You’ve given me freedom and happiness. And because of that, millions of people in this generation and in future generations will enjoy freedom and happiness. By letting me go, you and my mother have become a blessing to the world. Now watch.” And with that he smashed the mirror over his knee.
My husband and I went rigid with shock. We half expected the house to collapse on us. I don’t know what had possessed my husband to ask Hsiu-hsin to break the mirror, nor what had possessed Hsiu-hsin, that he should consent so readily. But it was too late, the deed was done.
Finally my husband spoke. “Hsiu-hsin, it was not necessary to break the mirror,” he said. “I merely asked if you were willing to break it. Now we may be in trouble. How will Kuan Yin Pusa take this?”
Hsiu-hsin smiled, and now his smile was exactly like that of the Bodhisattva. “Look!” he said, pointing to the smashed remains of the mirror on the floor. And as he spoke, the mirror crumbled and turned into dust. “What was in there is now in here,” he said, pointing to his heart. “The mirror was only a medium. Now I am the medium. As for the mirror—no longer necessary!”
William Page has been associated with the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society of Massachusetts since 1960 and is a member of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Association of Thailand. Email: WPAGE@YMAIL.COM