“We have guests,” she said.
“What?” I had not seen a human being since I had first made my way up the valley, a few months ago now.
“A delegation from Nalanda University,” she said. “Go down to the river, greet them courteously, and welcome them up.”
“Nalanda what?” The name was vaguely familiar, but—
“It’s a place where monks argue about nonexistence all day. Go on!”
I scowled, but she pointed down toward the river, and so I went.
When I’d gone the little way to the cliff edge, I could see that in place of the difficult ford there was a single-arched wooden bridge, lacquered blood-red.
Two figures stood at its center, gazing up.
I made my way down to meet them. One was indeed a monk. He had a leather sack slung over his shoulder on a strap, and carried a wooden staff, as tall as he was, shod in iron at either end.
The other was dressed entirely in gold-embroidered brocade. He wore a crested yellow cap with a luxuriant floppy fringe, making him look like some foppish forest fowl in mating plumage.
“Are you a monk?” I asked, astonished. The only monks I had ever seen had been threadbare beggars. It occurred to me only later that this might not count as “greeting them courteously”; the instruction had gone quite out of my mind.
“Is he ‘a monk’? He’s only the Chancellor of Nalanda University,” said the other.
“Merely the Interim Acting Chancellor,” the golden one replied, with an air of mild reproof. The other rolled his eyes, and they both grinned.
“You must be a most remarkable young man,” the Interim Acting Chancellor said to me.
“Um, I guess,” I said. “I’m supposed to take you up to the cave.”
“How splendid!” he said. “Then, by all means, lead on; we shall gladly rely upon your stalwart guidance.”
“Um, it’s up there,” I said, turning. The path was now paved with broad flagstones, and the perilous way up the cliff face had become a balustraded stairway. My “guidance” was utterly superfluous.
As we neared the top, I saw that the rough mouth of the cave and its crumbling wooden doors had vanished. In its place was a perfectly square doorway with a frame of dressed stone. Atop were carved two vultures facing inward. The doors were bronze, each with an enormous bat in repouseé, chased with silver. They swung open inward as we approached.
The room within was cubical, all its surfaces of polished marble, lit from a square skylight. Toward the rear, in the center, there was a dais. On the dais, there was a throne. On the throne, there sat cross-legged a woman.
She was mind-stoppingly beautiful.
Neither young nor old; beautiful like a flower, not like a woman: too perfect to seem human.
Her dress was silk, the blue-black of the center of the sky as night falls. Two silver bats clasped shoulder straps, gathering folds of cloth that held her bared breasts high. A twisted coil of many silver and blue-black ribbons belted the slight garment just below them.
Her arms were also bare; around her wrists and above her elbows she wore silver bands in the shape of snakes. At her neck was a choker, silver again, ornamented with a row of grinning skulls. Her hair was braided and bejeweled as a jatamakuta crown.
The Interim Acting Chancellor removed his hat, pressed his palms together, touched his wrists to his forehead, throat, and chest, then threw himself full length on the floor before her.
I looked to the other monk, hoping he’d give some clue about what was going on. He was staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed.
The Interim Acting Chancellor stood, looked at the other monk, and jerked his head to indicate the instruction. “But, master,” began the other. The Interim Acting Chancellor shook his head and repeated the prostration. After a moment’s hesitation, the other monk put his sack down and followed suit.
“Surya!” said the woman, a command. Her voice was familiar.
Together now, the two monks and I each performed nine prostrations.
The Interim Acting Chancellor stepped forward and declaimed:
Transcendent wisdom beyond thought
Boundless unborn awareness like the sky
You from whose vulva all phenomena proceed
You who are Prajñāpāramitā in person—
“Yes, yes, you can skip all that stuff,” she said. “What do you want?”
“On behalf of Nalanda Maha-Vihara—which, due to the recent transmigration of our Most Venerable Chancellor into his inconceivable final enlightenment, is temporarily unable to send anyone less worthless than I as its representative—I beg you receive our inadequate gift,” he said.
He stepped back, retrieved the leather sack, and knelt before her. Opening the sack, he removed three large blobs wrapped in black oilcloth; three black iron struts, each octagonal in cross-section and as long as his forearm; and two golden knickknacks. The iron pieces were threaded, and he screwed them together to make a single shaft.
He unwrapped the first blob. It was a severed head—of a military man; an officer I think now, by the look of his waxed moustache.
The Interim Acting Chancellor stood, gripped the shaft between his knees, and slammed the head down on the top. The iron went straight through, protruding through the hole it made in the top of the skull. Glop spattered out there, and dripped down the shaft from the neck.
He shoved the head further down, and reached for another blob.
The second head was rotting, blackened, worm-infested. Unwrapping it filled the room with stench. It was revolting, but now I was almost used to that sort of thing. The other monk, however, bolted.
I could hear him vomiting outside as the Interim Acting Chancellor slammed the second head onto the shaft.
The third head was a dry skull. The Interim Acting Chancellor skewered it gently. Old bones are delicate and likely to crumble if not handled carefully.
He laid the whole on the floor like a rotisserie. Onto the bottom end he screwed the golden vajra; onto the top, the golden triple blades of the khatvanga trident.
Reverently, he lifted it, holding it horizontally, and presented it to the woman on the throne. She held it on her lap and passed her hand over the heads, which shrank to the size of her fist. She pushed them up to the top of the shaft, just below the trident blades. The stench vanished.
She cradled the whole khatvanga vertically, in the crook of her bare left arm.
“You do know how to please a girl!” she said. She looked well-pleased.
The Interim Acting Chancellor bowed. The other monk had crept back in, I noticed.
“You have not come here to entertain an old lady, I suppose,” she said, “however pleasant that might be. What does Nalanda need from a hag?”
“The young king of Kannauj lives for conquest. He has sacked or subjugated many towns and small kingdoms. He has taken the fortress-city Gwalior, which was supposed to be invulnerable. He hates Buddhists, and he hates Magadha.”
“This is known to me,” she said.
“Me too!” I said. Everyone looked at me, startled by the interruption. “Well, my uncle told me,” I said.
“Now he is recruiting tirthika sorcerers,” continued the Interim Acting Chancellor. “He is devoting to that end all the plunder from the sack of Kalapriya, buying the loyalty of kapalikas with girls and gold. We believe that he plans soon to turn his attention east, to invade Magadha.”
“And so?” she asked. “You are monks, not generals.”
“Lady, I would fain leave this to them; to the King of Magadha; to anyone else at all; and spend my time in teaching, study, and meditation. Alas, if I may speak freely, our king is foolish, weak, and overmastered by his suspicions. He has executed his best generals, imagining they were plotting against him. He saw near enemies where there were none. Blinded by paranoia, he does not see the far enemy, who is a much greater threat.”
“So? You are a scholar. Do you mean to learn the arts of war and lead the king’s troops to battle Kannauj yourself?”
“No, my lady. In past, the kings of Magadha drew on Nalanda for counsel, and I might hope to make him see reason. But that time has passed.
“Rather, the exoteric position of Chancellor is academic and honorary. The esoteric position is pragmatic and often not technically compatible with monastic vows.”
“I know this,” she said. “I wanted to be sure you did. Many Chancellors have been here before you. Some sought wisdom; some were ‘pragmatic’.”
“So I learned. I was Secretary to Most Venerable Dharmakirti. Esoterically, ‘Secretary’ is another pragmatic position: assisting the Chancellor in work best done in secret.
“He foresaw his death to the day. We spent the last two weeks of his life in a private, windowless cell. Exoterically, for him to recite his last treatise on formal logic for me to copy down. Esoterically, he briefed me on all the pragmatic aspects of the Chancellor’s role.
“Much of it seemed hard to credit, although I had complete trust in him. Some of what seemed hardest to believe, I have seen here today.”
“I trust you have enjoyed that?”
“Goddess, since it is you who asks, I can only answer truthfully: I am finding this difficult, despite my preceptor’s explanations.”
“Good,” she said. “There will be more. In the mean time, do go on with your wars and kings and such.”
“Many are the ways black-hearted sorcerers can be used in war. But those the king of Kannauj is assembling are all of a sort.”
“They are necromancers,” she said.
“Just as you say, Lady. He seeks vetala-siddhi. Most Venerable Dharmakirti believed he plans to raise an army of the dead. With so many sorcerers at his call, that army would be unstoppable.”
“And what is that to you?”
“Lady, it is my duty to protect Nalanda when secular powers fail to, or when they become hostile. A change of ruler may be none of the University’s concern, but this king of Kannauj razes cities, and slaughters or enslaves their inhabitants. I cannot protect Nalanda without protecting Magadha.”
“And what is that to me?”
The Interim Acting Chancellor bowed. “The wisdom of emptiness is inseparable from methods of compassion,” he said.
“Indeed?” she said. “And in my compassion, what am I to do for you?”
“Goddess,” he said, “I am not without knowledge of sorcery, but of vetala-siddhi I know nothing. No one at Nalanda does, I believe. It is my hope—it is our prayer—for the sake of the innocent of Magadha, and for the continued existence of Nalanda, which you have looked on with favor for lo these many centuries—we beseech you, together with your colleagues should they be necessary, to defeat these necromancers before they do great evil.”
“Ah. Your situation—our situation—is more precarious than you realize,” she said. “The king of Kannauj is no longer merely a king. The dead cannot stand against Death Himself.”
“I do not understand?”
“I am powerless and cannot act directly in this matter.”
“You will not help?”
“I cannot help—not in the way you hoped. I am doing what I can. It is little, and late, and not going well. Still, some unexpected reversal, some heroic last-minute plot twist, is traditional in such tales.”
“Goddess, you speak in riddles… countless lives are at stake. I implore you to act, and if you cannot, to advise me as to how I may?”
“I speak as plainly as I may in mixed company. In any case, enough of all that. You came on an esoteric practical mission on behalf of all sentient beings—or that is your pretense, and your duty. But you came also with an exoteric, academic question, which you wish to ask for your own sake only.”
“That is true, but I am loath to set aside my main purpose, and it feels unworthy to abuse my position selfishly… If you will not offer counsel, as I had hoped… The question itself is embarrassing, too. But if you answer, I hope it may benefit others as well.
“For decades I have studied the theories of emptiness, Yogachara and Madhyamaka, and all the scholarly debates to and fro, which is correct and which is false. I am now accounted the foremost academic expert in the world. In better times, I lectured to thousands, filling Nalanda’s great hall and spilling into the courtyard.”
“Very impressive,” she said.
“No!” he said. “I understand none of it. ‘Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.’ I can teach a year-long advanced seminar explaining that, but what does it mean?”
“Your seminar explains that this can be understood only non-conceptually, in meditation?”
“Yes… So I have spent years in solitary meditation retreat. At times I think I have seen a glimpse, but the heart of the matter eludes me still.”
“Right, then,” she said. “In such recalcitrant cases, more direct methods are required to shake a student loose. That may aid you in your ‘main purpose’ as well.”
The Interim Acting Chancellor looked apprehensive. “There will be more,” I remembered her saying.
She looked at the other monk, and at me. “This is a matter for adults,” she said. “Run along and play, children,” she said.
She gestured to the exit. “Play nice!”
The bronze doors closed behind us.