“Perhaps,” said the old man… “Perhaps I passed out.”
I returned to awareness lying on my back in the cave, on a pile of tahr furs. Light from ghee lamps all around flickered on the walls; on the bright metal of the kartika hanging on one; on Sukhi’s pale skin.
She was kneeling—
“Wait,” said the young monk. “What was she doing in the cave? And I thought she was—”
The old man glared at him, and the young monk stopped.
She was kneeling, naked, straddling my belly, her legs against my sides. When we were to be married, she was still a girl, all bones and skin over slight muscle. Now she was full grown. Her breasts swelled like stupas, and—
“I really don’t think you should be telling me this,” the young monk said.
“Because?” the old man asked.
“I am a monk,” the young monk said. “I have taken vows of celibacy and—”
“Get out!” the old man said.
“I…” said the young monk, not moving.
“GET OUT!” he said, pointing to the cave exit. He gestured again toward the cave mouth; then as the monk sat still paralyzed in confusion, he reached for the kila in his sash.
The monk rose and bowed awkwardly, then turned and almost ran in his panic. What had he done?
As he reached the exit, the old man barked “Have you no devotion for your teacher?”
The young monk turned. He hastily bowed again, hoping it would help somehow. “I… Most Venerable Shantarakshita is the Chancellor of Nalanda University. He is a great teacher, the greatest modern exponent of the Holy Dharma, so of course I revere—”
“Do you have devotion for him?”
“Shantarakshita sent you to me to teach you about the Matter of Life and Death. If you have devotion for him, you will follow his instruction, to listen to what I have to say, no matter what. Do you trust his judgement enough to do what he told you?”
The young monk felt for a moment, torn. When he first arrived at Nalanda, Shantarakshita was the famed scholar who had unified the two schools of Mahayana philosophy; who ruled over the whole University. His name spread throughout the continent, and sages from distant lands came to pay him homage and learn at his feet. And more, he was renowned for his impeccable decorum and perfect adherence to the two hundred and fifty three rules of the monastic vows. But in time, as the young monk advanced in the Nalanda curriculum, Shantarakshita became less remote, and tutored him directly. The student had come to love his teacher for his wry wit and his kindness. Was that “devotion”?
And yet—it was obvious where the old man’s story was going next. Shantarakshita was the perfect monk. Surely he would not have wanted his pupil exposed to lascivious tales of swelling breasts? And yet—the last thing he had said was, “You have read books enough. There is much we cannot teach at Nalanda. In a cave in the mountain-ring around Rajagrha you will find my old friend Suryapavan. He will tell you what you need to know, and he will send you on your Quest.”
The young monk bowed again, and sat at Surya’s feet.
“You have made the pilgrimage to Sanchi?”
“Err… yes…” said the young monk, with an uncomfortable premonition of what was to come. “The Great Stupa at Sanchi holds the ashes of The Blessed One, Shakyamuni Buddha.”
“Indeed. Did its shape remind you of anything?”
The young monk squirmed and looked away.
“I am going to ask you questions,” said the old man, “and you will answer them honestly. Or I will throw you out and you will not come back. Understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the young monk replied. “Um, yes, I could not help noticing the shape of the stupa.”
“And did you examine the carvings on the Eastern Gateway?”
“I… um… yes…”
“Well… I pretended I was looking at the elephants. And, well… yes, I did spend quite a while staring at the ‘elephants’.”
The old man laughed. His anger seemed to have passed.
“Very good. There is a reason I am making you suffer… Do you know the four-fold structure of the tantric initiation?”
“Yes!” said the young monk. “Last year, I received the highest examination grade in Most Venerable Shantarakshita’s class on tantric theory, and he appointed me assistant teacher for the class this year.”
“Then you know what happens in the third phase of the initiation?”
The young monk recited from memory: “The wisdom empowerment purifies all negative karma, unclogs the energy of the subtle body, grants the blessings of the vajra mind, and authorizes the student as a receptive vessel for the practices of bliss and emptiness.”
The young monk gulped. “The wisdom empowerment relies on the body of the wisdom consort.”
“Um… you have to have… carnal knowledge… of a… woman.”
“Or man, as the case may be. Which you have not done, and so you have no idea what any of the tantric theory you learned means.” The old man sighed. “Academic Buddhism advances one parinirvana at a time.”
The young monk was puzzled.
“I mean, when the old guard at Nalanda dies, the younger faculty can teach new doctrines and practices. When I was your age, Nalanda had only just begun to teach tantra, only in theory, only in secret, and only to a handful of special students. It was highly controversial, and opposed by most of the faculty. In a few decades, some professors will practice tantra openly and on-campus, instead of sneaking out to charnel grounds at midnight like they do now.”
The young monk was shocked. “They practice… they… wait, Most Venerable Shantarakshita?”
“I told you when you arrived: he sent you to me because there are things his students should not know—including about him. As our own tale continues, you never go back to Nalanda. You renounce your monastic vows, and accompany me on my Final Quest. Then you head north on your Quest, and then she gives you wisdom empowerment, and the rest.”
The princess snickered.
The old man waited until the horror and incredulity had passed from the monk’s face and he had settled into stunned vertigo.
She was kneeling, naked, straddling my belly.
“Sukhi?” I asked. “Surya!” she said, and the one word was enough to make her nose wiggle. I laughed for joy.
I remembered the feeling of my finger on her philtrum. I reached toward her face, but now I wanted more. I reached lower, but my tentative hand landed half way between my two intentions, my palm on the hollow below her neck, where the heart is. Her chest was cold and I could feel the bones just beneath the skin.
She gripped my wrist and pulled my hand down onto her breast. It was hot, and softer even than her lip. She took my other hand and placed it. Her breasts swelled like recursive stupas—
“Recursive?” asked the young monk. It was a word he did not know.
“The dome of the Great Stupa at Sanchi is surmounted by a square fenced platform, yes?”
The young monk nodded. “With an umbrella in the middle.”
“And the umbrella has an umbrella, and that has an umbrella… Well, imagine if, in place of the square box and umbrellas, there was another dome the same shape, but smaller, just the size of the platform; and on that another again.”
The monk could imagine the revised stupa—and then in a flash he saw the analogy in his mind’s eye, and blushed at its vividness. “But… ‘recursive’?”
“In Sanskrit, we can say ‘Elation flowed from her breasts to fill my chest,’ yes?”
“And you will recall from Panini’s textbook of Sanskrit grammar that we can insert a relative clause, thrusting it into a fold in the sentence, thus: ‘Elation flowed from her breasts—whose full areolae slipped between my middle and index fingers—to fill my chest’?”
“In the languages of the Yavanas—but not in Sanskrit—one can apply Panini’s rule to the consequence of the rule, ornamenting the relative clause with its own embedded relative clause: ‘Elation flowed from her breasts—whose domed areolae, their nipples hard against a yielding softness, slipped between my middle and index fingers—to fill my chest.’”
The monk replayed the startling alien grammatical construction in his mind, distracted by visions of swollen areolae surmounted by tightening nipples, and then the final analogy clicked into place.
Recursive stupas, breasts, and clauses—they were all one, and a breast that was also a clause expanded in his vision as if the yakshini at Sanchi was lowering her chest toward his face, filling his view so that now there was only the areola, and then the nipple, but what if that again—
—and infinity unrolled before him—
—and then he felt the old man’s hand on his shoulder steadying him. He had nearly fallen over sideways, though sitting, in the dizzying vision.
“It is no shame to be undone by recursion, the first time,” the old man said.
The monk nodded, weak and nauseous.
Sukhi leaned forward and kissed me, pressing her teeth against my lips and her breasts against my hands. She forced my mouth open with her tongue and licked mine. She slid down on my body, and I was hard against her belly, and she bit my nipple. Her teeth were sharp and it hurt, and I wondered if it was bleeding—
—a vision, of Sukhi in a dark room, covered in blood, tied to a bed—no, not a vision, was it a memory?—
“Sukhi!” I cried, but she lifted her head and smiled and touched my forehead with her fingers. “Shhh,” she said, and the vision passed.
But: “Sukhi, isn’t there blood and pain? When you do it the first time?” I asked. I wanted it so much, but I didn’t want her ever to have to feel pain.
“Who told you that? Your foster-mother?”
I nodded. Grisly tales of the horrors of sex were part of her scheme to make me a monk, but she also relished them for their own sake. She would quote the Buddha Himself: “Better to stick your penis in the mouth of a black viper than a woman’s vagina.”
“Oh, Surya!” Sukhi said. “You should never trust old women. They are selfish. They will always only deceive you.” She looked sad for a moment, as if caught by a bad memory, and then arched her back and slid me inside.
She groaned as though in pain, but I knew it was not, because the shock of the feeling inside made me gasp and clutch too. She stopped and my grip on her breasts relaxed. I was about to speak when she slid partway forward, and then back. She paused again and gazed into my eyes and I felt everything was right. I was safe and at home in the world for the first time since childhood. It was not just Sukhi: the entire universe loved me. Everything was going to come out well after all. My ever-present nagging resentment vanished, and I recognized that it had always been a misunderstanding. Everything was as it should be; everything was connected; everything made sense.
She began a rhythm, back and forth, back and forth, and her breasts slid across my open hands, her nipples catching on the web between my fingers each time. There was something I needed to do—I wanted to shake or howl or what was it?—I needed to move, and I sat up and she was in my lap and she laughed. But I winced because she was sitting on my bad ankle, so I held her behind and put her on her back and I was setting the rhythm—when it was all the way in it needed to come back out, and when it was out it needed to go all the way in—and she was laughing and panting so hard she couldn’t laugh properly and it came out like the barking of a hyaena.
She caught her breath enough to draw her knees up to her chest and started to say “You remind me of—”, but couldn’t finish, because her change of angle squeezed me tighter and I could feel all the bones of her pelvis sliding hard against me and something released in my own pelvis so I slammed into her so hard on each thrust that all the breath was knocked out of her each time, and she was screaming and I was wondering if I was hurting her and if I cared but I was roaring like a water buffalo so probably not and then ‘she’ and ‘I’ and ‘roaring’ and ‘bodies’ dissolved and there was only need, need and joy, and painfully bright white light exploded, and time stopped, and there was infinite clarity, and there was peace.
There was darkness.
Vague shapes moved in the darkness.
There was a swirl of dim sparks, as when the priest stirs the dying embers of a cremation pyre.
I was Between.