Sat. Jan 18th, 2020

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Unto The Inferno
“Atonement”

That day, a small boy clenched his fist and promised one thing:

That he would become the protector of people.

Little did that boy knew, the weight of those words would be heavy indeed.

“A brave man is one who knows to return after having lost his way.”
– Buddhism Philosophy

Part I: From The Beginnings Of An End

My parents were refuges of the Vietnam War and traveled an arduous journey to begin a new life in the United States of America. The future for them; however, remained uncertain. My father spent most of his teenage years inside a North Vietnamese concentration camp while my mom fled from village to village to escape the chaos of war. Before my mother met my father, she lived her first few years in America in a Buddhist temple as a Buddhist nun.

Growing up, my family was a traditional Buddhist household. Thought my father was atheist, my mother would bring my siblings and I to the Buddhist temples throughout California. At that time, we were just children running and playing through gardens filled with lotus flowers and massive bronze statues on monastery grounds. Though our playfulness would sometimes anger my mother, the Buddhist monks and nuns would laugh; at times kindly reminding my mother that we were just children.

I have found memories of sitting in front of a massive statue of Buddha while being read the Chinese folklore “Journey to the West” by one of the monks. The epic tale depicts the legendary and dangerous pilgrimage of the monk Tang Sanzang who traveled to the western regions of the world in order to bring peace and enlightenment. In his journey, he was provided three protectors: Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie and Sha Wujing, together with a dragon prince who acts as Tang Sanzang’s steed, a white horse. The tale speaks of loss, morality, danger, fellowship and ultimately redemption. “Journey to the West” was also a very popular bedtime story for many Chinese and Vietnamese children.

“Nothing in this world is difficult, but thinking makes it seem so. Where there is true will, there is always a way.”
– Sun Wukong | The Monkey King, “Journey to the West”

The most notable character in this folklore was Sun Wukong, better known as The Monkey King. As a child, I grew extremely fond of The Monkey King for there was no demon nor heavenly spirit that could best his warrior prowess. He was my childhood hero and I remember one of the monks telling my mother that I had the demeanor of a young Sun Wukong. He was in a sense, the main character of the folklore and in the end of the “Journey to the West”, his path ended in one thing:

Atonement.

Part II: The Boy’s Oath

When I was in the 6th Grade, I remember being picked up by my father from school. My siblings and I thought it was odd as it had always been my mother. We returned home to our weeping mother and learned that our aunt has been murdered. Though we were children, we did not fully understand the situation but we did know the concept of murder. During this time, my youngest sister was barely a year old and my father had to take time off work in order to take of her while my mother flew to Georgia for the funeral. It was a stressful and sorrowful time for my family.

I only have one memory of my aunt and I remember desperately struggling to reach up the tall book shelf in order to grab a VHS of a dinosaur movie. Seeing her small nephew’s struggle, she walked over and handed me the movie, patting me on the head shortly after. I was told that she was a kind woman and of good morals, always volunteering and donating her money to feed the poverty-stricken back in Vietnam.

“No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.”
– Gautama Buddha (c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE)

She was murdered in Georgia by a coward out of jealously. I recall many nights watching my mother sob in the hallway and having to stop her mourning many times in order to take care of my baby sister. To my siblings and I, the scene was confusing and very depressing. I knew murder was bad and only evil people murdered but I didn’t understand their intent. The one thing I did understand; however, was the oath a little boy would make one day in front of his siblings. The oath was inspired by the prowess of Sun Wukong and other legendary heroes and warriors.

That day, a small boy clenched his fist and promised one thing:

That he would become the protector of people.

Little did that boy knew, the weight of those words would be heavy indeed.

Part III: To Atone


“A man invested with the power to command and the power to kill was expected to demonstrate equally extraordinary powers of benevolence and mercy.”
– Bushidō

Upon returning from the South Sudanese Civil War, I came home and acted as if nothing had ever happened. I wanted to forget every atrocity, every fight and every nightmare but I knew that everything had finally started to reach a boiling point over twelve years. My physical health was without wounds from escaping the recent ordeal but my mental health was rapidly deteriorating. At night, I would wake up screaming and crying from the night terrors that continued to haunt me over the decade and was becoming increasingly worse. The attacks would wake up my family and frighten them. When my sisters ask about them, I would always jokingly change the subject matter and acted as if it was no big deal.

I was withering away and I wanted the night terrors to stop. I wanted the screams and cries of the dying children to stop. I was desperate for normal sleep but it suffered. I was beginning to lose weight and skip the gym many times, having very little interest in day to day activities. In my torment, I forgot completely about paleontology and other childhood aspirations. My friends were almost nonexistent and all I was left was to my thoughts. I also completely miss registration for college semester as well. The darkness seeped into my thoughts and I cursed humanity, my cynicism at it’s most high.

One night, I asked my mother to take me to the Buddhist temple which held a praying altar for deceased aunt. We left for the temple the next morning and while driving, I remained silent while lost in my thoughts. I did not know precisely what I was looking for or why I randomly wanted to visit the temple. I think that during the time, I wanted to simply seek wisdom.

On the monastery grounds, my mother and I did a standing bow with palms together in respect to the Buddhist nun whom smiled kindly in our direction. She was in her 40s and was sweeping the garden grounds with a broom. The nun’s smile slowly turned into a frown when she saw my expression. Asking my mother where my aunt’s altar was, I quickly left her company and the nun’s, requesting to be left alone. While walking away, I recall hearing the nun asking my mother what was wrong.

I thought nothing of it as I continued walking before taking off my shoes at the main shrine’s entrance. I slowly entered, feeling the mats underneath my socks and smelling the smoke of burning incense that filled the massive yet dimly lit room. On one side of the room was a wall with hundreds of photos of deceased loved ones followed by a few altars – my aunt’s included. The opposite wall was filled with scriptures and art of Buddhism folklore and in front of the room was a massive bronze statue of Gautama Buddha himself. The only light that pierced into the room was from the small windows near the roofs and the two doors that made up the entrances. The scenery was calm and rather silent.

I slowly walked towards my aunt’s altar and burned new joss sticks, plucking them into the small urns in front of my aunt’s photo. For a while, I stared at the photo in quiet contemplation in the dim room. I remember sighing heavily, feeling the heaviness in my heart and weariness of my soul. After a brief time, I heard footsteps from the entrance and turned to be greeted by a kind smile and the warm presence of an old abbot – someone who has known my siblings and I for many years. Someone whom during his youth, read “Journey to the West” to me when I was a child.

Quickly, I bowed in respect and he returned the gesture, chuckling after and saying in Vietnamese, “You are not the little boy I remember anymore!” His smile seemed to almost light up the mood in the room as he walked over. He turned to my aunt’s altar and pointed at her photo before turning his attention back towards me. “Visiting your aunt? I am sure she would have liked to see the man you’ve become.” I nodded slightly and surprisingly, a slight smile made its way onto my face. As quickly as it appeared, my smile disappeared and I frowned. The abbot’s smile softened and he asked, “Why do you look so troubled?”

I looked away and did not respond at first, staring at my aunt’s altar before turning to the statue of Buddha. I exhaled heavily once more, feeling the weariness of my soul. “I am broken,” I replied back in Vietnamese. The abbot frowned upon hearing my words and sighed softly. “Yes, your mother has told me.” I remember clenching my fist and turning my attention back towards the statue.

“For years, I have known only bitterness and sorrow. My spirit has finally broken.”

The abbot said nothing but frowned, a sad expression forming upon his face as I continued.

“I have done many bad things. I have killed a lot of people though these people are evil. I have watched children die. I made an oath to save people and I have not saved anyone all these years. I have failed to do so many things.”

I fought hard against the tears that streamed down my face as I looked at the old master. Finally overwhelmed by emotions, I dropped to my knees in front of him and the statue of Buddha. It felt as if the weight of morality has finally come crashing down onto my shoulders at that very moment.

“I do not know what to do anymore. I want to die.”

The abbot continued to frown. “If you die, your mother will only know a broken heart.”

He turned towards the Buddha statue and clasping his palm together, bowed and said, “Nam mô A Di Đà Phật. Buddha teaches that with experience comes suffering. With suffering comes wisdom. With wisdom comes enlightenment.”

The frail abbot then grabbed my shoulders and guided me back onto my feet.

“Your path was never meant to be easy nor happy. Knowing this, you went to do it anyways despite knowing that you will only see suffering and know only pain.”

I stared back and attempted to wipe the tears that overwhelmed my face but they continued forth like rain.

“Even though you were forced to do bad things and you did not save people, that did not mean you have failed. Buddha teaches that this is compassion and is an important virtue. This is because of the love of your aunt. She would be proud to know what you’ve become.”


I spoke through sorrowful tears and asked, “What do I do now? I am lost. I wish to atone for my sins.”

The old abbot smiled gently and replied, “Now you must heal. Learn how to walk again. Remember the teachings of Buddha. Find value in humility and then, you will find peace.”

Placing a hand on my shoulders, he gestured towards the statue of Buddha.

“Let us pray together just like what we once did – a long time ago.”

Both abbot and disciple knelt onto the ground and with palms clasped, they both recited in chant.

“Nam mô A Di Đà Phật.”

And for the first time in many years, I was able to breathe again.


“Then you will understand all that is before you.”
– Abbot Thanh Ly

*The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the original authors and contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Spotter Up Magazine, the administrative staff, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Photo by Swodesh Shakya on Unsplash

 

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