The Red Monk
Rachel had begun to hear a call within her, an uncomfortable and eerie voice urging her to transcend her life and fill herself up with a food she had not tasted. The feeling frightened her and initially made her think she was going mad, but soon she began to believe that her condition was not madness but something mystical, outside the normal state of consciousness. The inner call wanted her to find or be something new, as if her real life was elsewhere.
After reading about the sacred sites in India, Rachel believed that India had the answer. Her salvation would be in the holy shrines in the middle of the street, the river Ganges that could purge and purify, the temples and caves that were sanctuaries of holy people for centuries, the profound stone carvings and painted messages on their walls, the monks and nuns who wander the sacred grounds who could guide one to a higher life, and the retreats led by gurus with possible answers to her plight, perhaps bringing some kind of enlightenment.
Her husband Murray frankly preferred a holiday in Mexico or Costa Rica, but he knew that going to India was an obsession for her. In her state of mind, he didn’t want her to go without him.
The Ellora caves were their last stop on an extended tour around sacred India. They had visited Amritsar, the Ajanta Caves, Kanchipuram, Sanchi, Allahabad, Khajuraho, Mount Shatrunjaya, the Palitana Temples of Gujarat, and Varanasi. After completing this journey through so many sites of supposed spiritual power, Rachel had grown more and more anxious and sometimes sick from the mounting confusion about her life that had driven her to India. Now, at Ellora, she could barely move from what she believed was a fear of the next stage or of no resolution. Despite this sense of dread, she was determined not to run and return home; she would confront this voice that beckoned.
Murray roamed with the other tourists, amazed at how the artists had carved such beauty out of hills, but he did not venture beyond that observation and had no revelation. To him these carvings were like fairy tales told in stone; they were great art, but art that meant nothing to him because he was not Hindu, Buddhist or Jain, and had no acquaintance with the stories of Vishnu, Krishna, Ganga, Brahman, Parvati, Shiva, and the many other divine manifestations.
Rachel sat cross-legged and gazed at the walls within the eighth century Kailasanatha Temple, a multi-storied structure much larger than the Parthenon carved out of a giant basalt hill from the top down and dedicated to Shiva. The magnificence of the carvings and sculpture depicting Ramayana and the Mahabharata tales was overwhelming not only because the exotic mystery and majesty of the monumental stone art were undeniable, but because she believed that the art had many stories to tell that could transform her as it had apparently transformed others.
Walking around, sitting on the ledges, or squatting were also nuns and monks in many coloured garments. One of them hidden in the shadows in an orange robe had caught her eye. In the Lotus position he sat, reciting a chant she could barely hear. On the ground beside him was a book with worn covers. She stared at him for some time. At least twenty minutes passed while she waited for him to finish his ritual and emerge from his trance. Finally he stopped and turned toward her. When Rachel looked at his eyes, she saw the reflection of the figures of the sculpture in them from the nearby temple.
“They move, you know, and communicate,” he said to her. “Shiva not only expresses reality through those tales but brings them to life and guides you, if you are ready.”
“What?” Rachel said, somewhat surprised at how he had skipped pleasantries and spoke to her as if he had known her for many years.
He pointed at the sculpted friezes.
“If you come at a certain time, and if you are in a certain state of mind, you can see them move and hear them talk to you in your mind. When that happens, you’ve felt something of reality and it will draw you into the transcendent realm they represent. It’s like the effect of profound music. You become filled up with special harmonic patterns which move you away from your humdrum existence. Art becomes a vehicle for change.”
Rachel nodded, not fully sure what he meant.
Just then she noticed another monk in a red robe leaning on the wall with a smirk on his face.
“Don’t believe a word he says,” the red monk said, “or any of them for that matter. Their spiritual condition more reflects the ruins than the inner spiritual forces of long ago. Most of them are beggars, preying upon tourists, pretending to know something profound.”
“Most of them?” Rachel asked.
“Yes,” the red monk said. “Some are like this fellow, sad searchers.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m someone searching for truth,” the orange robed monk said.
“No,” Rachel said, “I was asking the red robed monk.”
“You see the red monk?” the orange monk asked.
“He speaks to you?”
She nodded again.
“But how could that be? You’re a…a…tourist.”
“I want to…” Rachel began to speak.
“You want to what?” the red monk interrupted.
“That is your husband?” the red monk continued, pointing at Murray, who was clearly watching her while looking at the temple.
“Does he know you’re tired of your life?” the red monk asked.
“What’s he saying, the red monk?” the orange monk asked.
The red monk moved closer to the orange monk and sat in the diamond pose directly in front of him.
“I didn’t say that I was tired of my life,” Rachel said to the red robed monk, “I was going to say that I want to know…”
“Know? Know?” the orange monk interrupted upon hearing the word ‘know.’ “Is he talking about divine knowledge? Tell me. What does he say about divine knowledge? How do we know? Is he commenting on the Vedas?”
The orange monk stood up.
“Unfortunately,” the red monk said, still sitting, “so many poor innocent people talk to these jokers seeking some spiritual solace. Only a very few can help them.”
“Ask him about how knowledge…,” the orange monk said.
“Tell him nothing,” the red monk said.
“I love my husband,” Rachel explained to the red monk, “but my life seems so hollow, and I need to find what will cure me of this emptiness, or inspire me, because I’m hurting so much that often I can’t breathe. Something inside is calling me to something greater. My soul seems separate from me.”
“Interesting,” the red monk mumbled. “Are you sure it’s not spiritual illusion?”
“Why are you so negative?” she asked. “You belittle other monks, you doubt my experience. No, it’s not illusion. I know the difference. It’s something quite real, too real, on fire real.”
“Ah, reality,” the red monk said. “I think you may be burning up because you haven’t developed your own reality. First develop that to the fullest, then take the next step. To grow you must carefully nurture your seed. To fly you must crawl out of your cocoon.”
“Don’t talk to him,” the orange monk said. “He tries to keep people away from the temple. He thinks everyone is unworthy. Did he mention reality?”
“Is your real as real as mine?” the red monk asked Rachel as he laughed.
He smiled, stood up, and started to walk away.
“Yes, yes,” she said, following after the red monk.
“Where you going?” the orange monk called after her.
“I’m following the red monk,” she said.
Rachel chased after him but the red monk disappeared around the corner of a temple.
“You can’t follow him,” the orange monk said. “He has no followers. He’s a guardian.”
The orange monk sat again on the ground in another shadowed area and Rachel joined him. They stared at each other for a brief period before he spoke.
“You’re not from India?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Neither am I. Three years ago I was helping my family with their restaurant and I told my parents I wanted to visit my grandparents in Aurangabad. So I traveled to India and I lived with my grandparents for a time but only to prepare. Then I began this life, became what you see. I had the yearning and the call and what I now describe as the need for union with the other.”
A long pause occurred between them.
“Who is the red monk?” Rachel asked.
The orange monk grimaced.
“Who? There is no ‘who.’ He’s like the creatures who guard the temples. All ye without pure intentions and heart, stay away! He scares people who see him.”
“What’s he guarding?”
“What’s real,” the red monk answered, suddenly appearing again from around the corner of the temple.
“You believe?” Rachel asked the red monk.
“No, I don’t believe what most of them believe,” the red monk said, “but I know what’s real. I scoff, I ridicule, I disagree, and I denounce because there’s nothing here for them. It’s all in their heads. I want them gone.”
“But you’re in a monk’s robe,” Rachel said.
“I am a monk. The others I must defrock so that they leave the space.”
“Don’t listen to him,” the orange robe said. “You have a legitimate yearning.”
“How would he know?!” the red monk said. “This area should be empty and at peace. Instead these predators prowl around it the way the tigers once did at Ajanta.”
“I’m saying you’re not alone,” the orange monk said to Rachel. “There’s a hunger in many of us, a lacking…”
“A lacking?” Rachel asked.
“Yes, a lack of life, of that life,” the orange monk said, pointing to the temple walls, “…of…”
“…of reality!” the red monk said.
“…truth,” the orange monk concluded, “and that—what those stories portray and give and teach—gives me life!”
“Oh Brahman!” the red monk mocked. “They’re just carvings by some poor artists who had nothing else to do but pray, recite, read scripture, carve, sleep; then again, pray, recite, read scripture, and carve, and occasionally eat. For years! They were devotees but few experienced the profound ways. I don’t demean them. They were great artists, devotees, but few of them had a grasp of what they carved. They were under the spell of the muse, and did its bidding.”
The orange monk stood up and placed his face within inches of the frieze.
“I know what the red monk thinks. He thinks for almost everyone they’re just carved stone. Yet he’s wrong. Why is he part of it if they’re just carved stone? Art is the greatest and most profound philosophy and no one can deny what I feel. Each day, hours every day, I meditate and chant and try to overcome the walls that block progress and remove the garbage in my soul. Only before them, here, do I sense progress.”
He stopped and turned around to face her.
“That’s my quest,” the orange monk said. “I have nothing else to offer you.”
“That quest has little value for you,” the red monk said to her. “Take nothing from him. He’s creating it himself.”
“But you have advanced....” Rachel said to the orange monk.
“Advanced?” the red monk interjected. “There’s no scale of achievement. You’re either on land or in the water. The challenge is get to land, then stay on land and not drown in the water.”
“But after so many hours and days of contemplation,” Rachel said, somewhat in awe of what the orange monk was struggling to achieve.
“Months! Years!” the red monk said. “Who cares? So what. Time has no meaning in this space.”
“All I have is one fact,” the orange monk said. “I have heard its call: I know that it is there, that there is a realm, an extraordinary plane, and it’s expressed in these sculptures, in this place. Here there is a portal, a space, and I shall find it and shut all of the doors preventing my way out. If it’s not true, why is the red monk here? Ask him that?”
“And those others?” Rachel pointed to monks and nuns in yellow and orange robes. “They are chanting, reading scripture, and meditating. Are they all like you?”
“I don’t know,” the orange monk said.
“Some of them are like him,” the red monk said, “but some of them are scam artists. But he’s right about one thing. There’s an extraordinary dimension. And I am here, and I am real. But he struggles too much.”
“You chant, you read scripture, you meditate,” Rachel said.
“Just tools,” the orange monk said; “but tools don’t indicate I know anything or have found anything special. I’m slowly erasing what I lack by opening the doors that lock me out. I’m creating another kind of emptiness, the emptiness inside the seed of the great oak tree that can one day produce within me an oak tree of transcendence.”
“Must you do this in India?” she asked.
“Of course not,” the red monk answered. “Do you think reality has a location?”
“Yes, I must,” the orange robe replied. “My old life was a life of wandering from my true state. Going back to where I grew up forces me to overcome too many obstacles and will fill me up with what has no depth and was a lie, the garbage of my existence. Why should I try to make that false life work? Here there is something to find, something to keep me searching, the emptiness in the seed of the oak tree.”
On hearing these words, words that expressed the raw truth of her own dilemma, Rachel suddenly broke down, crumbled to the ground and held her head in her hands, covering her face.
When she removed her hands, the orange monk had left. Instead Murray stood before her and the red monk was nearby.
“Oh Brahman, don’t listen to the orange monk’s words,” the red monk consoled; “they’re just fancy abstractions that have no existence. He can’t articulate any of this. The man is trying, I grant you, but he’s hiding what no one do or say. He must transcend the words and the thoughts and the actions. But he won’t and now he has a bunch of excuses!”
“What’s wrong?” Murray asked. “I saw you talking to that monk. What did he say?”
“Monk?” Rachel asked. “You mean monks. There were two.”
“No, I saw only a fellow with an orange robe.”
“Nothing,” Rachel replied and began to cry.
“What is it?” Murray asked, putting his arm around her.
Her eyes in tears and her face red from despair, Rachel looked at the concerned face of her husband.
“Nothing,” she said. “Really nothing. Don’t worry. I’m just tired. You didn’t see the red robed monk?”
Murray shook his head.
“Whose book is this?” Murray said, picking it up.
“Could I see it?” Rachel asked.
Rachel opened up the battered covers. No writing or print was inside. It was a large collection of white empty pages. The orange monk had not recorded a single experience or observation.
She ran after the orange robed monk to return the book to him. She searched for him throughout the complex, but she could not see him in any direction and returned to the temple.
The orange monk eventually returned and faced the temple carvings next to her. She handed him his book.
By then the afternoon shadows were beginning to spread across the walls, each of the figures on the friezes seeming to glare at her. One in particular had the face of the red robed monk. Rachel became mesmerized by the poses and motions of what she saw on the wall. The more she focused on the face of the red robed monk, the more she experienced an ineffable sense of release and enlightenment, but it was only a quick sensation, as if a door opened, she glimpsed something wonderful within, and then the door closed.
She pointed out the stony face to the orange monk, but he did not understand what she meant. He was already in meditation with his eyes closed.
Murray had sat down beside her, but his eyes were on his wife because her face was slowly losing colour until it finally had a greyish tone. It lasted for a minute and then her colour returned.
She looked at Murray and smiled.
“Are you okay?” Murray asked.
“I’m fine. Let’s go.”
“What happened?” Murray asked. “You looked like you were about to faint. Your face lost all colour.”
She hugged Murray tightly and stared briefly at the orange robed monk, who had opened his eyes and perusing the frieze and chanting.
“Not sure how to explain it,” she said.
“So you’re happy we came to India?” Murray asked her.
“Of course. A part of me shall never leave.”
Hidden behind several carved figures in a crowd, on the wall with the red monk, unnoticeable to anyone, she saw a nun with a face not unlike her own.
D. D. Renforth has published eight stories in the last year and is a graduate of Syracuse University, Duke University, and the University of Toronto (Ph.D). Renforth offered a year-long course that examined the transformative qualities of art.
The Ekphrastic Review
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