One afternoon in late winter, a woman floated down from the sky. She fluttered down slowly, just like a snowflake or a plum blossom petal.
She was called Maya.
Nobody witnessed the moment when she alighted in the center of a large intersection. Luckily, the pedestrian traffic signal was green. The vehicle traffic signals were red in both directions.
The moment Maya opened her eyes, the traffic signal changed. Cars roared past from either direction, honking their horns.
Maya crossed the intersection, aided by two boys who fortunately happened to be passing by. The two boys introduced themselves politely.
“Hi, I’m Seita.”
“And I’m Garan. It’s nice to meet you.”
Maya looked around with her big dark eyes, but she appeared to have no idea where she was.
“My name is Maya,” she said.
Chapter 1 The Realm of Humans
The two boys exchanged looks. They asked Maya:
“Are you all right?” said Seita, who speaks Banshu dialect (of present-day southwestern Hyogo Prefecture, including Himeji).
“Can you remember what you were doing in a place like that?” said Garan, who speaks standard dialect.
The boys were worried about Maya.
“I... was on my way to see my son,” she said.
“Really. Does he live around here?”
But Maya could remember nothing about where her son lived, or what he looked like.
“Wow, looks like you’ve got amnesia,” said Seita.
“Then, how about traveling to meet various people until you find him?” said Garan.
Accompanied by the two helpful boys, Maya went to a nearby hospital. The lobby was packed with people. Babies and old people, children and adults… All of them were waiting their turn.
“Right, there are many kinds of people…,” said Maya.
There were people looking miserable, with fevers or coughs. There were people with bandages or casts, and others walking around in pajamas with IV drips in their arms.
Far off a siren could be heard.
The siren approached, then stopped right outside. A patient was carried in on a stretcher.
Maya asked, “What is this place? Everyone looks like they’re suffering…”
“Yeah, that’s ’cause this is a hospital!” said Seita.
“This is what they call the ‘suffering of sickness,’ you know,” said Garan.
“Yes that’s right. That’s just one of the kinds.”
Outside cherry blossoms were coming into bloom, forming an archway of pale pink over the road.
Garan explained to Maya, “There are four main types of suffering, or pain, you know.”
“Four types?” she repeated.
“Yeah, four. And nobody can escape from these during their lifetimes.”
“Especially, there’s the pain of birth, aging, sickness, and death. Everybody goes through those.”
“Then, there’s the pain of being away from the ones you love, the pain of being with those you hate, the pain of not getting what you want, and the pain of mental and physical attachment.”
“Anyway, everybody’s got to suffer. Four types, eight types, any way you put it.”
It seemed the boys knew about a lot of things that Maya didn’t.
“I’m sure my boy isn’t suffering, though. I can feel it!”
Maya felt sure her son wasn’t to be found here in this place of pain.
“You mean he’s not in this realm at all, then?” asked Garan.
“Not in this realm…?”
Maya didn’t understand what he meant.
“He’s gone from one of the six realms, I guess…”
Seita mumbled under his breath.
Chapter 2 Realm of Animals
“So…” asked Maya, “What were you saying a minute ago? About the six realms?”
The two boys answered confidently:
“Besides the Realm of Humans, there’s the Realm of Hell, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the Realm of Animals, the Realm of Constant War, and the Realm of Heaven. Those are the six realms,” said Seita.
The Realm of Humans, the one we’re in now, is one of the better ones, you know. The Realm of Constant War, where the god Asura is, and the realms of animals, Hungry Ghosts, and of course Hell, they’re all worse than this!” said Garan.
“I see!” said Maya. “My boy isn’t suffering, that might mean he isn’t in the realm of humans at all, he’s in another realm!”
Maya felt like she had drawn just a bit closer to her son.
Garan said, “Right, so if we visit this realm and that realm, you might remember something!”
“Good idea,” said Seita. “Let’s check out the others. How ’bout starting with the Realm of Animals?”
The three of them were passing by a zoo just then, and they went in.
Inside the zoo, hydrangeas were blooming, and swallows were flitting around, feeding their babies in their nests. Inside fenced areas were elephants and penguins, lions and giraffes, and all sorts of animals from around the world.
“The Realm of Animals has all sorts of animals that walk on land, and it’s got birds, fish, insects, everything that moves,” said Garan.
Looking at all the animals, who seemed to be living life at their own leisurely pace, Maya felt like she was on the verge of remembering something.
Suddenly Maya noticed a ladybug that had alighted on her clothing. When she reached her hand toward it, the ladybug flapped its little wings and flew off.
The ladybug flew off toward a nearby twig, where a sparrow caught it in its beak. The sparrow carried it off to its nest where its fledglings were waiting open-mouthed for food.
Seita said, “You see, in the Realm of Animals, the rule is ‘eat or be eaten.’”
“It’s the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest,” said Garan.
Maya felt a sense of loss, as if she herself had been eaten by a bird.
“The animal world is full of suffering too… I guess my son isn’t here either!”
“Not in the Realm of Animals, then…”
“So where could he have got to?”
Chapter 3 Realm of Constant War
A shadow came over the sun, and a fighter jet flew overhead.
“Umm…” said Maya, “What other realms did you say there were? I’m sure my son is somewhere where there’s no suffering, but where could that be?”
Just as the two boys were about to answer, there was a rumble of thunder. Rain began to fall, so the three of them ran and took shelter under a tree. Rain was pelting down, and fog had rolled in, making it hard to see.
“Hey, look up there!”
Maya pointed at the sky. On top of the rainclouds, they could see the silhouettes of many people holding weapons, facing off against one another. A blinding flash of lightning crossed the sky, and the two groups began battling one another.
“Maya, up there is Asura and his army having a battle.”
“Yeah, he’s the God of War. And his army is fighting against Taishakuten, the god of thunder, and his army.”
The armies of Asura and Taishakuten clashed fiercely, fighters on each side falling to the swords of their enemies.
“They don’t call it the Realm of Constant War for nothing.”
“All they do is fight there… that’s nothing but suffering, that’s all it is!”
Just as tears began rolling down Maya’s cheeks, Asura, Taishakuten and their armies disappeared into thin air.
“Huh?! It was all a mirage…?!”
The sky turned blue, and a rainbow spread across it.
“Or have we traveled instantly through time and space…?”
“Maya, maybe the power of your feelings of wanting to find your son reached the gods and Buddha??”
Amazed, the two boys looked into Maya’s tear-filled eyes.
“….I want to find him, no matter what!”
Garan and Seita looked at one another, and both of them gulped in unison. They had made up their minds.
Chapter 4 Realm of Hungry Ghosts
“Gotcha. We understand what you’re feeling, Maya!”
“Yeah! Actually, to tell you the truth… we’re not just two ordinary kids!”
Out of nowhere an oak branch had appeared in Seita’s hand, and Garan was holding a lotus blossom. They smiled at Maya.
“Who… are you guys?” she asked.
“That’s not important. Maya, we’ll take you to any of the six realms you want to visit, so tell us where you want to go!” said Garan.
“The ones we haven’t been to yet are Hell, Heaven, and the Realm of Hungry Ghosts,” said Seita.
Maya closed her eyes. Garan and Seita began to chant an incantation.
As they changed a mysterious, marvelous light enveloped the three of them.
When Maya opened her eyes, they were in the middle of a blazing desert.
From behind them a monk’s voice could be heard. Maya quickly turned around and saw the monk. She noticed some dark shadows flitting at his feet.
“Monkey King, Pigsy, and Friar Sandy,” said the monk to the shadows. “Do you see an oasis around here? We’re absolutely parched.”
Seita and Garan understood who the monk was.
“Um.. father, might your name be…?”
“None other. I’m Xuanzang, seeker after the three canons of Buddhist scripture!”
“So that must make this… the Silk Road during the seventh century AD!”
The monk Xuanzang rolled his eyes, looking up at the cloudless blue sky overhead.
“But then why does it never, ever rain?”
“Hey,” said Maya, “Do you hear something like water coming from over there?”
They headed over in the direction Maya was pointing, and soon all of them were able to hear the sound of rushing water.
Before their eyes, there was a rapid stream of snowmelt. Xuanzang drank thirstily with evident satisfaction.
Nearby, some strange creatures could be seen, eyeing the water with looks of longing. They were skeletally thin, with sharply pointed mouths like beaks.
“Who… what are those…?” Maya asked.
“Those are Hungry Ghosts.”
“This is their realm, one of the six realms we told you about!”
When Maya looked into the distance, she saw a horde of Hungry Ghosts crowded along the riverbank. They scooped up water with their hands to drink, but when it got near their mouths it turned into foam and disappeared.
“The Hungry Ghosts are always starving and thirsty…”
“Looks like this world is full of suffering too.”
A breeze began to blow, and a cloud of sand drifted up. There was a tremendous crashing sound of water.
Garan and Seita looked up to see that Maya was in the river, almost drowning. However, she was being held up, so she didn’t sink beneath the surface, by countless rays of light. Amid all of the light the figure of the Buddha or Bodhisattva could be seen.
“We’ll save you!”
The two boys dove into the river. But the current was fierce, and all three of them were sucked down into the water and swept toward the bottom of the river.
Chapter 5 Realm of Hell
The three of them were swept down toward the bottom of the river, and it seemed they would never stop sinking, when all of a sudden they hit the ground with a thump. They were in the middle of a spacious pavilion, surrounded by a circle of ten magnificently attired kings. One of them had his shoulders raised menacingly, and had a scowl on his face as he addressed them.
“You three aren’t dead, are you? What do you think you’re doing here?!”
“I might ask the same thing! Who are YOU, old man?”
“Hey, hey, Seita! Watch it, that’s Enma, the god of Hell, can’t you tell?”
A staff that stood near Enma, the god of Hell and judge of the dead, belched out flame. The usually fearless boys trembled.
“M-m-my name’s… Maya.”
“Oho! What’s that now?”
The Great Enma shot a glance at one of the infernal officers standing nearby. Right afterward a giant mirror shimmered like a rainbow, and started showing scenes from the lives of the trio thus far.
“Umm, I… seem to have lost my memory,” said Maya. “I can’t remember who I am or where I came from.”
She went on to appeal to Enma for help in finding her son.
“Hmm,” he said, “This here is the courtroom of Hell. There’s a lot to do, so I can’t leave my post here, but…”
Enma instructed two of his henchmen, Ox-Head and Horse-Face, to show Maya and the boys the way, and then went back to judging new arrivals to the land of the dead.
The gates of Hell swung open, and the trio saw a vast landscape with pillars of flame here and there. Dead souls, still in human form, were being chopped up on cutting boards, ground up in mortars, or roasted on skewers.
“It’s like a gigantic kitchen.”
“What a stench! And it’s so hot!”
“Look! They’re making people stew!”
In an enormous cauldron wreathed in flames, hot broth was simmering and bubbling, and a multitude of the dead were being boiled in it. All of them were fighting and scrambling to get out. The tormenting demons around the pot, however, pushed them back down with spears and pitchforks.
Maya burst into tears.
“This is the worst place yet! Everyone is just trying to save themselves, they don’t help each other or love each other…”
And what’s more, the infernal cookery never ceased. As soon as the demons arrayed dismembered body parts on a giant plate, they would reassemble themselves back into bodies, only to be tormented once more.
“What is this horrible realm?” asked Maya.
“They don’t call it Hell for nothing,” said Seita.
“These people are being punished for their bad deeds while they were alive. For each one, the punishment fits the crime,” said Garan.
The wails and screams of the damned drilled into the ears of the trio.
As Maya and the boys were heading back out of Hell, a monk clad in splendid exotic robes called out to them.
Maya gave the monk a good long look, then shook her head.
“Ohh…” the monk said, “My name’s Maudgalyayana, and I’m a monk from the land of Magadha. My mother died, and my supernatural powers showed me that she was down here in Hell, but…”
The saintly personage scratched his head bashfully.
Just then, the ground shook with thunderous footsteps, and a deep, sardonic voice rang out.
“Looking for your mother, Your Holiness?”
An enormous demon stuck a large fork-like utensil into a bubbling cauldron, and brought up a boiled woman from the depths.
“Mother! Ahhh, Mother!!”
Maudgalyayana cried out in anguish at the sight.
“Poor man… I know,” said Maya. “I’ll negotiate with Enma for him.”
The three of them went out of the gates of Hell and back toward the infernal courtroom.
Chapter 6 The Sanzu Riverbank
They found themselves in a dry, shadowless expanse, where there was a dry bed of what had formerly been a great river, and was now only small puddles here and there.
“Hey, I hear the sound of children crying somewhere,” said Garan.
“You’re right,” said Maya. “Children are crying… it seems to be somewhere down this river!”
They walked along the riverbed, and gradually there was more and more water, a river with rocky banks on both sides. There, countless children were making piles of pebbles.
“Looks like these are the banks of the Sanzu River,” said Seita.
“The Sanz…?” Maya asked again.
“That is the Children’s Limbo in where dead children’s souls would visit,” Garan explained.
All around there were many windmills turning, even though not even a breeze was blowing.
There was an earth-shaking sound, and then the sound of children wailing and howling. Maya and the boys looked around, and saw hideous demons brandishing iron clubs, knocking down the towers of pebbles.
“I can’t believe it,” said Maya. “Even after dying, children have to suffer like this!”
Just then a pale-faced monk in a robe with long, billowing sleeves appeared. He held a staff in his hand, and used it to block the demons’ path effortlessly. The demons retreated.
“Maya,” he said to her, “I am Ksitigarbha, they call me the bodhisattva Jizo.”
The bodhisattva gathered the children to himself kindly.
“Jizo,” she said to him, “I am searching for my son. I am sure he is in a realm where there is no suffering.”
“This is a place where the souls of children are bound together with the Buddha… Not a place where your son would appear, not directly, at least.”
The bodhisattva Jizo smiled, and pointed at the river.
“Maya, go down this river a way. If you go now, and keep going, you’re sure to find him.”
Maya nodded emphatically to indicate she understood.
“By the way, Garan and Seita, aren’t you worried about Maya’s son as well?”
With that, Jizo departed, taking the children with him and vanishing into the distance.
“Hey, Seita, that’s right,” said Garan. “We’re supposed to be on the job right now.”
“But, Garan, we said we weren’t going to talk about the Boss, right? And, Maya’s still…”
Maya looked a bit dazed by this sudden turn of the conversation.
“Don’t worry … about me,” she managed to say.
Just then, the clouds covering the sky parted in one place, and a rugged, fierce-looking face peered through. Upon seeing this, Seita and Garan prostrated themselves in apology.
“It was you two,” his voice thundered overhead, “that had the idea of helping people out in the Realm of Humans. And what kind of world have you ended up in now?! Everywhere you’ve been taking her is outside your jurisdiction! You hear me, Kongaradoji and Seitakadoji?!”
“You’re right! We’re sorry, Boss Fudo!”
“Hey! Didn’t I tell you to stop calling me ‘Boss’? It’s ‘Fudo Myo-o,’ got it?”
Fudo Myo-o raised his eyebrows, and from his back a jet of flame shot upward.
“Got it, Boss! Sorry about that!”
“I said, don’t call me ‘Boss’!”
Maya murmured a thank-you, and set off along the river on foot.
Chapter 7 Raigo (Descent of Amida)
Maya walked down alongside the river in the direction the bodhisattva Jizo had told her. As she walked along she had a feeling, or premonition, that she was going to be able to meet her long-lost child at last, and this gave her a quiet courage. How long had she been walking along by herself? Before she knew it the sun was going down.
From beyond a neatly trimmed row of trees, Maya heard someone’s voice. She decided to have a look and see who it was. There was a small wooden structure, and inside it an aged nun was chanting something like a sutra. In the tall autumn grass crickets were chirping a friendly chorus. After some time the nun’s voice trailed off into silence, and the scene was illuminated with the crimson light of sunset.
The beautiful tones of musical instruments could be heard somewhere, and a rainbow-colored cloud was approaching. Perched atop the cloud were several figures, and someone spoke gently to the aged nun.
“You have done many good things in this life.”
Someone else said, “Come along with us to the Land of Bliss.”
The people on top of the cloud were bodhisattvas who had spent long ages on the divine path. One of them noticed Maya, then.
“Oh, Kannon [Avalokitesvara], look over there.”
“Oh yes, that’s…”
Suddenly, the whole scene was enveloped by brilliant light. The golden glow grew brighter and brighter, and another figure appeared.
Flustered, Maya said, “I’m just trying to find my son…”
The scarlet leaves of maple trees scattered in the wind. The person who had emerged from the light was a holy one who had attained complete enlightenment.
“I am Amida, of the Pure Land. Your son has not come to our world. Now, walk a little further down this river…”
Chapter 8 Nirvana
Maya continued down the strange river. It was a brightly moonlit night. Snow flurries danced down from time to time. After some time, she ran across a group of animals who were letting out cries and bleats. She reached out and stroked one of them.
The animals held flowers or fruit in their mouths, and with sad expressions, were moving toward a grove of trees. Maya decided to follow them for a bit. From the depths of the sala trees she could hear human voices raised in wordless lamentation.
A man lay on a bed. The man spoke to the crowd of people and animals that surrounded him.
“My disciples. I tell you now: All things must pass. Work hard toward your own liberation.”
Maya had heard that voice before. It was someone she knew, she was sure of it…
A man among the gathered crowd lamented, “It’s all my fault, because of the rice and mushrooms I gave him…”
Someone nearby explained to Maya that the man was Cunda the silversmith. Cunda wept and wailed out a confession. The Buddha was dying because he had inadvertently poisoned him with tainted food.
“Medicine can’t help him now.”
“To think that the Buddha could die from a stomachache…”
The people speaking were kings and courtiers dressed in splendid finery.
The man on the bed was slowly closing his eyes. Maya was sure of it now––she remembered everything. She herself had died at a young age. Then she had been reborn into the world of Devas, a lower heaven where she could still see the earth, and from there she had watched over the growth of her son. He had grown up to become the Buddha, but even so he would not live forever. As Maya had been descending from the heavens to be present as his death approached, she had tumbled down from the clouds and lost her memory.
“Siddhartha! My baby, Siddhartha… Ahhh! Don’t leave me!!”
Overwhelmed by grief, Maya picked up a priest’s staff that lay nearby and cast it away. It hit the ground with a metallic clang that echoed around.
Just then the Buddha’s body glowed with golden light. He sat up, put his palms together, and turned to face Maya.
“Mother. Please don’t call me that. I am no longer a man named Siddhartha Gautama, I am the Buddha, the Enlightened One. And now I am about to attain complete liberation, not only in mind but in body as well.”
Maya shook her head.
“No, don’t die, Siddhartha…”
“Mother…. All human beings must suffer, whether nobly or lowly born, rich or poor, old or young. And there are realms even worse than the realm of humans… the realms of Hell, Hungry Ghosts, Animals, Constant War… these are worlds of constant pain and suffering.”
“I know. On my way here, I saw incredible amounts of suffering.”
“Even above the human world, in the realms of heavenly beings, there is still old age, death, and suffering. All life is transitory, and none can escape from suffering.”
Maya nodded her head.
“All things and all states must change and pass away. Do not grieve for them, but find your strength and peace within yourself.”
Blossoms from the sala trees drifted down and fell on the Buddha’s pillow.
The Buddha closed his eyes, and his breathing ceased. Then the earth shook, and thunder rumbled. The believers, disciples, and even the bodhisattvas raised their voices in grief.
A big full moon hung in the sky, and angels descended through the falling moonbeams.
“Maya. We heard from the two boys that you were here.”
“Now. Let’s go back to the heavens where you belong.”
With the angels, Maya climbed on top of a cloud, and together they rose up into the heavens.
“I’m glad I was able to see my son, the Buddha, once more.”
Maya leaned out from her cloud and waved down at the world below.
“Maya, watch out, that’s dangerous!” said one of the angels.
“We’re still a long way from the heavens, you know.”
Still Maya kept looking back down. Suddenly, as she craned her neck around, she lost her balance, and…
- Maya’s Journey
- story:Aiko Aida/dd>
- illust;Mitsue Yamashita