A promising young Buddhist monk, Hsing-che, is serving under Master Liu-kuan. Master Liu-kuan specializes in the Diamond Sutra, which says that there’s no difference between dreams and reality.
One day, Master Liu-kuan asks Hsing-che to pay his respects to the Dragon King. Hsing-che goes to the Dragon King’s palace and gets drunk despite the fact that monks aren’t supposed to drink. On his way back he jumps into a lake to try to sober up, but bumps into eight fairies who are relaxing by the lake after paying their respects to Master Liu-kuan. He flirts with them before returning, very late, to the temple.
Upon returning, Hsing-che tries to meditate but keeps on thinking about the fairies. His attempt to meditate is interrupted when he gets called before his master, who is furious and somehow knows everything that’s happened. His master sends him to the underworld to be judged, where he is sentenced to be reborn as punishment. Meanwhile, the same thing has happened to the eight fairies, who somehow got caught flirting with Hsing-che.
The rest of the novel is about the nine of them finding each other in their next lives after being reborn. Since their rebirths were a punishment, this part of the novel naturally involves a lot of pain and suf—actually, no.
Hsing-che, reborn as Shao-yu, ends up getting everything anyone could conceivably desire. He comes first place in the state exams, is second only to the emperor in political power, and is rich and handsome. Oh, and he repeatedly has sex with the fairies and other beautiful women, sometimes more than one at a time, and all eight fairies end up becoming his wives or concubines. You’d think that this might at least lead to some conflict among the wives and concubines, but it doesn’t. Everyone is completely happy with this arrangement, Shao-yu most of all.
Shao-yu eventually retires, and a few years later decides to become a monk. Then he wakes up as Hsing-che, back in the old Buddhist temple, and is soon joined by the eight fairies, who have becomes nuns.
So, like, what is going on with this novel? Professional reviews generally speak of it as if it’s a Buddhist morality tale. And the novel does repeatedly highlight the main idea of the Diamond Sutra, that there is no difference between dreams and reality. Apart from the dreamlike start and end to Hsing-che’s reincarnation, the novel describes humans being confused with fairies and ghosts, boys pretending to be girls, girls pretending to be boys, time advancing suddenly like in a dream, and so on. So there’s at least one Buddhist idea that the novel seems to unambiguously endorse.
But I think this obscures how startlingly anti-Buddhist everything else about novel is. I’ll focus on three main anti-Buddhist themes in it.
Theme 1: Uselessness of meditation
The novel says that “the great purpose of Buddhism [is] to tame the mind and the heart”. But in the case of Hsing-che, it’s completely failed to achieve this purpose. After being reborn as Shao-yu, he lives a life almost comically dominated by sex, drunkenness, and the pursuit of power.
And it’s not like Hsing-che is just some random Buddhist. He spent a decade in a monastery studying under a great master whose name literally means “Master of the Six Temptations”. We’re told that Hsing-che is his best student out of hundreds, and everyone expects him to be made his master’s successor. If at the end of all this meditation and study Hsing-che is still fantasizing about a lifetime of sex with fairies, it doesn’t look like meditation and study are very helpful in “tam[ing] the mind and the heart”.
In the end, Shao-yu’s desires do fade and he awakes again as Hsing-che. But that’s not because of Buddhist meditation or study, which there is no mention of him doing as Shao-yu. It’s because he spent an entire lifetime having sex with whoever he wanted. The moral of the story seems to be the anti-Buddhist moral of The Picture of Dorian Grey: “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
Theme 2: Irrelevance of karma
Shao-yu often attributes his happiness to karma. But he is wrong, since he has bad karma and was sentenced to be reborn in the first place only as a punishment for violating his religious vows. The repeated mentions of karma just serve to highlight that in the novel’s universe, karma doesn’t impact the quality of your later lives, and those who confidently attribute outcomes to it have no idea what they’re talking about.
Theme 3: Nihilist consequences of Buddhist metaphysics
There are two separate occasions on which Shao-yu has sex with creatures who are not fully human, or who he believes are not fully human. One he believes (incorrectly, it turns out) to be a “hungry ghost”, and so by having sex with her he believes he is having sex with an animated corpse. The other is a half-fish who has the power to transform into a full human, but Shao-yu doesn’t want to wait for that and has sex with her while she is still a half-fish.
In both cases the creatures appear to be a little grossed out on Shao-yu’s behalf. For example, before having sex with him for a second time, the supposed hungry ghost asks him, “How could I dare to embrace you again with this rotting corpse?”
This is where Buddhist teachings come to the rescue. Shao-yu responds by quoting the Buddha:
The Buddha said a man’s body is a transitory illusion, like foam on the water or flower petals in a gust of wind…Who can say, then, what really exists and what does not?
To reiterate, this is to justify having sex with what he believes to be a rotting corpse.
This is particularity striking because Buddhist texts sometimes compare humans to corpses in order to quell people’s desire for sex. For example, the Bodhicaryāvatāra encourages you to think of someone you sexually desire as merely a “cage of bones bound by sinew” and a “moving corpse” (chapter VIII, verses 52 and 70). Shao-yu turns this on its head, saying in effect: I agree that these two things are alike, but I choose to revise my opinion of corpses instead of my opinion of humans.
The more general point this is getting at is that Buddhist metaphysics doesn’t necessarily have the practical consequences that Buddhists take it to have. If life is just a “transitory illusion”, then why does it matter whether Shao-yu is having sex with a human or with a corpse? Why does anything really matter? Why shouldn’t you just have a good time? Isn’t that what you would try to do in an actual dream, and wouldn’t that be OK? So how seriously do Buddhists really take the idea that life is just a “transitory illusion”?
I’ve focused on the novel’s philosophy, but I haven’t mentioned how skillfully written the whole thing is, or how beautiful some passages are. So I’ll end by quoting one of my favorite passages of the novel, which is also quoted by Siris in his review:
Ling-po drew a small lute from her sleeve and began to play. The sound was clear and plaintive, like water flowing deep in a valley or wild geese crying far off in the sky. The guests shed tears without knowing why. Reedy grasses trembled and leaves fell from the trees.
The prince was mystified. “I did not believe earthly music could change the way of Heaven,” he said. “But you have changed spring into autumn and made the leaves fall. Could an ordinary human being possibly learn to play like this?”
“It is only the remnants of old melodies,” said Ling-po. “There is nothing marvelous about it that anyone could not also learn.”