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Meditation: Beauty

Outside the Temple of Forgiveness in Junrei-Ichii waited the most unlikely collection of beggars I have ever seen. The temple’s Junrei door is at the end of an alley behind the temple and the beggars lined that alley on each side, leaving only enough room for the pilgrims to walk in single file past their outstretched hands. Those that had hands anyway.

Many of the beggars had lost a hand from being caught thieving. Two were clearly unable to learn, for they had had lost both hands and were forced to hold out cups bound to their stumps with strips of cloth.

Massey had prepared himself by going into the little town near the temple complex and stopping at the bank for some change. Thus I found myself increasingly embarrassed by the anger and frustration of the other pilgrims forced to loiter behind me as Massey slowly worked his way down the alley, pressing a single coin into each gnarled fist or dropping one into each grimy cup. The beggar closest to the door was a fright: he (or perhaps she) had been through a fire and survived. The hairless head was a mass of scars with only one working eye visible and knobs of flesh for the ears and nose. So, of course, Massey decided to stop and have a conversation with this ill-visaged specimen.

Massey bent close to the beggar and spoke in low tones and the beggar answered in a raspy whisper, punctuated by coughing. Thus I couldn’t apprehend what they said, although I could clearly hear the mutters and complaints from behind me.

“What’s going on?”

“C’mon old man, stop holding up the line.”

“Hey, don’t push! I can’t move either you know!”

Finally Massey grasped the hands of the beggar and shook both of them, before standing straight; his face a mask of pain. “I will respect your wish,” he said and then walked through the Junrei door like nothing had happened.

I caught up with Massey in the meditation room, sitting quietly on a bench with his pack between his legs.

“What was all that about?” I asked.

“She prefers to suffer. She says she will walk the Junrei no further than this place.”

“I don’t understand.”

“She started the Junrei hoping for a cure. Hoping to again be the way she was. But the doctors along the way took away her hope and she gave up. Instead she stays here seeking alms and waiting to die.”

There were tears in his eyes. I had never seen Massey weep nor show any strong emotion in the six weeks we had traveled together; he was always so sure of himself and now he seemed lost.

“Certainly the injections could repair her. Even regrow her lost eye, no? I have heard of such.”

“She wants more than to move without pain and see with both eyes. She tells me that she was once a singer and dancer and great men came to see her and seek her favors. That she had beauty beyond compare. Then she was caught in a theater fire during a performance and lost everything in a single night. Her voice. Her face. Her grace and poise. All that mattered to her.”

“In a theater fire? What is her name?”

“I did not ask it.”

I grimaced, remembering. “Then I can tell you, I think: Welon Lee. It was a great scandal about a year ago in the Imperial City. Several people died. The diva Welon Lee survived, but spent months in the hospital after that and then disappeared. And she was a beauty, truly so. Celebrated even at the tables of the mighty.” I could remember her pictures in the newspaper. The performance posters. The one time I saw her perform, albeit from a seat halfway to the back. Even from a distance the way she moved had a quality I could only describe as ‘beautiful’. “I cannot believe she ended up here though. Like that. What did the doctors tell her?”

“That the injections could never give her back the face and form she once had. They could smooth even the worst scarring, but the skin would never lose its roughness. Her features never return to the same perfection. But that is not enough, for she does not seek to be well, but rather beautiful. So she despairs even unto death.”

Suddenly he stood up and, without another word, walked to the line to get his card stamped and his temple injection. After a moment I followed him.

That night, after visiting nearly every temple in Junrei-Ichii and dinner in the refractory back in the Mother’s Temple, I tried to talk to Massey some more about Ms. Lee, but he refused. Instead he proceeded directly into the chapel to pray. I followed and prayed myself for a while, but, lost in my own unhappy thoughts, could not maintain the concentration required. Finally I gave up and walked back to the Temple of Forgiveness. There were still a great many beggars lined up along the way in, but Welon Lee was not among them. I dropped a few pennies in hands and asked, but none knew where she had gone. Few even remembered the one with the horrific burns.

I returned to find Massey still praying in the Mother’s chapel. I tried to tell him what I had discovered, but he motioned me to silence. So we sat together, each lost in his own thoughts.

. . .

Some days later, while walking along the pilgrim’s road, I asked Massey about Welon Lee again. I think that was the closest I have ever seen him come to anger. Instead, shaking his head, he started up the hill to the south of the path. I followed and was soon panting as the way became steeper. We were both out of breath and covered in sweat when we summited the hill, but Massey did not stop: instead walking around the top of the hill until he found a large rock that jutted out over the drop back to the Junrei path. There Massey shook out his blanket and sat down.

“We will meditate here,” he said, “the subject is ‘beauty’.”

I unrolled my own blanket and sat down next to him. I was beginning to catch onto Massey’s tricks, so I had no trouble seeing the beauty around me; the snow-capped mountains crowding together like old men conspiring to the south behind us; the rolling hills and the pilgrim’s road following them, dipping out of sight and then appearing again; the quilt-work fields down in the valley to the north; the patches of trees, their branches waving in the wind; the clouds rolling across in the sky with a promise of rain by nightfall. We were surrounded by beauty, I could see this. Beauty free for the eye to take.

Yet Welon Lee had gone from the highest reaches of society down to the company of beggars outside a temple door because beauty was the only coin she knew how to tender and, stripped of it, she thought herself worthless.

After an hour of this speculation I felt compelled to speak it to Massey. To demonstrate my command of what he was teaching me. He only grunted and motioned me again to silence. Finally he stood up and rolled up his blanket.

He then sighed and touched my shoulder with his staff. “It is said beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But that suggests beauty is only there while it is beheld. You say all these things around us are beautiful and this I cannot deny. The questions I want you to ask yourself are these: is the world of the Mother still beautiful when there are no eyes to behold it? Is a woman no longer beautiful because she believes she is not?”

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