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John Givens

The Buddha-nature of the Horse


Head throbbing, throat parched, mouth tasting like heíd been sucking on his feet, the rogue samurai Hasegawa Torakage came awake and felt for his small sword. It was there beside him, black iron hilt guard without ornamentation, and he lifted himself up on one elbow and peered out at this man-deceiving world of error and delusion through pain-stricken, red-rimmed eyes. You, Koda? he called, and received no reply. 

There was no display alcove in the shabby little room, no floor mats, no brazier, not even a tobacco box, and the wall plaster had fallen away in places to reveal the support-lattice of bamboo strips like a fabrication of flattened bones. A hokku by Old Master Bashō had been painted on one wall in an exuberant if shaky hand: Morning dew on the damp earth, and the muddy melons seem cool.* The borrowed inkstone and calligraphy brush he must have used to write it were left lying nearby. 

Koda? he called again and was again met with silence. 

Hasegawa lay back to settle the pounding in his head. The wine had seemed cloudy and unclean, and he recalled confiding as much to his cousin the night before but then forgetting this sensible evaluation as the evening progressed and the good-fellowship shared among travelers on the walking road led him from folly to folly. 

Koda would have said nothing. He himself drank only water and ate very little, as if his diminutive bodyís refusal to grow relieved him of any responsibility for coddling it. Koda practiced mountain-monk austerities in order to extend and perfect his dreadful skill as a sword fighter. He could go for days without eating or sleeping then charge into a squad of opponents and scatter them like pond frogs. Koda indulged his younger cousinís habits of conviviality, and Hasegawaís high spirits and easy generosity brought the world to their table; but even the most dimwitted of roisterers could not settle fully into an evening of mirth and mayhem until the dour Ė and dangerous Ė older man had left the wineshop.  

Hasegawa crawled to the entryway and slid open the paper door, wincing against the shock of sunlight. His stomach lifted again and rolled upward in a column of snake-bile that burned at the bottom of his throat until he forced it back down. Never would he drink cloudy wine again. His room opened onto a dirt garden that was dominated by an immense camphor tree, the mass of it richly green against the haze of the summer morning. Near the tree stood a privy, and the rogue samurai retched violently into the loathsome hole, emptying himself in great splattering waves of pain that burned up the length of him as they came. Maggots wriggled in the liquid foulness below him like bits of chewed noodle come back to life, and Hasegawa retched again and again until he was producing little more than a dry spittle. He straightened up too abruptly, lurched to one side, overcorrected, and crashed backwards through the privy door, knocking it off its runners as he emerged wobble-walking into the summer sunlight, fetching up finally at the trunk of the camphor tree where he clung like a baby ape clutching its mother then managed to cross back to the veranda corridor in front of his room. 

A young maid eventually brought him a pot of tea and a cup and an earthenware jar of water cold from the well.  

Whereís Koda? Hasegawa demanded, and the young woman lowered her eyes. Who is Koda? Her teeth had not been blackened properly, and the flashes of whiteness surprised him. Your honorís road companion?   

He was with me. 

You mean here? 

Where else would I mean? Hasegawa poured out his tea himself. Did we meet last night?

She glanced up at him shyly. Meet?

Do you not understand the language I speak?

Do you not remember last night?

Hasegawa looked at her. Some parts of it better than others. 

The maid lowered her eyes again, as if abashed at her own boldness. 

Hasegawa studied the immense camphor tree, the bright shining mass of yellow-green leaves glowing in the fullness of summer. Yesterday my cousin and I walked without stopping all the way from the seventeenth waystation. A distance that usually requires two full days.

The maid bowed to indicate her recognition of the wondrous nature of this achievement. Your honor has important affairs awaiting you in the Old Imperial City

I meant only to express the source of my confusion. We arrived well after dusk. And thoroughly exhausted. 

Yes, of course, the young maid agreed. Yet you seemed very lively last night. 

Giddiness caused by excessive exhaustion. 

The maid smiled. Clearly that must be the fact of it. But do you not remember singing the libretto of the Noh play? About the old woman damned to suffer as a wandering ghost because she had been unfeeling when young and beautiful?

Of course I remember that. A scattering of sparrows had begun dropping down into the courtyard in twos and threes, squabbling little brown feather-balls riotous with their enthusiasms. Now that you mention it. 

All in the wineshop were favorably impressed. 

Hasegawa said nothing.

And do you not then remember buying the carcass of the dead cart horse so that it might receive a decent funeral? 

A gray horse, as I recallÖ.   

You said it would thereby find release from the sadness of birth after birth. And that it would thus reach the Western Paradise. And share a golden lotus throne with the Amida Buddha. And now her eyes were twinkling with amusement. A horse, you see. 

Hasegawa again studied the camphor tree against the soft morning haze of the summer sky. A few sparrows moved among the exposed roots searching for insects while others settled into patches of loose dirt and began taking dust baths, wing-flurries creating little beige clouds. 

All in the wineshop praised your sensitivity. And your sense of pity for the Buddha-soul of the unfortunate horse. 

I paid for it, did I? 

The young woman smiled. Very generously. 

He sipped his tea. I guess thatís all right then. 

Hasegawa Torakage had found himself among the hacked ruins of men he hadnít known were enemies. He had watched their blood-flow draining away into summer grasses or pooling on the frozen earth of a winterís night, the dead and dying men like him, men whose companionship he might otherwise have shared; and he had trusted what was happening to them and not sought to follow back out along the chain of irrevocable consequences and determine the true source of their undoing. Hasegawa was a fighter who accepted the inevitability of the fact of convergence. Their deaths had wanted them as would one day his want him. So he sat within chirr of cicadas shrill enough to pierce any stone, and the young maid waited to see if he had further requirements of her then bowed and departed, leaving him to his ruminations and his tea. 


Koda was squatting just inside the gate-shadows of a roadside shrine, his too-long sword held upright between his knees, the oversized grip of it rising high above his small dark head in a finial of defiance. I guess I know what youíre going to say, Hasegawa said. So probably you donít have to say it. 

Koda Ichinosuke wore his topknot crazy-style, the fore-crown unshaven and the tea-whisk of hair sticking straight up in a cockscomb of comic bravado. His robe was a concatenation of mismatched fabrics sewn together in frantic unsuitability: a pomegranate red patch beside a cobalt blue one, a venomous green panel next to one with purplish-brown stripes on a beige field, a long pale-azure section printed all over with scarlet spider lilies fitted beside an orange field splashed with indigo sea shells and bordering a taupe strip gaudy with sprays of kerria blossoms that had been dyed to a bilious yellow. It was a harlequin provocation, and any man who encountered Koda knew that here was his own death approaching, that all he need do was remark upon the small manís bizarre appearance, or even just smile wrong at the sight of him, or smile at all. 

Koda provoked mayhem for fees, and he had humbled samurai who like him cherished the artistry of true-manner fighting, men who like him cherished the nobility of the formal duel: two men facing each other until one man lay dying on the ground. For Koda Ichinosuke, the manner of it was irrelevant. What he trusted was his ability to find within any given moment the optimal route to the next. 

Kodaís main sword was half again longer than it should have been. The scabbard for this prodigious blade was lacquered bright scarlet, and written in a bold calligraphy down its flank was the motto An Ugly Runt Deserves Chastisement, the thick black characters meant to be legible at a distance. Although a poor choice for a small man, in his hands the too-long sword carved great sibilant arcs out of the air, its passage like sheet lightning noticed an instant too late. Yet on certain occasions, Koda would offer to trade weapons or use another, lesser blade or even one of his opponentís own choosing so as to demonstrate that what occurred was caused by a karmic agent and not his tool. Koda was willing to fight with wooden cudgels if he met someone so inclined, or with iron hand-clubs or sharpened bamboo poles or pointed cedar stakes; he would batter with rocks if that was required, or cut with shards of clam shell or bits of chipped flint; he would kick and punch with the feet and the fists, strike with elbows and knees, and butt with the head; he would bite and gouge, strangle and smother, drown opponents in cisterns, lakes, streams and ponds, hang them from ropes, fling them off cliffs, or stuff them into fires. And although the Great Peace of the Tokugawa Shogunate had made the martial skills of the samurai unnecessary so that masterless money-fighters were obliged to feed themselves in ways few would have chosen, it was Kodaís willingness to die for the achievement of a killing that set him apart and sustained him. He was not known to have had many friends. 

I guess probably you could say how you were right about that wine, Hasegawa said. 

His cousin stood slowly, his small brown face bland as that of a basking viper. 

I guess it was a good lesson for me. That what you think? 

Koda returned Hasegawaís scrutiny for a moment then turned away and began walking back into the center of the waystation village, his too-long sword resting comfortably across one shoulder much the way a peasant might tote a mattock. 

Hasegawa Torakage had been orphaned as a child of six and gone to live with the Koda family in the far north. His cousin Ichinosuke was five years older, and when the boys trained with wooden practice swords, Ichinosuke always won. Even after Torakage had grown larger and stronger than his cousin, their mock battles always ended with him lying on the ground. He tried changing tactics. He tried hanging back and countering with short-stroke defensive parries. He tried deception, circling the wrong way and hitting out of odd angles. He tried quick-flicker cuts at his cousinís hands and forearms, at his knees and ankles, all of which seemed exposed but never were. He tried to distract his cousin with mockery and flattery and mindless jibber-jabber, and he tried to seal within himself a perfected clarity of irresistible depth and audacity before beginning his attack. The results were always the same. He tried a reasoned and well-grounded approach to the problem, and he tried overwhelming power, battering at the smaller boy in an hysterical frenzy. Each encounter ended with Hasegawa Torakage sprawled on the ground, stunned and bleeding, and his cousin standing over him, curious to see if he would try again. 

The drayman was waiting in front of the waystation corral. He had lived all his life with horses and over the years had grown to resemble them. No woman would share his habits so the drayman had never married. Whores demanded double-fees because of the pungency of his musk, and wineshops discouraged his patronage for the same reason. 

The drayman had spotted the two rogue samurai approaching, and he elected to display voluntarily the coins clutched in his fist rather than risk being asked to do so. 

This seems to be the amount of it, Hasegawa said. Minus a few expenditures I seem to have had last night in the wineshop.  

Koda looked at him. 

So I guess Iím just down two coppers. I guess thatís the local price for the funeral rites for a horse. 

Koda began walking back through the waystation village, again carrying his too-long sword casually over his shoulder. One copper for the Buddha-soul of the horse. Also, the drayman took care of your money for you last night. One copper for that. 

A boy had been left at the edge of the village meadow, tethered to a tree. He was a rat-faced child with untrimmed hair, wearing a stained and grimy short-robe that was held closed with a sash cord of dubious provenance. The boyís rope let him move as far as the edge of the stream but no farther. 

Koda kept going but Hasegawa stopped. He asked him why he was being restrained, and the boy said because he stole food. 

Why did he do that?   

When his father was absent, his stepmother denied him his share. And even when his father was home, she gave his stepsister the best bits while he got only the worst. 

Where was his father? 

The boy didnít know.

Why didnít his father defend him? 

The boy didnít know that either. 

Hasegawa handed him a rice ball and the boy bit into it. Do you want me to cut you out of your ropes? 

The boy said he didnít want that. 

Because it would anger your stepmother? Hasegawa squatted down beside the boy. At least youíve got tree shade. And water. 

Youíre samurai. 

Thatís right. 

You know about things. 

Some things. 

The feral boy said heíd been told that a stabbing tool could be fashioned out of a sharpened length of green bamboo. He said he understood that anyone could do it. He said there was said to be a place in a sleeping womanís neck where her death was easily reached. 

Hasegawa looked up at his cousin then turned his attention back to the meadow grass heating in the sunlight, swallows darting above it taking insects, a patch of scarlet spider lilies near the road embankment, all of it wrapped within the endless cacophony of cicadas shrieking their summer urges. And you donít know where it is. 

They said you just slide it in.

Who says that? 

I forget his name. 

And you think you could kill a person? 

The boy chewed, bits of cold rice on his lips, his gaze unwavering. I guess thatís what weíre talking about. 

How old are you? 

Old enough.

You think so. 

The boy pointed at his own neck. Just show me where it is. 

Hasegawa rose to his feet and stood pondering the feral boy gnawing at the rice ball in his hand. Did he have any other siblings? 

Just the one. The stepmotherís own daughter. 

And you want to hurt her too. 

Hurt them both. But start with the stepmother. Just ease it in.  

I guess I donít know about things like that. 

You mean you wonít say. The boy stared up at him sourly. I guess you just chop cabbages with those blades.   

Cut him loose, Koda said.

He said he didnít want that.

But Koda was on the boy with a slash knife in his fist, and the rope came apart, the severed ends lying on each side of him. You want to be tied up, you do it yourself. 

The two samurai continued out onto the dust of the Eastern Sea Road, the cicadas shrieking their summer urges. 

I guess probably you donít think a horse has a Buddha-nature, Hasegawa said.

Koda said nothing. 

I guess you could look at it two ways. One way, that everything has a Buddha-nature. A horse, a tree, a rock, a man. Everything. And the other way, that only a man has the Buddha-nature and everything else has something different. Of course, I guess whichever way you choose, youíd still have the question of how you would know. But then I guess youíd always have that question anyway. How you know, I mean. 

So I guess one thing you could do is you could debate it. I could for example assert that a horse has a Buddha-nature. You could take the opposing view. So then I would state the reasons why I held my belief, and you would question them and perhaps point out certain aspects of the matter which I hadnít considered. So your suggestions would then require me to rethink my original decision and perhaps adjust some portion of it. Which I would do. Then you would perhaps state your beliefs, and I would bring out my arguments in light of your understanding of things. And then you could reply as you saw fit. And so in this manner, we could spend the day in pleasant conversation. Except of course we canít. Since you never say much of anything one way or the other. So I guess thereís no reason for me to go on about it. 

Then donít, Koda said.

 *My translation of Bashōís Asatsuyu ni yogorete suzushi uri no tsuchi; Summer, 1694


John Givens was born in Northern California in 1943. He got his BA in English literature at the California State University Fresno and his MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writersí Workshop, University of Iowa, where he was a Teaching/Writing Fellow. He was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea for two years; he studied language and art in Kyoto for four years; and he worked as a writer & editor in Tokyo for eight years. For fifteen years, Givens worked as a creative director and branding consultant for advertising agencies in New York and San Francisco. He has published three novels in the US: Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police, and Living Alone; short stories have appeared in various journals. His non-fiction publications include A Guide to Dublin Bay: Mirror to the City and Irish Walled Towns, both published by The Liffey Press in Dublin. Givens lives in Howth, County Dublin, where he is currently finishing The Plantain Manner, a novel set in seventeenth-century Japan.

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