The Red Monk Claps Three Times
This one is Japanese. Not the earliest instance of The Red Monk in Buddhist folklore, but I feel like it’s a good introduction. I placed some questions that usually occur to me while reading this story at the bottom of the post, if anyone’s interested. -Dee
There was, at one time, an eccentric young monk that lived near a thriving village. In that village the presence of Mara was strong, for there were many luxuries - spices, liquors, fine clothing, and indeed many beautiful women, for this was a town of tradesmen and barter. Towns such as this attract eccentrics, and it was lucky that in this instance there were enough inspired and goodly beings of that persuasion to balance the scale. However the intentions, if such a word is appropriate, of the monk this tale is concerned with were, even then, doubtful.
He was indeed an eccentric. Wearing only the lower part of a Buddhist robe, in a bright red hue, his bare torso spoke of years under the whip. It was speculated by some that he had been made a slave in some far kingdom as a child, but most thought it more likely that he was simply a reformed ascetic. His face was very beautiful, and indeed it has been said that both men and women, monks and laity alike, would visit him only to stare at his features - even in this, a village full of physical beauty.
This “Red Monk,” as the villagers called him, lived at that time in a small hut just across the field and over a hill from the village, and would give advice and compose poetry in exchange for rice and fish. This was, naturally, quite usual for a travelling monk to do. Certain aspects of the monk’s practice were less usual.
An introduction to The Red Monk
Greetings, and well met!
This tumblr is to be the home for a collaborative project, known as “The Other Sutra”, involving the translation and examination of a wide variety of Asian folktales and koans. These mostly come from China, Japan, and Korea, and are spread out across centuries. What threads these tales together is the presence of a peculiar figure, usually assumed to be some sort of Buddhist monk (although Confucian and Taoist are also regularly indicated,) whose name can usually be translated as some variation on ”The Red Monk”.
There is some debate as to why this moniker is used, as red or orange Buddhist robes are quite common, often the norm, nearly everywhere outside of Japan (in which they are usually black,) and in fact one can speculate that the reason the stories about this character have never been connected by Western scholars before is the fact that “red monk” was assumed to be simply a reference to some generic mendicant. However, upon some closer examination this can be shown not to be true, as the character given this name is almost always described, when a description is given, as having beautiful features, a light frame, and a heavily scarred torso, and as wearing only the first (skirt-like) layer of the Buddhist robe. Furthermore, in some stories it is elaborated that this character is in fact biologically female, although (s)he is almost always referred to as a “he” regardless, a custom that this project will follow for the sake of uniformity.
This “enlightened” character, often absurd, often humorous, and almost exclusively malicious, is an esoteric but fascinating icon in Oriental mythology, and we sincerely hope you will enjoy reading about him as much as we have. Stay tuned over the next few weeks for the first of his stories to start appearing here!
Thank you for your interest!
- Team “The Other Sutra”