If Buddha Could Speak
By Kathrine Collis

pulp fiction/historical fiction

July: 1185

"Hirotaka!"

The voice reached me through a pall of quiet, Buddha enhanced meditation.  Slowly, as to grant respect to whose divine presence I was leaving, I rose and left my family’s shrine.  The man who had uttered my name with such urgency awaited me in the courtyard, mere steps from the temple.  I recognised him as Kentarou, personal messenger and scout of my master, Minamoto Yoshitsune.  Kentarou bounced on his feet with an energy and impatience he could scarcely conceal. 

Immersed in the sedate manner which all men experience after deep meditation, I approached Kentarou.  I bowed formally as befitted my stature's reputation for courtesy, and, with a nod, encouraged the scout to speak.

Bypassing all appropriate formalities, Kentarou began his message.

"Hirotaka, Shigeatsu has attacked again!"  Kentarou paused long enough to catch his breath, perhaps to give thought to the rude and foolish state his message was being delivered in.  His slight hesitation was time enough for me to comprehend the situation, and come to realise what regrettable task was required of me.

Shigeatsu had once been a great samurai, one such as myself, though of the house of Taira Munemori.  His service had appeared to come to an abrupt end however, on that day barely months ago when the Taira's domain had been overthrown in a naval battle by no less than my master Minamoto Yoshitsune himself.  Samurai are famed, though I imply such honour upon myself I speak truth, and all of Munemori’s samurai were known to my master’s house.  All were accounted for, either dead by our swords or by their own wakizashi.  All but Shigeatsu.

It was believed that Shigeatsu had fled the battle, fearing death to an extent that shames those of my ranking.  Yet it was not so.  Masayuki had been a notable samurai of my master's army, one who had aided many victorious assaults against the Taira.  Less than seven days had passed since Munemori's blood had run dry, than Masayuki was found dead.  His body lay slumped over in a meditative position, almost as if he had died in the climax of his calm.  Through no fault of his own, as Masayuki's swords had remained outside the temple as was respectful, his life blood had defiled the image and graven calligraphies of the Shining One himself.

To shorten a tale that bears much time in telling, the samurai that was sent to hunt down Masayuki's killer was slain.  One of his servant girls, a street waif nearing her prime, saw him die and identified the killer as Shigeatsu.  Samurai after samurai of the Minamoto was dispatched to bring down the rogue enemy.  Each samurai sent to find the assassin had apparently succeeded, or he had found them.  It would seem that Shigeatsu had renounced everything a samurai stood for, as each and every one of his victims were found dead in their shrines, when they were lost in the deep tranquillity of meditation.  A samurai rarely permits himself to bear weapons into a shrine, nor will he set guards to watch him exclusively in meditation.  As a former samurai, Shigeatsu would know of this military weakness.

"Our master, the great lord Minamoto Yoshitsune himself,” Kentarou paused long enough to grant a respectful title to my lord's name, "has commanded your attention to this matter.  You have been commanded, in the name of house Minamoto," Kentarou produced a parchment with a flourish, "to find and execute revenge on Shigeatsu, for all the disrespect and contempt he has shown towards our Lord and the samurai."

I took the parchment Kentarou offered.  It bore the emblem of the house of Minamoto.  Inwardly, I discerned many feelings which could only truly be described as anticipation, though fear, anger and trepidation may have been present. 

"I thankyou messenger.  Please tell my Lord that I will begin searching tomorrow."  Though I am shamed to admit to the sin of pride, I was truly proud of how my voice remained flat and level, betraying no hint of my feelings.  Kentarou nodded, bowed, took two swift steps backwards, turned and ran, expounding his great energy on the firm ground.  I watched him go with a deep sense of resignation.

My path of action was clear to me.  The same that had been taken by the last two or three samurai visited by Kentarou with identical summons to my own.  At night, meditate to Buddha, and trust his enlightenment and protection to aid my blows against Shigeatsu when he came.  But I had a different, better idea.  Slowly, I returned into the shrine I had just left.  Seating myself, I began my prayers.

I prayed as feverently as the samurai always have, until the sun cast Budda’s image into deep shadow.  But the Shining One did not deign to bless me with an answer that I was open to receiving. 

Defeated, I ended my meditation and left the shrine.  I had prayed that Buddha would allow me to keep only my wakizashi with me when I entered the shrine for meditation the following night, so I could use it to give Shigeatsu the honourable death a samurai deserved.

I was not fool enough to trust that Buddha would preserve my life in his temple when he had acquiesced such favours for none of Shigeatsu’s victims.  Yet also I wasn't about to break centuries of tradition and religion for one bloodthirsty ronin. 

I was standing outside the temple, facing the path that links my home with the servant’s main quarters.  And there, as I watched my son make his quick way up a cherry tree, the simple idea became clear to me.  Calling my son’s name, I walked towards him in his tree.

"Otoya, tomorrow night you will meditate to the Shining One in the family shrine."  I informed my son, a boy of but nine years.  Landing lightly after jumping from a low branch, he nodded.  His face carried questions, but he knew better than to ask any.  Anticipating his greatest confusion, I answered it.

"You must pray for a protection, protection over yourself only.  Do not mention me.  Pray as fervently as the monks do, my son.  For long life, and a mantle of protection..."  I was whispering the last words, for children love secrets, silence and quiet promotes the air of one.

Otoya nodded once more.  He is a good boy, very respectful yet friendly.  I believe that somewhere in my heart there is a special place for him.  That place now ached as I envisioned him cruelly slain at the hands of a masterless ronin...

For while my son’s prayers distracted both Shigeatsu and the Shining One, my swords would be free, elsewhere in the temple, awaiting the assasain to accept the decoy my son was to be. 

Accompanied by Otoya, I strode down the slope towards the servant's rooms of my house.  The boy forgot dignity and ran rings around me, revelling in his small speed, and the crisp twilight air.  Normally I would have called him back, made him walk at my side in a way that befits the son of a samurai.  But this evening, I let him run.  I was dreadfully aware it may be his last chance.

The servants that lived in town were leaving their rooms now, only to return to them the following morning.  All those leaving, I gave them work for the next day:  instruct the town that I was looking for Shigeatsu.  With luck, such words would reach the ears of the assassin himself, ensuring his presence in my temple the next night.  One of the servants leaving I recognised as the young waif who had witnessed Shigeatsu 's murder of Masayuki.  I had no memory of taking her on, but I let it pass.  Perhaps I would address the issue on a later date.

That night, and the next day passed as all days at home do; with daily meditation and idle amusement.  Yet the gnawing in my heart, the one that urged me to keep my son safe and use a servant instead, would not be quieted despite the amount of times I affirmed that tradition would not be broken.

As the eastern darkness crept over I called my son to me, and together we crossed the courtyard to the temple.  He did not run rings around me this evening.  Otoya walked sedately, as a dignified samurai's son should.  I stopped at the door of the temple, and bade him enter, with instructions on how to find the inner shrine.  I watched him until he was hidden from sight, and waited some time for Buddha’s gaze to be amply held away from me.  My katana held ready, I entered the temple, inwardly hoping that my son’s prayers were enough to distract both the expected assassain and the Shining One.

My bare feet made no sound.  Wherever I was in the temple, my son's meditations reached my ears.  His high, small voice hit my ears like the stinging of bees.  Bees that screamed for me to abort this risk. 

Time passed.  My feet grew weary of exploring the temple's many rooms.  My son's prayers still reached my ears, though they had hoarsened into a dull croak some time ago.  Gaining the first chamber, I saw the eastern horizon lightening.  I began to despair that Shigeatsu would never appear, that we would have to relive this night again, me and my son.

And Otoya’s meditations were silenced.

Fully alert, I ran towards the inner shrine with all the speed I possessed.  There was barely enough time to see the shrine, the blood, my son's body impaled while he meditated, the lithe dark figure that held a katana ready...

I attacked.  Before grief or anger knew to make themselves clear I attacked.  In the presence of Buddha himself I tried to kill another.  The dark figure was clad as the secretive ninja, thus it was impossible for me to define features.  He was also adept at swordplay, I quickly discovered.  Shigeatsu dodged or blocked my attacks, leaping in with ones of his own, and leaping away just as fast.  Yet, in the end I bested him.  One move to dodge a kick left me free to maim his face with my sword.  Shigeatsu hissed loudly, sprang to one side out of the shrine and vanished into the temple's shadows.  I gave chase, using what light the sun could give me to find him.  Though I searched the temple again and again, and the grounds beyond, I found no sign of my quarry, of my son's murderer, of Shigeatsu.  He had disappeared, likewise he did once his master died.

When dawn was apparent and the servants were returning to the house, I returned to the shrine in order to grant my son a proper burial, and to make amends to Buddha for the sacrilege implemented by myself and Shigeatsu.

The rest of that day, I spent in the temple, numbed with the loss of my son, devoid of almost any emotion save grief and remorse.  I cleansed the shrine of all defilement, as was fitting for a samurai's temple.  The simple task aided me, for it kept me busy enough to stay the tears and screams that may well have issued from my being. 

My son had a simple burial, one that reflects the austere service of a samurai.  My grieving was interrupted by an urgent call.

"Hirotaka!"

Kentarou’s voice was discernable.  Heavily, I walked up the slope towards the scout, and nodded at him to deliver his message.

"Shigeatsu 's swords have been found, in a small wooded area guarded by his temple, about three hundred paces from that place of Buddha.  His katana was lying on the ground, and his wakizashi was held in the hands of a skeleton, its blade where the skeleton's belly would be."

Mistaking my blank expression for one of incomprehension, the scout continued.

"Shigeatsu committed seppuku probably right after the battle, it's his skeleton that was found there, with his swords.  He can't have killed any of our master's samurai once the war ended, because he had already died.  So someone else..."  I silenced Kentarou 's explanation with a wave of my hand. 

"Thankyou scout.  You may tell my lord that I will revenge the deaths of his house as quickly as can be done."  I replied.  My voice relayed my grief despite all my efforts.  Kentarou nodded, took two hasty steps backwards, broke into a sprint and was out of sight in a heartbeat.  I needed to think.

Or more accurately, I needed not to think.  The shrine had been for generations the site of meditation for my family.  There we would go, from father to son, to clear our minds of all thought.  And there I went now.  The incense had scoured the stench of blood from the temple, the images shone bright as a result of my fastidious cleaning earlier.  I seated myself in the traditional meditational position, and prayed.  I am not ashamed to say also that I wept.  For my son, my heir.  And I had killed him as much as the stealthy assassain had.

"Hirotaka!"

My name may have been the only sound that could've drawn me from such a deep state of utter meditation.  Not Kentarou this time, but a girl's voice.  A girl's voice - inside the temple.  A girl could not be within the temple.  Women were forbidden by the law of Buddhism to enter the sacred temples.  I understood that this may be a vision I was having, a gift from Buddha himself.  I did not turn away from the image of the Almighty.  Softly, I heard almost undiscernible footsteps enter the shrine and walk around to face me.

"You should not leave your swords alone, Hirotaka."  The girl said softly.  I glanced from the Shining One to her, and recognised her as the servant who had seen Masayuki die.  The commoner, the street waif.  The sight of her sufficed to drain my grief away in an instant, but not to replace it with any emotion save bland surprise.

A fresh red bloodline marred her white face.  One identical to that I had given the assassain.

In her hand, she held my own katana.  Lost in the tranquillity of meditation and stolen grief, my instincts for flight or attack were gone.  I stared at her and past her, without seeing.  Without hardly caring.  I felt nothing, absolutely nothing as she drove my katana into my flesh unto the hilt.  Even pain was dulled, and went unnoticed.  All I could see was Otoya.  In heaven.  His hand reaching towards me. 

For the second time that day, the life blood of house Minamoto desecrated the shrine.

"For my brothers."  She whispered.  "For the Taira."

They were the last words I ever heard.  My last image was of Buddha, quietly smiling down upon me as if to say, "The bees are wiser than you, my friend...”

 

Author’s Note: Although it is unclear whether samurai were permitted their weapons inside the shrine, I have used this rule for the sake of the story.