It was a tale that caught my imagination, or perhaps arose into my memory, some time in the late 1980s; on my computer is an aborted text where I tried to tell it, embedded in an imagined story of myself at the time (dying, of course – all of my selves in my stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s were dying); but that story couldn’t be finished, because I didn’t know enough of the context. But I’ll tell it to you as I imagined it, or perhaps as I remembered it, depending on your beliefs (or on mine).
A previous lifetime of mine – probably not the previous lifetime, there have perhaps been others in between, depending on just how fast the wheel of karma rolls around – was as a Japanese Buddhist monk; this was somewhere in the middle or late nineteenth century, in the context of the cultural disintegration and confusion that followed in the wake of the Meiji era.
Through intelligence and study, I had risen through the ranks of a monastery on a small island on the north side of Honshu, and been made abbot – head of the monastery, although my youth was unusual for the position. And, perhaps, I was not really ready for such responsibility; the story suggests that I was one of those figures familiar in Zen teaching, the scholar who can quote all the sacred texts, but who doesn’t really understand them.
Pirates came to the island, violent men, seeing in the island monastery and village a plum that, though small, would be easy to pluck. An ultimatum was delivered, a threat couched in a demand, and brought to me: but in Japan even criminals respect monks, and a careful or diplomatic answer might have saved everything.
But I was young and proud: I sent back an answer that was too careless, too direct. And so they landed, and took everything they saw, slaughtering everyone: monks, villagers, everyone they found on the island. And, as punishment for my arrogant answer, I was seated on a bench in front of the monastery, looking down a small hill towards the village, the small bay, the sea; my arms cut off at the shoulders, my legs above the knees, as only those very fine tempered-steel samurai swords can cut through such joints in a single swipe.
Bleeding to death, slowly and painfully, forced to look at the butchered bodies of all those I was sworn to protect, to reflect on how utterly I had failed them....
And that is why this lifetime of mine has gone the way it has. I am expected to learn what it is like to be unable to control what happens to me, to be an unwilling pawn in games I don’t control, to be at the mercy of decisions made above my head by people who are barely aware of my existence.
And maybe, after a long, long time, I will be given responsibility again; but, obviously, only after I understand how important, how very difficult, it is: to have responsibility over other people’s lives.