Cholon and Cochin-China 5

And this was the state to which the Jesuit Borri’s ‘near heaven’ had come. That night we dined in the officers’ mess at Tanan. On the previous night one of the hand-grenades, which I succeeded always in just missing, had come in through the window and wounded an officer. This time the Commandant had posted sentries so that we should all have a nice quiet evening. But no sooner had we taken our seats than there was a series of explosions. The defence towers on the outskirts of the town were being attacked by mortar-fire. A few minutes later the French 25-pounders joined in. One after another the officers were called to their posts. By the time the entree was served the Commandant and I faced a very junior officer across an otherwise deserted table. Soon the light failed and we decided to call it a night.
Of the next day, I remember that we visited the exemplary village of Than Phu, whose state of grace was due to the fact, the French thought, that except for fifteen nominal Catholics the village was a Buddhist one, without Cao-Daist converts. Than Phu possessed a historic pagoda, the only building, the French said, that had been spared when the Viet-Minh burned the place. It contained a bell in which about one hundred and fifty years ago Gia-Long, the last of the great Emperors, had hid when fleeing from the rebellious Taysons. To prove that this could be done the bonze crept into the bell. But he was a tiny, wizened old fellow and it was very evident that Gia-Long’s descendant, the present Emperor, would have little hope, if the need arose, in emulating his ancestor’s feat. The real interest in this pagoda lay in a great cautionary fresco depicting the respective fates in the hereafter of the blessed and the damned. The old bonze, who by the way was much respected by the Commandant, was very proud of this, and there was a smile of gentle satisfaction on his face when the time came to show it off.
The rewards of evil-doing were portrayed with great fidelity to detail across the whole of one wall. Minor crimes that had escaped detection in life were punished here according to their gravity with the four prescribed degrees of chastisement: the facial mark, removal of the nose, amputation of the foot and castration. The duplication in hell of a felon’s death began with the mere strangulation by devils of those who had erred, perhaps, rather than sinned, and included the varieties of slow death prepared for the perpetrators of such atrocious crimes as grossly unfilial conduct. Fiends worked on these offenders with knives marked with the bodily member to be sliced, drawn at random, according to the ancient penal practice, from the lottery sack. Tigers devoured others, and yet others, who had probably in their lifetimes questioned the heavenly mandate of the Divine Emperor, were being dismembered by the elephants specially trained to inflict capital punishment. Demon executioners stood apart, in corners, practising their aim on bamboo stalks, marked according to tradition with betel lines.
All the victims concerned were neatly dressed for the occasion, and did not appear to despair; a reflection perhaps of the Annamese custom of encouraging the condemned to meet their ends with as much dignity as the circumstances permitted, and insisting indeed on a show of composure which included the elegant performance of the five ritual prostrations in taking leave of the accompanying relations.
On the opposite wall the blessed were shown in their bliss. But as beatitude is less keenly felt than suffering, the rewards of virtue were insubstantial, even insipid. Heaven was one of those briefly sketched Chinese landscapes; a few misty, not altogether credible peaks, pine trees, a stream, a bridge. It was the heaven of the poet and the artist of one of the early Chinese dynasties, and the Annamese souls in glory wandered through it disconsolately and somewhat out of their element. The old bonze, too, was soon bored with this and lured us with gentle insistence back to the vigorous scenes of damnation, pointing out to us obscure refinements of torture that we had missed.
That a Buddhist pagoda could be decorated in this way, of course, was a measure of the distortion that the religion had suffered in the course of its slow propagation through India and China and finally into Cochin- China. Nirvana had become a picnic excursion to the hills, and the sorrows of the soul bound to the wheel of incarnation, a series of vulgar episodes in the torture-chamber. An illustration, indeed, of the barbarism that infects the great religious systems in their decline.
There was never, by the way, any cause for embarrassment in going boldly into any pagoda in Indo-China, prying curiously among its shrines, watching the rites, and even photographing them. The officiants, on the contrary, were delighted at any manifestation of interest. It is part of a genial Confucian tradition, which has spread to all the other cults. The Master having gone in to the Grand Temple, asked questions about everything. Someone remarked “who says that the Son of the citizen of Tsou (Confucius) has any knowledge of ceremonial observances. He comes to the temple and asks about everything he sees”. Hearing the remark, the Master said: “This in itself is a ceremonial observance.” ’ Later, when alone, I would make a trifling donation to the pagoda funds, which would be enthusiastically acknowledged by the beating of a great gong, and the burning for my benefit of a few inches of one of the great spiralling coils of incense, suspended from the roof. And sometimes the old priest would throw in a minor piece of divination, shaking into my hand one of a jarful of what looked like spills, but which were assorted prophetic utterances from the classics, written on slips of screwed-up paper. Coming to my help with the elegant but inexplicable ideographs he would clearly indicate by his gleeful, congratulatory smile that at last Fortune was about to open wide its arms to me.

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