Even the fruit bats and serpents of the forest have gone to their dens, but the festival continues gaily in the courtyards and pleasure rooms of the palace below as you wearily mount the steps to your bed-chamber. A silent maidservant walks before you with a lamp, and behind you another holds your royal train lightly. Your husband is somewhere in the throng you have left, perhaps enjoying the dancing girls in the harem, or the Bhutanese acrobats in the throne-room. He will not come to you this night.
The wine and dancing have finally sapped your strength, and with quiet delight you spread your tired limbs upon the goose-down bed. A servant is pouring you cool water drawn from Kapilavastu’s sacred well, but already you are drifting away, your eyes half-focused on the leering monkeys and strutting jungle-cocks carved into the bed. Another servant, her eyes properly downcast, sweeps the huge palm leaf fan back and forth through the humid air. Somewhere far away the sound of drums and laughter drifts; the room is blurring and soon you are asleep, your tangled black tresses fanned out over the silk pillows.
But all too soon the room is growing brighter and brighter. Your eyes slit open, you turn slowly toward the window. The sun is not rising. All around you radiance illuminates the room, a shifting glow of indefinable color. Four figures stand at the corners of the bed. They are not your maidservants. It is hard to make out anything in this unearthly light, but you see arms, too many arms, muscled and limber and blue as emerald, grasping at your bed. Are those gems set into their foreheads, or eyes? A voice from between the stars speaks at the foot of the bed: “It is time.”
And suddenly you are soaring through the dark night sky far above the land. Your four escorts hold the bed firmly, and you do not even think to fear. The air is full of music the likes of which has never been heard in all of great India, teased lovingly from harps strung with moonlight. Kapilavastu is far behind, and soon the fields and villages give way to untamed jungle. And then beyond the jungle the mighty Himalayas stand impossibly tall, looming over you even at this intoxicating height. They stand protectively and proud as your bed comes to rest at their doorstep, and your heavenly guides disappear.
A small pool set with fiery gemstones sparkles nearby in the starlight, and silent young women beckon from its edge for you to come closer. Despite the heat your skin prickles as they slip your royal robes away and lead you down the jeweled steps into the water’s waiting embrace. Its water is cool and perfumed with jasmine, and seems to move on its own accord, gently washing away the sweat and exhaustion with slowly swirling ripples. You rise, and the maidens comb out your hair and wipe away the water from your body. They rub you with oil scented like cinnamon, and return you to your bed.
You are naked and open beneath the sky and mountains, and anticipation charges your limbs. Somewhere above the gods are looking down boldly at you, and you search the constellations for signs of their approval. There is a star shining brightly directly above the bed, brighter than any star you’ve seen before. It is coming toward you, dropping from the dark tapestry overhead to join you on earth. Ever larger it approaches, until its white brilliance floods the countryside. The light resolves into a mighty form, too large to be a man. Your breath catches in your throat. It is a majestic white elephant, his back broad, his curled trunk strong, his six gleaming tusks sharp and hard. His long-lashed eyes gaze upon you with intelligence. Huge like the mountains, he stands over the bed, and held in his trunk you behold a thousand-petaled lotus flower.
Now the flower is moving over your flesh, as the great trunk tenderly tickles you with its petals. He runs it across your breasts, your torso, over your navel, and down, down your legs and back again. The anticipation is swelling in you, building and building as the flower strokes you like a thousand soft fingers. The elephant fills your whole field of vision. You can feel the strength of his massive snake-like trunk moving upon you, and the air is full of the joyful cries of watching deities. The scent of the lotus is thick in your nostrils and suddenly you are carried away on a wave of bliss as the elephant melts directly into you and you see for a flickering moment the face of a man more wise and loving than any god. The ground gives a tremendous shake and in the city blind men cry out as vision crashes in on them, cripples dance as they are made whole. And in the bed-chamber the maidservants exchange a sly look of knowing over your sleeping form, a fierce blush hot upon their cheeks. For from this sleep will come an awakening like no other, to change the world forever.
Jeff Wilson is an assistant professor of religious
studies and East Asian studies in Ontario. His most recent books include: Mourning the Unborn Dead: A Buddhist Ritual Comes to America (Oxford University Press 2009) and Buddhism of the Heart: Reflections on Shin Buddhism and Inner Togetherness (Wisdom Publications 2009). His next book, with University of North Carolina Press, will examine Buddhism in the American South.