This is another entry from The Eight Immortals of Taoism. This time, the Bodhisattva of Mercy, Kwan Yin, gets a gentle ribbing for being a tease. From the same Immortal that was less than saintly in the last story.
I love my religion. My saints have indiscretions.
Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, decided to build a bridge for the people of Ch’uan Chou near the eastern capital, Lo-yang. The building was subsidised by donations she collected when wandering in the country in different disguises. SHe sometimes stood as a beautiful young woman in the brow of a boat, encouraging passersby on the banks of the river to throw coins. She vowed to marry the man whose coins landed on her body.
One day Lu Tung Pin happened to be in the same town as Kwan Yin. In the disguise of a wrinkled white haired old man he pushed his way into the bustling crowd watching Kwan Yin’s boat glide by.
A group of handsome wealthy men stood at the front of the crowd throwing handfuls of bronze and silver coins at Kwan Yin. Each took careful aim but always missed Kwan Yin. Some coins hit the helmsman, some landed in the bottom of teh boat and some fell in the river where little children were waiting to dive in and recover them.
Lu Tung Pin immediately recognised the goddess of mercy. ‘She is playing a dangerous game,’ he thought. ‘She will never marry a human but the young men will have to discover that for themselves.’
There was one impoverished young man in the crowd who was destined to discover the truth. Wei T’o, a straw shoe vender, had become totally enamoured of Kwan Yin after one glimpse of her flowing black hair and cherry blossom lips. Lu Tung Pin followed Wei T’o’s gaze and understood his desire. He whispered encouragingly over the young man’s shoulder, ‘Why don’t you try to win her hand in marriage?’ Wei T’o swung round to face Lu Tung Pin, his face covered with confusion and embarassment.
‘Please do not mock me. I have worked night and day to make extra money to give as a donation. Last time I gave a donation towards a bridge the government misused the funding. This time I know Kwan Yin will use the money wisely, but I would never be able to throw this silver coin into her hands.’
Lu Tung Pin listened carefully to Wei T’o’s words and knew him to be an honourable man. At the risk of incurring Kwan Yin’s anger, he decided to help him.
‘Pick up that large stone,’ he commanded, pointing at a stone lying near his feet. ‘Now throw it at your silver coin.’
Wei T’o threw the stone with all his strength and smashed the coin into tiny fragments. As he stooped down to pick up the powder-like fragments he heard the helmsman shout, ‘The sky is turning dark, three days are nearly over and the lady must return to her home before nightfall. This is your last chance to win her heart and her hand.’
‘Hurry up! Throw your coins now,’ cried Lu Tung Pin to Wei T’o.
Wei T’o stood on the edge of the bank, closed his eyes for a moment in prayer and then threw the coins at Kwan Yin. Miraculously they landed on her hair, shoulders, feet and in her hands. A huge cheer rose from the crowd who lifted Wei T’o into the air in congratulations. Kwan Yin stood in the prow of the boat, stunned and speechless. Gazing into the crowd she caught sight of Lu Tung Pin’s mischievous smile and was on the verge of disappearing into thin air until she remembered her promise. ‘The citizens have entrusted their money to me and I am duty bound to build the bridge.’ And so she ordered the helmsman to row the boat closer to the riverbank and held out her hand to Wei T’o. As the boat drew nearer Wei T’o reluctantly jumped aboard and Lu Tong Pin followed. Wei T’o shifted uneasily from foot to foot, eyes lowered to avoid Kwan Yin’s soul searching gaze. Lu Tung Pin brusquely interrupted the scene.
‘The great goddess wanted to marry a young man. Well here he is! You have me to thank as your matchmaker.’
Lu Tung Pin’s words made Kwan Yin angry and embarrassed. He had put her in a hopeless situation, but she was a goddess and must keep her word. While she quietly considered the best course of action the helmsman gave a cry of recognition.
‘Why it’s Wei T’o. Do you not remember him, my goddess? He worked his fingers to the bone to provide money for a bridge but the government misused the funding.’
Kwan Yin softened at the helmsman’s words, but nevertheless she had been tricked by Lu Tung Pin and had to find an escape route.
She called Wei T’o and the helmsman to her side and spoke reassuringly to them. ‘I respect both of you and entrust the bridge-building into your capable hands. Once Lo-yang bridge has been constructed I will marry as promised.’
Meanwhile Lu Tung Pin lost interest in the proceedings and slowly rose upwards from the boat in a mass of grey smoke. The others watched as he gradually disappeared into the heavens. Wei T’o now had the courage and determination to build the bridge single-handedly. He set up a makeshift home nearer the site Kwan Yin had chosen and with the helmsman worked from dawn to dusk each day of the year. even when the other workers returned home, Wei T’o and the helmsman worked by the light of a small oil lamp. After two years, a beautiful arched stone bridge had been constructed and everyone in the province was invited to the opening party.
Kwan Yin did not forget her promise. She was there to celebrate the opening and to thank the two men for the dedication they had shown. After a day of feasting, singing and dancing, the tired villagers drifted back home leaving Kwan Yin and Wei T’o alone on the bridge.
‘Take my hand,’ said Kwan Yin gently. ‘Do not be afraid. You have proved your worth and I am ready to take you as my husband.’ Before Wei T’o could utter a word he felt his feet rise from the ground. This happened slowly at first but then he rose faster and faster away from the earth. Kwan Yin kept tightly hold of his hand and when he did pluck up the courage to look down, the villages, mountains and rivers looked like small toys. They flew on and on until they arrived at Kwan Yin’s home, Pu T’o Shan. She brought him down to earth gently in a green meadow.
‘Sit opposite me,’ said Kwan Yin softly.
Wei T’o sat crosslegged opposite the beautiful goddess. She continued to speak reassuringly. ‘You know that we cannot have a normal human marriage but do not worry. You and I will sit like this, facing each other for eternity. Mountains may crumble and cities disappear but you have won my heart for all time and I will never leave you.’
To this day, in temples throughout China, prayers are said before statues of Kwan Yin and Wei T’o facing each other and whenever two people meet and declare undying love, the Chinese say they are ‘face-to-face husband and wife.’