Kogi the Priest
Tell me a story...
This is the story of Kogi the priest. Actually, his given name was Eizo, and as a child he loved the sea. He grew up in a fishing port and the sea, the waves, the beaches, filled his childhood. As a child he was something of a dreamer. He could sit for hours and watch the waves roll in and back out again, while the seabirds circled overhead.
When he was grown, he learned of opportunities in the whaling fleets and, because it meant a chance for him to be at sea, he signed on. They taught him how to be a harpooner. They taught him how to kill. And for the next seven years, he worked the whaling fleets, killing the great whales—the blues, the fins, the rights, the sperms. But in the seventh year of that slaughter, his story—the story of Kogi the priest—suddenly began. It was as if Eizo's life started over. This is how it happened.
One day Eizo stood, as he always did when whales were ahead, behind the heavy swivel-mounted cannon. A cold, gusting, 25-knot wind blew against his face and chest as he squinted out into the grey, heaving sea. The sun was setting below the rim of clouds, but there was still time to make the kill. A small pod of sperm whales was not far ahead. The ship was gaining on them. Soon they would be close enough. He could make out the whales' ridged backs sliding through the sea. He could see the foam beating around them. Yet, for all their panicked speed, they seemed to move effortlessly, like great birds in flight.
Eizo released the safety catch on the cannon. The two-hundred pound explosive harpoon was already loaded and, gripping the cannon's polished handles, he slowly swung the massive device to sight on the whales ahead. Steady. Steeeaddy. Closer, closer...
NOW! A sudden, terrible, explosive blast, and both sea and sky were hidden behind a cloud of black smoke. The air stank of gunpowder. The inch-thick line flew out, uncoiling rapidly. It was a hit! Then, in a few seconds, from ahead, a second, muffled, boom!—the harpoon head exploding. The line twisted as the agonized whale writhed, rolling in the bloodied sea.
Though men were shouting all around him, Eizo hardly heard them. The cannon had been reloaded and once again he sighted along the cannon's heavy barrel. Again he grew ready. A dark shape rolled before him.
Again the cannon roared. Sea and sky were obscured by a screen of smoke. The heavy rope uncoiled. It was another hit! But, as the air cleared, he saw that it was smaller than he had thought—an adolescent calf. They'd be lucky to make the limit on it. But there was nothing he could do. The harpoon head exploded, boom! And the whale died.
He paused as the crew raced around him, reloading the cannon with a third harpoon. Once more he steadied his legs. Took aim. Then, what was this? The great bull sperm whale had turned in the water and was now swimming directly towards the prow of the ship. Foam rose up in great white crests, like breakers before it, as on it came.
Time slowed. The clouds parted as the sun shone down upon a blue and sparkling sea. Eizo's vision grew telescopic, preternaturally clear. He could see the pale, mottled patches around the whale's jaw and mouth as the bull's great square head lifted from the rippling, bubbling water and planed on the waves like the prow of a fast-moving ship. He saw how its wet, rubbery skin shaded from a glossy, jet-black to the softest iron-gray. He saw the delicate pink lining inside the whale's open mouth. He saw the ivory teeth glistening in the silvery-white foam, and how the bright blue-green of the sea flared like flames.
As the whale approached, its wet, inky skin flashed red in the dying sun, and each of the thousands of wrinkles and scars crisscrossing its length seemed to run with blood. Water droplets sparkled along its immense body like diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls—and the whale, rearing through the waves, seemed to Eizo like one of the great Naga kings, who dwell, he remembered, in jeweled palaces beneath the rivers, lakes, and seas, according to Buddhist legends of old.
The sound of water pouring into deep rocky pools filled Eizo's ears. Then a voice, thunderous as the surf, spoke to him, saying "Eizo, do not kill. Never, never kill! Never kill again!" It was the voice of the bull sperm whale.
"Am I mad?" thought Eizo. "What is happening? I must be going insane!" He stood as if frozen, shaking and trembling, sweat streaming from every pore.
Boom! Without knowing or meaning to, Eizo had gripped the trigger. The cannon had fired. He took a step, slipped on the wet deck and fell with a crash against the iron floor. A crimson spear tore through his brain as he sank down into darkness and knew no more.
He was flying, soaring, rising weightlessly through an emerald sea. A thin, swirling, pearl-and-silver curtain danced above his head. He arched and rose towards it, poured through it into bright sunlight, air, and warmth. His pleasure burst into breath, a vast whooshing exhalation and slow drawing in, in, in of breath. He didn't have hands, he had two great flippers at his side. He didn't have a face or nose or hair. His great square featureless head projected smoothly forward, eyes set far back on either side, a fifteen-foot long, toothed jaw hanging directly below. His body was sixty feet long, weighed sixty tons, and ended in a great nuked tail. He was a sperm whale.
For several moments he was scared, confused. But gradually he realized that he had never felt so powerful, so alive and free. And his fear left him.
He hung weightlessly, breathing, listening to the waves lapping against the shoreline of his own huge body. The ocean was alive with squeakings, twitterings, raspings. From hundreds of miles away came the deep, resonant calls sent out by others of his kind.
The surface of the sea was like a carpet of jewels, light pouring down and disappearing into the darkening haze. Leisurely, Eizo turned his fins, arched his ridged back, and pushed down with his flukes. His immense bulk hurtled ripplingly down into the darkening sea. He pressed forth his power and the dive deepened. Slowly, steadily, the light green of the sea darkened. Emerald green became pine green, became dark evergreen. The darkest of all possible greens was tinged now with purple, became black, became inky-black, became absolute BLACK. Still he plunged, down and down and down, into the unending darkness and cold. The weight of one mile of ocean pressed upon him. His aching ribs bent. His lungs collapsed. He grew as long and sinuous as a grinning serpent. The air hummed in the cavities of his body like bees trapped in a bottle. He hunted breathless and without physical sight along the icy bottom of the world.
Though the darkness was absolute, with sound he could "see." He could see in his mind, in images formed by the echoes of his own voice bouncing back through the icy darkness. He glided over and through a vast undersea world of spiring mountains, of caverns and canyons, sound-visioning it all with luminous clarity.
He sensed a strange tangle of movement and was irresistibly drawn. His lower jaw swung open and, turning his massive body with a final gliding push, he ran head-first into the body of an immense squid.
Suddenly, ten long, cold, powerful arms writhed around him. Strong suckers gripped at his two-foot thick skin, and a sharp beak sliced and tore. Gripping the squid in his teeth, and pushing with all his strength, he swam up through a mile of sea as tentacles thick as trees strangled and frantically squeezed, the squid's great, staring, unlidded foot-wide eye pressed up against his own. Up he rose, his jaw clamped upon the furiously struggling squid, unerringly following the beacon of sound that led to his pod.
Gradually, light and warmth and color returned. When he broke the surface again in a burst of clotted breath and foam, the squid was dead. He had been a mile under the sea without air or warmth or light for over an hour. He tore at the squid, gulping it down in chunks, breathing through the single nostril on his head in long, sweet, easy breaths.
He swam on protectively behind his females and calves. In the vast, languid emptiness of the glittering afternoon sea, there was neither house nor tree nor flower nor bird nor object of any kind. He had nothing now, not even hands to grasp with and, yet, he had never before dreamed of such contentment. He felt richer than a king.
The falling sun touched the waves. The whales blew, breathing together, and flew, weightless as birds, over the ocean floor hidden far below. Their broad, wrinkled heads, ringed with fleecy foam, shone like ebony in the slanting sun. The water tingled electrically between them and rang like glass chimes.
Slam! Bang! Slam! Bang! Something beat loudly against the surface of the sea behind them.
The whales grew nervous, and quickened their pace. But Slam! Bang! Slam! Bang! on it came quicker yet, like iron footsteps striding behind them. Then Eizo the whale was filled with a sudden and terrible dread. It was as if he had dreamed this all, horribly, before. He rolled his eyes back—and there was a ship, his own ship, its black iron hull streaked with rust like dried blood, smashing through the waves, coming after them. And the cannon was loaded.
BLAM! the cannon roared. A cow was hit. Eizo heard her scream, so high no human could hear her. Then, Boom!, the harpoon head exploded and she died, her blood staining the sea.
And the chase went on. Again the cannon roared. And now, amidst the smoke and sudden, terrible noise, an adolescent calf was thrashing wildly in agony. A great protective determination arose in Eizo's whale-heart. He turned in the sea and swam directly on, on towards the oncoming ship. Waves broke and foamed against his mountainous brow. "Do not kill!" he proclaimed, "Never, never kill! Never kill again!" He could see men he knew standing high up near the point of the iron prow pointing down at him. "Don't kill!" he repeated in a thunderous voice, his great toothed jaw open wide.
Boom! A blinding flash and a sharp and terrible pain drove him down against the sea. He gathered his immense strength, rose, and swam on, once more straight at the oncoming ship. "Do not kill..." he began, and with a muffled roar, sea and sky ripped and, in one horrible burst, tore completely apart. Eizo's scream was lost in the thunder. And he knew no more.
He floated up to consciousness like a drowning man given up by a repentant sea. He lay in a narrow bunk. A single dim, wall-mounted ship's lamp burned above him. He was covered with sweat and every muscle and bone in his body ached. He was alive. He was a man once more. He flexed his fingers and stared at them in amazement. He touched his own hands, arms, head in astonished disbelief, and felt fingers, eyes, nose, hair.
He rose dizzily and looked in the mirror. A thin, haunted, sweat-shining human face peered back at him. His own face. And, yet, something else too. He was a man and had dreamed that he was a whale. Or was he a whale even now dreaming that he was a man?
He showered slowly and dressed. Weak, and trembling with the effort, he climbed the spiralling metal stairs to the deck. CIang, clang, clang, his steps echoed hollowly as he rose, lurching with the ship's movement. He pushed the iron door open.
He was on the deck of the factory ship. The deck ran red with blood. Mountainous slabs of gleaming, dark-purplish meat, reeking entrails, glistening blubber towered above him. A sperm whale's long lower jaw lay before him, the white teeth shining in the sun. The bodies of three sperm whales, a female, an adolescent calf, and a great bull lay before him. They were being rendered down into bone, meat and oil. One of those huge dismembered bodies, he knew, had just recently been his own.
Saws whined, hoses hissed, chains clanked: dark, oily smoke curled across the decks and great iron cauldrons bubbled madly. Wrapped in their black rubber aprons and high, open-top boots, men were shouting, hacking, chopping, while winched steel cables screamed and massive iron hooks swung just over their heads. It was a scene from hell.
"I won't kill. That's it," said Eizo. "Never again." And he returned to his cabin below deck.
Eizo lay in his narrow bunk. Once again he saw the clear, sparkling sea of his childhood. He recalled a summer night, long ago. "I have heard it said," his mother was saying, “that the Buddha gave his highest teachings into the care of the Nagas. Deep down, in their jewelled palaces beneath the seas, they guard this treasure of Perfect Wisdom. They keep it safely for us, until the day when we shall be wise and humble enough to receive our inheritance."
The memory passed. In his mind's eye he now saw, swimming in silent procession before him, the hundreds of whales that he himself had slain. They spouted red blood and swam in a crimson sea, white birds fluttering and calling all around them.
Eizo relived his own brief life as a whale. Dream or not, the memory was sharp and clear. The instinctive courage and wild, oceanic joy of his whale-life flooded him. He saw again the vast, elusive beauty of the sea. Alone in his narrow bunk, he wept bitterly.
Eizo kept to himself through the rest of the voyage, and he refused to return to his position at the gun. When the ship neared port, he reemerged from his room with his head shaved like a monk's. As the ship docked, he collected his pay and left. He sought out a Buddhist temple he knew of that stood near the shore. It was an old place, with few believers still supporting it. The abbot, a lean-faced, serious man, lived there, training three or four black-robed novices and several senior monks.
Eizo entered the temple with his sea bags slung over his shoulder and asked to speak with the abbot. The monks eyed him curiously with his shaved head and seaman's clothes, but he was announced to the abbot, and admitted. The tide was already coming in on the beach below when, several hours later, he emerged clothed in the black robes of a Buddhist monk. And his name was Kogi—a name he took from an old folktale about a Buddhist priest who dreamed he was a fish and who, upon awakening, found indications that his dream had, in fact, been true.
That was years ago. The sea rolls on as it has since the earliest times. The whales that survive still live mysterious lives. And the whalers still kill.
Kogi is the abbot of that little temple now. Some of the whalers have been going there to talk with Kogi. Some, like him, have left the fleets and started their lives over. It has not been easy for them or for their families, but they persist, slowly finding their way into lives that do not require killing.
Behind the temple, on a hillside overlooking the sea, is a small burial plot covered with stone markers, memorials, and tablets. Some have on them the names of deceased whalers. Most are inscribed with the numbers and species of the whales these men have themselves slain.
Kogi has said of his own experience: "Not to kill, but to cherish all life, is the essence of the Buddha's teaching. Some come to understand this through formal meditation. Some find it as petals blossom, or as petals fall. Some see it in the stone lying in the dust by the roadside. Mothers have told me they hear it in the cries of their newborn. These words came to me from the mouth of a bull sperm whale. It does not matter where or how one hears. But having heard, one should follow the import of these words to the best of one's abilities. There are no more important words on this or on any world."
On the altar in that temple by the sea is a figure of the Buddha, flanked by the Bodhisattvas Manjusri and Samantabhadra. These figures were carved by Kogi from cedar logs which washed up on the beach below the temple. Though the carvings are rough and simple, they radiate honesty and power. Kogi's Buddha sits, as is customary, on a carved lotus-throne. But his Manjusri and Samantabhadra are unique. Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, with his delusion-cutting sword usually sits on the back of a lion. Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Action, should sit on an elephant's back. But Kogi's Samantabhadra sits on the back of a diving blue whale, and his Manjusri is on the back of a great, open-jawed sperm whale.
The ex-whalers appreciate that. And so, perhaps, do the whales.
“Kogi the Priest.” Martin, Rafe. The Hungry Tigress: Buddhist Legends and Jataka Tales. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, ©1990.
Used with the permission of Parallax Press. www.parallax.org
"Reprinted from The Hungry Tigress (1990) by Rafe Martin with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California."