Cabbage Soup, or When Will the Monk Return?
(from Burmese Monk's Tales,
collected and translated by Maung Htin Aung,
New York: Columbia U. Press, 1966)
This is one of many tales created at a flashpoint in Burmese history: when the British conquered the lower part of the country, circa 1876, and put the divided country in extreme fear that its national religion (Buddhism, since the 11th century) and its very way of life would be extinguished. Politicized and thrown into confusion, the Buddhist clergy splintered, even in its relationship with King Mindon, but the great monk Thingazar Sayadaw--beginning as a child in the traditional way--sought to heal rifts and keep Buddha's truths alive through a literary genre he invented: the Monk's Tale. Quite distinct from Buddha's Jatakas, they are similar to traditional Burmese folk tales but deal rather directly with the immediate stresses and strains of his contemporary society. They are full of wisdom, though playfully presented, and presage the inevitable absorption of Burma into the British empire. For all these reasons, I tell the circumstances under which this and a few other food tales were told, as well as the tales themselves.
Prologue: The good lady who offered aIms food to the Thingazar Sayadaw was excited and fussy, and she asked, "My lord, was the vegetable
soup to your lordship's liking? Was the pork curry a little too salty? And
the chicken curry, was there too much chili in it?" The Sayadaw did not
answer, but the lady was too dense, and went on asking questions, Finally,
the Sayadaw replied, "It is not proper for a monk to pass remarks on
the alms food that is offered to him, and if he does, he not only breaks
a vow, but brings trouble on his head, as in the case of the Monk and
the Cabbage Soup."
A Farmer and his Wife had been able to save some money, and
with their savings they built a monastery and installed a Monk in
it, The Farmer was good-natured, the Wife was fussy, and the
Monk was young. One morning the Wife brought some cabbage
soup, rice, and curry and when the Monk had eaten the meal, she
asked, "My lord, was the cabbage soup nice?" The Monk did not
answer, but the Wife persisted in her questioning. At last the Monk,
who wanted to please his patroness, replied, "Laywoman, the cabbage soup was very nice indeed, and, in fact, it is my favorite
dish." The Wife went home and said to her husband, "Husband, our
Monk's favorite dish is cabbage soup and so you must irrigate your
cabbage patch so that there is an adequate supply of the vegetable
throughout the whole year." The Farmer did as he was told, and the
Wife offered cabbage soup to the Monk every morning until the
latter became sick and tired of it. But he consoled himself with the
thought that the rainy season was nearly over, and when the rains
stopped the cabbage plants would die.
At last the long rainy season was actually over, but, to the consternation of the poor Monk, the cabbage soup continued to come
every morning. Unable to contain himself any longer, he asked the
Wife, "Laywoman, surely cabbage is now out of season, and yet
you seem to have a large supply of it." "There is no need for my lord
to worry," replied the Wife with great satisfaction. "My lord will
never lack cabbage soup, for our cabbage' patch is well irrigated
even in the driest months."
The Monk brooded over his misfortune
and early next day he left the monastery quietly and went to reside
at another village. The Farmer and his Wife were heartbroken over
the sudden departure of their Monk and wondered where he had
After some months the Farmer and his Wife learned from an
itinerant trader that their Monk was now residing in a village some
distance away. They were overjoyed at the news, and the Wife
sent with the trader the following message to the Monk:
''I watch the road,
On his next round, the trader brought from the Monk the following
message in reply:
I shed a tear.
When will he return,
Our Monk so dear,
Our Golden Monk?"
"Watch not the road,
Waste not your tear.
There is no return
Till your patch is clear
Of Golden Cabbage."