Monday, 19 March 2012

Go On Then, Win A Book!

All this time, writing this blog, I wanted to do a giveaway. But somehow I never got around to it. So here, with less than two months of joy blogging to go, I'm finally doing it. The book above, which I absolutely loved, and from which comes the poem by Li Po, found elsewhere in these pages, that I love to quote.

Rules for entering:

1. Think of something that gives you joy

2. Write an essay on it (an essay being a loose term - it could be everything from a sentence to, well, an essay.

3. Post your "essay" in the comments section.

4. Email me your mailing address separately. If you have my email. If you don't, well, you'll just need to leave your email address in the comments section, and I'll email you to find out. Then you can email me back. Sounds complicated but since I expect no more than two entries for this, at most, it should not be.

5. You have one week from this date to submit your entry. After which, I terminate the contest, because obviously, despite the signs I've received I'm meant to keep this book and not pass it on.

Simple enough?

And now, for an excerpt from the book in question:

At five, lighter shades began to overprint the sky. Then the stars peeled away, and Ula Shaan's black bulk and the trees on the spine of the ridge gained shape. He looked south toward his birthplace, the village where he had lived until he entered the monastery at sixteen.

Tsung Tai was born during the hour of Shen on the eighteenth day of the third month of Kuei Hai, March 18, 1925, in Lan Huu, north of the Yellow River. The youngest of four children, he was named Pao Sheng but called San San, 'the third son of the third son' - a mystical incarnation, his father liked to tell anyone who would listen.

He could remember waking in his mother's arms and hearing the 'wooden fish,' his teacher's prayer clapper. When Shiuh Deng chanted alone in his cave, the village people said they could hear him; he whispered in their ears. They called him Red Foot Truth, after his habit of going barefoot in even the cruelest of Mongol winters. They believed he could fly.

When Tsung Tsai was eight, a mendicant monk, a bhikku, wandered into Lan Huu and set up shop under a tent umbrella. He cured the sick with his bell and crooked stick; with medicines compounded of barks, twigs, roots, and flowers, of powdered horn, bone and gland; and with a holy potion he made by blowing sacred words, three times, into boiling water. When he left the village, Tsung Tai followed. After a few hours, the old bhikku tired of the boy's company and, with a shower of stones and a threatening stick, sent him running home in tears.

When Tsung Tsai was 10, his father died suddenly, and the boy ran off alone to Sand Mountain to mourn. He spent nine days walking among those wondering dunes in the wind that is called "blowing sand and running stones". He found he could talk to the wild horses. They told him that one day he would find a lohan, a great saint, and become his disciple. Then, on the ninth day, he saw a star fall from the western sky, and he was certain that it was his father gone to the Pure Land.

The trail that followed the fall of the river, bending west around the mountain and climbing five thousand feet to the pass. It was 20km from the monastery to the face of Crow Pull Mountain and another 25km climb to his master's cave on the mountain's sheltered western slope. Tsung Tsai made his way steadily up through a forest of willow, cypress and rhododendron. The trees were battered to thinness and twisted to the east by the constant yellow wind that blew out of two of the world's most terrifying deserts - the Gobi, where dinosaur bones, the dragons of heaven, litter the sand, and the Taklimakan, which roughly translates "you come in but you don't come out." At the top of the pass, a wide valley view opened , extending uninterrupted to the eastern horizon, mile after mile of grass steppe - the nomad's ocean.

The sun had crossed noon and cleared the peak; from a south-facing crevice, Tsung Tsai picked a wild mountain orchid, a lady's slipper for Buddha. Lifting his head in the thin dry air, he caught the tang of wood smoke from his teacher's cook fire.

Tsung Tsai climbed the last steep face of gravel and boulder and reached the ridge; he found his teacher boiling millet for two in a can and staring into the glow of the fire. For more than 30 years, Shiuh Deng had eaten only soupy millet or gruel. He seemed weightless. Hollow cheeks, legs and arms wasted to skin and bone by the hard years.

As always, his teacher was waiting for him. No cry of welcome or surprise, for like many Tibetan and Chinese shamans, Shiuh Deng practiced not only mystical heat but telepathy.

The cave where Shiuh Deng had lived for the 30 years was at the back of the narrow cliff, cut under a knot of boulders. Its floor was swept and beaten flat. In winter, Tsung Tsai would pile bundles of dry grass in its mouth and slip away with his teacher for days, sometimes weeks at at a time, sitting on flat stones warmed by a small fire. Before Shiuh Deng, it had been occupied by another; Shiuh Guan, the lama who could walk on water, had wandered into Mongolia from Tibet toward the end of the 19th century. His ashes and a shinbone shard rested against the rear wall on a blunt stone shelf.

They ate in silence, using twigs as chopsticks. It was a lovely afternoon; the sun was warm on their faces and they sat as Siddhartha had, beset by sorrows and by demons, the night he became the Self-Awakened One.

No ear, nose, tongue,
no body or mind;
no form,
sound, smell, taste or touch.
No mind;
nor eye
until we come to...
no real of consciousness

Out of the silence, his teacher asked,"When?"

"Tomorrow, after evening practice."

In the long pause that followed, a yellow bird sang. Finally his teacher said, "I am too old."

Nothing more was said. Nothing more need be said. Nothing was missing. Everything was as it should be. As it always was. As it always would be. Even this dying. This goodbye.

A piece of the moon cut through the only cloud as Tsung Tsai walked down the mountain path. It was after midnight when he arrived at Puu Jih's gate. He wished there were another way, but there wasn't. That the monks would attempt to escape was never in question. There was no meeting. No vote. No decision. No choice. It was their duty to survive. To keep Buddha's true mind alive. It was their duty to their teacher as it would have been Shiuh Deng's duty to his teacher before him.

Because we are monks. Because we need freedom. Because we want to become Buddha.

On that last night, as Tsung Tsai slept, it turned sharply colder. How hard I am shivering. How the night drags on. He woke an hour before his brothers to exercise alone in the courtyard where the yellow wind of winter swirled.

At five, in the temple during the reading of Tzao Keh, the early morning lesson, his breath froze.

At six, during Nien Fu, speaking Buddha's name, a fast-moving low blew in out of Siberia. The coal in the incense burner hissed; and for the last morning, the voices of the monks could be heard rising from Puu Jiih:

Namo Amita Fu, all praise to the Buddha.

At seven, after a breakfast of boiled cabbage, as snow fell in sunshine, Tsung Tsai remembered the sweet taste of his mother's milk; the flavour of her breath when she bent down to kiss his cheek; and the poem "Frost Plum" which his father would recite on the occasion of the first snow of winter.

I counted
on two or three
ice flowers

newly dressed
by the wind
it grows

clear twilight
shallow shadows

and I copy
one sentence
of Linn Pau's

At nine, the monks began three hours of meditation, alternating rounds, each eight inches of incense long, first walking, then sitting blankness.

No ignorance
and also no ending of ignorance,
until we come to no old age
and death
and no ending of old age
and death.

The noon meal was boiled cabbage again and tea.

"I ate emptiness also," Tsung Tsai would later say.

The first break in the daily routine came that afternoon. The monks took off their robes and donned the baggy-patched and faded blue thick-quilted pants and jackets worn by all Chinese peasant farmers. The clothes hung loosely on bony frames; Mao caps with ear flaps covered shaven heads.

Tsung Tsai folded his robes. Then he went to the library and spent the rest of the day reading.

Lao Tzu, the Old Master, for strength and direction:

What is softest in the world
drives what is hardest

Li Po, the legend of the T'ang dynasty, who drowned drunk while trying to embrace a reflection, his own, in a moon-filled pond:

full of wine
night comes
falling blossoms
fill my robes
still drunk
but getting up
I wade
after the moon
when the birds have gone
and people are few

Tu Fu, the other giant of the T'ang, for the pain of poetry and exile:

forced to wander
I return alive
but only by chance
and so day after day I grieve
that again
I may have to flee
and wonder how to risk
or even think
of going home.

That evening, in near darkness - an oil lamp was the only light in the room - the monks of Puu Jih Monastery gathered for a last meal. Two facing lines of six Buddha heads bent in contemplation: Tsung Jieh, 'Ancestor Vigilance'; Shyang, 'Joy'; Fah, 'Dharma'; Shyr, 'Reality'; Jyh, 'Aspiration'; Wei, 'Dignity'; Hrng, 'Greatness'; Jenq, 'Witness'; Hang, 'Work'; Shiou, 'Practice'; Jiann, 'Miracle'; and finally, Tsung Tsai, 'Ancestor Wisdom'.

Potatoes, cabbage and weak tea. Nothing more. There was nothing left but evening practice and their escape. There were a few ways out, all dangerous. The oldest, Tsung Jieh, would lead the rest of his brothers west and south by various routes, toward Nepal and India. Tsung Tsai, the youngest, would walk alone, due south into the heart of chaos, toward Hong Kong.

It would have been about 10 o'clock, after evening practice, when Tsung Tsai decided to carry with him A Thousand Pieces of Snow, two hundred verses on the winter plum. He knew the risk. If the book were discovered by the militia, it would be his death sentence. But it had belonged to his grandfather, and his father after him. It was his legacy, perhaps all that would survive of his family, his culture. Carefully., he tore along strips of cotton from his robes, and tied the book of poems around his waist, under his clothes.

Next he picked up the rice paper scroll that lay on his writing table. It was his monk's certificate, the only other thing he would carry with him. It had been given to Tsung Tsai five years earlier, in the 32nd year of the Republic, 1954, after 13 years of study when Shiuh Deng had decided that he was ready. Gorgeously scribed and sealed, it was first given to monks in the T'ang dynasty to ensure their safe passage through the Middle Kingdom and was last modified in the fourteenth century by the Ming Emperor Hung Wu:

To inform all monks in all temples throughout the kingdom that any walking boys who might want to travel to various places to learn the precepts and study the sutras, listen to and learn from religious instructors, or to practice dhyana must be allowed to do so, whether in a temple or in a grove or on a mountain.

For Tsung Tsai, the monk in hiding, it would be a private passport, a personal proof of continuity, a reminder that this insanity was but a blot on 5,000 years of history. He smoothed the certificate with the back of his hand, then folded it in half three times. He took off his padded jacket and, with monkish precision, made a small cut in the lining and slipped the certificate between layers of cotton batting. Then he mended the open seam with tiny stitches. Satisfied that his handiwork was invisible, he put on the jacket, went to the kitchen, and filled his pockets with potatoes.

The monks' evening chants filled the temple. Then it was over. One by one the monks of Puu Jih filed past Buddha, lit an incense stick, bowed, and left the temple. No one looked back. Puu Jih was finished. Incense fumed in the bronze lotus boat, rising to the smoke-stained beams like clouds.

As they crossed the courtyard toward the front gate, the monks found Shiuh Deng waiting for them beneath the winter plum. He stepped out from the shadows, his robes blowing around him, his face lit by the faint waver of candles from the temple.

The monks bowed to their master, amazed that he had descended the mountain at night. But the time for ceremony had passed. He grasped each of them by the shoulders and held them for a moment. To Tsung Tsai he said, "Everywhere are hungry ghosts. Go quickly. Keep a strong mind."

Tsung Tsai said nothing. There was nothing to say, no gesture for endings. Soon, he knew, his teacher would forget the world, forget himself, simply let go, and die. He feared his older brothers too would soon be dead, and he could not contemplate the emptiness of the world without them.

Let us, like snow, whirl away, he thought.

So he turned and walked into the future.

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