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The Monk of Flower Temple

The Bucket Rider (骑桶人) takes us on a mysterious journey of love, loss, and perseverance in this fictional short story of monks and magic

04·02·2014

Living at the Flower Temple, the monk’s Dharma name was “The Monk of Flower Temple”.

 

While no one really knows the exact dimensions of the temple, its front gate is low and its red wall on the verge of collapse. Green bamboo stands thick and gloomy inside the wall, with only one half of an ancient, aging shrine on display—built into a cliff face. The interior is surprisingly voluminous as a deep grotto was carved into the cliff. A Buddha figure sits at the very end with a peaceful expression and hands in the Mudra position. Half the figure lights up via a seemingly holy illumination from above.

 

Despite its small size, pilgrims to the Flower Temple sometimes hear the laughter of young girls and the sound of delightful music being played deep in the temple. This gave rise to the legend that there is a secret part of the temple hidden in the cliff—the real Flower Temple. Others claim the noises are from women abducted by the temple’s great and powerful monk—hidden deep in the grottoes for the monk’s entertainment. But, with no missing women reported in the neighborhood, local authorities didn’t bother with such rumors. Rather, high-level officials are often found visiting the monk of the Flower Temple, in sedan chairs and informal clothes to drink tea and write poems.

 

The monk of the Flower Temple is about 30 years old—tall, thin, refined, seemingly a good monk. He’s alone in the temple other than for a single apprentice–a boy sweeps the floor, makes tea, and chimes the bell. The monk himself recites scripture, meditates and takes walks on the mountain path. Whole days pass like this.

 

One day, a man named Wang Zhi arrived from far away, claiming that his wife was kidnapped by the monk of the Flower Temple and was hidden inside the temple. The monk smiled silently, allowing Wang to search the temple high and low. No stone was left unturned in the small temple, taking less than half a day. But Wang refused to leave; instead, he sat down. While the monk of the Flower Temple meditated in front of the Buddha, Wang sat on the threshold mumbling accusations. For an entire day, the two did not exchange a single word. When Wang was hungry, he went into the kitchen and helped himself, returning to sit when he finished. Three days passed just like that, but on the fourth night, Wang heard women laughing deep in the stone wall. He thought he heard his wife’s voice. He traced the voices and marked the stone wall. Next dawn, he went down the mountain to get a hammer and chisel.

 

He began to chisel the stone wall behind the Buddha’s figure. “Clang, clang”—a new sound in addition to the chimes and scripture reading. The monk remained silent, letting Wang chisel away. Sometimes, the apprentice would stand behind Wang, staring aghast at Wang’s work—watching for awhile and leaving. The pilgrims treated Wang as a madman. Fortunately, he didn’t try to disturb the pilgrims’ practices, and the monk was acquiescent. When the officials first showed up in the Flower Temple to drink tea and write poems, they were annoyed by the noise, but, later, they got used to it. When the chiseling would cease, they would ask the monk: “Why did he stop?” The monk would reply: “He chiseled all night last night. He’s tired.”

 

Cynically, many believed that the monk allowed Wang to bang away because he would keep digging—for his entire life—until he created a new grotto. But, truly, Wang was unbending to the point of foolishness. He thought of nothing else but chiseling. The stone wall was solid. When he first began, he could hardly finish one third of a meter before his hands started bleeding. Soon enough, he discovered the trick and was able to dig almost a meter deep per day. Stone began to stack up behind him, and he moved them to the bamboo field outside the shrine. The lamp in front of the Buddha’s burnt without end, which allowed Wang to work around the clock. Whenever he became hungry, he got food from the kitchen; whenever he felt tired, he fell asleep. But, eventually, it was more and more difficult to make progress. He was too eager to dig deeper at first and only made a hole big enough to fit his body, too small to turn around and exit or transport the stones. He had to go back and extend the radius, taking quite some time.

 

Before long the chisel and hammer were worn out and broken. Wang turned to the stonemason down the mountain who made Wang work to earn the money for more tools. Once he had enough, Wang went back up the mountain with several sets of chisels and hammers to sustain him for months.

 

He also made baskets with the bamboo in the temple, filling them with stone and dragging them out the cave. The deeper he went, the darker it grew. He couldn’t afford a lamp and had to work in the dark. Overtime, he gradually was able to discern the shapes in the shadows. His work was, therefore, not terribly delayed. When he was exhausted, he just fell into a slumber in the cave without coming out. Small fragments and stone powder could be found all over his body, tinting his hair and beard grey. Spending all his time chiseling in the narrow cave rendered him into a hobbled figure. The 24 year-old now had the appearance of an elderly man.

 

A year of chiseling passed before he heard echoes inside the stone wall, as if it were hollow. The occasional chuckles of the women grew clearer. With this, his work became more energetic. Another year passed before he was sure the stone wall was, indeed, hollow, but the laughter inside became sparse, as if the women inside had heard the chiseling and were worried. At times, he felt that there were no women in the vast space of the stone wall at all. There was nothing inside, only silence sealed for ages. Whenever this thought filled his mind, he had panic attacks so serious that he would forget his cause. So, he decided to raise a lizard, keeping it in a small hole he chiseled in the stone. Whenever he was anxious, he put down his chisel and hammer and went out to catch small insects to feed the lizard.

 

In the third—or maybe fourth—year, he could tell time by the growth of bamboo and the height of the stone pile. Lichen covered the foot of the pile with old, ugly toads as tenants. One day, his chisel slipped from his hands and fell down the other side of the stone wall. He went numb. He knew that the day he would finally break through the wall was approaching, but when it finally arrived, he experienced no surprise—only a vague candor. A ray of sunlight fell from a small hole, illuminating his large, rough hands wrapped around a hammer. With that, his accomplishment struck him. Desperately, he lifted the hammer to smash through the wall. As the hole got bigger, his anticipation grew unbearable…

 

His eyes beheld a dazzling brightness and then slowly focused. It was beautiful—mountains, springs, and flowers covered by a blue sky and warm, calming sunshine. He couldn’t believe such a place could exist inside a stone cliff face.

 

A large group of frightened women gathered at the opening, staring at him. Suddenly, his mission came to the forefront of his mind. He hoarsely called out the name of his wife. Only then did he realize that he hadn’t uttered a single word since he first started to chisel at the stone wall. A woman—who he recognized as his wife—ran out of the crowd and held his head in her arms, bursting into tears.

 

The monk of the Flower Temple was sentenced to a lingering and painful death, with his body cut three thousand times. He drew his last breath at the three thousandth cut, at which point, no flesh on his body was left intact. As to his limbs, only bones were left. Crowds gathered from near and far, all believing that the monk well deserved his punishment. However, it baffled them as to why the monk would allow Wang to stay in the temple and dig for so long.

 

It would be a fitting end, but, upon returning, Wang sensed that his wife wasn’t happy when she returned home. He suspected that it was because he had grown old and ugly. Later, he discovered that he was also depressed. He longed to return to his cave in the cliff face in Flower Temple. He hesitated for a long time but eventually decided to take his wife back to the temple. It was a long way, at least two thousand kilometers. The other women found in the paradise inside the stone wall were abducted from afar.

 

The two made slow progress with Wang on foot and his wife riding a donkey. Several months passed before they finally made it to the Flower Temple, only to find it in ruins; bamboo had grown to take over the entire temple, and only the grotto was left empty. Covered with dust, the Buddha figure sat quietly. Holy light no longer shined above the Buddha’s head, just the simple stone ceiling.

 

The cave he chiseled was still there. The wife had already made her entrance. He bent over and followed her, bit by bit. He thought of the lizard and the fact that he had forgotten to let it out when he left. He groped along the cave wall and removed the piece of stone he used to block the small hole. When he extended his hand inside, he felt nothing. On hearing his wife crying in front, he decided to keep moving.

 

Where they expected to see mountains, springs, flowers, and sunshine, but, now, there was only darkness. He fumbled to light a torch, but the darkness was more far-reaching than the faint yellow light. The cave walls were illuminated and there was no way out, only a large stone room and no path leading to the beautiful, mysterious wonderland in the couple’s memory.

 

One other legend of the Flower Temple still exists. A woodsman encountered it. It was a grand temple, more spacious than the Flower Temple people were familiar with. But it was empty. The woodsman stayed until dusk when suddenly a gap opened up in the roof of the main hall, opening the room up to the light from the stars of the night sky. With that, monks flew down from the starry sky and landed in the temple. Among them was the infamous monk of the Flower Temple who died from three thousand cuts.

 

The Bucket Rider (骑桶人)

the bucket rider
While some Chinese fantasy writers are criticized for imitating their, supposedly, more mature Western counterparts, the Bucket Rider (骑桶人) or Li Qijing (李启庆) turned to ancient myths, legends, and traditional images for inspiration. Currently the chief editor of online fantasy magazine Jiuge (《九歌》), Li has published a short story collection, a full-length novel, a historical account of ancient Chinese fantasy literature, and a biography of famous Chinese Buddhist Monk, Master Hong Yi. His fantasy writings are said to have inherited the spirit of fantasy literature from the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. 

 

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