A tale of spiritual trial and a longing for the tangible
As Wugen sat praying in the meditation quarters, he suddenly realized how empty his life was— there was no reason for him to spend more time on the cultivation of the mind.
When he was 8, he left home to become a monk. Others did this because they were forced by circumstances or wanted to escape, or they just wanted to run off to be lazy. But when Wugen left home, it was because he believed he should spend his life immersed in the careful study of Buddhism, entrust his life to the vast emptiness and find a realm where he required nothing—that is to say, nirvana.
He searched for the path to nirvana among Buddhist principles. He read all the Buddhist scriptures he could find, both true and false. He tried to find traces of the route within everything these scriptures said, and organize them into an organic whole, finding and rejecting falseness and, in the end, relying on these true principles to take him to his objective.
He, however, found all manner of contradictions in these scriptures. Maybe the route to the Buddhist kingdom would lead him instead to hell. Just as religious discipline can lead to the breaking of religious precepts, Buddhism could turn you into a demon; his long study of Chan principles found him thinking of the sweet, soft bodies of the opposite sex, whereupon he could lose himself in everyday tasks—carrying water, planting vegetables, eating, drinking, begging for alms. In the end, he gave up meditation and ceased researching Buddhist scriptures, believing that the real Buddhist principles lay in everyday life.
At 30, he began to research Go and at 35 he took up musical instruments. At 36 he started painting and penning poems, and at 37 he found an old monk to teach him martial arts. That old, taciturn monk assisted in the monastery kitchen. By the time Wugen had become a well-known, high-ranking monk, even high-ranking officials considered meeting him an honor.
At 40, Wugen returned to secular life—not formally, as his petition to do so was denied. Thus he gave up the temple and slipped away in the middle of the night, going to Jiankang city, where nobody knew him. He wore plain clothing, had short, messy hair, and spent much of his time in brothels. When he was out of money he’d steal from the wealthy or beg. He lived this way until 55. He didn’t think anyone would recognize him, the world forgetting the dharma name of the once auspicious monk, Wugen.
Quite by chance, Minister Zhu Yi and Wugen both became enamored with a certain prostitute, who told Zhu Yi that among her frequent customers there was an odd man who liked to have sex with her in a meditation position. Zhu Yi was quite curious and asked the prostitute to introduce them. He left a name card, which she passed on to Wugen the next time he visited. Wugen wrote a polite letter employing complex prose and ornate calligraphy, in which he refused the invitation.
Zhu Yi, however, instantly recognized Wugen’s handwriting, as he’d met him when he was a low-ranking official on a visit to Biyun Temple. Wugen had been a monk there, and had given him a poem as a memento.
Wugen’s secular life thus came to an end. Because he was never officially released, it was a cut-and-dry case: the sanctimonious Minister Zhu Yi sent people to forcibly transport him back to Biyun Temple at Moling. It is believed he did so out of jealousy.
At Biyun Temple, Wugen was forced to shave his head and once again put on monk’s robes, demoted to the lowest level monk and often mocked as a deserter.
But, in truth, were he to escape again, no one would have stopped him; despite being 55, he was still quite strong and an experienced martial artist. No one knew why Wugen didn’t run away or petition to leave, but he’d lost his passion for a secular life—or, rather, his lust for the opposite sex. He humbly performed the tasks of the lowest-ranking monk at Biyun Temple—emptying the latrines, watering vegetables, chopping wood, and of course attending morning and evening lessons. He seemed satisfied with his lot.
The year he turned 60—on a morning not unlike any other—he sat in meditation with other monks when he suddenly realized the emptiness of his life—in this world, as well as other worlds, there was no reason to spend any more time in the further cultivation of the mind.
He felt a deep despair, a void which could not be filled, even with death, a notion that intensified his depression.
The monks at the temple felt a tremor. All but Wugen stood. They looked at each other and seemed to all realize that it was an earthquake. They ran frightened out of the meditation room and gathered in the open space in front of the main hall. The earthquake grew in intensity and the lacquered tiles fell like rain from the roof of the main hall. The stupas shook back and forth as some of the walls collapsed. The monks were scared, terrified that the end of the world had come. They cried out in fear, some reciting Buddhist chants.
Then, the earthquake stopped. The head monk ordered that a party descend the mountain to check on the situation in Moling village. Other monks gathered food and water and some went to retrieve mats and blankets as they planned to sleep outdoors that night and observe the situation. Just as these monks were busying themselves, those few who had been sent down to Moling village returned. The head monk was quite surprised by their swift return—as well as the odd expressions on their faces.
“Master, we’re flying!” a monk yell as he ran in through the outer gate.
Another monk yelled, “Master, there was no earthquake! We can’t get off the mountain, though!”
Another monk, a bit calmer than the others, entered the gate last, saying to the head monk: “Master, the mountain is flying!”
The head monk walked out of the gate and from there, through the thick pine forest, he could see Moling village, shrouded in mist. He could feel the mountain slowly rising. The calmest monk walked over to him and said: “Master, we went to the foot of the mountain, but there’s no way to go down, because the mountain’s already dozens of meters off the ground.
The head monk had all the monks temporarily stop work and return to the area in front of the main hall; he took the monks who had already been back down the mountain with him.
Biyun Temple was situated on Mount Wu, five kilometers away from Moling village. By the time the head monk walked down the mountain path to the edge of the forest, Mount Wu had ceased ascending and was already about 50 meters off the ground.
Upon seeing the flying mountain, the residents of Moling flooded from the village, with only the infirm and some children left behind. Seeing a mountain suspended in the air they took this as an omen that the Buddha would return. They carried incense sticks and sacrificial items and placed them below Mount Wu, and the head official ordered local squires to kowtow in front of the incense.
Mount Wu neither rose nor lowered. It just floated in the air like a giant mirage.
The monks of Biyun Temple tried to get the mountain back to the ground. First, they put on their robes, arranged incense, flowers, and fruits, and knelt in front of the Buddhist statues, begging the Buddha to save them, to free them from their predicament, but their prostrations and prayers had no effect. The white clouds moved slowly in the clear sky, shadows glided from Moling village, past the wild fields outside, over Mount Wu and Biyun Temple, dozens of meters in the sky, and then back over the fields outside of Moling village.
The curious villagers gradually dispersed, and only a few remained—those with family at the temple, officials designated responsible, and people with nothing better to do. By the afternoon, the head monk had given up on prayers and decided to lower a few people down by rope. The monks found 60 meters of hemp rope and tied one end around a pine tree and the other around the waist of a volunteer.
The volunteer was lowered toward the surface, but never seemed to get any closer to the ground. Mount Wu seemed to rise. Worried that the mountain would rise too high for the rope, he yelled out to be lowered more quickly, but the rate of the mountain’s rise and his rate of descent were the same. When they were out of rope, the mountain stopped rising, but there were still dozens of meters between him and the ground. The monks had no choice but to pull him back up, but the mountain didn’t lower itself in response; it stayed at the same height. By this time, they were more than 100 meters off the ground. If one climbed to the top of the highest stupa at Biyun Temple, they could see the Yangtze River, like a silk cord floating upon the earth. None of the monks discovered this, and even if they had, they wouldn’t have been in the mood to appreciate it.
With the grain and vegetables stored in the temple, the monks didn’t have any pressing survival issues to worry about. After the sun set the monks returned to the temple to eat and conducted their evening class as normal, with nothing said throughout the night.
On the morning of the second day, a number of people from Moling village tried to make a new hill under the mountain, hoping to be able to reach Mount Wu and bring the monks down. They dug a hole by the large pit left by the mountain, and began piling up dirt, but they quickly discovered that their efforts were in vain, as the higher they piled the dirt, the higher the mountain rose. They gave up this venture and, in the following days, they tried scaling ladders and siege engines, but these approaches also led to the mountain rising.
They did, however, discover a way to communicate: arrows. They could shoot arrows from the surface to Mount Wu, and it was easy for those on the mountain to simply drop messages back. This also demonstrated that the monks were perfectly capable of returning to the surface, but that the fare for the journey would be paid with their lives.
The monks within the temple became increasingly depressed. Even though they had sufficient vegetables and grain, and could solve problems long term by bringing more land under cultivation, they tended toward despair as they were cut off from the world—a world they could see all-too easily. One day, they discovered that the well had run dry and despair turned to panic; thankfully, the head monk ordered the digging of deep pits at four locations around the mountain. They were lined with stones from the compound wall (for which they already had no use), and they were able to collect rainwater for the few dozen monks at the temple, enough to scrape by.
Things got worse and worse, however, as sadness and despair grew. Morning and night classes were no longer held normally, and even though the head monk and those with strong beliefs held on, there were a few monks that ceased their studies, some even catching birds in the forest to eat.
Finally, one day, a monk jumped from the mountain. Even though everyone was certain that this would happen eventually, when it actually did, they were shocked. They could see the monk’s body on the surface below, his fresh, bright red blood dyeing the green grass.
The people of Moling village had almost forgotten them. Every month the head official sent archers to deliver a messages of goings on in the village and a few comforting words. That was all. Of course, there wasn’t much more to say or do—no way to deliver food or water. Besides a little emotional support, what else could be done?
This isn’t to say that Mount Wu was abandoned. In fact, a constant stream of travelers came to see the miracle of Mount Wu. Writers and poets penned tributes to memorialize the event. These were carved on steles and set in front of the giant pit, which by now was a lake. “Mount Wu of the Thunder and Rain” had become a famous scenic spot. When the rain fell heavily, a huge curtain of water would stream down from Mount Wu and flutter like a white veil in the wind.
When three monks had committed suicide, the head monk decided to close the gate, and forbade the monks from venturing out alone. He also forced the monks to participate in morning and night classes and observe religious discipline. Cultivation of new vegetable patches and the raising of fruit and grain began, participation in which was compulsory. Slowly, the head monk discovered, the monks gradually shed their sadness and despair. Reading scripture, observing discipline and working hard allowed them to forget their situation.
No more suicides occurred, and the monks seemed happy and calm. The gate was re-opened, and the monks re-gained freedom of movement.
At this time, Wugen died. Only then did the other monks even remember that he was there. They reflected and realized that he’d been unusually calm throughout the entire ordeal, that seemingly nothing attracted his attention. He went about as normal cleaning latrines, watering vegetables, chopping wood, and reading scripture. Thus, he was forgotten, and the monks buried him in the cemetery behind the temple, and a small stone stele was put upon his grave which read: “Here Lies Sakyamuni Wugen”.
Emperor Wu of Liang, Xiao Yan, took with him a number of eunuchs, palace maids, and military officials from Jiankang to Moling village to observe the miracle of Biyun Temple and offer incense. The magistrate of Moling village notified the temple’s head monk 10 days in advance. On the morning of that day, all the still-living monks of the temple arranged their clothes neatly and came to the foot of the mountain to await the arrival of the emperor and officials. Xiao Yan communicated with the monks through a eunuch with good lungs and a loud voice.
“To…the…monks…up…above…I…send…my…regards, I am…the…emperor, I am…here to… visit…you,” The eunuch yelled loudly and Xiao Yan smiled as he waved at the monks.
The monks knelt on the ground, and a young monk also with a loud voice capacity did his part, yelling: “Emperor…we are…honored! Thank you…for your…good wishes! We are…doing…fine…on the mountain! ” Yelling back and forth, their necks throbbed, and their faces turned red.
After a few rounds of pleasantries, the emperor ordered his personal guard to bind some incense to their arrows and fire it upward. The monks burned the incense for the emperor and then the court painter produced a painting of the emperor and his officials with the mountain behind them. After this, a number of painters came to Wushan to provide this service to travelers, at a price of about 1,000 copper coins per painting. It wasn’t cheap, but they still did great business.
Xiao Yan encountered trouble not long after he returned to Jiankang. One of his generals, Hou Jing, betrayed him and dispatched soldiers to seize him. The betrayers besieged him and the crown prince, and Xiao’s formerly loyal supporters fell into a spiral of scheming and infighting. Although a large number of troops still supported him, they were unable to break the siege.
The magistrate of Moling had been recently assigned—his predecessor was promoted and transferred to the capital because of his successful reception of the emperor and was trapped inside the city by the rebellion. But the monthly letter of communication to Biyun Temple was the same as always. The head monk held a ceremony of the highest order to pray for the emperor. However, their prayers were in vain as the emperor and the crown prince remained trapped until winter.
In a letter from the magistrate to the temple, it was mentioned that one of the crown prince’s carpenters had built a giant kite, and attached to it an imperial script, sending it flying in the hopes that it would reach the troops loyal to him and that they would come to save him. However, the plan failed as the kite was shot down by Hou Jing’s troops as it passed over their territory. This letter gave an idea to the head monk: He remembered that they had access to a bamboo forest, which would give them material to build gliders. Thus, he ordered the monks to chop down the bamboo and cut it into strips. The monks were enthused by the entire plan, as it meant they’d have a chance to return to the surface, a hope which they had long since abandoned.
It wasn’t long until the first glider was completed. The monks made wings out of Buddhist scriptures. The head monk was initially unwilling to agree to this use of the scripture, as cloth was a better choice and they had limited supplies of both. However, without cloth, the monks wouldn’t survive the winter, so in the end the head monk was left with no choice but to agree to the use the pages from their books to construct the wings. As the glider had to carry a human, it had to be quite large.
The monks were careful in their construction, releasing the glider from the top of the stupas to see if it could descend stably. As they had no experience in the construction of such devices, their first attempt failed. The construction more or less toppled to the ground, the frame was destroyed, and the paper ripped. On their next attempt, they made smaller test models to save time and resources, producing small gliders that could land reliably before they started work on a newer, large model. They wrote of their work in a letter to tell the magistrate of Moling. They previously delivered their letters to him by affixing them to a rock and simply dropping it, but this time they attached it to a small gliding kite, and hung a rock from the little glider. When they set it off, it flew off, and even with the stone attached, it maintained equilibrium. It arrived successfully in the hands of the magistrate’s runner, and the monks cheered with hope and excitement at their initial success.
The magistrate sent them diagrams made by a skilled kite-maker in a letter, and the monks made a new large glider in accordance with these instructions. It flew down from the stupa quite successfully, and almost off the mountain. Luckily the monks were able to catch the glider (and the precious materials) before that happened.
For the next test, they prepared to attach a person.
The first test subject was decided by drawing lots, but the head monk, determined to be the last to leave, did not participate in this trial run. The test was successful, and the glider with the man attached flew down from the highest peak to Mount Wu’s pine forest. The branches of the pine trees broke the paper in a few places, but the monk was unharmed.
The damage to the wings was repaired, and the head monk wrote the time of the planned flight in a letter which was sent to the magistrate’s runner: noon, five days hence. Soon the whole village was abuzz with the news. However, when the day finally came, high winds kicked up, and even though the villagers gathered under the mountain to see the first monk return to the surface, the head monk chose to delay the flight. After all, after so much time, what was two more days? There was no reason to add unnecessary risks.
The chosen monk’s heart was full of joy and trepidation. He wanted to return to the surface and be with his family, but worried about his safety. His name had been transmitted in a letter; at this point letters were exchanged more than once a day.
On the appointed day, the pilot monk’s parents came early to the area below the mountain, and the magistrate of Moling arrived around 10 on an ox-driven cart. The weather was clear, and there was only a light wind, nothing to prevent the test of a return flight to the surface. The monk was bound firmly to the frame of the glider, and a large area of forest had been cleared to give him a runway. It was a moving sight.
The monk jumped into the clear blue sky, and the glider coasted stably. Just as people began to cheer, the paper wing ripped and the craft lost all stability. Flipping over and over in mid-air, it took a straight dive down. The crowd was transfixed by the tragedy. He didn’t die immediately. Perhaps being taken in his mother’s arms was some small comfort in his final moments.
It was clear that paper wasn’t reliable enough. It had to be cloth. The monks tore down the curtains in the main hall and cut up their clothes for the summer, then their mosquito nets. Besides, it was winter, no mosquitoes anyway. They made a few large gliders and tested each of them on the stupas. This time, they didn’t draw lots to see who went, electing to have the eldest fly first and the youngest last. The head monk still insisted on being the very last to fly.
As the monks scrambled to make gliders, the people of Moling observed a shift in the position and height of the mountain—it had moved closer to the village but floated higher. Although the change was slow, after a number of days it became quite clear. The magistrate of the village notified the head monk of this fact in a letter, but the head monk didn’t tell the others as to not incite panic. One night there was a strong north-westerly wind, and the monks noticed that the mountain was swaying. In the morning, when some went to sweep leaves, they were startled to see that they were already quite close to the village and that the mountain’s height had increased by a third. Contrary to the head monk’s expectations, they were all quite calm at learning this and they simply increased the speed at which they worked. The higher the mountain rose, the greater the danger of descent. If the mountain came to rest over the village, then the monks might not be able to find a safe landing spot.
The flight times for the second batch of five monks were decided. They were to fly two days earlier than they planned. Even though the day arrived and the weather wasn’t great, the head monk decided to go ahead. When the oldest monk was bound to his glider, he changed his mind at the last second and decided that he wouldn’t go back, wishing to remain on Mount Wu. Even though the mountain might be blown by the wind over the sea, he was unwilling to leave. The head monk tried to convince him but his conviction was strong. The old monk had no family on the surface, so, in the end, the head monk agreed, and the next oldest monk was bumped up in the order.
One by one, the monks went down. They succeeded.
All five of the monks survived, with one breaking a leg and one landing in the water and almost drowning, but the latter was thankfully rescued by the many observers on the surface.
The next round of gliders used the robes of the five departed monks and the 15 about to go, as well as a number of mats. The monks picked up the pace, first because they were more experienced now and second because they were worried about another north-westerly wind coming to blow them higher. They pulled together and assembled the next 15 gliders in just a few days’ time. They conducted only the most basic safety tests, and didn’t run stability checks on the stupas. Almost all the monks from this round made it to the ground safely, with only a few sustaining light injuries. The residents of Moling village cheered with each arrival, and the news spread through the country, with even the usurper Hou Jing, newly established as the emperor of his own state, sending a messenger of congratulations for the monks’ bravery and wisdom.
Two days after the second round of 15 monks returned, a strong north-westerly wind rose. The temperature dropped sharply, and snow fell during the night. Only 15 monks remained on the mountain, and the head monk heard them crying at night.
In the morning, as they feared, Wushan was over Moling village. It was at least 200 meters in the air. Looking down from this height, there was a wide panoramic view of the village. The monks had to decide whether to quickly return to the surface or wait for the mountain to drift further. In the end, they elected to return immediately. Even though they might find better landing spots after passing the village, the mountain would definitely be even higher. They weren’t willing to take that risk.
The third round of gliders was also completed quickly. They used up the last of the materials, and, as they were quite a lot higher off the ground, the gliders were made at quite a large scale. However, when they finished the 14th glider, they suddenly realized that they were almost out of bamboo, with only a small amount remaining, just enough to make a very small glider, smaller even than the second round. Even though there was the one old monk unwilling to return to the surface, this meant that one of the monks would have to ride the small craft down. The head monk reassured the others, and told them he would take the runt, seeing as he was the thinnest of all the monks at the monastery.
The monks had nothing left to do except to wait for the next north-westerly wind to come. They were already quite clear on the fact that they could use wind to take them to the outskirts of the village and that at the same time wind could add to their gliding distance and thus their vertical speed with respect to their descent. They prayed that a north-westerly wind would not come in the night. The head monk told the magistrate of the village in a letter about the plans for the last round of monks in a letter; by this point the communication was one-way, as nobody was strong enough to shoot an arrow to that height.
The wind rose very early in the morning, at which time the monks bound each other to the gliders and clasped their hands as a gesture of farewell to the old monk unwilling to leave. They, one after another, shakily ascended the highest stupa and waited for dawn.
The sun rose over the horizon, looking very small, wavering in the wind like the surface’s beating heart. One monk exited the stupa and climbed to the corner of the rafters, exerting great efforts to stay stable. A monk inside the structure held his hand to keep him from drifting away before he was ready. In order to use the element, the monk turned his back to the sun, his entire glider facing the wind. He nodded his head, and the other monk released his grip. He flew off swiftly, and for a second seemed to almost fly upwards, but quickly swooped down. The other monks watched him rapidly disappear into the darkness of the dawn.
The monks walked out of the stupa one after another and drifted toward the surface, the last being the head monk. The residents of Moling village hadn’t slept the previous night. On hearing the unbridled cries of the wind, they knew it was the time for the monks to return. They gathered in the square in front of the magistrate’s office, heads raised, looking at Mount Wu hanging heavily in the windy dark sky, almost invisible.
Just as dawn turned to sunrise, the white of a fish’s belly revealing itself over the black line of the horizon, the people saw a small black dot float down from the distant Mount Wu. A group of already prepared young people took off in the direction of the small black dot, running at full speed out of the settlement. They all counted down, knowing there were 14 monks flying, with the head monk going last and the 15th opting to stay. Thirteen had already arrived, with the 14th small flier still nowhere to be seen. People began to become uneasy, worrying that the head monk wouldn’t return.
At this time, a fire broke out on Mount Wu, and Biyun Temple began to burn. Just as people began to despair, the small black dot appeared. It was so small, so light. Everyone cheered.
The sun had fully risen by this point. Mount Wu floated past the city, and most of the residents of the village followed it on the ground, walking out of the village. The mountain looked so small by then, and the black dot was smaller still. People raised their heads and strained to see, trying to determine the direction the little dot would fly. But he seemed to rise higher and higher—perhaps the wind had picked up, perhaps he was just too light. Either way, the black dot didn’t descend. He was blown up and up by the north-westerly wind, higher and higher, as if he was ascending to the sun. Maybe he would land in the sea, or maybe somewhere beyond the sea.
Reports came in of the monks being found, 13 in total. Three had died upon landing, and the others had varying degrees of injuries. Except, of course, for the head monk—who simply floated away, last seen more than five kilometers outside of the city.
The residents of Moling dispatched 10 young people to the east to search for the head monk. They traveled and searched all the way to the ocean, but found nothing.
Author’s Note: Between the age 20 and 30, I wanted to write fiction, but didn’t know what to write. “Pure literature” and rural literature were the fashion of the time. One day, I accidentally discovered a whole set of the Extensive Records of the Taiping Era (《太平广记》) on the very top of a bookshelf in the library, which no one had touched in the past decade. I took it home and read it without missing a single word. I finally discovered my mother tongue was traditional Chinese culture…I started to write in the style of Tang dynasty fantasy, but I knew it wasn’t a simple process of copying. I am not worried about resembling the ancients, because I am a modern man of distinctive thoughts. I write what I find interesting and naturally formed the style you see.
Author: Barrel Rider (骑桶人)
Li Qiqing (李启庆), also known as Barrel Rider, was an editor at Fantasy World, a pioneering fantasy magazine in China, and the former chief editor of Novoland Fantasy magazine. He is currently working on several novels set in the Novoland universe. Among them, Guixu (《归墟》), currently at over 100,000 words, focuses on the expedition of a crew to the East Sea, a previously unexplored territory of the imaginary world. According to historical texts, guixu is a bottomless pit in the eastern ocean to which all water flows.