Chapter 9



Sorcery's a holy faith and so is Destiny
White Cloud Cave's got one who knows them both so thoroughly.

If it's fated folks will meet though miles stand in between
While without Fate a neighbor may go all one's life unseen.

Now as Fate would have it Bonze Dan rested in the grass hut at the foot of Mt Dream-of-the-Clouds, just waiting for the fifth day of the fifth lunar month when the fog would clear and he'd get a chance to enter White Cloud Cave and steal the sorcery charms. It was only the first week of April and with the Dragon Boat Festival a full month away he was understandably impatient and fidgety. And although he was thoroughly bent upon learning the secrets of sorcery he still had his doubts, fearing that what the monk had said was just idle gossip. He had no way of knowing, but if it were indeed false where then had all that fog come from? He often clambored up the trail to a nearby peak for a look but saw only a vast ocean of white cloud below; he had no idea of what the terrain that lay below it even looked like.

One day after supper he drank some wine that he'd managed to procure. "I've heard," he told himself, half drunk, "that fog doesn't affect drunks. Why, with my head holding up the sky and my feet planted firmly on the earth, what do I have to fear from this Yuan Gong or from his old lady for that matter? Dragon Boat, Phoenix Boat, who gives a damn; why wait? I ought to just go in and demand the holy books, and that's that!"

And so Bonze Dan staggered to his feet, walked into the wall of fog and disappeared from view. Before he could get one li, however, the blanket became so thick and concentrated that he couldn't even open his eyes. It was all he could do to turn around and get out of there, but he became suddenly aware that the monk had indeed been telling the truth. He simply had to wait it out.

When the day of the Dragon Boat Festival finally arrived and the sundial indicated nine in the morning, sure enough the fog began to lift. In half an hour it had all burned off and the weather became clear and crisp.

"Shame on me for having doubted it," he happily exclaimed, "it's just like the story said after all! This really is my day!" And so he put on a pair of quiet hemp slippers, took up a brown sandalwood staff and fairly flew off on his quest.

After traveling two or three li the scenery began to change, with jagged threatening slopes and topsy-turvy boulders above and marshes below; the trail became overgrown and indiscernable. But beneath his feet he spotted an ongoing silky thread. It seemed a safe guide so he followed it ever onward into the bush. Before he'd gone another ten li, sure enough he came to a narrow stone bridge, over twenty feet long but barely a foot wide, spanning a terrible chasm. And far below the bridge boiled the roaring torrents of a cascading stream, with rocks and boulders as fierce as swords and cudgels. When Bonze Dan first saw it he was scared white, but with a little rationalization his fear dissolved; having come this far how could he ever retreat? Life and death are, after all, predestined, so what was there to be afraid of? Riveting his eyes straight ahead and calling up all of his spleen he boldly strode across, oblivious to the plumes of vapor and spray that floated up on either side from the maelstrom below.

On the other side there was indeed a stone cave and above its mouth were engraved the three characters for White Cloud Cave. And when he entered he beheld a huge plot of farmland, miraculously lit from above. Just look at this:

The fertile plain in front of him stretched out so very wide
Dense and ancient forest bounded it on either side.

The treasure fruits and vegetables that in that cave did thrive
Never needed planting and alone they could survive.

This hidden cave was so remote for sure it never knew
The sound and tumult of the hunts held by the King of Chu.

And even famous Sima Qian the Grand Historian
In all his writings never told of this to later men.

In olden times a man fled Qin and hid in Taoyuan's caves
A fisherman he'd met had helped him cross the angry waves.

But even some poor refugee with terror on his face
Would have a hard time asking for a ferry to this place.

Now Bonze Dan simply couldn't get enough of the outstanding scenary and indulged his fancy just a bit too long. When he walked into the cave he came to a miniature mountain peak inside a sunlit chamber. At its foot was a white jade burner, ever so pure and lustrous in appearance. "Such things," he thought, "not to mention the Daoist secrets hidden here, are beyond men's wildest dreams. My being here is a blessing from a previous life, no doubt."

He then climbed up the pile of rocks and played there to his heart's content. Suddenly a fragrance touched his nostrils. "Strange" he thought. Then he saw a ribbon of smoke rising ever so delicately from the incense burner. Fear shot through Bonze Dan's very bones. "It must be past noon," he cried, "and the White Ape God has returned." Down he leapt from the miniature peak, not daring to look back. He backtracked out of the cave and broke into a run, forgetting his sandalwood staff in the rush. Getting back to the stone bridge he saw a curtain as white as snow settling down; the fog was swirling back. In his haste he tripped and almost plunged into the violence below. Fortunately he regained his footing and made it across, and this emboldened him. He lengthened his stride and in a short while ran ten li. And when he finally looked back he saw only a thick fog, obscuring Heaven and Earth and hiding the cave entrance as of old.

Returning to his grass hut he sat for over an hour catching his breath. "How bitter," he sulked, "to have been tempted by that scenery without getting any real information. I still don't know if those writings are even in there. It was like gazing at the moon while passing up a treasure right under my eyes, and it's a full three hundred and sixty-five days to the next Dragon Boat Festival; how will I endure the wait?" Then he reflected for a moment.

"The first time out I was green," he thought. "Next time around I'll be a seasoned veteran, and I won't be looking at any scenery, that's for sure. I'll run right into that White Ape God's bedchamber and by golly no matter how many of those heavenly books he's got hidden I'll carry them all out of there, and I'll choose what I want later at my leisure. That'll be great!" From then on he rested his heart and mind and took up a long vigil. And he gave up the hut for a new calling: begging alms everyday, everwhere throughout the land.

One day he arrived at a place called Yongzhou. In that district is the Stone Swallow Mountain and the Wu River; each has got something mysterious about it. What do I mean by that? Well, the myriad fragments of rock which, when piled up, comprise that mountain form the outline of a swallow. In fact, when viewed from afar on a rainy day it really appears to be a swallow in flight. Of course climbing the mountain and actually trying to get a hand on the soaring bird reveals it to be just so many rocks. What's more, when the wind and rain cease the swallow then seems from afar to be resting.

As for the Wu River, on the face of one sheer cliff is a naturally inlaid Mirror of Stone, fifteen inches high and three feet wide and thick. Pitch black like obsidian, it allows us to see almost like true life anything that is reflected upon it, a truly extraordinary quality. Although it can't be compared with the "Spleen Viewing Stone" of Qin, which could reveal one's internal organs, you can still count your every hair and whisker in it just as if it were made by the finest craftsman. As Bonze Dan loved these sights he stayed in Yongzhou for awhile.

One day, when he visited the Wu River Gorge for another look he couldn't find the Mirror of Stone in its usual spot. There was only an empty hole in the stone face where it had been. Looking and listening in alarmed surprise, he heard the ringing of a royal carriage bell and the sound of a large group of men on horseback galloping forth. From behind the trunk of a large pine, Bonze Dan managed to peek down and see a young nobleman with red lips and healthy white teeth, astride the leading horse. Upon his head was a Jinshi degreeholder's turban of the Tang style and he wore a Wuling Daoist's gown. He rode a pumpkin colored horse, followed by more than ten servants. The young noble dismounted and walked to the cliffside. Looking at the empty hole above, he was pointing skyward and drawing vigorously on the ground with a stick; what he was telling his men couldn't be heard from the tree. Then along came four sturdy farmers, hauling and shouldering a large black piece of stone.

"It must be," thought Bonze Dan, "that the young lord has taken away the Mirror of Stone. Now, true to form, he's scandalizing folks by replacing it with a piece of rock!" He watched as the yeomen lifted it up the face of the cliff.

"Make more use of the ropes" shouted the group below, "don't let go, whatever you do!" Then the entire entourage dismounted and rushed forward to pitch in and help. There were men above and below, pulling on the ropes and pushing deperately, while others helped with the block and tackle, jacks, and levers. In less than an hour the stone was hanging in front of its recess and the group relaxed from their labors for awhile. Then a rope was slowly tightened and the stone then settled neatly in place. The men below gave shouts of joy and relief. Why, that black rock had all along been the Mirror of Stone!

Now this young nobleman was surnamed Leng. He was the son of Xueshi degreeholder Leng of this district. Although handsome, folks thought him mean and harsh, especially toward servants. As a result he was nicknamed "Skinflint Leng". And there was a farming village within five li of this place called Lengjiazhuang, the Leng Family Village. Now, this young Master Leng loved the Mirror of Stone with all his heart, and suddenly one day ordered his people to climb up and fetch it back to the village. Who would have imagined that this mirror had a spirit residing in it, and that once removed from the cliff it would fail to give off even the faintest glimmer of light, just like the dullest charcoal? But as they returned it to its old place and set it into the cliffside recess it again shone as of old. When this happened the assembled men had cheered, and when Bonze Dan stuck out his neck for a better look he was suddenly spotted by young Master Leng.

"You, monk over there!" shouted the young master, "Are you some kind of sneakthief waiting to pounce on travelers?"

Bonze Dan could only come out of hiding and offer a meek explanation. "I bow to thee," he weedled; "I'm a poor monk from Sizhou, out to visit the famous peaks of every county. I wandered into this fine place quite unaware of your Excellency's presence, and I failed to leave when I first saw you. I'm sorry for my rudeness."

The young master's men were indignant.

"This vagrant monk is really insolent," one complained; "not kowtowing even once before our master."

Bonze Dan was lost for words but fortunately Master Leng spoke up.

"Men and women of the cloth may disperse with such rituals," he said, "but may I with all due respect ask your name, how long you've been here in this shabby place of ours and where you've been putting yourself up for the night?"

"Your humble priest took his vows at the Yinghui Temple on Mt Yinghui, and is known as Bonze Dan. It's been about a month since I arrived here and I haven't bothered to drop in on any monastery. I've been living in the wild and sleeping out under the stars."

"Such a chance meeting is rare indeed," said the young master; "it must have been fated. Our humble village is a short distance away. Please honor us with a visit and a vegetarian meal in our midst. You will come, won't you?"

"Many blessings for your heartfelt charity," answered Bonze Dan, accepting the invitation. Thereupon young Master Leng mounted the lead horse, directed two of his men to accompany our monk, and they slowly returned home.

By and by the two servants spoke up to their charge.

"It's Daoism that our master likes," said one; "he doesn't believe in the power of Buddhists. He's never before invited any bonze, nor has he ever given a cent in alms to them. But today he's invited you to our village for a solemn meal and shown you complete respect. Such treatment is really precedent making!"

"What's the surname of your clan's old master?" asked Bonze Dan.

"He's named Leng, you know, the character between Xin and Kan in the Book of the Hundred Surnames. Our clan's patriarch is presently at Court, serving as a scholar in the National Hanlin Academy. He fathered only this one son who stays home and studies all the time. The boy's just recently taken a mistress from among the village girls."

While they were talking they arrived. Sure enough, before Bonze Dan's very eyes stood the fine little village of Lengjiazhuang. It was like this:

The village gate was open wide to welcome Heaven's wagon
The mighty mountains stood as if to greet the lucky dragon.

The road led on into a grove with shade so fresh and cool
And facing them so pure and deep there was a sparkling pool.

A threshing site there was as well with millstone flat and round
Appearing just as if it were a fairies' playing ground.

The pastureland upon the hill was carpeted with green
Among the grazing cattle dashing horses could be seen.

A mansion rose above the town so many levels high
Like Meng Changjun's guest quarters it touched the very sky.

With its flowers everywhere it almost seemed to be
That very house of old Shi Chong that pleased the guests of Qi.

It must have been the pastime of a local patriarch
As it couldn't be mistaken for your average village park.

Bonze Dan arrived inside the great hall and was ever so politely greeted by young Master Leng. "How long have you been a man of the cloth?" he asked. "You look like a youngster; how old are you?"

I'm only nineteen, and I've been under vows since childhood."

"And what was your worldly surname? It's hard to believe you've had that name of yours since birth."

"Oh, I was raised by the bonzes and I've never known my real kin. Dan may mean egg, but that's my name all right."

"I've heard," said Master Leng, "that those fated to rise as high as the starry crown of the Ruler of Heaven must be either Buddhist or Daoist. Your having been in a monastery since childhood is surely fated. Well, you're nineteen now; what was the exact date of your birth?"

"Your humble monk was taken into the temple within a month of birth. Folks say it must have been November, for the scenery was that of late fall or early winter. Nobody knows exactly when I was born."Click to Continue Table of Contents

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