A poor man saved up his money to buy a good coat, a black coat with a hood. It was to replace a long dynasty of shabby coats that fell apart. The black coat would take him onto the roads and through the fields into events he had long anticipated. There would be rain and starlight and absolute quiet for miles and miles. When he purchased the coat it fit perfectly, and he felt a freedom and comfort he had not known to be possible. At once, he set out through a light rainfall. And then he noticed in the last glow of twilight that the new coat was already coming apart at the seams. It had not even gathered one straw or fleck of dust, and yet it was tearing. The man stopped and whispered something mournful, for he knew that his soul would live forever, but his story had ended, for the coat was integral to the plot.
A man returned to the river of goldenrod and silver grass to meet his soul once again. My soul, he said, where have you traveled? Do not ask me that, said the soul. I have wandered far, for my home is far away, and I have not found my tree. The man asked about this mysterious tree, but the soul merely stared at him with indifference. The man said that it was a depressing age, a time of confusion, a chaotic world. Where was the world going? He recalled the better times—warm nights with lanterns and moths, the willows along the river, the fragrance of oil paints, the roar of the sea. And you were there, you were always there, he said warmly. Do not look back into time, the soul said. You were as empty then as you are now, a daydreamer and a cloudhead. The world has always rebelled against itself; it is not going anywhere. The river never travels. The water travels from the source to the sea, but the river is always in the same place. It is pure nothingness and emptiness. It has no time, and nothing happens to it. The soul threw a stalk of goldenrod into the icy streams. They watched the stalk drift away and disappear around the corner. What do you think? asked the soul. The man suddenly felt a warm, southern wind blow through the grass from beyond the curve of the river. My soul is somewhere else, he said with both fear and relief, and I was mistaken in believing you were her.
It was a winter of rain and snow. A man walked into a church to inquire if anyone had seen his gifts. They had not, but tried to ask what kind of shopping bag they would be in. The man walked out, confused, and wandered amongst cats and lampposts. Later, at the police station, they wanted to know how he had lost them; at the pharmacy, they inquired when. Nobody could help him. Then he walked into a candy shop and once again announced that he had lost his gifts. They asked for a receipt or a description of the items, but he only replied that he suffered from the sleeping sickness. Once more, he entered the night, passing through mazes of stone and shadow. In a bar with a gold and yellow signboard, he drank some ale. Nobody there knew what he was talking about, either, especially as he did not seem to know who the gifts were for. In the end, he walked back into the night and stopped by a lamppost on a bridge. I lost my gifts, he said to the lamppost, his voice cracking. What happened? the lamppost asked. I don’t know, he whispered, opening his coat, unbuttoning his cotton shirt and exposing his scarred skin to the whirling snowflakes. They took them, he cried, while I was sleeping! That was cruel, whispered the lamppost, but there will be other gifts that they won’t find. Don’t let them know. They cannot take anything else if they think you are empty.
A young woman was setting off on the great road when she encountered another, older pilgrim, a beautiful woman dressed in a dark coat and boots, carrying little besides her book, her rosary and her staff. Dear sister, the younger pilgrim asked, could you share some water with me? Without the slightest hesitation, the woman stopped, got out a bottle of water, and handed it to the younger one with a radiant smile. After drinking, they resumed their walk. At one crossroads, the young pilgrim puzzled over a road sign until the older one gently explained its meaning, sounding out the letters for her. They rested on a boulder. With a stick, the older pilgrim wrote the alphabet in the dust, and made the other copy out the letters while sounding them. When they had finished, they took the left road, and headed into the mountains. Once again, the younger pilgrim ventured a question. Dear sister, please share some of your wisdom with me, she humbly asked. I don’t think I have any, the older one said, tears filling her bright, green eyes. She leaned on her staff and wept. I have had twenty-six masters. With the last thirteen, I have learned nothing but despair and confusion. Every time they have asked me a question, I have given the wrong answer, and they have said that I think and pray like a novice. The road has not been good to me. A vast silence engulfed the road through the countryside. What about the first thirteen? the young woman whispered. What did they teach you? Oh, they were very kind, said the older pilgrim. They taught me to read and write, to speak plainly and take nothing for the journey, to walk in love and hope. The young woman locked arms with her new friend and said, That sounds very wise–only a master could remember and share that. Thank you for helping me. After they had walked another mile, the younger pilgrim shed her robe, for great, white wings had stretched forth from her radiant, naked shoulders. In a cloud of light, she transfigured into an ascending angel, and then into a white bird, and then into the open sky.
Once upon time, stories always began with an old man and an old woman, possibly as a way of honoring the first parents, who were the first to sacrifice for their children and the first to experience mortality in all of its sadness. This story begins with an old beggar, however, for the earth is old and bankrupt, and everyone is either an orphan or pretending to be one. The old beggar lived on the streets of a vibrant city of bridges and bell towers, lovely trees and arabesques, churches, shops and plazas of cobblestone. The beggar was highly regarded by both the aristocrats and the low lifes. One day, he fell to weeping. A friar came over to see him and comfort him. Perhaps the time was near. Would you like to confess? the friar asked. I would, said the old beggar, but I do not know how. I do not remember my life. The low lifes say that I was once a master assassin, a thief, and a womanizer, and that I continue to rule every gang from where I sit on the street, whispering orders and advice while begging. The nobles praise my devout and pure life and recite the prayers I once taught them. I remember none of this—not one voluptuous body, not one corpse, not one sacred prayer, not one moment from earlier in the day. I cannot even confess my name. Please help me. I beg of you. The friar wanted to laugh and weep. My child, he said, you have been damned in this life. Nobody is more open to grace than you. Please absolve me. The old beggar stood up, briefly embraced the friar, and after rolling up his bedding, took it and started to walk. The old beggar strolled the length of the city, passed through the city gates, and then walked out into the endless countryside.
In the mountains of steam, there lived a hunter who watched and learned from every animal and knew what they ate and what they did not. One day, a tiger and an elephant fell into a large trap meant for catching a man-eating bear and died. Though saddened by the deaths of these noble beasts, the hunter set to work to clean them. When he opened them up, he was surprised to find that both had been stuffed with rice.
One day, a pilgrim visited a famous waterfall, where a monk was washing a skull. The pilgrim asked the monk what tragic fate had befallen him. Once upon a time, the aged monk said, a roadside skull rebuked a philosopher for expressing pity—for how could the philosopher know how the skull felt? Long ago, I tried to seduce a young and beautiful princess. Day after day, I begged her to sleep with me, but she would not relent. I sent her poem after poem expressing my incurable passion. Then one day, perhaps because stories about her virtue or vice were already circulating, she agreed to give herself to me if I would strike off the head of her husband with my sword. Only then could I possess her body and soul forever. Naturally I agreed, for I was blinded by lust. She told me to come that very evening. She would get her husband drunk and make him take a hot bath—that would ensure that I could decapitate him without a struggle. Once the deed was done, I was to come to this waterfall with his head. She would be waiting under the cryptomeria tree. That night, I did as I was told. I crept into the house, found the bedding, and felt for the damp hair in the darkness. With one clean stroke, I severed the head. I wrapped it in a large, blue cloth and made my way here. A lantern was burning under that very cryptomeria over there. As I waited for my love, I grew impatient, and unwrapped the cloth to have a look. It was her head that stared back at me with cold, questioning eyes. That very night, I shaved my head and began my penance. Starving myself, I meditated under the waterfall for days and nights. Then I traveled the land, trying to do good things and serve others, trying to forget the horror, trying to make sense of her deception and suicide, trying to expiate my sin. The years passed, and I remained an unforgiven murderer and a haunted man. Not long ago, however, I was down by a river, listening to the sound of the water; when I saw a hooded woman, a pilgrim, crossing a bridge. She was very beautiful and reminded me of my love. Her hood was brand new, and suited her face. Suddenly, I realized something and faced the real mystery of my crime. My lady had not tricked me in any way at all. It was not her body that I had craved, nor her soul. How could I have desired what I had never seen? How could I desire what remains to this day unknown to me? I had only ever seen her head, and that was exactly what she had given me. I have now received her message and gift. For years I have carried around this precious skull; it is now time for it to rest. I only wish it were mine.
A master potter sent his son to the old capital, both as a reward for his growing skill with ceramics and his good behaviour and also to test his true character. The master gave the son a large sum of money in a purse and sent along a servant as a bodyguard and companion. The servant, however, was forbidden to interfere in the choices the son might make, unless there was a serious risk of illness or death. On the first day in the capital, the servant showed the son all the stores and workshops of the pottery district. They observed other master potters at work, traders selling every kind of ceramic item imaginable, and labourers mixing and shaping clay or stoking the kilns. With their heads full of cups, bowls and flames, they went back to their inn and rested, the son demanding nothing beyond the frugal dinner and tea they were served. On the second day, they visited the furniture, paper, cloth, and wheelwright districts, followed by a grand tour of several shopping districts. Sometimes, the son would reach into his robe to pull out his purse and count a few coins or make a mental calculation, but after a moment or two, he would replace it and stroll on. The servant was puzzled. On the third day, the servant took the son to see medicine shops, incense stores, tobacconists, liquor stores, confectioners, butchers, rows of restaurants, barber shops, acupuncturists, teahouses, taverns and brothels, but the son hardly even read the signboards, inspected any merchandise or set foot in most establishments. The servant realized that the son was either a madman or a saint. And thus, on the fourth day, he took him to see all of the temples and shrines, monasteries and sacred groves, schools and libraries, but the son expressed not a single word of praise or criticism, nor did he bring out his purse to donate to a single monk, mendicant or holy place. On the fifth day, they made their way home. As they were traveling, they passed a famous waterfall. The son rushed down to the blue waters and stood under the cascades to meditate. After several hours, he emerged from his trance and the waters and shaved himself in the shallows of the stream with a dagger. Astonished but mindful of the master’s instructions, the servant led the son home. When they arrived, the servant prostrated himself and begged forgiveness for his failure. The son calmly and politely handed the full purse back to his father. What has happened, my son? the master potter asked, shocked and dismayed. Forgive me, father, the son replied, but I will never be a potter or a merchant. I will become a hermit. Why? the father wept. What happened? The son answered, In the old capital, everything looks like heaven, but it is truly hell. For four days, I felt every kind of desire possible, but I quickly saw something ferocious in it. A man will never shape, fire, or sell enough pottery, buy enough books, smoke enough tobacco, take enough medicine, sleep with enough women, drink enough tea and liquor, eat enough dinner, build enough temples or walk enough streets. The old capital is hell, a bottomless pit, and I wish to forget it all by becoming a hermit. After some silence, the father handed back the purse to the son and said, You will need some supplies to build and stock your hermitage. Take this. It is the only inheritance you would have from me. After the son departed, the father took in an orphan to train and mentor. The orphan learned quickly and would be a master potter himself one day, for he possessed real genius and a strong work ethic. One afternoon, the servant found the aged father smoking his pipe on the veranda overlooking the garden. The servant burst into tears and apologized once more failing with the master’s own son. The master took a thoughtful drag on his pipe and said that on his own first trip to the old capital, he had blown all of his money on his first night and had been forced to work several months for a potter there. Those were the days. To travel to the capital is to test the nature of your character, he said. My son had no character at all, no character to test. I do not fault you. The only thing you may have failed in was forgetting to show him the poor district, where men and women desire at least something, are grateful for anything, and work for nothing.
It was an important holiday in the old capital. Several captains were allowed to return from the distant provinces to take part in a military parade. Among them were two old friends posted at opposite ends of the realm who rarely saw each other. After the military parade on the first day, there were days of rituals, long-winded lectures from old priests, moon-viewing from boats on the river, drinking parties, constant changes of clothing, endless exchanges of gifts and poems, visits to shrines and temples, audiences at court, and then another military parade. The old friends caught glimpses of each other through the crowds, but because of their many respective duties, they never had a moment alone to talk. On their last day in the capital, they were finally relieved of all obligations and official functions. In the morning, they drank tea under the willows by the river. Throughout the day, they walked the stone streets, reminisced, and quoted their favourite books. In the afternoon, they drank tea near a silver temple by a renowned walkway through the wooded hills cherished by philosophers. In the evening, they returned to the lantern-lit banks of the river to watch the beautiful young girls stroll by in their brocade gowns and to drink firewater from earthenware cups. One of the friends complained about the distance that separated all of the good, unique things of each province. The other complained of the old capital and all of the time wasted on empty rituals, parades, appearances at court and meaningless lectures. Then, after listening to the willows and the river, they drank one last cup together in gratitude for the great distance and lost time.
A calligrapher sat in his library, staring at a blank sheet of paper, an inkstone, and a brush, for he wished to compose a love letter to a girl who loved him, whom he loved dearly. For some time, he had delayed inconfessing this love, and she had been more than patient. This morning, as spring rain fell beyond the sliding doors to the garden, he decided he must make a decision and confess. To confess he needed backbone. Even eels, as unstable as they seem, have backbones. The man dipped the brush into the ink and drew a mouth in the shape of a box, a downward curving line below it, and then another mouth in the shape of a box. There before him glistened the character for backbone. It was perfect in form. When it had dried, he put it into a wooden cylinder for carrying scrolls, and made his way to her home. It was autumn there, and she was raking orange leaves, her long hair blown awry now and then by little gusts of cold wind. She was thinking to herself how the wind was like a river ten thousand leagues long, but surprised by his sudden appearance, she dropped the rake. The man approached her, embraced her and kissed her, saying, The backbone is a journey from mouth to mouth. He unrolled the scroll. They gazed at it together as orange leaves rained from above. And then they kissed again. The girl stopped kissing him and looked at the scroll once more. I will not marry you, she said abruptly, nor be your lover. A calligrapher should know that what look to be mouths in this character are the stylized forms of vertebrae in the original ideograph. The backbone is not a journey. It is a sequence of vertebrae. And even if these boxes did signify two orifices, what evil designs and intentions do they signify? The moment is ruined for me for all of eternity. I cannot be with you. And I do not like eels.