The Anthology

One day, an official saw a shabby youth with large hands reading a book behind an abandoned temple. When he learned that the youth could write as well as read, he offered him a minor but unusual post in the civil service as a calligrapher. The poor youth was content to live alone in abandoned temples eating scraps, but the prospect of having some extra coins to buy books thrilled him, and he readily accepted the position. In that city there was a great courtyard with giant elms where citizens met, sold trinkets, played chess, or discussed the news from the capital or the frontier. The official set up a large bureau, a giant affair of strong, polished wood, equipped with inkstones, ink wells, brushes, bottles of water, old dictionaries, anthologies of poetry, law codes, works of philosophy and various sutras. Morning till evening, the youth—or minor calligrapher as he was now styled—would practice his penmanship and answer any simple questions from passersby. Should there be a disturbance, he would alert the guards. Should anyone need help, he would give them aid. And so the youth set to work, copying out sacred texts or promulgations, drinking tea and water, rolling and smoking the occasional cigarette, and only leaving his post for short breaks or when his shift ended at twilight, the hour of the gathering doves and sparrows. One of his first visitors was his father, who denounced him as weak for accepting such an unworthy position. Others joined in, including his betrothed, who ridiculed his handwriting, and even his brothers. Nothing could be more futile or impractical than to be a mannequin with a brush, a connoiseur of ancient texts nobody read, a mouth for a decayed empire and dynasty that nobody would follow or remember in a short period of time. The years passed, and the minor calligrapher worked among the elms and sparrows, his penmanship hardly improving. Most of his original poems or copied texts would remain unfinished, for he found that he often had to put down his brush to help an old man carry water, to get a doctor for a widow dying with consumption, to summon coroners and guards, to recite a prayer for the idiots and the mad, to write letters to appelate courts on behalf of the blind or illiterate, to sweep up fallen leaves, to clean clogged ditches, to mend sandals, to wash the dust off the pavement, to teach the urchins a few letters here and there so that they might one day read, to console the migrant barbarians begging or looking for work. The more the years passed, the more he felt exhausted and inept. Nothing had really changed; he read his books by lamplight in the abandoned temple before bed, he drank strong cups of tea and ate noodles, he dampened his brush with ink and watched his spidery characters swirl across the various grades of paper while daydreaming of the lost cities and sacred mountains to the northwest where there were said to be hidden libraries. One day, he wondered if he might not just hang himself from an elm tree or thrown his body into a well. As he thought these things, an ancient man in imperial robes approached and demanded to see what he had written in the past few years. Exhausted, embarrassed and nervous, the minor calligrapher handed him a tattered anthology of his best work from the past two decades. The poor brushwork glared off of every page, and the minor calligrapher wondered if he might not be saved from his misery by a swift decapitation. As you see, he said to the high-ranking visitor, I have not improved one whit in the past twenty years. The official looked at him. Have you forgotten me, my friend? the ancient one asked. Suddenly, the calligrapher recognized his benefactor, whom he had not seen for a quarter of a century. Weeping with shame, he bowed deeply. Why do you weep? the official asked, gently touching his shoulder. Since I appointed you, literacy has risen in this city and province, crime has decreased, and the laws of heaven and earth have been honoured by your steadfast work. Every poor character you have written or copied is the face of someone you inspired with your silent work or comforted with your helpful hands. Allow me the honour of keeping this anthology, for its calligraphy surpasses anything I have seen throughout the land.

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The Seasons

Misfortunes come to many scholars, but not all of them involve poverty, exile, loss or the sorrows of desire. Watching a wizened old calligrapher casually write characters from famous poems at his table with a view of the garden and its sculpted pines, one scholar said to his friend that it was utterly vulgar to answer a poem about spring with a poem about the fall. The friend readily agreed, but added as an afterthought that the ancients must have been most barbarous, for they lived through an age which they named for both the spring and the fall. The calligrapher began to laugh, and said: The longer you live, the shorter the distance between the blossoming plum and the golden birch. It’s one and the same wind that scatters flowers and dead leaves; it’s the same sun that journeys through the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. In winter the night stars are bright, and the silence of the earth and sky is sublime. The earth looks like birch bark, the snow like plum blossoms, yet both seem far away and one feels the wistfulness of the pure and empty wind.

The Whip 

Only one shadow of ink splashed into the radiance of the white adobe walls. It was the priest beyond the gate, awaiting the seeker, an insomniac and physicist who wanted to cure his migraines and questions. The priest wore black and his whole head was clean shaven. The physicist thought he looked more like an assassin than a priest. The walls burned the eyes. What would you like? the priest asked kindly, coiling a dark rope. I want my headaches to stop, said the physicist. And I want to know how and what to think. Textbooks, monographs, journals, newspapers, whole libraries and even radio shows contradict themselves and each other. I don’t know what to think anymore. A dark flash and loud crack startled him. The priest slowly rewound the whip that had left a dark stroke on the wall. You are wasting your own time. You will have thoughts whether you want them or not. The world never asked your permission to exist, why do you asks its permission to exist and think? The whip cracked again and another dark stroke appeared on the wall. That helps, the physicist said, but I still do not know what kind of thoughts to follow, or where they will lead me. There are only a handful that really matter, said the priest, and only one that means anything. What is it? the physicist asked. The wind, the explosive sound, and then the dark matter of the third stroke on the wall. Sacrifice, said the priest. The mystery of the stone. Once upon a time, a stone was a word, then an obstacle, then it could spark and make fire, then it was a tool, then a sacred item, then something to study, then industrial material, and then it was garbage. The stone gives itself to the world. The world gives itself to you. The world and the universe was made by sacrifice. You should give yourself. To yourself and to others. Then you will think. The physicist stared at the dark matter on the adobe wall. It looks like a wound, he said, and it also looks like the ancient character for the heart. Possibly, the other murmured. Once more the priest whipped the wall, adding the last stroke. Why do you have a whip? the physicist asked. To buffet the wind, the priest sighed, to scourge my thoughts. 

The Screen 

There was once a priest who served in a temple in the west. Nobody knew where he came from. Though he spoke rarely, he was always polite. Monks and wealthy patrons complained that his sermons were too traditional, abstract, enigmatic, and ethereal. The poor and afflicted thought him unrealistic. Everyone thought him rather irrelevant to real life, and wished that he would pursue more connections in the towns, the countryside, and the court. Not only his speech but also his paintings and calligraphy radiated the same effervescence of nothingness, as if his whole life were soaring through clouds of silver and gold. The scrolls he inscribed and the screens he painted reeked of an obsolete and useless paradise. Moreover, the mystery of his origins continued to haunt them. Some even accused him of having converted to the ways of the southern barbarians. One day, an abbot determined to solve the mystery and expose the fraudster as nothing more than a headless idiot. To this end, he gathered a mystical herb that would force its consumer to tell the truth. He brewed a thick tea and delivered it to the priest, who was about to begin working on a new screen. The priest warmly thanked the abbot for this surprising act of kindness, and for a moment he thought that he had finally earned a single friend. As he gazed into the abbot’s eyes, however, he read the treachery therein and felt sad. Nevertheless, he drank the tea and set to work. Day after day, he drank the tea that the abbot brought and painted, but no one was allowed to see the work in progress. On the last day, the priest prayed, laid down his brush, and died. Afterwards, they found his body, death poem and the completed screen. The pictures were unlike anything they had ever seen before, full of paradoxes, horrors, beauty and reality, of this world and of other worlds. There were forests of rusted iron rebar and scaffolding, buildings crushed in earthquakes, shattered clocks, beaches littered with charred, empty soda cans, pits of ash, wastelands of abandoned machinery, ruins haunted by tattooed thugs, smoking fires, walls and citadels of propane bombs and stacked rubber tires where dark waves licked the oil-gray sand. They could recognize some of the landmarks. All of these scenes could only be made out through a veil of leaping, curling flames in expert brushwork of crimson, vermillion, orange, copper and gold. And yet, through these flames one could see the walker, a pale figure who suffered and survived, recurring in numerous scenes and vaguely resembling the dead priest. In some scenes, he communed with angels and boddhisattvas, in other scenes he dragged the poor and sorrowful from smoking tar pits. In the final scene, he held out a handful of shiny washers. What was really frightening is that if you walked along the screen, or viewed it from various angles, the flames seemed to leap out from the screen in radiant threats. It is a hell screen, the abbot muttered to the others. The work of a twisted, self-absorbed mind. No, it is not a hell screen, said one penitent monk. It is the landscape of the heart; it is a confession. 

The Blotting Paper

The calligrapher loved to write and paint and make books. When he was not conducting official business, he read books of philosophy, thought about the world, and wrote or painted in his quiet house, sipping endless cups of tea. White mountains, black trees, worlds of snow, clouds of words, dragons of mist, and phoenixes of light covered the pages of many books alongside texts of parables and poems. The city sometimes summoned his texts for printing with great expectation; at other times, the city forgot him and his manuscripts. One day, the wind and rain rushed down upon the city, scattering rooftiles, breaking down walls and flooding homes. All of his books soaked up the dirty water and then bled out streams of rust and ink. The citizens wondered what he would do. Most thought that he would hang himself from his own willow tree. Instead, the calligrapher repaired roofs and walls wherever he could. Then he dried out his books and sorted them. While burning some, he examined the others that were disfigured but not burnable. With new soot from his fire, he made new ink and painted on the dried but disfigured pages that he had not burnt. When he ran out of these, he returned to buying new paper, but something had forever changed. Once again, he was painting, but always with blotting papers below the pages he painted on and with extra blotting papers at hand to place on top of his paintings. On certain days he would remove a blotting paper from beneath, and affixed his seal to it, to the unfinished poem or landscape of blots and marks. On other days, he would press a blotting paper to the top of a wet page and seal it after taking it off again, its dampness bearing the ghosts of brush strokes. Through abstractions of dark raindrops and pale silences, the calligrapher rebuilt the lost landscape.