A monastery thrived in the dark mountains. The monks prayed and worked. Golden grain swayed in the fields; codices filled the libraries. The walls rose high into the starry heavens. All of the brothers got along well, and there were none of the typical vices or complaints. For miles all around, one could hear the church bells tolling the sweet rhythms of an earthly paradise. One brother was especially grateful and began to pray one evening to voice his thanks to heaven. An angel suddenly appeared and asked the brother what life was like. Exuberant, the monk said that he was living in paradise! A soul could only grow and continue to grow in such a place of purity and sanctity! It was quiet for a long time. Then the angel spoke into the penumbra of the cell. Sixty thousand souls have just perished from war and plague; I must gather many souls to take them to their blissful rest. I do not know if I shall see you again. The monk was horrified and demanded to know the reason. Nobody asked you to live in paradise, the angel replied. The road to heaven leads through hell.
There is an old proverb that says three monks cannot haul water to provide for themselves. There happened to be three real monks discussing this actual story from every angle at their small, new monastery on the cliff. One, who happened to know a bit of math and logic, which is poetry after all, suggested that they remain as three monks but pretend to be alone when it came to chores. The other two readily agreed and the rest of the day was spent in hauling water, each one carrying his own bucket. By nightfall, they had stored the equivalent of a reservoir and decided to celebrate with some tea. Apparently, we have no firewood for boiling tea and making dinner, said the first monk, a little disappointed. To hell with proverbs! said the third monk. Tonight we will fast, said the second monk, and tomorrow we can talk about economics, which I happen to know something about. Perhaps some division of labour might be necessary. The other monks agreed, for economics is also poetry, and there is nothing more beautiful than a life of contemplation and poetics in the wilderness of mountains and waters.
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.
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.
In the other land of heretic monks who whispered of the pure nothing and crusaders who wore the black cross, the mouser guarded the long spiral staircase of hewn stone. The stairwell was as high as it was bottomless, and he lived in the shadows somewhere between vertigo and insomnia. The rats were the worst threat to the castle and cathedral tower. With his blade he fought them, through crackles of phosphorus matches, electricity and whispers of radiation and radio waves. It was the tango of life or death. Only after a fury of slashing would he find sleep on some quiet stair. The stairs ascended, descended and swirled. It would have been better if there had been circles of incandescent angels to better light the void instead of the rainfall of rats like black clouds. Sometimes, he awoke after nightmares of chasing long tails like gray eels, freefalling, being chewed by glowing teeth, or being crushed by spring-loaded iron jaws. The mouser awoke in the night to see the dead rats playing in life and in death as if he did not exist. They danced and posed. And he thought that it was possible that the rats lie. And there was too much darkness to contemplate even with the lanterns of his golden eyes. The mouser realized that he lived in a mousetrap.
Once upon a time, a paleontologist and a monk would often encounter one another in the great far fields of stars and night trees. Sometimes, the monk would be on his knees, praying. At other times, the paleontologist would be on his knees, chiselling out stones or fossils by the light of a lantern or torch. One evening, they met as they were both walking from opposite directions of the road through the fields. Our lives are very similar, said the paleontologist. We spend a lot of time on our knees. Perhaps there is something like prayer in my work. That’s possible, said the monk. Perhaps when I pray, I am also examining stones and fossils in a different way. And in one sense, we are both communing with our friends. The paleontologist especially liked this last statement as he rubbed a trilobite in his palm. Then he asked whether they were praying or studying the same things. On your knees, you encounter what is up front and close, said the monk. On my knees, I meet what is behind and beyond. One is the reason for the other. The paleontologist was not yet convinced, but he took the monk by the arm and said, Let us walk together. The night is beautiful and it is true.