A Chinese Ghost Story & A Question
When I began fiction writing, I started with Chinese style ghost stories. This one has an interesting history, as the basic tale was told to my by one of my Buddhist nun students when I lived in a Buddhist monastery and taught English to a group of nuns. You can see a picture of a very young author and his class on my website.
In addition, since I'm giving you something, I'd like to ask for your comments on this question: If HBO was to do a wuxia series - at their "This isn't TV" level - what would you like to see? I'll elaborate in a following blog IF I get enough comments!
Enjoy the story as my thanks for your comments to my question.
Albert A. Dalia
Last week, I returned to the monastery for the first time in twenty years. The deeply wooded region where the monastery was originally built had vanished. So were the old stone walking paths. In place of the rough-hewn stone structure where I had the most terrifying experience of my life, new buildings with shiny tile surfaces and bigger more impressive Buddha figures stood. All that remained were those strange flowers and their peculiar sweet scent.
Twenty years ago today, I was cycling around the base of a Taiwanese mountain. Beautiful weather had lured me out farther than I should have gone. I was following a single lane blacktop strip that seemed to wind aimlessly up the mountain. A distant rumbling disturbed my meandering and reminded me that spring thunderstorms were the norm in
The climb had taken over an hour. I was tired but noticed a stone path, almost hidden by overgrowth. The path seemed to beckon with its mysteries.
As I moved over the rough hewed, mottled gray stones the sky darkened and the wind picked up. I came to a stone gate. Drops of water began to burst all around me. I glanced at the characters across the top of the gate, Ice Cloud Monastery, and hurried on.
The monastery was simple: three buildings with a main gatehouse and a stone courtyard in the center. Outside the central courtyard, a portico connected all the buildings. The gatehouse was home for the standard guardian statues that served as spirit protectors for the monastery. I was to find out, however, that there were times when they went off duty.
Walking through the guardian hall, I entered the portico. Laid out on a north to south axis, the main hall of the temple was in front of me as I faced north. To the east and west were two other smaller buildings. To my left, a nun carrying some dried tea walked toward me. Water was running swiftly over the tiled eaves and splashing on the ground.
"Omitofo," she intoned as she greeted and blessed me with a Buddhist salute, palms pressed against each other raised chest high.
"Omitofo," I answered.
"Ah, you are a follower of the Buddha's teachings?"
"Well, not exactly, but I have an interest."
"Good. You also must need shelter because of this storm."
"Yes, that's why I came up here..."
She smiled at my response and said, "Most of us are also here because of a need for shelter."
I wondered if it was my Chinese. Maybe she misunderstood me. But her smile said she understood more than just my Chinese.
"You'll have to stay the night, as the storm won't break off until morning. A room is prepared for you. Dinner is at six and in the evening we request that you remain in your room."
"Stay the night? But why do I have to stay in the room?"
"You are the only male here and should not be given a room."
She paused to remove some twigs from the dried tea leaves and continued,
"But you're a foreigner and seem to respect our teachings. The storm will pick up in intensity. It's dangerous to be outside. So for your safety, you should stay in tonight."
A flash of lightning sizzled through the cooling, wet air, followed by a loud clap of thunder. The chanting of human voices poured through the sudden calm and filled the damp air. I looked across the rain-drenched courtyard to the main hall. There was a ceremony under way.
"Wait here and someone will show you to your room." She bowed and moved off. I moved to a nearby stool and watched the ceremony.
Several lightning flashes later, a fully robed Buddhist nun seemed to float from the eastern building into the main hall. She wore a crown-like hat, signifying that she was the leader of the ceremony. Before I could stand, another nun came up to me.
"Omitofo, I am Miao-fa and will show you to your room."
I moved quickly to keep up with her. She led me into the western building and down a corridor to a small comfortable room. There was a wash basin on a table, a small window, and a wooden bed with a quilt on it.
"Dinner is at six, you will hear the bell. Omitofo."
"Excuse me, could you tell me what ceremony is going on in the main hall?"
"We are feeding the hungry ghosts tonight. The ceremony is quite long, so please forgive us if we don't take dinner with you." She bowed and left.
I heard of such ceremonies. The Buddhist tradition had long ministered to suffering in both this and other worlds.
Dinner was peaceful. I shared it with lightning, thunder, and the chanting from the main hall. After eating, I wasn't tired enough to sleep so I wandered outside. What could be dangerous about a thunderstorm? I had grown up with them in
At the hall, I peered in. Tables had been stacked upon each other so that the three leading celebrants were elevated above the other nuns. The leader of the ceremony was sitting cross-legged in a chair that elevated her above the other two. She was going through a series of mudras, mystic hand symbols that endow the practitioner with extraordinary powers. The head nun appeared to be in some sort of trance. Her fingers moved with great speed, making intricate patterns in the dim light.
A lightning bolt hit the monastery.
The lights glowed brilliantly just before they extinguished. However, the candlelight, the smoldering incense embers, and the drone of the chanting gave the impression that the whole scene had transported back through time. We had entered another realm - this could be somewhere in ancient
The ceremony continued unabated. The head nun flicked individual grains of rice out into the air. At this point, the hungry ghosts were to rise from hell, or wherever they happened to be, and partake of the feast. The thought amused me. An eerie glow from within the hall, however, cleared the amusement from my mind.
The head nun stretched out her arm. The sleeve of her jia-sha, the red patched cloak of authority that Buddhist clergy wore over their robes for formal ceremonies, opened as it hung down over her arm. She slowly moved in a circle so all could see. Wherever the jia-sha passed there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of squirming figures piled on top of each other, going after the rice and candies that were being thrown into the hall.
Startled, I moved closer to get a better look. In the darkness no one noticed me. The hall must be filled with those anguished beings, but they were invisible unless viewed directly through the jia-sha. It was a window into another dimension, another realm.
The beings had human faces floating on long thin necks over bloated bodies. They could not get enough food, even the single grains of rice, down their pencil-thin gullets to fill those bellies. These were the hungry ghosts, cast into those grotesque forms for their transgressions in previous lives. The Buddhist Hells brimmed with them.
Whether it was the weight of those tormented beings or just the appointed moment of cause and effect, a leg on one of the tables cracked and broke loose. The whole structure crumbled like a house of cards. The head nun landed on the ground and must have struck her head.
She lay unconscious, her jia-sha open along her outstretched arm. The hungry ghosts, who were back on the other side of that garment, broke through. The jia-sha was no longer a barrier. It was now an open gate. Some nuns panicked and screamed, others fainted.
The ghosts ran amok, madly devouring all the rice and food in the hall. One group of nuns tried to revive their leader. Another group tried to concentrate on the chanting and the mudras. The ghosts attacked this group when the food ran out. Their sharp nails and teeth drew blood from the defenseless nuns, whose chanting began to waver. The ghosts grew in size and ferocity as one by one the nuns fell blood streaming over the smooth concrete floor. Soon there would be none left...
I had no idea what was to come next. I could only think to fling myself out into the storm and run. I turned, and another strange sight appeared out of the darkness.
Striding across the courtyard through the driving rain and illuminated by flashes of lightning, was a large figure in black robes. Bearded, with a wild mound of hair on his head, he carried a long wooden staff. As he rushed past me, I noticed the rain had not dampened him. He moved swiftly to the middle of the hall. The ghosts quickly parted and drew away from him. He was a monk, but his features were more Western, probably Indian.
He sat on a meditation cushion below the hall's main Buddha figure, his hands formed a mudra, and his voice boomed out some sort of mantra. The language was neither Chinese nor Tibetan, possibly ancient Sanskrit.
The depth of his voice shook the hall. His chant calmed the storm and the ghosts. The panicked nuns regained their composure and returned to their chanting. Others still lying on the floor, bleeding from their wounds, attempted to return to their positions and take up the chant in Chinese.
The lead nun, revived, rose and resumed her chant. She held up her jia-sha and the ghosts poured back into it. Hell's gate closed.
The large monk got up, intoned, "Omitofo," as he bowed toward the nuns and walked out of the hall. When he passed me, I smelled an unusual fragrance, the scent of sweet lotus blossoms. It was the last thing I remembered before I blacked out.
The next morning I awoke in the room assigned to me. I don't know how I got there. I hurried outside to see what was left of the monastery.
The bright sunlight blinded me for a moment. I ran across the courtyard to the main hall and entered it. Everything was in order. I looked at my watch; nine o'clock in the morning. How could they have cleaned up so fast?
I was startled when a voice from behind said, "Omitofo, excuse me. How are you this morning? We rang for breakfast, but you didn't answer. You must have been very tired from your ride."
It was Miao-fa, one of the chanting nuns who was attacked first by the hungry ghosts.
"Of course, why shouldn't I be?"
"Last night, the hungry ghosts....."
"Yes, we had the ceremony last night, but there is no need for concern."
"But I saw you attacked and bleeding..."
"Oh! No, how could I have been attacked? Does it look like an attack took place here?"
"But I saw it," I said, although I wasn't sure anymore. What did I see last night? For a moment, I wasn’t even sure how I got there.
"Your bike is outside and we have packed a nice lunch for your ride back to the city."
"Yes, yes, my bike.” I felt rather foolish. “Thank you, and the others for your kindness."
"Omitofo," she said bowing. She turned and walked off toward the main altar.
On the way down the mountain, I remembered the strange monk's sweet lotus fragrance. It permeated the air. Then I noticed that the path was filled with unusual looking white flowers. They were star shaped with seven petals and were the source of the fragrance, but they were not lotus flowers. I hadn’t noticed them in the rain when I climbed the path to the monastery.
Back at the main road I got on my bike and headed down the mountain. I came to a village where I stopped for a drink.
"I'll take a bottle of mango juice."
"Your Chinese is good," said the store owner.
"No, just back to
"Carry your own food?" he said gesturing to the wooden lunch box on my bike carrier.
"No, the nuns up at Ice Cloud Monastery made it for me."
His face turned white. He sat down and took a deep draw on his Long Life cigarette. He looked at me, studying my eyes for a moment, as if he was not sure whether to go on with the conversation.
"Did you meet nuns up there?"
"Yes. I stayed overnight. Why?"
He fell silent again, puffed on his cigarette, and said in a low voice,
"The Ice Cloud Monastery has been abandoned for thirty years."
I knew how to prove it and ran outside to my bike. I opened the lunch box. No lunch. There was only a white star-shaped flower with seven petals, and scent of sweet lotus blossoms.