An Original Chinese Style Tale of the Supernatural
The trees are bare and cold weather is with us up here at the Dragon Gate Inn. So are the mists that accompany the cold, rainy weather. Good time for visitors from other realms, strange music, and other “natural” phenomenon that might seem “strange” to visitors from the lowlands.
Very much in harmony with these autumn turnings, I thought it would be appropriate to put up another of my recently revised short stories. “Natural Harmony” considers nature and its harmonies – natural and human – in the context of my take on the wuxia genre.
In addition, once upon a time, when I was an active researcher in the lives of medieval Chinese Buddhist monks, I read through a 10th century Buddhist collection of biographies of eminent monks. In those fascinating stories, there were recorded many strange incidents and phenomena. Those readings have happily influenced my storytelling.
Hope you enjoy the trip!
Albert A. Dalia
It was probably the fishermen who first noticed the wind, if not the difference. Blowing low across the strait that separated the island from the mainland of
The mountain forests were more sensitive. One could see it in their leaves, the way they immediately turned over and upward entreating the dark night sky as the wind passed over them. Over the mountain ridges, it plunged down into the valleys. It was the Meditation master Hui-sheng who was first alerted. Up valley from the Flying Dragon Monastery, his meditation hut was shaken by the first draft of wind rushing down toward the lowlands.
No ordinary wind would have brought Hui-sheng out of his meditation. He had lived in the hut for over ten years, ever since the original monastery had been destroyed. Hui-sheng loved the higher regions of the mountain and soon left the relocated monastery farther down the valley. He had moved back up the mountain and built his hut. It was a compromise. There was no going back to the first Flying Dragon Monastery. The forces up there were too strong for its re-establishment. So Hui-sheng had found a place that was as close to his old home as the mountain would permit.
Farther down the mountain, the abbot of the current Flying Dragon Monastery was the next human being to sense the change in the wind. When it blew through the monastery flapping altar hangings, swaying bells, flickering candles and lamps, and swirling dry dust up from the ground, the abbot Ming-jing stood up from his meditation cushion and beat the assembly gong. The wind left the waking monastery behind and continued downward to the farmlands below.
A young stranger, who was on the way up the mountain, caught scent of the wind as it reached the lowlands. He stopped and stared up at the mountain range that rose before him in the moonlight. So, he thought, this is the place of my dreams. Then he felt the wind on his face. It was warm and moist. He closed his eyes. Dried bamboo leaves, tossed up from the ground, gently patted his face. He smiled and continued up the road that led into the mountains.
No doubt it was again the fisherman who first noticed the frosty white mist that was soon borne along by the wind. They hauled up their sails and headed for the nearest landfall. The mist, however, did not cloak the sea but made straight for the mountains. The mountain peaks disappeared in frosty film. As the mist grew denser, it seemed less and less interested in leaving the mountain top. It didn't proceed any further down the mountain than the ruins of the old Flying Dragon Monastery.
In the morning, everyone on the leeward side of the mountain would say that the sky had lowered itself and began just below the old monastery. The farmer folk down in the villages would rejoice believing that the prayers being said at the monastery had succeeded in entreating the spirits to break the drought, which had gripped the island for several months. The monks Hui-sheng and Ming-jing knew better.
"We must redouble our efforts my brothers in the Dharma, for a new situation has arisen that will require all our fortitude," said the abbot. The thirty monks below the abbot's lecture chair remained attentive. Light danced wildly over the large assembly room as the wind played with the candles and oil lamps.
"Soon there will be rain," continued the abbot. There was a stir amongst the monks.
"But, this is not the rain we have been praying for. Our prayers have attracted something that we must be cautious about." The murmuring from the monks grew more audible.
"Please. This is not the time for ignorant speculation. We must begin right now to ask for the Buddha's protection of this whole island. There is little time to lose." These words had barely cleared the abbot's lips when a tremendous clap of thunder let loose from the mountain peak. A brilliant lightning flash illuminated thirty faces peering up from below the abbot's seat.
From the peak, rain crashed down the valley. Hui-sheng felt the rush of air pushed by the impending torrent and ran for the cave behind his hut. The hut had little chance; the tremendous force of the gathering rain reduced it to broken thatch and bamboo. Perhaps, thought Hui-sheng as he watched the water sweep away his home, this time it would get what it wanted. He lit a small fire and took up a meditation position. Around him the earth shook from the roar of the rain and the morning gloom was torn by lightning flashes and peals of thunder.
The early morning light appeared to have worked a great transformation on the mountain. The peak had disappeared into the thick mist that clung to upper regions of the mountain. Here and there, the white, frosty vapor made forays down the mountain along the valleys that spread out from the top. The withered browns that once formed a patchy network over the mountain flanks were now shining with new rain. Even the great pine forests, which were the mountain's prime color and immune to seasonal change, had become pale ghostly shadows haunting the upland regions.
A gray figure wafted out of the mists and approached the main gate of the Flying Dragon Monastery. There were no attendants at the open gate so the young man walked through it to the main Buddha hall, which lay straight ahead. The rising and falling cadences of the monks chant filled the courtyard in front of the hall. The monastery was small and, by Chinese standards, young. As he approached the main hall, just for a moment, the young man heard another melody. Higher up above the chant, there was something. But when he noticed it and tried to discern its rhythm he found only the sound of the wind.
The abbot left his raised seat and stood outside the hall watching the young man.
"Have you heard something, young layman?"
The young man turned to the abbot. "Old monk," the young man bowed. "So the tune has also touched your ears!"
He shifted his blue shoulder bag, walked across the courtyard, and up the wooden steps to the raised platform that the hall stood upon. The abbot saluted him with a Buddhist greeting: placing the palms of the hands together chest high while chanting "Namo-o-mi-tuo-Fo" and bowing. The young man returned the greeting.
"I am the abbot Ming-jing. What brings you to our small community?" asked the abbot.
"Nothing in particular. I'm a wandering musician seeking the inspiration of Nature."
"A musician?" the abbot reflected aloud as he stroked his wispy white beard. "What is your honorable name, sir?"
"I have many names, old monk. Some know me as Wu Fei, others as ‘Red Flute.’"
"Red Flute!" The abbot's moth white eye brows hovered over his soft brown eyes, which darted to the long slim cloth bag slung over the young man's shoulder.
"In the courtyard a moment ago, did you hear anything?"
"Yes, of course, the chanting of your monks."
"Beyond that? If you are truly the one known as Red Flute, then you heard something else."
The young man smiled and drew the dizi (bamboo transverse flute) out of its bag. It was a long slender piece of bamboo, polished to a warm dark hue; around the far end hung a red tassel. He placed it to his lips and blew lightly across the mouth hole. A faint tune issued forth.
"Yes! Yes! That's it. We are honored to have you amongst us, Master Red Flute."
The monks who had taken a break from their chanting were listening to the conversation between their abbot and the young musician. The abbot invited Red Flute to the midday meal and had some of his disciples escort the young man to the guest quarters. The monastery's supervisor approached the abbot.
"Old master, my hearing is not what it used to be, as I am advancing in years, but neither I nor my fellow younger monks heard any sound issue from that fellow's flute. Yet, it seemed as if you and he heard something. We are puzzled by this."
The old abbot laughed and then turned his kindly countenance to his eldest disciple.
"I heard very little. We must all work harder to first become more attuned to the Way before we can hear clearly what he plays."
"Master?" the supervisor asked as the group of monks who were listening grew larger and closer to the abbot.
"Let us continue our meditation practice and seek from within ourselves the source of all sound, and you will gradually begin to hear the music of Master Red Flute," responded the abbot.
Higher up the mountain, there were flood barriers of pounded earth and bamboo that, given the fate of the former Flying Dragon Monastery, had been built to protect the new monastery. But the rain had worked furiously overnight to undermine the barrier's foundation. When the materials from Hui-sheng's former hut finally slid into the protective earthen walls they completely collapsed.
Just as the abbot had finished his admonition a great mud slide struck the monastery's back bamboo wall. The woven bamboo snapped and burst as the mud rushed through the rear courtyard racing for the front wall. Several wooden structures were washed away as the mass of debris smashed into the front wall. The wall held but the mud began to pile up as the water flowed over and around the gooey mess. The main gate and wall were being undermined by the constant work of the water. The rain was increasing. Soon, the whole monastery would be swept from the face of the mountain.
Monks were running here and there within the monastery trying to divert the water's flow. The abbot left the flood control work to his monastery supervisor and sought out Red Flute.
Red Flute was standing outside the guest rooms looking up at the mist hidden mountain peak. The abbot stopped and watched from across the courtyard to see what the young man would do. After studying the mountain peak for a while, Red Flute took up his flute and began to play. The abbot could barely make out the tune, but he could immediately see the reaction on the mountain top - the storm’s intensity relaxed. The mist that was boiling around the summit became tranquil. The thunder and lightning grew to a faint whisper. It was, thought the abbot, as if the mountain peak was trying to listen to Red Flute's tune.
By the time the abbot had crossed the courtyard, Red Flute had already packed away his flute.
"Ah, old monk, no need to see about me, I won't be here long."
"Please, I must have a word with you, our monastery is in grave danger and we need your help."
"I know. I'm preparing to climb the mountain and deal with your problem."
"Sir, I can't presume upon your goodness without giving you a complete explanation of what is going on here."
The musician smiled. "Just tell me when and how all this started."
The abbot and the flute player sat inside the guest quarters. The pause in the rain gave the monks a chance to repair part of the damage and prepare for a further onslaught.
"Ten years ago," the abbot began. "I was the monastery supervisor at the original Flying Dragon Monastery higher up on this mountain. At that time, our abbot enjoyed meditating outside next to a natural pool behind the main hall. The monastery was built up against the mountain side near a pool that was fed by a beautiful waterfall."
Red Flute sipped the tea that had been served. A faint smile drew across his lips when the waterfall was mentioned.
"One night something happened between the abbot and that pool," continued Ming-jing. "To this day we don't know what it was. The abbot would never tell us. But he ordered us to abandon the monastery and build another one down below at this location." The abbot was very downcast as he recounted those moments.
"The day after we left a great storm arose. The original monastery was destroyed by the ensuing floods." The abbot paused for a moment and gazed up at the dark black clouds that were continuing to gather around the mountain peak. He moved closer to Red Flute and in a low voice said, "The source of these storms is the same – and it remains unrequited."
"And the abbot?" asked Red Flute.
"He still lives up on the mountain. Not at the old site but below it in a meditation hut as a hermit. He is practicing asceticism and seems to be atoning for some sort of wrong."
"Has anyone tried to find out from him what he is doing?"
"I was his chief disciple and at first approached him everyday. But alas he has taken a solemn vow of silence and does not respond to our supplications," the old monk sighed. "I fear he will not survive this storm."
"Fear not," smiled Red Flute, "he is still alive, and I will see him tonight."
"You must not venture up there. Whatever spirit dwells there is evil and delights in the destruction of humankind."
"Do not worry. It is not evil."
The abbot's eyebrows took flight again. "How do you know this!?"
Red Flute smiled. "Evil does not respond to music."
After taking a few supplies, Red Flute began the long climb toward the summit. Ten years ago, there had been a trail up the mountain that serviced the original Flying Dragon Monastery. But time, the disaster at the original monastery, and this new storm had obliterated the track. Red Flute made his own path, following the natural inclinations of the mountain. Sometimes, he walked along the banks of the raging torrents created by the storm. At other times, he followed the high ground along ridge lines. By evening, he had reached Hui-sheng's cave.
The fire was still burning, and Hui-sheng was still in a meditative state. Red Flute needed to speak with him as soon as possible, but he knew it was dangerous to wake someone from deep samadhi. He sat down with his flute. A soft melody that sounded much like the nightingale's call drifted from the instrument toward the cave. Hui-sheng began to stir. When he had fully returned to the state of mundane consciousness, he saw Red Flute sitting outside the cave entrance.
"So you are the one who soothed the spirit's temper."
Red Flute smiled and bowed giving a Buddhist salute which Hui-sheng returned. The old monk bid the young musician enter and the two sat around the fire. Red Flute laid out the supplies he had brought and told Hui-sheng about the damage to the monastery.
"Then no one was injured?" asked the old monk.
Red Flute assured him that the only physical damage was to the monastery. The storm's darkness seemed to cross the monk's weathered face. "I fear she is out to wipe every trace of human spirituality off the face of this mountain. I have offered my life in exchange for allowing my brother's to live in peace with her, but each time she refuses."
"Old monk, I can help you, but I must know what happened ten years ago between you and her."
"I have already ended a ten year vow of silence by talking to you." Red Flute nodded. "I have done so because I heard a little of the tune you played for her. You are no ordinary flute player."
"Old monk, tell me what happened."
For a moment, the old monk sat watching the fire. "I used to meditate near the pool that was behind the main hall of the original Flying Dragon Monastery. It received that name because of the legend that a dragon lived at the bottom of the pool. No one, in my generation at least, had ever seen the fabulous beast. At least, until I began my meditation practice there. One night, as I was meditating a stray thought entered my mind. That thought, I later realized, was one of my former lives. I had once served an eminent master of the Way of Lao-ze, and he had taught me a spell for making dragons rise to the sky. Once this thought entered my mind, I could not prevent the spell from rising into consciousness. Unfortunately, the spell was genuine. The dragon was suddenly expelled from the pool. It rose on high and mounted a cloud passing the mountain peak that night."
The old monk stopped for a moment and took the cup of tea that Red Flute had brewed. After a sip he continued. "The dragon transformed into the form of a beautiful maiden. She was furious that I had forced her from the pond where she had abided peacefully for a thousand years. She vowed to destroy the monastery and any attempts by humans to live on the mountain. Her weapon further startled me," the old monk paused.
"Yes, please go on – this is crucial if I am to deal with her."
"Her weapon was the erh-hu (the two stringed bowed fretless Chinese fiddle). When she played of her sorrow at being disturbed after a millennia, none of us could hold back our tears. She made us experience her suffering. Several of my disciples went mad at the depth of her sorrow. Then she vented her rage and turned Nature against us. The monastery was swept away by a massive storm. Of course none of my disciples understood what happened for I was the only one who could see her. They unwittingly suffered for my inability to control my wandering mind. So for these ten years I have stayed here to discipline my mind." He laughed and said, "And even with all this practice, look how easy it was for you to distract me."
"Old monk you are too hard on yourself. There are few men on this earth who would not be ‘distracted,’ as you put it, by my flute. This is no ordinary instrument, and I am no ordinary player. I will deal with the erh-hu maiden."
Suddenly the cave was empty, only the old monk and the fire remained.
Near the mountain peak, the ruins of the original Flying Dragon Monastery were deeply bounded by the mist. Red Flute appeared by the pool. The area was grown wild with weeds, but he found it by following the roar of the waterfalls that plunged into it.
As Red Flute moved toward it in the dark, the moon suddenly filtered down through the mist and bathed the whole area in a ghostly pale light. It was then, for the first time clearly, that he heard the erh-hu music – a lonely, thin sound that perfectly complimented the moonlight. He reached the side of the pond and gazed upon the splendor of the waterfalls. It looked like a white silk robe tossed by the wind as its pearly froth flew every which way. But it was the sound that attracted him the most – the waterfalls was the source of the erh-hu music. The flow of the water matched the flow of the music.
Red Flute raised his flute and began to play. At first he followed the lead of the waterfalls, gently laying his notes along her melody line. Then he began developing his own line and intertwined it with hers. Sometimes he would follow her, and sometimes, only briefly at first, she would follow him.
The music suddenly stopped. A beautiful maiden appeared on the other side of the pool from Red Flute. She was tall with long silken hair as black as the deepest night and eyes that burnt like the very stars in the heavens. Her gown was opalescent as if she was cloaked in a rainbow with the moon as its source.
"Who are you?" she called to him.
"I am who ever you would like me to be."
"Don't toy with me. I could destroy you with one pluck of my string that is how insignificant you are to me."
"Yes that could be, but then where could you ever find anyone who could accompany you?"
"I need no one to accompany me. Have you no ears! My playing is superb."
"It is, and I am in awe of it. But think for a moment the music that could be made were two superb instruments such as the dizi and the erh-hu joined by two such superb players as ourselves? Are the instruments not made for each other?"
"Yes, but are the players?"
"Well, then we must have a match!"
"You are good, but don't presume you are my equal."
"My dear rain maiden, so far I've merely followed and that has been rather simple."
"How dare you!" She picked up her instrument and drew the bow across its two strings. Lightning struck near Red Flute. He then took up his flute and blew just one note. The very ground that held the pool quaked. The maiden stopped.
"You are no mere mortal. Then it is possible we could have an interesting match. What do you propose musician?"
"We accompany each other until one cannot match the other. At that point, the leader is declared winner."
"Yes, but what does the winner win and the loser lose?" the maiden said, a smile played across her lips.
"If I lose I will destroy my flute and leave the mountain to you. You can destroy the humans as is your present inclination. But if you lose then you must marry me, and become my dutiful wife."
Lightning flashed and thunder roared at the word "wife."
"If it were not for your flute playing, this would be a test of martial ability instead!" blazed the rain maiden. "I agree to your terms and look forward to sweeping the humans off this mountain." With that she took up her instrument and began to play.
Her playing was intense. The waterfalls raged on and on. So forceful was the water that it split some of the boulders below. But the dizi managed to hang on and stayed with the roller coaster ride that she provided.
The pace, however, proved too fast for the rain maiden, and she had to slow down. When this happen Red Flute, who had been conserving his strength, took command and played out a bright rippling melody that danced merrily along. She had to struggle to keep up with him but soon became lost in the merriment of his melody. To her surprise she found she could not only stay with him, but was quickly weaving a bright air of her own within his.
Back and forth the playing went. At one moment, he led, at another she. The music picked up pace and then relaxed, gathering strength. Then another surge took them higher and again, exhausted, they fell back down into the valleys – the music mellowed and touched the sweetness of their exhaustion. Up and down the mountain and all across the island the music ranged. For a week the islanders enjoyed the most heavenly music ever to dance in mortal ears.
Then it stopped. The storm dissipated and the weather resumed its normal patterns over the island. Hui-sheng climbed to the ruins and the pool with his fellow monks. Master Red Flute was no where to be found.
In time, the original monastery was rebuilt and named the Upper Flying Dragon Monastery, while the one below had "Lower" added to its name. Near the pool they dedicated a shrine to Red Flute and one to the rain maiden.
However, there was one curious discovery. Near the edge of the pool a new stand of bamboos flourished – they were red bamboos, a type never native to the island. The local people claim that on misty moonlit nights, if one listens very carefully, erh-hu music can be heard coming from the waterfalls, and, as the wind blows through the stand of red bamboos, the sound of dizi music is also heard. The music of the two instruments is always in perfect, natural harmony.