The monk had come to greatly savor the simple things in life. The wind ’s music through the mountain ’s maple trees. The trickle of creek water sweeping lazily between the mossy stones. The fine taste of hot green tea with ginger and the soup made of onions, seaweed, soybeans and radishes. Simple things expanded his awareness of larger things —of greater things. And so he was contented. His days spent serving the old temple alone in the mountains consisted of sweeping the old wooden floor, tending to his bulbs of onions and ginger roots like chicken feet, long walks down to the sea to harvest seaweed, and the long walks up the mountain, harvesting mushrooms from the woods.
And, of course, he spent many hours in prayer and meditation.
As the sun set in the West he would pray to Buddha in thanks and admire the warm glare of the setting sun peeking through the windows of the temple, touching warmly the sleepy face of the Buddha ’s statue at he head of the temple. Often the monk longed to fall asleep likewise, and often did, maintaining his cross-legged position throughout the night. He woke in the morning stiff and aching, for he was very old, and sometimes he regretted waking in such pain. Yet, he rose, as always, and set about his usual day, listening to the wind ’s music and drinking his simple tea and eating his simple soup, doing his simple chores, and finding simple contentment once again in his long day of peaceful isolation.
But the years dragged on and the monk felt the dead weight of them growing heavier, like decades of fallen leaves bundled atop his shoulders. He did not walk so well in the morning, even after sleeping on his simple straw mat. He had to lean on his hoe intermittently when tending to his garden. When walking up and down the mountain he had to rest on a log, here and there, taking much more time each day to accomplish his foraging. He began to forego such strenuous trips, venturing every other day, and only once each day rather than the many trips he once dared.
And his mind began to fail him. He would boil tea over his fire pit, then forget about it until the leaves had burned. Sometimes he would pick an onion from his garden, eagerly peeling it only to find that he had once before picked an onion for soup that week.
And then the shadows began to come to him.
They came at sunset while the monk was beginning his prayer. They enumerated around the room as the sun ’s rays touched the brow of the Buddha statue. The figures crouched in the dark corners of the small temple, away from the statue. The monk watched them sometimes as they loped about, or somersaulted, tumbling end over end in mischievous mirth. The shadows were small at first, but lengthened as they sun waned, drawing themselves upward with the weak light of the monk ’s single candle.
The monk was never upset or unsettled by the shadows, no matter how stranger their shapes and movements. He observed the shadows impassively, much the same as when observing swallows darting about the cliffs of the mountain, or foxes flitting through the bushes. He knew that his mind was a thing of the material world, and so fickle and prone to wits that would fade in time, bringing with their weakness the phantasms of an unbridled imagination. He accepted this fate calmly, and so let the shadows do as they willed while he prayed impassively, grateful that the Buddha should allow him the wherewithal to understand the looseness of his mind and, therefore, resist its indulgent fancies as the hallucinations grew more vivid.
But then came a nightfall when the shadows ceased their jovial prancing and devilish tumbling. They stood around the monk, arrayed along the temple ’s old walls, flickering as the single candle flickered, and staring.
And then they stepped forward from the shrouds of their shadows, the figures manifesting at last in corporeal form. They were now flesh and blood —or so near as yokai might have been —and the old monk could smell them, could see them clearly, and, had he dared, could have reached out and touched them.
Yet, the old monk was not perturbed.
Foremost among these demonic figures was a creature very much like the monk himself. He had a bald head, prayer beads around one wrist, an old stained robe as modest as the old monk ’s, and a wrinkled brow. Had the monk owned a mirror to know what he, himself, looked like now, after years of isolation, he would have known that this creature was the perfect reflection of himself. That is to say, the perfect reflection except for the third eye embedded in the creature ’s forehead. It was a mockery of the Mind ’s Eye, its pupil slitted like a serpent ’s.
“You poor wretch of a monk, ” the three-eyed monk said. “For decades you have served the Buddha, and for what reward? Aches and pains and old age. ”
The old monk responded with a level voice. “Humility comes by many means, ” he said, “and is its own reward. ”
The three-eyed monk shook his head in mock-pity. “And yet you have not achieved Satori. So much sacrifice —decades of one ’s life in lonely wilderness —and all for the profligacies of a deaf-mute statue. ”
Again the old monk replied with a level voice. “Buddha speaks and hears as he ought, ” he said. “If I utter a prayer, and it is unheard, then it is still heard by the Buddha within me. ”
The three-eyed monk laughed, his dusty cackles echoing in the dark, candlelit silence of the temple. “We shall see what answers you when given temptations. Yes! Then shall we know how true a Buddhist life you lead, for anyone may be a Buddhist monk who hasn ’t the temptations to lead him astray from the Path. ”
The three-eyed monk clapped his hands and a figure stepped forward among the grotesque throng. It was a voluptuous woman in a silken gown. No, two women! They shared the same kimono, and then, letting it slip to the floor, they revealed that they shared the same body, conjoined so that there were two heads, two arms, two legs, and three breasts between them. They were beautiful, their womanhood glistening wantonly in the candlelight. They beckoned to the old monk and moaned, kissing one another as they batted their long eyelashes at him, fondling their breasts and caressing their womanhood with their hands. Their twinned voices rang out in ecstacy. The three-eyed monk leered at them, and leered at the old monk.
“You have been celibate your whole life, ” the three-eyed creature said. “Be embraced by Desire itself, before it is too late and you vanish into the unfeeling shadows once and for all. ”
The old monk trembled slightly, in desire and in repulsion at his own desire. Yet, he remained cross-legged upon the floor.
“No, ” he said, his voice quivering. “The kiss of the wind on my brow is more than I ever needed. ”
Other demons among the throng readily took hold of the voluptuously twinned wanton and drew her in amongst themselves, pleasing her and themselves as was their wont. The three-eyed looked on a while, grinning, then gestured to another creature.
There came flowing out from among the demons a long serpentine dragon that glittered brightly. Its scales were of gold and jewels, and these treasures rained down upon the temple floor as the dragon streamed and bent and twisted about the temple. Clutched in its clawed hands were large pearls wherein reflected the old monk ’s face.
“You have been poor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “Take of these precious treasures and buy a kingdom! Buy two! You would live in comfort and . ”
The old monk could see himself in the pearl, carried around in a palanquin by strong young men through a palace hung with silk and ornate with golden statues of Bodhisattvas grinning vastly. Young women in lovely kimonos served him fruits and played music for him as he lounged among them, reclining among pillows stuffed with peacock feathers.
Seeing himself luxuriate brought to mind the aches in his lower back, and in his hips, and in his knees and bones all over. He trembled to think how wonderful such comforts might have been. But he felt shame.
“A roof above my head to keep out the rain, and a small fire to fend off the chill…that was always wealth enough for me, unmatched by any other earthly treasures. Wealth is the reward from the work of others, heaped unjustly upon one ’s lap. Why would I debase others, and myself, by encumbering them with my earthly burdens. Our chains are ours alone to bear, and easy chains of jewels and coin bind us all the more strongly. ”
The figures among the throng laughed as they scrambled to scoop up the wealth shed by the golden dragon. The three-eyed monk watched them with great pleasure at their haste and havoc, especially as they fought over the jewels and swore and grappled. After a time, he clapped his hands and the yokai retreated, their arms and tentacles and appendages encoiling great wealth. The three-eyed monk grinned, beckoning forward another among the grotesqueries gathered there.
Coming forward with a clumsy, ponderous step was a Tanuki. It ’s large eyes gleamed beneath its straw hat, its bulbous belly (and sack) bouncing together as it stepped forward, carrying in its hairy arms a large cauldron. The cauldron steamed fragrantly, redolent with meats of every kind; of ox and fish and chicken, all flavored with spices from the West and the tastiest vegetables the old monk had ever seen. Heaving the cauldron up, the Tanuki slammed it down, sloshing the delicious broth and shaking the temple to its withered timbers.
The Buddha statue, however, remained unmoved.
“You have abstained from flavor your whole life, ” the three-eyed monk said. “So feast, now, and know the true bounty of the earth in all its splendor. ”
The monk opened his mouth —but whether because of hunger or refusal, even he did not know. His stomach gurgled at the spicy flavors that tantalized him as they breathed fulsome in the small, crowded temple. The monk moaned silently, but did not move. At length, he spoke, though speaking was made more difficult by the salivating of his mouth.
“A simple soup and tea nourished my body, mind, and soul unto great satisfaction, and I neither wanted or needed more. ”
The three-eyed monk squinted suspiciously. Shrugging, he waved a hand at the throng gathered, and they all converged upon the cauldron, scalding themselves unmindfully as they scooped out the delicious food and gobbled it down. Not even a droplet of broth remained after they emptied the cauldron.
“So much you have abstained from, ” the three-eyed monk remarked. “And yet, so much could return to you at a word. ”
He raised his hands and clapped them yet again, the candlelight flickering as if struck by a shearing gust of wind. When the shadows around the temple wobbled back into a steady candlelight, all which the old monk had denied himself was once again before him: the conjoined wanton and her three breasts, the golden dragon and its visions of luxury and comfort, and the Tanuki ’s cauldron, brimming with succulent meats and spices.
“Now choose, ascetic, ” the three-eyed monk said, gesturing to the temptations arrayed around the old monk. “Choose to indulge or abstain. It matters not either way, for upon this final night of your life your deaf-mute god does not care. No one cares, except yourself. ”
The old monk looked at the splendor before him, and he looked at the indifferent, graven statue of the Buddha. With a wheezy voice, the old monk spoke.
What he said, only his inner Buddha heard.
It was many years before another monk was sent to the isolated mountain temple. When he arrived he found it deserted. There were swallows in the rafters and the garden had overgrown with weeds. The Buddha ’s statue sat as it had always sat, his eyes closed in sleepy detachment. The young monk did much work that day, preparing his home, and much more work the next. For a week he worked to make the temple habitable again. He did not remove the swallows, but let them remain, diligently cleaning up after them when they made messes upon the temple floor. Later, when he lit his candle one evening to finally pray as he knew he should, he saw a shadow flicker from the candle that was not his own. Whose it was, he did not know. When he glanced around, he saw no one. Only he and the Buddha statue occupied the temple.
For a time.