King of the Little Forest
(King of the Little Forest is a side story within the story of Torin Feng – Book Five of The Dragons of Wulin)
Incense thickened the air in the hall of meditations so much that Master Sun could barely see the old monk gently tapping the giant bronze bell with each recitation of sacred scripture. It had been a difficult morning for him. The students had seemed lazier and weaker than normal, and nothing could set his mood off more than that. And worse, the abbot had twice that morning warned him to ease up on his students.
He strained against the tense muscles in his broad back without showing any movement to disrupt the concentration of his Shaolin brothers. There would be no meditation on the scriptures for Master Sun today. His mind returned to his ever-present struggle to strengthen his charges for any battle they might face in life. No enemy would ever “ease up” on them. His younger years in the emperor’s army had shown him that truth long before he came to the temple and a life of peace. The young students had to be strengthened, not pampered. And any young man could become strong enough for battle if properly motivated. As master of both the tiger and the crane, it was his duty to strengthen them. If only…
A shriek pierced the hall from outside. Several monks gave a start and the abbot motioned for an acolyte near the door to see to the disturbance. Master Sun squinted against the sudden flood of noonday light when the door opened. Through the bluish mist of incense students and disciples could be seen running around in the courtyard.
A younger monk leaned over toward Master Sun and whispered, “They know better. This is not the place for such chaos.”
Master Sun pressed his lips together and silently vowed to punish them for their lack of discipline. Without discipline strength cannot be developed, and without strength a man cannot…
A cry rose up from several of the monks in the hall. Master Sun shook his head, wondering if lack of discipline was spreading like a disease among the men of the Shaolin Temple. Then his gaze followed their horrified stares to the courtyard. Three of the students approached the great door with the limp body of another in their arms. Master Sun jumped to his feet and ran to the door. It was Li Chen, a newer student of the temple who had just recently graduated from kitchen scullery to the study of Kung Fu. Master Sun took the boy from his fellows and laid him on the cool steps, but there was nothing that could be done for him. He had seen death too many times to mistake its signs on the youngster’s skin and drawn cheeks. His joints were already beginning to stiffen. He drew his fingers across an ugly mark circling under the boy’s jaw. “A rope. Who cut him down?”
One of the boys who had carried the body said, “Wang, did, sir. He got him down as soon as he saw him. Is it too late, sir?”
Master Sun nodded and drew a fold of the boy’s robes over his face as the rest of the monks gathered around.
The boy continued, “He tried so hard, Master Sun. Please don’t be angry with him any more.”
The Master shot a look at the young boy and froze on the fear behind the tears in his eyes. He said, “This boy was my favorite. That’s why I…” The day’s work came flooding back into his mind. Li Chen had tried harder than any young man he had ever taught. The boy wanted desperately to please, but he was so thin; so small and weak. Master Sun could never get the image of his favorite new pupil getting killed in battle out of his mind, so he had pushed him harder than anyone else.
Master Sun put his hand on the dead boy’s chest and sighed. Why couldn’t he have understood the importance of strength and hard training? What made him do such a stupid thing? He had the potential for a great life ahead of him, if only he would have taken the time to develop his strength and discipline according to…
Master Sun stood up and rubbed his face with both hands. When he dropped his hands to his sides, he looked into the staring eyes of every monk and student in the courtyard, and he knew it wasn’t because he stood a full head taller than the tallest of them. He knew it wasn’t because he was the broadest and strongest of them.
He walked toward the outer gate of the temple, and, reaching it, he stood there with his back to them for some time. After drawing a deep breath, he turned and bowed to them, giving the Shaolin salutation and saying, “Goodbye.”
After they returned his salutation, the abbot took a step toward him and raised his hand to stop him, but Master Sun’s decision was firm. He felt he was no longer fit to teach at the temple. Stepping through the gate and closing it behind him, he decided that he never had been fit. As he walked out onto the dusty road, he thought, I never taught them to be strong, I taught them to be me, and that was wrong. Li Chen had no more chance of being strong like me than I would have trying to wear his little robe. It was my own stubborn stupidity that killed him.
Master Sun Men Chang sat by the side of Lung’an road, and, with not much interest, watched the parade of humanity entering and leaving the city. His thoughts wandered here and there without discipline or purpose, and his head ached. After an hour or so, the late morning sun began to sap his remaining strength and his head began to nod. He dozed for a while, then something small dropped into his lap. He opened his eyes and stared at a couple of coins lying on the robes between his crossed legs.
Without looking up from the coins, he said, “One with tattered gray robes and no shoes on his feet shouldn’t be throwing his money away.”
The man squatted down in front of him and looked into his eyes. His wispy white beard and mustaches hung halfway down his chest beneath eyes that smiled with a youthful vigor, that contrasted to the many wrinkles around them. He said, “I was looking for a way to relieve the weight in my purse. Had I just thrown them by the side of the road, a lesser man might have found them and made bad use of them. I figured a starving priest might hand them over to a hard-working restauranteur, and my country would grow stronger by that.”
Master Sun drew a deep breath and said, “Why would a Priest of The Way feed a Priest of The Enlightened One?”
The old priest stood up and, pushed back the double swords at his side, saying, “Well, you’re sitting in my spot, though I haven’t used in many, many years.”
Master Sun looked at the ground around him, then back at the forest behind him, and then at the city in front of him. “Your spot?”
“The old man reached his hand down to the sitting Shaolin priest and said, “Long ago, my friend. But it seems you are making use of it now, though not as well as did I in my time.”
Master Sun’s stomach let out a loud growl as he stared at the hand offered to him.
The old priest added, “Or perhaps you are. It’s a good spot for starving, but I had already learned that lesson when you were only a boy. When you feed that tiger within you, sir, I ask that I may be permitted to join you, if even for a single meal.”
Master Sun took the lowered hand and stood up, towering over the old man. Fingering his orange Shaolin robes, he said, “There is a gulf between the orange and the gray, sir. Why should you want to sit and eat with me?”
“Well, I threw away some coins that were burdening me, but it seems there was a string of chi holding them to my wrist, and it dragged me across that gulf. Besides, you crossed the old gulf of misunderstanding when you took it upon yourself to occupy my favorite self-pity seat.”
Master Sun winced at the old man’s words, but the toll of four days without food and three nights with very little sleep robbed him of the energy to object. He nodded and said, “I could use a bite.” After looking at the old man’s swords and gray robes, he added, “But no meat!”
“Of course not, my friend. Only the meat of truth, if you will.”
After a good meal in a restaurant at the edge of town, Master Sun said to the other priest, “I thank you again, sir, but now I will be on my way.”
“And what is your way, brother?”
Master Sun looked out into the forest and said, “Solitude.”
“The solitude of a hermit? For that you need benefactors, or your solitude will be that of the grave.”
“Then I will join you for the first part of it this day.”
“But I said my way is one of …”
“Stupitude. Yes. I heard you.” Master Sun started to object, but the old man interrupted him, saying, “Yes. Neglect of duty, sniveling self-pity and useless waste of life is to be your way. Do you still believe in The Enlightened One?”
As the objections faded from Master Sun’s mind, he finally found the voice to say, “Yes.”
“Then your life does not belong to you. You may not throw it away. For the present, you are unable to carry out your priestly duties to serve mankind as you should. But take my advice. Forget for a moment that all of this is an illusion. Certainly there is the unfathomable power beneath it all, but this,” he tapped on Master Sun’s chest, “is real, and what happens to it matters to every living thing.” After a pause, he said, “You have seen war and have ended the lives of many good men.”
“In a past life,” Master Sun said, his cheeks reddening with shame.
“In which sense to you mean that?”
Master Sun shrugged and shook his head, “I’ve changed since then. I was young and foolish.”
“As was I in my time, son. And I once followed the way of The Enlightened One, as you do now. But listen to me. You know the look of the light when it leaves the eyes of a man. You know the uselessness of untimely death.” He shook his head and said, “Don’t go that way. There’s no good for anyone that can come of it, and you owe life and service to many innocent people among us.” He stared at the Shaolin for a while, then said, “I can see that you are driven by some great need. The truth is that great perceptions and great thoughts arise out of such need as you have right now. So, my word to you is this; perform your priestly duties and accept your pay for them. Allow the believers of your religion to give you alms as they desire. This will rectify their spirits and keep you alive for those great perceptions to bring a great truth to you. Your question will be answered if you only listen attentively enough. For the present, forget the silly notion that this is all an illusion. Only your perception of it is an illusion, but it can serve you well if you understand that.” He pointed a slender old finger at the forest and said, “Look to nature. Your answer is out there and waiting for you. It’s calling to you now. I can hear its little voice, and I can see the hunger for it in your eyes.”
“Who are you?” Sun asked.
The old man smiled and said, “Call me Mr. Walker.”
“Walker? What kind of name is that?”
“It’s not my name. It’s only what I am. I am The Walker of the Winding Path and the Worker of Wonders, according to those who cannot understand. To them, I walk about the empire creating miracles.” He shook his head and then leaned close to Master Sun, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Actually, I just see miracles about to happen, and, after they do, I am there to take credit. You, my brother priest, are stumbling about in the whirling storm of a miracle about to happen. What you are learning right now is that miracles are born of disasters. When you are done learning that, then heaven’s path will intersect with ours.” The old priest adjusted his swords and started to walk away, then stopped and looked back to say, “Disasters are unavoidable. It’s only miracles that we excel at avoiding, usually by entering into a life of devout stupitude.” With that, he turned and headed down the road, and, for a moment, Master Sun wanted to follow him.
For several months, Master Sun followed the old priest’s advice. He performed his duties and served those folks who asked for his priestly services. But, increasingly, he spent his time in the forests and fields of the empire, wandering from town to town in search of his answer; his miracle. It took some time for him to once again become comfortable performing his duties as a priest, but he did, and he increasingly enjoyed serving those who asked. But, as months turned to years, he grew more and more frustrated with the lack of an answer to his dilemma. How was he going to make up for the death of Li Chen? What could he ever do to atone for demanding strength from those who could never hope to have such physical strength? He was master of the tiger system and of the white crane system of the war arts. Such divergent systems should have taught him to recognize the divergent qualities in his students and adapt his teaching to them, but his years of deadly battles in real war had blinded him to any quality more than strength in his students.
One bright summer morning, Master Sun sat down to meditate on his dilemma at the edge of the forest. The last month or so had dried up his enthusiasm for the quest, and the resulting frustration had made his meditations all but impossible. He had increasingly thought of giving up and joining a little monastery to live out his remaining days in peace. However the promised miracle nagged at his mind. Disasters are unavoidable, the old priest had said. It’s only miracles that we excel at avoiding. No. He had no right to avoid the promised miracle, no matter how hopelessly far away it seemed.
As the sun rose higher, and beat down upon him, a bead of sweat tickled its way down his neck. “That’s all I need!” he said, and threw off his outer robe and stripped his inner robe down to his waist. The gentle breeze cooled and soothed his skin, but could not quiet the storm brewing within. Then, just when he might have entered into the first calm trance in more than half a year, something tickled at his left forearm. He cracked an eye to look.
A green mantis stood there on his arm then tickled her way a couple of inches further up toward his elbow. Without thinking, he struck out with his right hand to brush her off, but she darted further up before he got half way there. He made to grab her. She jumped back down to his wrist.
As fast as he could, he tried to swat the little pest. He was not fast enough. With all the speed he could muster, he swatted again. She easily darted to the side, then jumped onto the back of his hand and stared up into his eyes as if to say, “What good is all that power if you cannot get it on target in time?”
Slowly lifting his hand up for a closer look, he said, “A weak little creature, and yet, with all my strength, I can’t…” Then he noticed her little legs poised for battle. They reminded him of the heavy stances used in the tiger system he taught. And her arms held close to her tiny chest looked just like the hand forms of the crane system he taught. Plucking a stem of grass, he waived it around in front of her face as if boxing with her. She took hold of the stem faster than his eyes could see, and held onto it. He pulled it to have her do it again, but, instead of letting go, she ran along with it and struck past it to his fingertip with her other hand.
“What a wise way to deal with superior strength!” he marveled. “You can’t resist me, so you just come along and lash out with your other hand.” He raised her closer to his eyes. Her arms were covered with little warlike spikes, and her gaze was full of defiance and fire. His excitement now making any meditation impossible, he played with her for hours. After some time, he realized that his tiger footwork was similar, but weak and shoddy compared to hers, and his crane handwork, though similar, was clumsy and slow compared with hers. In the end, he knew that he had found his answer, his miracle and his Master.
For seven years he studied the ways of the mantis and adapted his tiger footwork and crane handwork into a style for smaller, weaker students. And thus was born the first of the Southern Mantis systems of the war arts. Master Sun returned to the Shaolin Temple and, huge and powerful man that he was, became a favorite teacher for the smallest and weakest of the students there. Never again did he demand brute physical strength of his young charges. Instead, he taught them the superior ways of the little queen of war that defeated him on a summer morning of lonely despair. And he taught them how that defeat had brought him hope and a miracle to share with all who would learn from him what she had to teach.