Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Temple That Flew up Into the Heavens (Han)

There is a popular saying about the world-famous Shaolin Temple in Henan Province: "Just as there is a Shaolin Temple on the ground, there is a Zhulin Temple in the sky." "A Zhulin Temple in the sky"! How is it possible for a temple to be lodged in the heavens? The following legend explains.

On Song Mountain, one of China's five holiest peaks, there once stood magnificent Zhulin Temple, "the temple of the Bamboo Grove," with its tall, verdant bamboo stalks standing within the temple precincts. The temple housed more than ten monks who went about their daily business of burning incense and praying to and making offerings for the Buddha. This was their life day in and day out.

The abbot was a rather conniving, self-important man named Daoqi, who had aspirations to becoming an  and then a buddha himself. In the daytime, he roamed the mountainsides, searching for plants and herbs by which he could concoct, through alchemy, an elixir to make his dreams come true. With all his experiments, he had boiled quite a few plants and swallowed many powdered capsules but to no avail. He remained as earthbound and mortal as the next man with the added results that his face had now taken a greenish hue and his personality had changed from goodhearted monk into something quite different. He was now said to be
"thirty percent human and seventy percent demon."

The youngest monk at Zhulin Temple was a child of little more than ten years, an orphan, given the name Daolan, for Master Daoqi always had him in a daily search for rare herbs and other plants to gather in his basket (lan = basket) to enable Daoqi to achieve his dream.

So, one morning, Daoqi screamed at Daolan to get up, get dressed, shoulder his basket and head out for the mountain slopes. With Daolan gone, Daoqi put on his robes and, with his rosary, and went towards the western peak of Song Mountain to gather some plants on his own.

While on the slopes of the western peak, Daoqi picked up the rich scent of some rare plant growing somewhere. The aroma filled him with encouragement. Could this plant, likely some kind of ginseng, he thought, be the one that allows me to enter the ranks of the buddhas, to become an immortal? 

Just then he heard the sounds of giggling and laughter. He turned his head in the direction of the mirthful sounds. This led him to a cliff, where, below, he saw two boys running in a meadow, playing and having the time of their lives. He looked closely. One of the boys was none other than Daolan. The other seemed younger than Daolan.

"Daolan!" cried the master, standing on the cliff. "I sent you out to gather herbs, and instead what do I find you doing? Playing, gallivanting around when you should be working! Take care that when you return to the temple if your basket is not full! If it's not, I'll tan your hide! So, go on and play if you dare! Just mind my words!"

Early that evening, Daolan returned with a basket brimming with different kinds of plants.

"From where did you steal these?" asked Daoqi.

"No one stole anything, Master! I cut and collected all these myself."

"Nonsense! I saw you wasting time playing around with a friend. Are you going to tell me that these plants leaped into your basket on their own?"

"W-well . . ."

"Don't lie!" said Daoqi, brandishing his staff. "Those of us who have taken the vow and joined the order cannot tell lies! He who tells lies will never become a buddha himself. Now, tell the truth!"

"The boy I was with, Master, the ginseng boy, he helped me gather the plants . . ."

"'Ginseng boy'? What's his name? Where does he live?"

"His name is Shenguo (i.e., "Fruit of the Ginseng"),  and he lives on the mountaintop."

"And this ginseng boy Shenguo can gather herbs and roots?"

"Can he ever, Master! Why, he can climb up the tallest tree or run up the steepest slopes to look for the kinds of plants you send me out to get, and in no time he can come back with a huge bundle!"

"All right. Tomorrow, he can accompany you. I want you two to pick as much as you can. Whatever you and he can't carry, I'll send some brothers to help you."

Early the next morning, Daoqi secretly followed Daolan up the mountain. He hid and watched as Daolan went to a cliff and whistled. Then, to Daoqi's amazement, a childlike figure seemingly unscrewed itself out of the ground. This was the ginseng boy, Shenguo. He was a little smaller than Daolan. He had three antenna-like projections jutting from his greenish head. His body was reddish and plump. Daoqi watched the two boys, hand-in-hand, skip off to collect herbs, carefree, happy, like two small boys anywhere.

Oh, thought Daoqi, now delirious, this is just too wonderful! Too wonderful! This is exactly what I had been looking for! This has got to be the flower that blooms once every three thousand years, the plant that turns into the ginseng of the immortals after five thousand years! And he's mine!

Late that evening, Daoqi called for Daolan to report to the abbot's quarters.

"Daolan," said Daoqi, "take this needle and ball of white thread. Tomorrow, when you are out with Shenguo and when it's time to come back, and when he isn't paying attention, pin the needle and thread to one of his horns. Don't let on what you have done. Return the remaining thread to me."

"But Master . . ."

"Just do it! If you come back without following my instructions, there'll be no food for you! Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Master . . ."

Small child that he was, Daolan had no idea why Master Daoqi would order him to do such a thing. In any case, Daoqi was the master, the abbot, and Daolan was obliged to follow his commands. After all, he, Daolan, was just a novice monk, and there must be a good reason for such an order.

Daolan did as he was told. As he turned to head back to the temple, he was surprised to see Daoqi heading his way, carrying a hoe, smiling like a madman.

"Ha ha! He cannot hide himself today!" chanted the older monk. "Can't hide himself today! Give me the thread."

Daolan handed Daoqi the now very small ball of thread and watched what Daoqi was up to. Daoqi followed the thread trail to a place on the edge of the cliff. He then started to heave away large rocks and dig as if his life depended on it.

Finally, he unearthed what he had come for--a giant human-shaped root, the ginseng boy.

Daolan gasped. The root was still, inert. Was this not his friend, the boy he had been playing with every day?

"Master, Master, is . . . he . . . ?"

"Yes, he's dead," lied Daoqi.

"Oh, save him, Master! Great mercy . . ."

"This is not a person!" said Daoqi. "It's only a shapeshifting mountain demon, and I'm going to boil and eat it! You should thank me for ridding the mountain of a dangerous being! So stop all your gabbing and get back to the temple!"

That afternoon, back at the temple, having ordered everyone else to stay away, Daoqi cleaned and washed the ginseng root. He then located the largest cauldron he could find and placed all the kindling he could gather under the cauldron. The cauldron was filled with water and the ginseng root was placed inside. He lit a fire beneath the cauldron.

This will have to boil for hours and hours, he thought, probably even after all these idiots are asleep for the night. Then, I'll have the root to eat all to myself. I'll have long since turned into a buddha and have ascended into the heavens, while these morons will still be scratching their heads and trying to solve the whole puzzle!

Who would have thought that right at that moment, as Daoqi greedily guarded the slowly warming cauldron, a visitor would arrive?

"Master Daoqi," announced a monk, "Abbot Wutong of Bailian Temple is here to see you!"

"All right, now listen to me," said Daoqi. "I'll be leaving the temple for a short time. Let it be known that nobody touches anything while I'm gone!"

Then, Daoqi headed to the main gate where visitors are received. Instead of courteously inviting Wutong inside to sit and enjoy refreshments, Daoqi left with him to go on a walk.

The last thing I need is for this meddlesome Wutong to know what I'm cooking! Daoqi said to himself.

As soon as the monks saw Daoqi leave, they gathered around the slowly bubbling cauldron which was already emitting an irresistible scent.

"Word is going around that the Master captured some kind of mountain goblin!" said one. Then, taking a peek under the cauldron lid, he added, "It's some kind of fat, juicy being! Oh, does that scent make my mouth water!"

"Hey," said another, "we all took orders. We're not supposed to even touch meat or wine or things like that! On the other hand, look at our Master! He's cooking this delicious meal all for himself! I'd say the old abbot is trying to pull one over on us younger monks!"

"You're right!" said still another. "Come on! Let's all grab a piece of what's cooking inside the cauldron! Let's  all divide it up and enjoy it together! What's good for the old Master is also good for us! Why should he get it all?"

The luscious aroma and the sight of the juicy meat being boiled away was too much for the monks. They cut up the ginseng boy, each getting a piece, and devoured him like wolfhounds eating prey until there was nothing left.

So there they were . . . monks ravenously gorging themselves on what had been little Daolan's friend.

 Daolan watched as the bits and pieces of what had been his friend disappeared into the mouths of his fellow monks. His heart pained him to see the spectacle, and he brushed away the tears with his forearm. Finally, the aroma was too much even for him to resist, and he had a spoonful of the soup the ginseng boy had been boiled in. He then put the spoon down in disgust.

Then came word Daoqi had returned. The old monk had finally been able to see Wutong off, ridding himself of what he considered a great nuisance. He immediately headed for the cauldron. He lifted the lid to discover the ginseng boy was gone and all that was left was some soup.

Daoqi was absolutely livid. He bellowed, viciously cursing every monk in the temple so loudly that none, including those trying to hide, could escape the invective.

Then, one monk appeared before him, little Daolan, the child monk.

"You old greedy demon!" said Daolan. "Taking everything for yourself! Then scolding everyone with disgusting language for daring to try a  bit of what you have been coveting--the boiled remains of what had once been a living being! Very well, O Master. Watch this!"

Daolan took a ladle and scooped out the remains of the cauldron's soup into a large bowl.

"Whatever I can't finish, I'll pour out," said Daolan. "You won't get a drop!"

He proceeded to drink ladle after ladle of the soup.

Daoqi was now enraged to the point of bursting a blood vessel, yet he remained riveted to where he stood. When it became clear that Daolan had nearly finished the soup, Daoqi came to life and lunged for Daolan and the bowl. Daolan saw Daoqi coming, so, keeping the bowl level and pressed against his chest, he ran towards the front gate, with Daoqi not far behind.

Faster and faster Daolan ran . . . until he slipped, stumbled and spilled the contents of the bowl upon the ground, with Daoqi himself slipping and falling behind him, injuring his arm as he fell to the ground.

An earsplitting  hua! hua! hua! immediately followed.

The sky thundered and the earth rolled and rocks flew. Those walking were knocked off balance; those lying prone on the ground rolled like ink brushes on a tilted table.

All around the temple spurted magnificent golden rays as rosy clouds gathered overhead.

Then, the whole temple--without one brick or beam left behind--slowly, surely rose into the air, ripping itself violently away from its earthly foundations, picking up speed as it ascended.

Inside the temple was everyone who had partaken of the soup. Daoqi, who had had none, desperately grabbed hold of the front gate threshold as the temple now soared upwards.

"Living Buddha!" he cried. "Please allow me to ascend with the temple . . . "

Daolan kicked Daoqi's arm with his foot, saying, "Fall, demon with a black heart, demon that dares to have drunken dreams of ascending into heaven as a buddha!"

The pain of Daoqi's injured arm was too much for him to bear, and so he let go. Down, down through the clouds he plunged, ending up as a silent, crushed lifeless heap somewhere below.

And so Zhulin Temple found itself in heaven. All the monks there immediately became immortals, with little Daolan achieving the highest status of them all. He had drunk most of the soup, which apparently housed most of the concoction's efficacy.

In time, another temple was built in the same place where Zhulin Temple had once stood. This new temple was, of course, Shaolin Temple. The two temples are said to complement each other--twin counterparts. It is also said that if one stands at the right spot in Shaolin Temple, one will be able to see Zhulin Temple way up in the sky. If this is hard to believe, there's only one to make sure it's true--to go there and see for yourself.

Qianqibaiguaide minjian gushi [Bizarre folktales]. Wang Fan, ed. Changchun: Jilin Daxue Chubanshe, 2010; pp. 124-128.

This particular legend, retold by Li Dongmei, appears in the above anthology without any accompanying notes as to when and where it was gathered. The anthology itself seems geared towards a middle school readership. 

The story is very reminiscent of a Manchu tale, "The Ginseng Boy" (see 1/11/08). The resolution of the Manchu tale is on a much happier note. The present story is an interesting reflection on the potency of the ginseng root, suggesting when the root takes the form of a living being, which is then boiled for consumption, it has the potential literally to raise buildings off the ground and send them into the sky. The root can also enable those who who eat it or drink the soup it is cooked in to become immortals. Ironically, Daolan, technically a murderer for what he does to his abbot, ends up becoming an immortal of high rank after sampling the soup his friend is cooked in. Daoqi ,who had never tasted the ginseng root, is thoroughly castigated and meets a horrible end. Somewhat of a mixed message? In any case, the story thus remains a strong condemnation of venal monks. In a didactic note appended to the story, the editor writes: "Remember that the results of your efforts reflect you, and do not fool yourself that the means you took to achieve them do not matter" (128). 

Motifs: D.431.6, "Plant transformed to a person"; F772.2.6, "Flying tower (temple)"; F773, "Remarkable church (temple)." 

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