A book review by C.M. Darensbourg
I lived until I’d seen fourteen decades.
More people would pray if they understood
Purity of soul is the best way to
Run around looking like a teenager.
Everything Shen and I had planned for
Success to keep brave farm hands alive as
Soldiers of the Empire gathered students.
Everyone was content — but that state
Did not last for barely five years of peace.
Be assured, trouble arrived on our door.
Yes, being outnumbered, our school quit!
The first day those fool Nobles who fancied
Among themselves an army for seizing,
My advice to the student body was,
“Off with you! You have farms to tend now, or
Stay for the glory of dying in war!”
Suffice to say, that scattered the wisest.
Truants playing in schoolyards had never
Run so fast. Wise they were, taking nothing.
Authorities — already alert — would
Nab them in irons for their uniforms
Getting rewarded with gold by rich rebels
Entertaining thoughts fear ruled worthy men.
We didn’t even bother to explain
All our ways were not lost with our building.
Yet, somehow, that was smashed! Trampled … (students!)
Of course they got angry — never mind in
Fact they were stealing our paid property!
Those students they wanted to enslave had
Earned the right to destroy the stone and teak
Architecture they had settled in and
Called honorably their home and study
Hall — the entire class had sweated to build
It from the ground up by their own labors —
Needing no help from cowards from outside,
Greedy mongrels now wanting China’s Throne.
At least forty of our men were all hung for
Not allowing the thieves that property.
Dynasties of Hell would not get their help.
Pushed to the brink, the Empire wrongly
Heard that violence against peaceful ways
Yielded sure and desirable results.
See, if we had been real men, and not dogs,
I’d have turned them over without protest.
Claims we were criminals, unschooled bandits,
All plotting against our great Emperor
Loosed misguided death warrants on our heads.
Farm boys would have crawled into their foul ranks —
Embittered, but understanding armies
Attack mostly rich outsiders and not
The families of those comprising their ranks.
Still, did I not say these Nobles were fools?
Lurid details of relatives and friends
In jail (if alive) or just disappeared
Kept the students’ anger brewing over
Enough so that — finally — Nobles died.
But this took under another two years
And over fifteen hundred lives across
Landscape ruined by treachery, fermenting
Anarchy outright from cities to fields.
Now I come to the crisis I myself
Count as one when I looked eighteen but was
In my seventieth year plus three, when
Nearly sixty brave army men (with more
Gathering quickly) cornered me alone.
Outcry from fourteen villagers eager
Not to be among their cruel ranks warned me.
Ahead, a river of hungry monsters.
Someone had already torched the bridge that
I would have needed to cross in safety.
Now the water churned with fish that could have
Gobbled ocean sharks — a nibble for each.
Large, starving schools of them made short work of
Even water buffalo who got close.
Right then, I commended my soul to the
Eternal Emperor of High Heaven …
Evidently He also knew I was
Desperate to meet Him — but not quite yet!
To say Zen brings Enlightenment is true,
On account of what happened to me next.
Could I have had more time, I would have did.
Rather, right then, I had a bright idea!
On the edge of the rushing waters where
Swam eager fish the size of my long arm,
Stood bamboo, with smallest taller than pines.
Already, my sword was out — chopping hard.
Reaching my ears were unfortunate screams
In the village behind me, where soldiers
Violently parted people from their
Earnings for harvest seasons — and their souls.
Running there was death, riding the river…
Shen later described what the army men
Had to explain to a disbelieving Enemy
Noble who killed them all for
Not swimming after me as I escaped.
Going by what they said, I skipped on the
Undulating waves, without slightest care
Actually, I was almost tumbling
Neatly into the wet, but I rolled the
Giant bamboo log sideways, and balanced.
Floating on a giant raft of one trunk
Of bamboo about as round as my thigh,
Little did I know I’d given birth to
Legend! That hollow wood bucked and tossed, and
Only the prayers of me and Ancestors
Were what kept me from being thrown in then
Eaten like a small, wretched fishing worm.
Diving in the last two feet, I felt nips!
That tore it! I screamed, and told river chum
How every week I would dine on their
Entrails, scooping those carnivores for lunch!
Fleeing for my life, I also made sure
Of breathing a few prayers regarding how
Richly I would reward future merchants
Engaged in the humble but brave practice
I felt kindly for — building toll bridges.
Going by mere, precarious ferry
Never would feel the same to me again.
Three days later, Shen was waiting for me,
Eating alone (as usual) without
A care in the world other than watching
Characters like myself shamble up and
Heave into the cushioned seat next to him
Empty except for the ghosts of students.
Right then, I knew he had suffered as well.
Talking about or woes made things better.
Only minutes passed, and we hatched new plans.
All was not well, though — as we left, some bowed.
Situations like this one tended to
Happen more often than not, for I said
Adventure follows holiness like an
Over-eager canine, underfoot and
Likely to bite if you try to step on
Its inclinations to be troublesome.
No, I won’t lie — it can be annoying.
That meant we needed a quiet place to
Engage more students who, like tired ourselves,
Mostly wanted to avoid violence,
Pray often, and remain peaceful people.
Leave warfare to professional fools, who
Evidently never learned the Zen way …