Bones of the Master

Read an excerpt from Bones of the Master

The Last Days of Puu Jih

October 1959: Crow Pull Mountain, Inner Mongolia

The ninth day of the tenth month. The Yellow Season. Tsung Tsai woke at three, two hours before first light. In the dry grass beyond the monastery’s stone and mud-brick walls, the last slow-dying cicadas scraped their wings.

The monk lit a candle stub and warmed his hands by its flame. The wick spat, guttered, then flared. The light flickered over his face and over the stark stone of the six- by nine-foot cell where he had lived for eighteen years. In it were his few possessions: a sleeping pad and quilted blanket roll, his rough brown robes, writing table, inkstone and brushes, a book of poems. He went to the window that looked north and west to the mountains, toward Morhgujing and the Silk Road–the ancient caravan route through the black Gobi and the Taklimakan. He could just make out the winter plum that stood beneath his window, its branches bare and its bark worn gray with blowing sand. In a few hours, the monks would pace there in walking meditation.

Tsung Tsai broke the skim of ice floating on the washbasin and splashed his face. He dried his hands and got his prayer beads from inside his robes that hung on the wall. Then he lit an eight-inch length of incense and sat. The ash still smoldered when, after meditation, he put on his robes and went downstairs to the kitchen. He finished his tea as he heard his brothers wake to the hollow clap of the night-ending gong. He listened to them wash and cough. The monks’ routine during these last days would proceed as usual. But today he would not join them. He heard the swish of their robes as they shuffled down the corridor to the temple. Then he left.

The gate in the monastery’s south wall was still closed against the world. For another day Puu Jih would remain a Ch’an Buddhist sanctuary where monks, seeking enlightenment, studied the Dharma of Mind Transmission:

Break off the way of speech. Destroy the place of thinking. Awaken the mind to no-mind. Find silence and . . . sudden understanding.

There was still no sign of dawn when Tsung Tsai pushed the gate closed behind him. He was anxious to see his teacher, so he hurried up the path that curved past the garden and the storehouse. He knew the way. He knew the sound of his feet on the trail scree and the stream falling away to the east.

He had tied his robes up around his waist for the climb. The sun at forty degrees north latitude would burn in a fierce arc, so he wore a straw hat to protect his shaved head. In a basket strapped to his back he carried the last of the millet. There was only a few days of lamp oil left in the monastery. Yesterday the monks had harvested the last of the cabbage and potatoes. The yellow beans, the wheat, and the millet were finished. China was starving. More than thirty million would die in the next two years. Only bureaucrats and rats would eat.

A decade of chaos had begun. Even in remote Mongolia and Tibet the monasteries would be smashed, books burned, and monks murdered.

When would death arrive at Puu Jih? There were stories, rumors sliding from village to village like the hunger. And then last week, late one night, a young lama from Mei Leh Geng Jau lamasery on the Ulansuhai plateau roused them from their beds with his shouting and pounding on the gate. His face was drawn white, thin as paper. His eyes were wild. He told them that the ninth patriarch, the great Ch’an master Hsu Yun, Empty Cloud, had, at the age of one hundred twenty, been hacked to death by the Communists.

At five, lighter shades began to overprint the sky. Then the stars peeled away, and Ula Shan’s black bulk and the trees on the spine of the ridge gained shape. He looked south toward his birthplace, the village where he had lived until he entered the monastery at sixteen.

Tsung Tsai was born during the hour of Shen on the eighteenth day of the third month of Kuei Hai, March 18, 1925, in Lan Huu, north of the Yellow River. The youngest of four children, he was named Pao Sheng but called San San, “the third son of the third son”–a mystical incarnation, his father liked to tell anyone who would listen.

He could remember waking in his mother’s arms and hearing the “wooden fish,” his teacher’s prayer clapper. When Shiuh Deng chanted alone in his cave, the village people said they could hear him; he whispered in their ears. They called him Red Foot Truth, after his habit of going barefoot in even the cruelest of Mongol winters. They believed he could fly.

When Tsung Tsai was eight, a mendicant monk, a bhikku, wandered into Lan Huu and set up shop under a tent umbrella. He cured the sick with his bell and crooked stick; with medicines compounded of barks, twigs, roots, and flowers, of powdered horn, bone, and gland; and with a holy potion he made by blowing sacred words, three times, into boiling water. When he left the village, Tsung Tsai followed. After a few hours, the old bhikku tired of the boy’s company and, with a shower of stones and a threatening stick, sent him running home in tears.

When Tsung Tsai was ten, his father died suddenly, and the boy ran off alone to Sand Mountain to mourn. He spent nine days walking among those wandering dunes in the wind that is called “blowing sand and running stones.” He found he could talk to the wild horses. They told him that one day he would find a lohan, a great saint, and become his disciple. Then, on the ninth day, he saw a star fall from the western sky, and he was certain that it was his father gone to the Pure Land.

Copyright© 2000 by George Crane
–From Bones of the Master : A Buddhist Monk’s Search for the Lost Heart of China, by George Crane. ¬© George Crane used by permission.

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