It was a sunny, windy August afternoon on the terrace of the temple in the early 1980s. Down below, the ocean was speckled with whitecaps. Typhoon season was once again besieging the shores of Taiwan. My friend Jang and I had been deep in discussion. He often came up to visit from his house down the mountain. On this occasion, he was helping me to translate some chi gung classics. But when our papers started to flutter and fly around the terrace like unpredictable insects, we decided it was time to retreat into the temple kitchen for a pot of tea.
Jang mmm’d in appreciation as he savoured his first sip of golden oolong. There was an appreciative pause, then Jang eyed me brightly. “Mas, I just found out about a young monk—a recluse, living in the mountains down near Hualien.”
“Why don’t we go down for a visit?” I suggested, partly in jest.
Jang, ever spontaneous, needed no further invitation. “How about tomorrow?” he piped up.
“Hang on… Hang on,” I protested. “Let’s finish this pot of tea first!” We both laughed. “So what’s so unusual about this monk that we should go all the way down to Hualien to meet him?” I was always hesitant about leaving the temple for too long, as I was the sole caretaker.
“He’s got a reputation! He’s no ordinary monk!” His eyes grew round as he warmed to the subject. I loved Jang’s childlike enthusiasm. “A friend of mine has recently visited. He’s given me a map of Lao Shr’s cave. They call this young monk “Lao Shr (old teacher). But that’s not really his name. “Lao Shr refers to his teacher, Bing Lao Jen.”
That name sounded familiar. Yes! Could we be talking about Master Bing the celebrated mendicant who once travelled through these misty mountains. He was reputed to enlighten audiences with his mere presence. As this thought crossed my mind, I could feel a warmth radiate between my eyebrows. A dharma spark, as I later recorded in my journal.
As if though reading my mind, Jang continued. “Perhaps you’ve heard that name, Bing Lao Jen, before? He was a legendary character; some say the most famous alchemist-sage of the last century. It is recorded that he would often teach the same sermon in two places at the same time. Some speculated that he had an immortal body, and that he was the first to introduce the ancient tradition of Ling Shiou (Soul Recovery) to China.” As he completed this description, the warmth had spread down my spine.
“Okay!” I said spontaneously, interrupting his stream of eulogy. “How about I meet you in town at 8 in the morning?”
Jang, caught off-guard, gave me a surprised look, paused for a moment, then began to laugh. I joined him, and then when silence returned, we exchanged a nod of complicity. I got to my feet and waited for Jang to adjust his leg brace. (His left leg had been paralysed since he suffered a bout of polio in early childhood.) I accompanied him out to his car. The wind had died down. This seemed auspicious.
Journey by bus
The next morning the still, clear weather persisted to bless our journey. It took about two hours by bus to travel to our jumping-off point. During the ride, Jang told me more about Lao Shr’s story. Oddly, it seems there’s no personal history to be had. No one knows where he came from. Some years ago, local farmers in the high country noticed that a monk was living in a cave hermitage wedged among the craggy peaks. One day a shepherd, a partly blind old man, found his way to the spot during a storm and was given shelter by the young monk. Something mysterious ensued. The shepherd later reported that, from the time he entered the refuge to the time he found himself and his sheep on the safety of the lower slopes, his memory completely failed him. He only vaguely remembered having met the young monk. The only testimony to his actually having been there was the mysterious disappearance of his blindness, which had been with him since early childhood. Over the years the story of the old shepherd gradually spread. At first, people of the region thought the old man was hallucinating, but then, over the ensuing years, other local people were somehow drawn to the isolated cave. All suffered some disability. All were healed, and their lives radically changed.
Suddenly we were interrupted as the bus ground to a halt in the middle of the rugged countryside. We were just at the mouth of a large gorge, which receded back into the mountains. As we disembarked, I noticed a taxi parked nearby. The driver opened the door for us as Jang spoke a few words of the local dialect, then we were on our way up the tiny dirt road that ran alongside the gorge’s frothing torrent.
Jang smiled at me reassuringly. “I’ve made arrangements. We should be there… er… soon.” He withdrew a folded piece of paper from his pocket, opening it with care. “The map!” he proudly exclaimed. Glancing over his shoulder, all I could discern was a chaotic pattern of squiggles. This was not reassuring. Yet, he seemed to know what it all meant. The road forked, then forked again, then climbed ever more steeply on the switchbacks. Jang continued to bark directions to the driver, who seemed just as bewildered as myself. Finally, there was Jang’s last excited command, “Jadi, jadi, jadi” (“Stop here! Here! Here!”)
Indeed, the driver had no choice. Here, about 500 metres above the river, this road to nowhere had come to an abrupt end. There seemed to be nowhere to go. Jang briefly made arrangements with the driver then we both alighted from the car. The driver somehow managed to turn around then cut off the engine and pulled the emergency brake noisily. It sounded noisy in the silence of that place. The only other sound was the rushing river far below. The air was brisk.
Jang brought out the map once again, pointing to the place where a long line ended. “We are here.” So where to now? I wondered, as there were no more lines in sight. Jang intercepted my doubtful expression. “This way!” He walked past me in his determined, limping stride. I followed him up a small track I had not previously noticed. On we trudged through the mountain scrub. After a long steep grade, Jang stopped. He was breathing heavily. Not so easy, even on two legs, I thought. Jang pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He smoked it in long draws, impatiently peering toward the scraggy path. We stood apart, without conversing. Only the remote call of a lone circling seagull punctuated the silence.
Finally, I opened my mouth, trying to sound casual, “So… where to from here.” It was getting late, and we had neither food nor warm clothes.
Jang threw his butt down and stomped on it with finality. “Never mind. Trust me!” Once again he launched himself up the dwindling path with dogged determination.
The faint path rounded a corner, and, as I hurried to keep Jang in sight, I heard his excited voice, “Stop!” Jang halted and turned, waiting for me to catch up. “Look!” he pointed to a house-size boulder just above us. Just underneath it, barely discernible, was a wooden-framed door. “That’s it!” He smiled, turning to continue up the steep hill. As we approached, Jang suddenly paused, looking ahead. The door slowly opened, and, sure enough, out stepped a boyish young man wearing the grey cotton outfit of a monk. As we approached, he gestured us inside.
Realising the obvious
The cave was small, and eerily lit by a combination of candles and a shaft of light streaming in through a crack in the ceiling. The only furniture was a small round wooden table and three stools. A steaming pot of tea stood in the centre of the table, along with three small cups, neatly stacked. The young monk gestured us to sit, then he filled the cups, passing them around. As I waited in silence for the tea to cool, my eyes surveyed the room. It was quite barren, except for a water pot and a small brazier set over a still-smouldering fireplace. And then I noticed the pictures on the wall in front of me. On the left was an unremarkable depiction of the Buddha of the Pure Land, but on the right was the carefully painted image of an extraordinary man. The warmth returned to my spine and third eye. I knew that this was the man I’d come to see.
I glanced over at Jang. His eyes were also fixated on the picture. He seemed mesmerised. “Maybe this is Lao Shr’s picture”, I suggested.
Jang turned to me abruptly. “No”, he replied, pointing to the young monk. “That is Lao Shr”, Then he pointed at the picture. “That is Master Bing.” As he spoke, my body became warmer. I took off my jacket. Jang continued, “This monk’s sole purpose for being here is to represent Master Bing. Though Master Bing is in the spirit world now, he is able to communicate through this boy.”
I glanced over at the boy, who was sitting erect on his stool, eyes shut as if in meditation. Suddenly, he cleared his throat and began to speak in a loud, commanding voice. He spoke for several minutes in the Fujian dialect of Taiwan, then fell silent again. Jang turned to me, his eyes wide with emotion. “Master is coming through! Can you hear it? I’ve been asked to translate…. Something you need to know… “ He trailed off. For several moments there was a quiet pause, then the big voice once again fractured the silence.
“I come to you from the vast, all-radiant Cloud of Ling Shiou (Soul Recovery).” As he spoke, I could hear a great gust of wind outside. The door rattled in its frame and the candles flickered. The ominous sound of thunder grumbled through the mountains. “I am Master Bing. I called you here. Your friend Jang helped you find this place. I called him too. You both need to know more about that which is obvious. This is really obvious, but you fail to see and understand. Jang will understand later on, as his life suddenly changes. You, however, will now get to know and understand what is obvious. In this now that we share, your understanding of reality will indeed shift.”
In fact, while he was speaking, my reality was altering radically. It was as if I were being sucked into the vortex of The Cloud. At the same time, I was becoming numb to the sensory world around me. Jang’s voice was a barely perceivable drone. With eyelids lightly shut, all around there was brilliance. The commanding voice of Master Bing penetrated deep inside my heart.
Gradually, I began to witness what appeared to be vast expanses filled with heavenly bodies. Galaxies, comets, black and white holes pulsed as though filled with the life force. “This is not outer space!” Master Bing corrected my perception. “This is inner space!” Immediately, it all made sense. I was being presented with a vision of my physical inner self, as if I were floating around in there, floating through the inter-cellular tissue, observing the various organs, tissues, bones, joints, and so on. A sense of wonder spontaneously arose within me as I observed the awesome inner landscape—the terrain I so blindly took for granted from day to day.
Meanwhile, I could still hear the voice of Master Bing in the background, soft now, like a tour guide of my inner domain, in all its parts: watery, gelatinous and more solid. The guiding voice was now inviting me, the observer, to “Sense, see the amazing structures and their functionings. Simply receive and allow the sensing and seeing, being in the now, without thinking about it.” I became unsure if these words were actually my own or if they were preferences being offered through Master Bing’s voice. Nevertheless, I could feel the sense of power and truth arising from the instructions, which I accepted without question. I let my perception drift and be guided, slowly up the bony pillars of the spinal vertebrae. Finally, at the top, passing through the gate of the occiput, I found myself in the gelatinous electrifying world of the brain. “Sensing and receiving the static tingle, seeing the sparks of countless synapses firing, with billions of bits of information flowing among trillions of neurons.” Meanwhile, in my emotional body, there was a pervasive background feeling of overwhelm.
“Gradually arriving at The Centre – another frequency altogether.” The Voice had become soft, mesmerising. “Sensing and receiving a coolness, a stillness.” Indeed, it felt like the vast interior of a cathedral. A sense of sacredness prevailed here. “Welcome to the Master Cell. Enter please, and hear please. Hear and receive.”
There was a long silence. In the soft twilight glow, I began to notice odd forms floating around me. “You are inside now.”
The delicate voice continued, “These forms you see are not ours, yet we cooperate to maintain life.”
In a flash of insight, I realised that this must be a reference to the cells’ organelles, such as the mitochondria, which are in truth parasites, living in symbiotic harmony with the original components. “Your speculation is correct. We cooperate, thus we survive, just as the entire realm of our cells cooperate with the spark of awareness you refer to as Mas. Thus you are able to complete your plan of embodiment.”
The Voice seemed to be coming from a distant luminous glow. The melodious guidance continued: “We invite you to our inner sanctum. You are inside- inside Nucleus One. Put aside your preconceptions now and simply hear and allow. Open your heart to cell realisation. This is the message:
“Master Bing has sent you here to this central Temple of Creation. Please don’t grasp at this message. Don’t listen. Simply allow the hearing. In every moment of what you call your life, we are speaking in one voice, always issuing the same instructions. Occasionally you resolve to listen to us, to cast aside the ego’s censor in order to clutch at some advice that would be to your advantage. This is usually in times of sickness or hardship. Unfortunately, your insecure, selfish, clinging manner of listening does but obstruct your receptivity. If you will but hear and surrender, allowing the message to truly come to you, then the obvious truth will instantly be revealed in experience.”
Nothing else was said or heard. There was an overwhelming sense of expansion, and the onset of a deep and contented sense of peace; feeling no longer a piece; part, yet no longer apart. A profound sense of reverence illuminated the sense of no thing-ness. Slipping into the vast and empty spaces of body-form, only gratitude sustained the miraculous glimmering orbits of electrons as they dutifully blinked in and out among dimensions. Yet the hearing remained. Just the hearing, the sensing, and the seeing. Thus all was clearly received.
Gently, the voice of Master Bing illuminated consciousness once again. “This surrendered Transensing of Being is the great initiatory rite of Soul Recovery. Be grateful Mas. Focus on gratitude. Bless all creation. As we are One… Obvious… isn’t it? Thank you.”
That was it. The screen went blank.
I heard a faint creaking sound. “Cat.” The word came to mind. “Mildred?” My eyes remained shut, then, as I could feel the soft rub, the gentle purr, I slowly let the light in. As the eyelids opened, the familiar sight of my little temple room revealed itself: the pictures of Buddhas and saints, the ageing tanka of Kwan Yin, goddess of compassion—all smiling benignly, as if to say, “Got it?” Involuntary thoughts crossed my mind: Got it…hmmm. Then, Wow! What a dream… must write this down, quickly!
I sat up with a start, reaching for my journal. Then I stopped. Gazing across at the little desk next to my bed, I saw my journal, wide-open, revealing a page full of scrawl. I could just read the last line: Obvious…isn’t it? –Thank you. My breathing pattern shifted, and I could feel tears welling up in my eyes – tears of gratitude. The drone of a distant motor interrupted the poignant moment, yet it did not distract me from the most important point. I knew that now that The Obvious would be indelibly engraved upon my heart forever.
As the sound got louder I jumped up to throw on some clothes as I realised that a rare visitor was on the way up the mountain. I walked out onto the terrace just as the car peeped over the top of the steep road and rolled to a stop close by. There was quite a tingle in my spine, top to bottom and then up again. It was Jang. He rattled the door open, jumped out, and strode around to greet me with a huge smile, his hand extended. But something was different. We looked at each other in silence, as though we were guardians of some monumental secret.
Finally Jang sang out that beloved Chinese invitation, “Let’s have a cup of tea!” We retreated in silence and he sat quite still while I brewed the water. Something was up; in silence we both savoured the mystery. Finally, I finished the preparations, put down the cups, and slowly poured the amber enabler of all good conversations. As I sat down, however, I still could find no opening words. As the steaming cups cooled, I stroked my beard wondering why this sense of dumbfoundedness prevailed. Then I looked up at Jang. He was beaming at me, a bemused smile on his lips. He turned slowly, taking his feet out from under the table. My eyes followed his movement as he bent over and slowly rolled up the left leg of his pants to reveal a normal-looking leg. But something was missing… Missing! There was no sign of the brace he had worn since childhood. He sat up in order to appreciate my awe-struck reaction. His eyes were sparkling bright as he exclaimed, “I don’t need it any more!”
After a few moments’ pause he reached for his cup, and I joined. We clicked the cups together in celebration. I savoured a sip, then gazed into the steam still rising from the cup. Once again, no word seemed adequate for the feelings welling up inside. Finally, looking up, my eyes met his, and all I could say was, “You must feel pretty grateful!”
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