The Takla Makan Mystic (a story from the infancy of my prose writing)
The Takla Makan Mystic
(a story from the infancy of my prose writing)
The warm dry air and burning yellow sands stretched out to the horizon. The sand dunes had exquisite forms and ripples and dust devils swirled about this harsh brutal land.
The train pushed ahead and Gesar thought about home. Back home, far away from the desolate Takla Makan desert, was a land of rolling green mountains and mists with the Yangtze cutting deep gorges. There, panda bears lived high up in the forest of bamboo and eucalyptus. There it was peaceful in some ways but unfulfilling.
The train stopped and Gesar was brought out of his reverie by a middle-aged man with a lined face and graying beard. The eyes of this man sparkled with radiance in the sunlight.
As the door closed dust rose into the fading sunlight filtering through the grated window.
The man looked beatific and strangely calm. He said, “What a day! This is the best place to be on a day like this.”
Gesar looked out at the dunes with their long shadows and said, “There is nothing out there, except emptiness.”
The man smiled and said wistfully, “Yes, emptiness, that we should all be that empty. It takes an empty vessel to be filled with sweet wine. Ever hear of Omar Khayyam?”
Gesar realized that this man was a mystic, an aspiring monk.
The monk said, “Khayyam said, ‘Wilderness were paradise enow.’ This wilderness is God you see. No temptations to cloud the mind with desire.”
The whistle blew and the train stopped for a rest stop. Gesar watched the man leave the train, took out a piece of wood, and began whittling. The piece of wood had the rough shape of a Buddha in the full lotus position, sitting with one leg over the other.
The monk returned and was cleanly shaven. The beard was gone and he had a smooth hairless head. He said, ‘You look like you are searching for something. What did you want to find out here in the desert?”
Gesar set the Buddha figurine down and said, “Nothing.”
The monk picked up the Buddha carving and examined it. He said, “Be careful what you ask for you might get it. I May have what you’re looking for. I’m heading for an old mine that is supposed to be over a rich vein of silver. I need a strong back to help me.”
Gesar took a deep breath and smiled. He said, “When do we start?”
At the next stop, they got off the train and walked off into the cool desert night. Orion was overhead, a constellation looking like a man running through the heavens. The three stars of its belt shown brilliantly like heavenly jewels in the clear desert sky. They got out blankets and slept peacefully. Gesar dreamed of a huge Buddha statue made of silver.
Morning came and Gesar saw the monk sitting in the full lotus position meditating. Gesar quietly sat down beside the monk with his legs crossed but kept staring at the white crescent moon in the morning sky and the tiny shrubs among the dunes.
Suddenly the monk hit him roughly on the shoulder. Gesar bit his tongue in anger.
The monk said, “Your first lesson is that daydreaming has no place here. You must concentrate on what you are doing.”
They both walked silently over the dunes and rock-strewn fields until the heat became unbearable.
They arrived at the jagged rock outcropping with a cave. The monk lit a torch and they entered the cave. Gesar was apprehensive about entering the cave but knew that this fear of the unknown was irrational. There was a pool in the back of the cave with some glowing material in the bottom. They washed their faces in the pool and drank from it with their cupped hands.
Gesar asked, “When do we begin?”
The monk sat down by the pool and said, “The equipment will arrive soon. Don’t worry.”
After some reflection, Gesar began to feel he had been tricked. Perhaps the monk simply wanted companionship in his solitude. However, Gesar did feel rested and calm. It would be a good vacation at least.
Gesar stepped out of the cave and saw a truck stop out front. He gave the man a letter to his wife telling her where he was.
The monk walked out and read out loud a Buddhist scripture about abandoning relatives. He put down the scripture and looked Gesar in the eyes. He said, “You think of where you are from and not where you are. You long for the green valleys of eastern China and hate the desert. ‘Remember, to set up what you like against what you dislike, that is a disease of the mind. When the deep meaning of the way is not understood, Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.’”
The next day they went to the marketplace in a nearby village. There were throngs of people on the dusty streets shopping in the tents. They wore robes and blue jeans. Tourists came by gawking at the primitive scene and taking photos.
The monk led Gesar to a brownstone building with a courtyard with a fountain in the middle with a pool full of goldfish. There were vines running up the brownstone walls and in the middle a big man with a black beard sitting on a plush reclining chair surrounded by maidens.
The monk said, “Ahmed, tell my friend here of the suffering that comes with wealth.”
Ahmed sat back in his easy chair and called a maiden with a jug of red wine to him. He said, “Wealth attracts women? Yes! But they will drain you of all you have. They are my ball and chain. They are forever making demands so many that they cannot be met. I wish I were like you two penniless, barefooted, head shaven monks. Then I could truly be happy. But I am stuck with this life of temptation, this greed. It is a sickness, wealth. Cure yourself of it. Stay in the desert. Happiness lies there.”
Then a maiden fanned him. Gesar and the monk ate a sumptuous meal of the three sweet potatoes in a rich sugar sauce Ahmed gave them.
They left Ahmed’s “suffering” and went back to the desert. When they arrived there was a light in the cave. They carefully sneaked in and Gesar saw the “thief” sitting in the shadows by the pool.
Gesar leaped up and onto the intruder and they tumbled over and over struggling until they came under the sunlight near the mouth of the cave. Then, Gesar saw his wife’s face all smeared with lipstick and eyeshadow.
She got up and brushed her long black hair from her face. She said, “You’ve ruined my nails and hair!”
Gesar smiled blissfully and said, “Don’t worry it’s not important.”
She grabbed his hand and said, “You’ve been in the desert too long. You’re delirious.”
Gesar dusted off his robe and said, “I’m clearer than I’ve ever been. Everything is crystal clear.”
She wiped the lipstick off her face and said, “We have a new son, you know. You must return to be his father. What would I tell him when he is grown, that his father abandoned him for a desert lunatic?”
The monk said, “Wife of Gesar, there is great wealth hidden in these rocks. Stay with us and we will all be rich. We will start a monastery here. Tradition is a guide but not the law. You will be a Buddhist nun and Gesar a monk. Yet you will be quartered together as husband and wife. Your child will grow up with the teachings of the Buddha. When he comes of age he will be a monk. Never will he face hunger or cold because monks are honored here and the villagers provide bountiful food.”
Hua, the wife, said, “I am a worldly girl. Prayer isn’t my thing. I like to dress up in lipstick, mascara,
perfume, and frilly clothes. There are no prudish robes in my future.”
The monk said, “Then, your family will live outside the monastery. Your son will get educated by us to take his place in the secular world. Your husband will be a layperson.”
Gesar said, “We haven’t even struck ore yet you pipe dream. Let’s get our hands dirty, the three of us, why don’t we?”
Hua noticed the monk had taken off his shoes and Gesar was dusting them with a brush. She approached the monk with the face of a mad cat. “How dare you give my husband such menial tasks? My Gesar is the father of a prince.”
The monk said, “How can he enter into the fatherhood of royalty if he can’t learn simple tasks? One must learn the small in order to do the great.”
Hua hammered her spike into the rock in hopes of funding her son’s future. She shined her flashlight upon the copper ore feeling like a clown on a fool’s errand. But the vision of her son dressed in silk as a prince among paupers urged her on.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead and rested from her labors until father sun reached his finger-ray into the cave and opened the aqua-blue eye of the embodiment of mother earth. When Hua tickled the water it became a gem in the mood ring of the Goddess which rippled with her giggles. The light reflected in the pool was like a soul in nirvana. But the water glow illuminated the pile of ore she was smashing to bits. And embedded in the nuggets were silver strips ready to be extracted and fill the coffers of their family fortune.
Hua wired a message to her brother to bring her baby out into this distant outpost of humanity. Soon she carried her bundle of joy on her shoulders while walking past the blind beggar and the street musician who played his guitar and sang like a merry minstrel for her child who laughed.
The fruit vendor handed her an orange whose juice she squeezed into her toddler’s mouth only to drip on his cheeks and bring a grin to his face.
Hua entered her new home without running water or electricity but with a surplus of love. She dipped her giggling infant into the bath she filled from the well water. He kicked like a runner carrying a message of peace. Soon she wrapped him in silk and put him in the cradle where no cold, hunger, or thirst would assail him.
The next day Gesar and the monk stood by the black coals of a fire and smiled in the bright desert sunlight. A breeze stoked the coals.
The monk said, “After the passage of seasons, your son will choose his own destiny. Until then remember that your son must choose his own direction, but don’t let him take trains in the desert with strange monks.”
“If it weren’t for you my son would live in poverty.”
The monk said, “Yes, well there is too much temptation from all that silver wealth. I must move on.”
They laughed and he watched the monk’s shadow recede as he wondered if his memory of the monk would be more substantial than a shadow in the desert. Gesar hiked away from the past and toward the future.
Hua’s eyes echoed like conch shells from canyons of stone and sun where Bodhi trees collect on hillsides for her progeny of little Buddhas to proliferate enlightenment.
Her eyes were starry like the diamond of the sutra that was spoken by Siddhartha. His words grew as her child had but in her scriptural womb. There she found consolation afloat like a constellation of stars over the Silk Road. There, many a traveler reported a hitchhiker named Marco Polo thumbing a ride to the court of Kublai Khan.
During her interludes among the lamas their singing bowls turned her mind into a magnifying glass which focused the sun of truth to burn a hole through the stale air of catchphrases designed to trigger the brain into a synaptic meltdown. Hua and Gesar found a secular Buddhism which fit snug as a June bug entwined in a lady’s hair.