A stone from the stream, p.1
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       A Stone From the Stream, p.1

           Peter A. Smalley
A Stone From the Stream
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  A Stone From the Stream

  By Peter A. Smalley

  Published by Kindling Press

  Copyright 2012 - Peter A. Smalley

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  Once, long ago, there lived a monk.

  The monk tended an ancient shrine high in the mountains, far from the temptations and distraction of the city below. He was dedicated in his service to the shrine and felt no lack. He rose before dawn and retired to his simple chamber long after the sun had set. He ate half a cup of rice for his mid-day meal, drank from the well when he was thirsty, and lived in perfect contentment.

  At least, so his sutras had taught him to call his state.

  But it was not enough that he dwelt far from the city, where evil men did evil things in the ignorance and darkness of their hearts. One day a traveler came by the shrine and waited for a time outside the tall wooden gate, observing him at his training. It was the noon hour, when he was permitted an hour from labor and the chanting of the sutras to practice meditation-in-motion, the art passed down from generation to generation of monks. At the end of his practice he saw the traveler at the gate, and as it was the hour for breaking his fast, he went to the gate and bowed deeply to the traveler.

  “Traveler, it would honor me if you were to pause in your journey and share my humble mid-day meal. It is not much, but you are welcome to what I have.”

  “Would it? Is it not? Am I?”

  The traveler was very rude to respond so to a humble offer, and the monk did not know how to reply at first. Then the traveler filled the silence with even stranger words.

  “Look again. Your humble meal is a banquet. Do not give it away, but eat as much as you can; still, you will be unable to eat it all, no matter how hungry you think you are.”

  A moment later, the monk was alone.

  He returned to the shrine and ate his bowl of rice alone, deep in thought, but at the end of his meal he saved three measures of rice and placed them on the altar. The monk spent a long time considering what the strange traveler had said.

  Sometime later, the monk was at his morning task of sweeping the courtyard when he saw the same traveler. This time, instead of waiting at the gate as was proper, the traveler had come inside the shrine grounds and was adjusting stones in the stream that fed the meditation pool.

  When the monk came over to quietly protest this intrusion, the traveler waved the monk’s words away before he had even completed his bow.

  “You could not finish your meal, and neither will you be able to complete your duties this morning,” said the traveler, the broad brimmed hat hiding any features that might have been visible where the traveler knelt low beside the stream. One long, pale arm extended from an indecorously pulled-up sleeve and lifted a stone from the clear waters of the stream. After a moment of deliberation, the arm placed the stone in a different location. Even the monk, who had been told many times that he had the ears of a stone, could tell that the voice of the stream had been changed.

  “What have you done?” asked the monk, but just as before the strange traveler was gone.

  Try as he might, the monk could not return the voice of the stream to its original state. All that morning it troubled him, for the new voice was like the voice of the traveler, soft and high and pleasant like birdsong, where once it had been low and soothing as a sutra chanted in the cool depths of the shrine.

  For days he sought to drown out the the new sound of the stream with labor and chanted sutras, but he was forbidden to raise his voice and the voice of the stream seemed to upset his memory for the words of the sutras. At night the voice of the stream seemed to slip into his dreams, wordless but ever present. He could not remember what he had dream when he woke, but he felt certain that it had something to do with the slim, strange traveler and the memory of a long, thin, wet arm glistening in the sun.

  Eventually he took a small stone from the stream and placed it on the altar with the three measures of rice. After that, the dreams ceased and his harmony seemed to return.

  At least, so his sutras had taught him to call his state.

  The monk thought about these things for many days, and many nights he meditated on them, and so months passed while he waited for the strange, slim traveler to return.

  Now a monk leaves his shrine only a handful of times in his life. Occasionally there is a great festival, or the death of an Emperor, and shrines must tend themselves for a few days. But never would a monk abandon his charge and simply leave a temple or shrine or holy place. It was shameful even to contemplate such a thing; it was simply unthinkable.

  But after many months without the traveler’s return, the monk could no longer remain in his shrine. He packed a small bag and took a staff with him in case of brigands, and set off to find the absent traveler.

  As it was many years since he had traveled, the monk hardly knew where to begin, so after he had descended some distance he approached a farmer who was planting a field that lay along the path. The farmer gave him a ripe peach and told him he had not seen anyone by that description. The monk gave the farmer one of the three measures of rice he had brought with him in thanks him and then went on, quietly chanting sutras to keep his mind focused. Later, he ate the peach, and it was juicy and delicious.

  Sometime later, after he had descended some distance further, the monk came upon a fisherman. The fisherman too had not seen anyone such as the traveler the monk described, but he offered to share a part of his catch with the monk, it being about the time for the mid-day meal. The monk declined, for monks do not eat the flesh of animals, but he gave the fisherman one of the three measures of rice that he had brought with him from the shrine, and in thanks the fisherman gave the monk the use of his small boat to speed his journey.

  The monk sailed down the river, adjusting his sail to make use of the wind, and thought of the farmer and the fisherman. It seemed strange to him that they could not have seen the traveler, for there was but one road that led past the shrine, and it ran along the farmer’s field and cross the fisherman’s river. But he sailed on, quietly chanting sutras and keeping a sharp eye out for the traveler.

  After a day of sailing down the river, the monk came to the City.

  The monk had been raised in the country, and had spent the rest of his life alone at the shrine. He had never seen such a place as this City, and at first it was bewildering. Everyone came and went very quickly, and there was constant noise, and terrible odors, so that it was hard for the monk even to think or maintain focus at times. But he tied up the fisherman’s boat at the dock and walked the streets of the City, searching for the traveler.

  He searched all day, and as dusk fell the monk had grown weary of the City and longed for the peace of his shrine. He was also quite hungry, for there was no place for him to wash and it was his practice always to wash before eating his mid-day meal. The monk returned to the dock only to find that his boat was no longer there. And so he sat on the dock and watched the sun sink toward the waves, struggling to find hope in the midst of this strange place.

  It was then that a beggar-child approached him. Skinny and obviously hungry, the young girl asked the monk if he could spare something to eat. And so the monk gave the beggar his last measure of rice, and then stood up and began the journey back to the shrine.

  Soon it grew dark, and though he tried to follow the river, the path soon twisted and turned and the monk became lost. He had his staff and was not afraid, but he wanted to get back to the shrine as soon as he could, a
nd so he pressed on through the darkness. After a time he saw a light and made for it.

  The light was a lantern outside the home of a sage. The sage, who was blind, greeted the monk and invited him to enter and share his hospitality. The monk gladly accepted, for by now he was very tired and his spirit was troubled. The sage served his guest tea, and the two sat together in the light of the fire. Eventually the sage asked the monk why he was walking in the dark so far from home, and the story of the traveler and the monk’s journey came out. The sage nodded his head wisely and told the monk, “There is something that is holding you back. You must find what it is and cast it aside, or not only will you never find the traveler, you will never see your shrine again either.”

  And so the monk meditated that night in the house of the sage, and in the morning when he got ready to depart, he saw a strange thing. The house of the sage was built of stones from the river fitted together snugly and the chinks between them filled with clay. But near the sage’s simple bed there was a small hole in the wall, and even now the light of the dawn came through it, along with a distinct chill. The monk searched through his bag and took the stone that he had brought from the stream that fed the shrine’s meditation pool and put it into the hole. To his surprise, it fit perfectly, and the small house immediately became much warmer.

  That morning the monk set out from the sage’s house with a light heart. He had not eaten in three days, yet he felt full of something that was not food. His spirit was no longer troubled, and the miles fell away. He crossed the stream, but the fisherman was not there. He walked by the farmer’s field, but the farmer was nowhere to be seen. But when he neared the shrine, he was amazed to see incense smoke rising from the part of the shrine where the altar lay.

  The monk walked silently through the gate where he had first seen the traveler, and crossed the stream whose voice the traveler had changed. He stopped at the doorway of the shrine, and looked inside.

  Kneeling before the altar was the strange traveler, chanting sutras.

  The monk came near and knelt next to the traveler, who stopped chanting.

  “Who are you?” asked the monk.

  “I am the farmer, and the fisherman, and the beggar,” replied the strange traveler. “I am the three measures of rice you saved, and the stone from your stream. I am the City, and you are the Shrine. And it was time you learned that each needs the other.”

  “This I understand,” replied the monk, “for it was revealed to me when I left behind the stone from the stream at the sage’s house. But you are more than the farmer and the fisherman and the beggar, more than the rice and the stone, more than the City. You tended the shrine while I was away, saving me from shame and dishonor. You have understood these things before I did. And so I think you must also be a monk.”

  And the stranger smiled for the first time, and removed the broad, concealing hat, and the monk saw that she was smiling at him.

  “I am a monk, and I will remain here with you. For the shrine needs the City as much as the City needs the shrine; as much as a beggar needs a farmer; as much as a boat needs a fisherman; as much as a stone requires a wall.”

  And the monk was happy.

  At least, so his sutras had taught him to call his state.

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