Master Bao and the Demon
A Tale of China in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
Master Bao rode his great ox, Xi, along a well-traveled road through Hedong Providence in the northern part of the Empire. His pupil, Ping, walked alongside.
Ping glanced up and saw a few white fluffy clouds floating serenely in an azure sky. Both sides of the road were flanked by waving tall green and yellow grasses.
“This is a most pleasant road, and a pleasant day,” Ping remarked. “It is neither too hot nor too cool.”
“Yes, Ping. And we can enjoy the present moment to its fullest. In a short time, we’ll be in the village of HuShi. I’ve never been in this is part of the providence before, but I’m confident we’ll be well-received.”
An hour later, just outside HuShi, a sweating man dressed as a laborer came running toward them pulling a two-wheel cart on which sat a woman holding a small girl. Two young boys ran behind the cart.
“Master,” the man shouted when he spotted Master Bao and Ping. “Run back from where you came. The Demon of HuShi will rip you limb from limb, and devour the boy.”
Ping watched as the family rushed past, then looked at Master Bao sitting quietly on Xi.
“I don’t think I would like to be devoured by a demon, Master.” He folded his hands inside his capacious sleeves and bowed deeply to the monk. “Perhaps we should seek a different village for our evening rice.”
Master Bao dismounted and smiled as he adjusted Xi’s saddle blanket. “Demons are created in one’s mind, Student Ping. They spring from pain and anger, carried deep inside. Often, when fed by wine and frustration, they manifest in a physical form that can cause great destruction.”
Ping bowed again. “Can they tear a man limb from limb, as the villager said? Or devour a student? Can the Dao protect a monk and his pupil from such a great evil?”
“The Mighty Dao, Ping, does not recognize good or evil. Like the mountain stream, it nourishes all who thirst. Good and Evil are known only to humans.
“But it does recognize harmony and disharmony, balance and unbalance. To fight a demon means bringing harmony and balance to one who has twisted away from the flow of The Dao.”
The monk climbed aboard Xi. “Come, Ping. You may rest your worries. Hideous demons live only in the minds of the fearful. Let us see this demon for ourselves. Perhaps we can help someone in need.”
As they entered HuShi, the travelers were nearly run down by mobs of people fleeing the wrath of the demon. Master Bao stopped one man dressed as a craftsman. “Kind Sir,” he asked, “Where can I find this demon who you flee?”
“He lives on this very street,” the man replied. “Run away, for he will smell the warm blood of you and your young companion and find you quickly enough. He killed the potter Chou Hue, and now lives in his hut. Flee with us while you still have a chance.”
“Have you seen this demon?” Master Bao asked. “What does he look like?”
“I’ve never seen him myself, but it is said he is ten feet tall, green in color with the horns of a ram. His eyes glow orange, I’m told. But I mustn’t linger or I’ll be his next meal.”
Further on, Master Bao and Ping were surrounded by men, women, and children carrying their meager possessions in bundles as they fled down the street. The monk stopped a woman who was pushing a young child in a cart. “Good woman,” he asked. “where can I find this demon who you flee?”
“He lives further up this very street,” the woman said. “Run away, for he will smell the warm blood of you and your young companion and find you quickly enough. He slayed the potter, Chou Hue, and took over his hut. Flee with us while you still have a chance.”
“Have you seen this demon?” Master Bao asked. “What does he look like?”
“I’ve never seen him myself, but it is said he is short and round, bright red in color, with great sharp teeth and long claws. His eyes are yellow, I’m told. But I mustn’t linger or I’ll be his next meal.”
Finally, the travelers came to the end of the street where sat a small stone hut on a piece of unattended land. The front yard was covered in dry plants and stones. Ping stood behind the ox, as Master Bao strode up to the wooden door. The monk knocked loudly.
A loud roar, like an angry tiger, came from within, and purple smoke, smelling of spoiled eggs, poured from under the door. Ping stepped further back, covering his mouth with his sleeves, but kept his eyes fastened on his Master.
When the echo of the roar died away, Master Bao knocked again. This time, a scream like an injured gibbon came from within, and green smoke, smelling of decomposed meat, poured from under the door. Ping coughed into his sleeves, but kept his eyes fastened on his Master.
When the echo of the scream died away, Master Bao knocked again. This time, the door was abruptly pulled open to reveal a skinny man, his gray hair and beard in violent disarray. His eyes were runny, his face covered in boils, and his mouth drawn into a fierce snarl. “What do you want, you fool? Can’t you see I’m a sick man? You’ve just been exposed to the plague.”
“Perhaps I can help, Chou Hue” Master Bao said. “By your appearance alone, I can see that you have a disease that resembles the plague. But it can be cured. Your boils are not from a disease, but from the bite of a small insect that lives in sleeping clothes and lays eggs in unkempt beards and hair.”
“What? I’ve been burning horrible smelling plants and animals in my fireplace to keep the villagers away. The cries of my pet tiger and pet gibbon have helped. Now, you tell me I don’t have the plague, but bites from some insect?”
“Yes. You must burn your mattress and bedding. If you stop trying to keep the villagers away, they will help you find new, clean bedding. And you must trim your beard and hair.”
“I will do as you say, Master, for you are a wise monk.”
Master Bao handed the potter a small jar filled with a white cream. “After you wash in warm water and soap, put this ointment on your boils. If you follow my directions, you will be free of your troubles in three days.”
Potter Chou Hue broke down in sobs. “I love the people of this village so much that I feared spreading the plague among them. I pulled the tail of my pet tiger to make him roar, and twisted the ear of my pet gibbon to make him scream. The smoke did the rest.”
The next day, Master Bao and Ping left the village, taking the road to the next town. When they stopped to eat their noon rice, Ping bowed to the monk, his hands folded inside his sleeves.
“Please, Master. Enlighten this ignorant pupil. How did you know the evil demon of HuShi was just an ill old man? All the villagers were filled with panic. The tales they told were of a fearsome, powerful demon. Yet you showed no concern.”
Master Bao sat on a mat in the shade of a tree with wide leaves. “Please sit, student Ping, and I will tell you about demons, then we will have our noon rice.”
After Ping had spread his mat and sat, the monk took a deep breath.
“Demons are people who are in pain, Ping, and their pain is caught in a loop. The pain can be a wound, or grief, or rejection from others. The most fearsome demons are when a powerful emotion, such as love, is lost for any reason. The pain feels like a fire inside that is unable to be quenched by water or wine. This leads to disharmony in the very core of their being, and blockages to their yin and yang energies overwhelms their mind and body.
“The imbalance in the person’s yin and yang soon leads to strange behavior, often harmful to both friends and strangers. Others become fearful because they don’t understand and begin to make up desperate stories in their minds. When something is unknown, it is in the nature of humans to invent reasons and stories to explain the event.
“In the case of the potter Chou Hue, his disease clashed with his love for the villagers, causing great pain and imbalance. While he believed he needed to keep the villagers away from him for their own safety, he missed them terribly and, in spite of his deliberate actions, felt rejected and alone. The townspeople reacted to his actions with fear.”
Ping nodded. “This fear then caused the demon/person more pain, and the loop was completed,” he said. “But Master, you knew none of this when we spoke to the villagers. They described a monster of wicked proportions who devoured human beings.”
Master Bao chuckled. “As I said, demons crawl out of an abyss of pain, which can sometimes be cured. As followers of the Way, it is our mission to heal those in pain and suffering when we are able. Fear in the villagers was a result of misunderstanding of the flow of the Dao, which does not recognize evil and good, or life and death.
“Besides, Ping, I knew we had nothing to fear. You and I are much too stringy and tough for a demon to devour. They prefer softer monks and students.”
Art work by Fan Zeng (b. 1938) of Master Bao and Ping.
A story from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
Master Bao rode his great ox, Xi, along a road that ran through a burned over forest. His pupil, Ping, walked alongside.
“This providence of Jiannan has suffered a long drought, Ping. The trees became dry and a fire last year burned this large area. Many people and animals perished in the blaze.”
Ping sniffed, smelling charred wood. “Many trees and plants died, also.”
The monk smiled at his pupil’s awareness of all life, and the universality of suffering.
Soon, the travelers reached the village of Pang Li, spared from the fire by the river Que that ran between the town and the forest. “Ahead is the Inn of Forever Light, Ping. We’ll see if they have a room available.”
Before they reached the inn, however, they became aware of a group of villagers gathered at the door of a hovel, speaking quietly among themselves.
“There is a monk,” one of the men on the edge of the crowd shouted. “Perhaps he can save little Meng Kee.”
Master Bao dismounted. “What is the trouble?”
Just then the door flew open and a woman, crying uncontrollably, rushed out. “Oh, Master Monk. You must save my son,” she said, sobbing. “He is dying. He ate poison berries from a plant along the river.”
The woman tugged Master Bao’s sleeve, pulling him into her hovel. After handing the reins of Xi to one of the villagers, Ping followed. A man with a short beard, dressed in the leather apron of a craftsman, sat on a mat next to a fireplace where a single-log fire burned.
He held a small boy on his lap who appeared to be sleeping. Tears, glistening in the firelight, ran down the man’s face.
The monk examined the boy and saw purple spots covering his face and chest. He noted that the boy was breathing shallowly, his limbs slack.
“Place the child on his back on the table, Craftsman,” Master Bao said. “Ping, go to the well and get a fresh pot of water, and get my pouch from Xi. Then, this kind woman will boil the water.”
When the child was lying on the table, Master Bao, starting at the his head, made a motion with two fingers as if chopping the air above the boy. He then worked his way down the child’s body, finishing just after Ping returned. Then, the monk moved his open hands back and fourth above the boy.
“Ping, watch closely to what I am doing. The poison blocked his Qi channels, so I first broke up the blocks. Now I’m pouring Qi into him.”
“Are you using your own Qi, Master?”
“I am but a tube, like a bamboo shoot. The Qi is from the Universe, running through me. I’m merely directing its power.”
Within minutes, the boy’s spots began to disappear. Then, he opened his eyes. His mother and father, crying out with joy, attracted the villagers who poured into the house and surrounded the family.
“Here are some tea leaves, my good woman,” the monk said. He took a small package from his pouch. “Let your son rest, but give him a cup of tea twice today. That will complete his healing.”
The mother and father dropped to their knees and knocked their foreheads on the floor three times, wailing their gratitude, tears streaming down their faces. “Our little Kee is all we have, and we thought we had lost him.”
The rest of the villagers also kneeled in front of the monk.
“There is no need to kneel,” Master Bao said, “I’m just a poor monk, not an official of the Dragon Throne.”
After they left the home, the travelers walked to the inn, leading Xi. “There is a stable behind the inn, Ping. We’ll get Xi settled down, then register at the inn.
“It will then be time for our evening rice, and my nose tells me this inn has a fine restaurant.”
While they were rubbing down Xi, Ping said, with a deep bow, “Life and death are both in the flow of the Dao, Master. Yet, you saved the life of that sick child. How do we know when to act and when to await on the Will of Heaven?”
“Ah, Ping. As followers of The Way, we must do our best to relieve pain. We must be kind, caring and, when able, bring our knowledge of healing to those who suffer. The Dao, being the flow of all nature and therefore life, demands we help.
“Tomorrow, we will check on the boy, Student Ping, but right now, the scent of spiced rice calls to us.”
Master Bao saves a boy from death,
Master Bao and the Running Man
A tale from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
November 23, 2020
Master Bao rode his great ox, Xi, along a high mountain road in the province of Han-Yung. His pupil Ping strode alongside.
“Soon, Ping, we will be in the village of Yuen Chi known for its twin lakes, and bountiful fields of grain.”
“With two lakes for fishing and fields of grain, the people of Yuen Chi must be very happy,” Ping said.
“Yes, Ping. There is plentiful food. When drought strikes the rest of the province, the water from the lakes is used to irrigate the fields. It is a very content village.”
“Will we be stopping at an inn, or sleeping beneath the stars tonight, Master?”
“The Inn of Quiet Repose is noted for its vast vegetable garden, as well as its clean rooms. It is there we will spend the night. We should be seeing the twin lakes before too long. The village is set on a strip of land between them.”
About an hour later, the road leveled off and ran between two large lakes. Several fishermen in small boats were busy working with their tame cormorants. Soon, the travelers were on Yuen Chi’s crowded main street, walking among well-dressed merchants and bare-footed farmers in their simple shirts and pants.
“The people look happy, Master,” Ping said, “and I see very few beggars.”
Master Bao nodded. “If you notice, several of the buildings have the same name, ‘Liu.’ Over there is ‘Liu’s Cotton Goods,’ across the street from ‘Liu’s Leather Shop.’”
“I saw a ‘Liu’s Goldsmith,’ and a ‘Liu’s Fish Restaurant,’” Ping added
“Whoever Liu is, he must be quite wealthy. But here is the Inn of Quiet Repose, and a stable behind it. We’ll have the stable hand give Xi a rubdown and feed him, for he’s had a long trip today. Then, we’ll register in the inn.”
In a short time, Master Bao and Ping entered the wide doorway of the inn and approached the registration desk. A tall clerk with a full gray beard greeted the travelers with a bow and a smile.
“Our inn is honored to have two guests such as yourselves,” he said. “We have quiet rooms in the courtyard.”
A clash and clatter of cymbals and drums erupted from the street outside the inn, and the sound of people shouting filled the lobby. The innkeeper merely smiled, and continued to prepare the registration book.
Ping ran to the door and peered out. “The Magistrate must be approaching,” he said over the din. “Or perhaps a member of the Dragon Throne family.”
“No, no,” the innkeeper answered, “it’s just Mr. Liu hurrying past. He doesn’t stop here, or really anywhere, for he works day and night. The shouts and noise you hear are his men chasing people out of his way, for he hates to be delayed.”
Ping watched as a closed palanquin, carried by six chair-bearers, rushed down the street. A group of drummers ran before them, beating on skin drums, brass cymbals, and iron triangles.
“The story of Mr. Liu is famous throughout this province,” the innkeeper revealed. “His father was a prominent fisherman, who owned his own boat. So Liu knew hard work, but also comfort as a child. He was a curious boy, so my old clerk taught him to read and write.
“A tragedy struck, however. One day, Liu’s father’s boat floundered in a storm and only Liu lived. Soon, poor Liu’s mother died of a broken heart. His family gone, the boat gone, Liu was forced to work for other fishermen, and soon was reduced to rags.
“One day, a rich merchant’s son jeered at him, calling him names. The next day, people noticed that Liu had disappeared.
No one heard from him for three years, but when he returned, he had a gold bar with which he bought a small wine shop. Since then, he has worked night and day to expand his holdings. Now, as a young man of only thirty, he is far richer than the merchant’s son who drove him away.”
That evening, as Master Bao and Ping were finishing their evening rice with fresh vegetables in the restaurant in the inn, the sound of shouting came from the lobby.
“Mr. Liu is dead,” a man screamed. “He just dropped over while at his desk.” The restaurant patrons, except for Master Bao and Ping, rushed out into the street.
Ping studied the Monk’s face, waiting for a reaction. After several minutes, Ping said, “What do you think happened, Master?”
Master Bao seemed to be examining the teapot sitting between the two. “The local Magistrate will no doubt order an examination by the Coroner, but I think he will find that Mr. Liu simply stopped running.”
Ping rose and bowed deeply to the Monk, his hands clasped inside his capacious sleeves. “Please enlighten this ignorant student, Master. Mr. Liu was not running. He was at his desk.”
Master Bao smiled. “Our wise Zhuangzi once told a story about a running man.
“There once lived a man who feared his own shadow. This man also feared the sound of his own footsteps.
“So the man ran and ran, but unable to outrun his own shadow and the sound of his footsteps, he finally dropped dead from running.”
The Monk filled both teacups. “Do you find a lesson in this story, Student Ping, that may help understand Mr. Liu?”
Ping smiled broadly. “If the man had stopped running, he would no longer hear his footsteps. Perhaps Mr. Liu feared his past was catching up with him.”
“And?” Master Bao inquired.
Ping thought for a moment. “And, if he sat in the shade of a tree, he would not see his shadow. Do you think, Master, that Mr. Liu feared poverty, as this man in the story feared his shadow?”
“Perhaps. Real wealth, as followers of The Way know, is peace of mind, brought about by equanimity.
“And remember, Student Ping, equanimity does not come from running away from one’s fears.”
Thanks to Zhuangzi (369 – 286 BCE) for the idea
"Verdant Grove by the Stream"
by Huang Junbi (1898-1991)
Master Bao rode his ox, Xi, along a wide, well-traveled road in the kingdom of Hwang-Liu. His pupil, Ping, walked alongside.
“Soon, Ping, we will be in the city of Peng-ho, the capitol of this kingdom. Since this is the Fifth day of the Fifth Moon, the date of the annual Dragon Boat Festival, we may need to sleep in one of the huts that are provided for the farmers and merchants coming from all over Hwang-Liu. All the inns will be filled.”
Ping was smiling broadly. “I saw a Dragon Boat race once, Master, when I was still at home. I have heard the ones on the River Chu in Peng-ho are wondrous to behold, eighty rowers in each Dragon Boat.”
“Yes, Ping. It is a great holiday for our hard-working people. It gives them a chance to eat traditional filled rice cakes and place bets on their favorite crew. It is rumored the Prince of Hwang-Liu will be giving away the prizes to the winning crew.”
“I have never seen a prince, Master, nor any member of a royal family.”
Master Bao smiled. “Perhaps today you will.”
An hour later, the travelers entered the gates of Peng-ho, found a stable for Xi, and a hut for themselves. The huts, canvas tents, had been erected to house the overflow of festival-goers.
“Come, Ping. The sun has set and the starting gong has sounded. Cheers from the crowd tell us the boats are coming into sight around the bend in the river. We can see the finish line from that knoll near the Prince’s floating palace.
"Ordinary citizens are not allowed near the Prince’s boat, but I’m sure the guards will not object to an old monk and his student standing quietly by.”
After a quick glance, the heavily armed guards ignored the Monk and Ping, and instead watched the large Dragon boats as they flew across the finish line.
The Prince of Hwang-Liu, a young man with no beard or mustache, sat on his throne which was covered in gold, in the stern of the floating palace. His brocade robe was elaborately embroidered and had wide gold sleeves. His black hat was trimmed in red. A man with a gray beard was on his right, bent double in a low bow. Other men were gathered around the throne, all either bowing deeply or kneeling. One man, however, tall and covered in bright armor, stood behind the throne, torch light shining off his golden helmet.
Master Bao, who had known many kings and princes, kept an eye on Ping. The glitter of the trappings and the obeisance of the men surrounding the prince seemed to hold Ping in awe. When the prince turned toward the Monk and Ping, the student dropped to his knees and knocked his forehead on the ground three times.
Master Bao merely gazed back at the monarch, who yawned and looked away.
Later, after the last boat had crossed the finish line and the Prince had handed out the prizes to the winners, Master Bao and Ping took their evening rice at a small restaurant on a side street.
After their simple meal, Ping stood and, his hands clasped inside his capacious sleeves, gave a deep bow.“ Master, please enlighten this ignorant student. It is known that the common people must kneel in the presence of the royal family.
“But the men surrounding the Prince today were men of stature, with rich robes and hats. They had their own servants and palanquins. Why were they kneeling and bowing?”
“One word, Ping. Power.” the monk replied.
“I see power in the thunder and lightening,” Ping said. “There is power in the plants who grow despite the rocks, and the streams in the mountains pour forth power as they tumble down the slope.”
Master Bao thought for a long moment. “All things in this Universe, including humans, are given Power, but some see only the power outside themselves. They trade the power within for the power without, and see the Prince as the source of that power.”
“What, then, is power, Master? The Prince can have a man beheaded. Is that power?”
“Yes. He has the power to destroy, and that is a great power. History teaches us that it must be wielded with restraint, however, or he will lose the Mandate of Heaven and be destroyed himself.
“As a wise monarch, then, he uses his power to get others to do his bidding. For example, the Minister of Finance, who is the elderly man standing next to the throne, knows the Prince can reward him, so he bows to curry favor. This is known as reward power.
“The leader of the Goldworker’s Guild was also with the Prince, and he fears the Prince will withdraw his support of the gold prices, so he bows and kneels. This is known as threatening power.
“Behind the throne stood General Hong, the head of the Army. He respects the Mandate of Heaven and therefore the Prince’s authority as the legal ruler. He, among those men, will remain loyal. This is known as legitimate power.”
Ping bowed again. “The Prince could have had you beheaded for not kneeling. Why did he not use that power?”
“Because he recognized that is just the power over my body, not my spirit. He is wise, for he knows he cannot have my compliance by force. Therefore, he did not send his soldiers to arrest me, as would have a more arrogant prince.
“Beheading an elderly monk would not have increased his power, and may have led to an uprising among the People of this kingdom.
“An enlightened monarch knows he cannot take a man or woman’s spiritual power by force. Only their physical body.”
“How does one then lose their spiritual power?” Ping asked.
“We give it away, Student Ping. Anger, disappointment, or violence is giving away our power to others. If a man insults you and you become angry, you have given him the power to influence how you feel. If you strike another, it is because you have given him the power to push you into disharmony.
“The lesson, Ping, is to hold onto your power by remaining innocent, gentle, and accepting of the Will of Heaven.
“But for now, while still a student, it would be wise to kneel when expected.”
Thanks to “The Bases of Social Power” by Raven and French, in Group Dynamics, Harper and Row, 1959, for the idea.
Chinese royal family, Quiq Dynasty
Master Bao and the Loaded Sleeves
Desire is the nourishment that does not nourish
A story of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
On a warm spring day, Master Bao, a Daoist Monk, and his student Ping walked along the city streets of Jing Lai, in the province of Guannei, known for its “Willow and Flower” district.
Ping had been watching the elegant young women, dressed in colorful flowing robes, fanning themselves on the balconies of the Flower Halls.
“The Dao is the natural way of life, young Ping,” Master Bao said, with one eye on his student. “It is the natural flow of the Universe.”
“Yes, Master,” Ping replied, “But my whole body responds to the presence of these beautiful girls. I greatly desire to be in their presence. Is that not also in the flow of the Universe?”
Master Bao smiled. “All things are in the flow of the Dao, and your desire is a passion known to all humans. In the young, it is the fire at the foot of the mountain.”
The travelers arrived at a two-story restaurant with a sign proclaiming it to be The Rice Bowl of the Gods. After sitting at a table near the back, Master Bao continued, “In the spring, the life force in all things stirs again, and this is what you are feeling now. But beware that your desire is not the nourishment that does not nourish.”
Ping bowed his head. “Please inform this ignorant student about the dangers of desire, Master.”
Before Master Bao could respond, the waiter brought large bowls of noodles and a pot of tea, and the two ate with gusto. After they were finished, Ping filled their teacups.
Just then, a young woman entered the restaurant. On her arm, a man with a long white beard, nearly bent double, shuffled beside her. As they moved toward a table near the door, their way was blocked by a large man with a ring beard and a sneer that showed darkened teeth. He had risen from a nearby table where three other men were sitting.
Master Bao noted all four had the deep chests and sturdy necks of boxers, and were likely “brothers of the green woods,” that is, professional criminals.
“Lose this old goat, my beauty, and join me and my friends in a round of fine wine,” the thug said as he took the girl’s arm.
Ping started to rise from the table, but Master Bao put his hand on Ping’s arm. “Wait, Ping. You are about to see a rare sight. Those men are going to get a lesson they won’t soon forget.”
As the large man began to pull the girl away from the old man, her right sleeve swirled as she spun away. Something in her capacious sleeve struck the thug on the side of his face, turning loose a stream of blood from his mouth. He dropped to the floor holding his jaw.
As his companions came to the man’s aid, the girl, with seemingly little effort, whirled her sleeves and shattered first one man’s arm, then another’s shoulder. The last man dove under the table to escape the mayhem.
The men fled from the restaurant, as the young woman with her elderly companion pulled up chairs and sat at the table. Bowls of noodles and a pot of tea were instantly brought by the waiter.
“Note, Ping,” Master Bao said. “The young lady carries a lead ball in each sleeve and has been trained in the ancient art of ‘Loaded Sleeve Fighting.’ I saw her sleeves were loaded when she entered the room, but the thugs were blinded by their desire.”
Ping stood and bowed deeply to the Monk. “Master,” Ping said, “These men were after that girl for vile reasons. Is this what you meant by ‘nourishment that does not nourish?”
“Yes, student Ping. The gratification they sought would lead to still more desire, and the mad pursuit of pleasure for base satisfaction of the senses leads to misfortune.
“Proper conduct, with equanimity, gentleness, and humility, will obtain the goal which one seeks. This is a lesson people of any age must learn in order to reach the top of the mountain.”
"Loaded Sleeve Fighting" was a deadly martial art practiced by women up to the early 20th Century.
Statute of Master Bao and his ox, Xi, on my desk shelf in my den. Photo taken by the author Tom.
Master Bao and the Thief
A story from the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907 CE)
Master Bao rode his great ox, Xi, along a tree-lined road in the kingdom of Kang in Shandong Providence. His pupil, Ping, strode alongside.
“Tonight, we will rest in the city of Hwang-Lei, Ping. It is noted for its productive rice fields, and its bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables.”
The well-traveled road soon opened to an area of vast rice fields, where many farmers worked with their oxen. Wagons pulled by still more oxen plied the road on which the Monk and Ping traveled.
Soon the travelers entered the gate of the walled city of Hwang-Lei, and stopped at an inn on the main street. A wooden sign swaying slightly in the soft breeze told them it was the Inn of the Plum Blossom Bower.
After turning Xi over to the stable lad for a rubdown and meal, the travelers pushed open the door to the lobby of the inn. Upon entering, they noticed a commotion taking place in front of the registration counter.
A thin man dressed in rags was huddled on the floor, his hands and arms protecting his head from the rain of blows and kicks from three large men.
The men were cussing loudly as their punches and kicks hit home.
Master Bao stepped up to the fracas and pushed the three sweating men aside.
Recognizing the monk, the men stepped back immediately and bowed deeply to him.
“What is happening here? Why are you beating this man?”
“He is a thief, Master,” the tallest one said. “We caught him stealing silver from the money box behind the counter. Rather than call the constables, which would mean the Magistrate would become involved and we would need to be witnesses, we decided to mete out justice ourselves.”
Master Bao and Ping helped the victim of the beating to his feet, and brought him, limping and bent over, to a chair in the lobby. “Justice is the province of those given the Mandate of Heaven and the representatives of the Dragon Throne. Anger and beating this man will not change him. It will only harden your own heart with shame.
“Bring me warm water and soap,” the monk ordered the innkeeper. “And fetch vinegar and plasters for this man’s injuries.”
Shortly after washing and treating the thief’s wounds, Master Bao and Ping treated him to a meal at a nearby restaurant.
“Heaven itself is against me, Master,” the man moaned while gobbling down a large bowl of noodles. “I, Ma Gan, am the unluckiest man on this planet.”
After Ma Gan had eaten his fill of noodles and emptied several cups of tea, he bowed deeply to Master Bao. “Since I was but a child, people have hated me, treated me with distain, and laughed at me, all for no reason. It is my miserable fate to have the stars lined up against me. Woe is my life…”
Master Bao and Ping listened carefully to Ma Gan’s laments until he finally fell silent.
“Tell me, Ma Gan. Why did you try to steal the silver from the money box at the inn?”
“I was hungry, Master. I hadn’t eaten in three days.”
“Then why didn’t you steal the bread that was in the kitchen in the inn’s restaurant, right in the next room? You can’t eat silver, and did you not know it was guarded?”
“It was my terrible luck to get caught, Master. That’s all. I thought, if I steal the silver, I can have many loaves of bread, and many meals. But if I steal the bread, I’ll be hungry again tomorrow.”
“So you looked into the future, rather than satisfy your immediate need for food. By not remaining in the present, you received a beating.”
Ma Gan was silent, his head cocked to one side. “So if I wish to become lucky, I should steal only what I need.”
“Is there no work you can do so you wouldn’t need to steal in order to live?”
“I have worked, Master,” Ma Gan wailed, “but bad luck always seems to come my way. I was a clerk for a woolen goods store, but, because of my crossed stars, I was beaten and fired.”
“Curse my luck, the owner had a beautiful daughter. He caught me trying to persuade her to share her bed with me.”
“So you were untrustworthy in the eyes of the owner, and he responded by beating you and throwing you from the store.”
“Yes. You can see how unfortunate I have been. When I worked for a farmer, he fired me because I stole one of his goats. He had many, and I didn’t think he’d miss one. It was just my ill fortune that he was a farmer who knew each of his goats by name and quickly found one missing.” Here Ma Gan burst into tears.
“Listen carefully, Ma Gan. The past and future are ghosts. Dwelling in them only bring fear and regret.”
Ma Gan dried his eyes on his dirty sleeve and seemed to be listening to the Monk.
Master Bao went on, speaking quietly. “Neither Heaven nor Life seek to harm you. Lay aside your mistrust of the Universe, and seek to live in the Present without fear. Accept the world as you find it, for only then can you have true peace of mind.”
The Monk and Ping rose to go. “Go, Ma Gan, to the Temple of Bountiful Beauty that is nearby. If you desire to truly change your attitude, meet with the Chief Abbot. From then on, your life will be as you choose to make it.
“Remember, inner balance and proper behavior, together with acceptance of the Will of Heaven, will bring you a life of well-being.”
Later, after eating their evening rice, Ping approached Master Bao, bowed deeply three times with his hands fold inside his capacious sleeves, and said, “Please, Master. I heard all you told the thief, but will he follow your wisdom?
Master Bao smiled. “That we cannot know, Student Ping. Each must find his own spiritual path, and our role was merely to point out one possible road to his inner peace.
“Master Lao Tzu said that the fruit of a well-lived life springs from the seed of good conduct. And that is keeping in the flow of the Dao."
A story from the Tang Dynasty (608-917 CE)
Master Bao rode his ox, Xi, along a country trail in the Providence of Wei. His student, Ping, walked alongside.
“We will soon come to a place where the road branches, Ping. I want you to think deeply about each path before we continue our journey.”
An hour later, the trail split into three roads.
A large sign said the wide boulevard to the left led to Jing Shi.
“Jing Shi is a city of commerce, student Ping. It is located on a busy canal that connects two major rivers. It is said the sun never sets on Jing Shi, for the parties in the large houses go all night. The Willow Quarter is busy all hours of the day, and the Courtesans are noted for their singing and creative abilities. Expensive wines are brought by the ships using the canal, and goods from around the Empire are available to purchase.”
Student Ping simply nodded.
“This middle road,” the Monk went on, “while not as wide as the one to Jing Shi, is of packed earth, with colorful flowers along its edge. It leads to the town of Chi Zhen. Master craftsmen live in this town, and some of the most beautiful silk cloth with exquisite embroidery is found here. Both men and women are hard-working, honest and happy. The fields surrounding Chi Zhen are fertile with grain, and its rice paddies are bountiful.”
Student Ping simply nodded.
The road to the right was really a dirt trail, boarded by tall trees, and appeared little used. Grass sprouted between cart tracks.
“Where does this third tract lead, Master?” Ping asked.
“This is the beginning of the trail that leads to the Shen Monastery of the White Clouds. It lies in the mountains,” Master Bao responded.
Ping folded his hands into his capacious sleeves, raised his hands to eye level, and bowed. “Master, please inform this ignorant pupil. Is there something else I should know about these three roads?”
“Yes, Ping. The first road, to Jing Shi, is wide, well-tended, but it is very long for the traveler. It favors those with wealth enough to own a horse or a palanquin.”
Ping simply nodded.
“The second road, to Chi Zhen, is more difficult. It is also long and is mostly up a steep grade. It is a hard path, with a few obstructions, but leads to a place of happiness and satisfaction for most.”
Ping nodded. “And the third, Master? The one to the monastery?”
“That is the most difficult of all, Student Ping. It’s a long, rocky, mountain trail beset by hardship, danger from the cold, and cruel bandits who lie in wait. Only the strong will arrive at the Shen Monastery of the White Clouds. Others will turn back.
“Once there, however, the kindly monks will provide a safe and peaceful home for the weary traveler. The pilgrim will drink from the clear mountain stream which is said to refresh above all others, and eat fresh food from the gardens tended by the monks. The traveler will need to carry water and chop wood to help maintain the monastery, but equanimity, peace, and understanding of life is possible at this monastery in the clouds.”
Ping smiled and nodded.
“Remember, the path we choose becomes the foundation of our growth from body, to energy, to spirit,” said Master Bao.”
Ping smiled and nodded,
“Which path do we take, Student Ping?”
Ping thought for a long time, then bowed again to the Monk.
“I have seen little of the world, Master, and am ignorant of most things. Only an Enlightened Master such as yourself can answer so important a question.”
Master Bao smiled. “You have grown in wisdom, Ping. The difficult path to the Shen Monastery of the White Clouds is the way we will someday take.
“But today, let us travel the road to Jing Shi, and see what we can learn. There are many lessons for us among people who are concerned only with wealth, power, and comfort. The inhabitants of this city are entangled in their bodies’ energies.
“Later, we will travel to Chi Zhen, for lessons of hard work and satisfaction. The people of this town are happy with their lot in this life. They will teach us much about living with our heart energies.
“Finally, Ping, we will take the difficult path to enlightenment and equanimity. The Shen Monastery of White Cloud is closest to the Dao.
“It is there, embracing the essence of the spirit of the natural world, we will learn the lessons of truly becoming One With the Dao.”
“And from there, Master?” Ping asked.
“We then travel back to help others, and wait on the Will of Heaven to guide us.”
Cover by Kristi Ryder
A story from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE)
“This is a city of fear,” Master Bao said, as he looked over the darkening town.
The monk, his student Ping, and the Magistrate stood on the balcony of the Tribunal of the capitol of Wei Gong Prefecture. They watched the sun, a soft blur, as it settled behind the purple mountains that rose near the metropolis, casting the town in deep shadow.
“The Plague has made it a city ruled by the Spirit of Death,” the magistrate standing next to the Monk said. “I no longer have power to help the people.”
Ping gazed up at the starless sky. The low clouds seemed to settle over the city like a stuffy shroud, holding in the moist heat. He felt his thin shirt cling to his body, and thought of standing under an icy mountain waterfall.
The magistrate gave a deep sigh. “At this hour, the street hawkers should be crying out their final calls for their wares, and the music of the Willow Quarter should be clearly heard. Even the drums and gongs of the Buddhist Temples are silent. But now, it is a city filled with the stench of death and wails of those dying.”
“Have you followed my suggestions?” Master Bao asked as he turned to the Magistrate.
“Yes. We have repaired the grates to keep rats out of the city, and have stopped ships from coming into our port. The people don’t like having to stay in their houses and covering their faces when out for food; but if it will help, they do so.”
Just then, Ping felt a slight breeze on his cheek, and a few large raindrops began to hit his face as he turned it to the sky.
The Magistrate smiled broadly. “The Evil Spell is broken,” he shouted. “Now, the plague will be washed away.”
And within two weeks, the disease lifted and the Magistrate declared the plague over.
Three weeks later, Master Bao and Ping left the capitol city behind. The monk rode his ox, Xi, and Ping walked alongside.
“The countryside will be dangerous, Ping,” Master Bao said, “for plagues and war create chaos, and chaos in the land breeds disharmony in people.”
“And people who are in disharmony are dangerous?” Ping asked.
“Yes, Ping,” came the reply. “There are those who are starving and seek food, and those who have lost loved ones and seek solace.
“But the most dangerous ones are those who seek to gain from the chaos. They seek neither food nor solace, but greed drives them to tear apart the fabric of the society. Chaos, for some, offers opportunity for profit.”
Just then, a large group of mounted men, banishing swords and spears, roared over a hill, driving toward the Monk and Ping, yelling curses.
Ping exclaimed, “Master! What should we do?”
Master Bao smiled and said, “Go to your stillness inside, Ping. Simply accept what the Will of Heaven sends us, and you won’t be harmed.”
Ping closed his eyes and let his mind go blank, as Master Bao had taught him many times. The terror he had felt seemed to melt away to be replaced by a deep, encompassing sense of peace and good will.
As the Monk and his student remained quietly at rest, the hoard thundered past, flowing around the ox and two travelers as if they were a natural obstruction in their path, like a tree or rock.
After the dust settled, Ping, his hands folded inside his capacious sleeves, approached Master Bao, and bowed deeply.
“Please teach this ignorant pupil, Master, by what power were we spared. Did you work some magic so we became invisible? ”
“No, student Ping. “It is the Great Law of the Dao that we will be sent lessons we must learn. Whether we are beset by plague or must contend with people who have become filled with anger and hatred, by maintaining our equilibrium, inner stillness, and acceptance, we will prevail.
“That is the lesson we have been gifted to learn today.”