Master Bao and the Poet of the Bamboo Grove
A tale of China during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE)
Master Bao rode his great ox, Xi, along a trail in the southern province of Lingnan. His student Ping walked alongside.
“This part of Lingnan is thought to be haunted by ghosts, Master,” Ping said. He kept sweeping his gaze of the deep forest quickly from one side of the road to the other.
Master Bao asked, “Do you not fear your head will become loose if you keep twisting it back and forth?”
“Master, I keep seeing strange creatures moving among the trees. And it is well known that were-tigers roam this very forest. Is that not true, Master?”
“It is true that I have heard those stories,” Master Bao responded. After a brief moment, he continued. “Tonight, we will stay in the village of Hong Wa, a few miles distant from here. There is an Inn in Hong Wa known for its tasty vegetable dishes, cooked with secret, complex mixtures of spices.”
Ping’s face broke into a wide smile. “I’m happy we’ll not need to spend the night in this forest, Master.”
Just ahead, a man, dressed in a patched and ragged blue robe, sat by the side of the road playing a happy melody on a reed flute. His was completely bald and beardless. Next to him on the ground was a beautiful lute with six strings.
When they reached the man, Master Bao stopped Xi and dismounted. The man stopped playing, stood, and bowed to the travelers. “Greetings, Monk,” the man said. “For where are you bound?”
“Hong Wa,” responded Master Bao, returning the bow.
“Ah. A noisy village filled with hard-working people.”
“So I’ve heard. Are you from Hong Wa?”
“No, I am Liu Hing, and I spend my days on the road or in this forest. I’m waiting for some friends who I meet each afternoon. Nearby is our special place where we play music, sing, and drink wine. We are “The Poets of the Bamboo Grove.” It’s a merry
time, and you and the boy are welcome to join us.”
“Thank you for the kind invitation, but we must travel on to Hong Wa.”
The man shook his head. “A noisy place, Monk, filled with people who toil and suffer, day after day. They don’t understand life is an illusion without meaning. Work and then die, all without meaning. And this forest is filled with their dancing ghosts.”
An hour after leaving Liu Hing, who had resumed his place sitting beside the road now playing his lute, Master Bao and Ping stopped in a small shady field near the road. Ping laid out a mat and prepared the noonday rice for Master Bao and himself. After eating, Ping stood before the Monk and bowed deeply, his hands clasped in his capacious sleeves.
“Master, please enlighten this ignorant student. What did Liu Hing mean about the forest filled with ghosts? I’m fearful of ghosts.”
“Please sit down on the mat, Student Ping. Pour yourself another cup of tea.”
After Ping sat with a cup of tea, Master Bao began.
“When we are born, a Spirit comes from heaven and enters the body of the baby. The body is heavy, and belongs to the Earth. When it comes time to die, its Spirit, which is light, rises back up to heaven, and the heavy body remains on Earth, where it becomes part of the Earth itself.
“As you know, the word for ghost is also the word for ‘return,’ and a ghost is simply a Spirit who is returning to heaven. It is on a journey, dancing as it leaves its body, and is nothing to be feared.”
“Thank you, Master. Now that I understand ghosts are dancing spirits on a journey to heaven, they hold no terror for me.”
“This is a quiet shady field, Ping, and you’ve brewed a fine cup of tea. Do you have any other questions before we resume our journey?”
“Yes, Master. What did Liu Hing mean when he said life is an illusion? “
“Liu Hing is quite famous among philosophers. He and his Poets of the Bamboo Grove, believe life is a short journey, like the breath of an ox in winter, and the flash of a lightning bolt.
“So as our lives, being so far from permanent, show perhaps that nothing is permanent. And, since no one will remember us in a hundred years, why worry about social conventions and approval of others now?
“To them, life on earth, with all our rules and laws, is merely an illusion we have agreed to follow.”
Ping brightened up. “It reminds me of the story you told me long ago about the august Zhuangzi. He said he can’t know for certain if he is Zhuangzi dreaming he is a butterfly, or a butterfly asleep dreaming he is Zhuangzi. So then all life may be an illusion, a dream.
“I will think deeply on this, Master, for it is confusing.”
Hours later, as the travelers journeyed up the main street of Hong Wa, Ping asked the Monk,
“Master, is life an illusion?”
“Perhaps, Ping. However, while the hunger in my belly may also be an illusion, the scent of spices coming from the kitchen of this inn seems quite real. Why don’t we decide whether life is an illusion after we try the vegetables? Philosophy should never be discussed on an empty stomach.”
Original story by the author -never before published