“This is myself and that is someone else—
Free yourself from the constraints of such delusion
And your own self shall be awakened.”
from “The Treasury of Songs”
It is said that during the reign of Cheng Yuan (785–804 A.D.) of the T'ang Dynasty there lived in Chang–an a young man by the name of Yang. He was just fifteen and yet learned far beyond his years. He was graceful, his complexion clear, his eyes bright, his hair of fine luster. He had the beauty, the grace, and the elegance of a girl, and yet he conducted himself with the bearing of a warrior prince. He had about him all the qualities of the superior man, and yet he had a terrible flaw: he was proud, arrogant, and selfish. The official T'ang histories say that Yang met a tragic end at the hands of barbarian bandits and that his younger brother became a famous Royal Minister like their father.
But histories are always incomplete. This is the tale of how Yang came to learn that he inhabited a world of delusion and began to seek the virtues that would, in time, earn him the title “Master Anatman,” also known as “Master Madman.” It is taken from a manuscript once housed in the archives of the Collection of Antiquities at the National University Library of Shanghai.
It was springtime in the year of the Fire Horse. Icicles dripped under the eaves of the tiled roofs, and where the water splashed upon the ground, small pits appeared, dirt spattering in dark rings. In the square of the inner courtyard white snow melted along the tops of black branches, shimmering under the morning sun.
And here young Master Yang, roused early from sleep, rubbed his eyes as he drank his morning tea. Today was the day he would meet his new tutor, an old monk widely renowned as a teacher of the ancient Buddhist scriptures, and a serving girl came to announce his arrival.
"Tell him to wait," said Yang, making no attempt to cover his nakedness under his open robe. The serving girl blushed and cast her eyes downward as she left the room. Yang took his time with breakfast and he made his dresser change his clothes twice. More than an hour passed before he finally emerged to meet the monk, and then he did not even bother to greet him or ask his name. "Why are you here so early?" he said.
The old monk bowed. "I have the honor of being your tutor, young Master. Your father has no doubt told you that you are to study with me."
"If it were up to my father, I would study with every tutor and charlatan sage from here to India," said Yang, and though he knew full well, he asked, "What are you supposed to teach me?"
"According to your father's instructions, you are to accompany me to Ch'ing Feng Temple in the north. There I will instruct you in the sutras, the teachings of the Buddha."
"The sutras? I have no intention of becoming a monk. I will not shave my head or wear rags or eat the leftovers of households beneath mine."
"You need not become a monk, young Master. You are to study the sutras as part of your education."
"And why must I go with you? Why can't we do it right here?"
"To properly study the sutras, we must go where they are housed, to a temple. We must hear how properly to chant them, and that requires that we be in the company of the monks. That is why we will go to Ch'ing Feng Temple."
"If I am to go to a drafty old temple, I want to know what provisions my father has made for my comfort."
"He has made a large offering, young Master. Your needs will all be met. Now, after breakfast tomorrow, you will come with me."
"I will go with you, but not without my personal servants."
"As you know," said the monk, "many of the teachings are secret and privileged. Were you not such a prodigious scholar already, and had your father not made a substantial donation to the temple, I would not have been sent here by the head of my order. But I have been instructed to teach you. Therefore I shall, but it must be according to the rules of my order. You may not bring your servants."
"Do you know who I am?" said Yang. "Do you know who my father is? Surely, you are joking and an exception is to be made for me."
"It was your father who has instructed that we abide by the rules of my order. We are to make no exceptions for you. Otherwise, how would you gain authentic knowledge? Can one learn to swim by stepping halfway into a lake?"
"I have studied the Rites, the Histories, and the Songs. I studied more than you could imagine, old man. I would be better served to have a tutor instruct me on the Book of Changes. My father is wasting my time with religion."
"Even Emperors do not consider religion to be a waste of time, young Master. You are young. You must bow respectfully to the wisdom of your father. If not, you will bow involuntarily to his authority. Tomorrow, we will leave according to his wishes."
"Then let it be known between us and to your master that I accompany you against my will. My father will live to regret this stupidity." Yang made a show of ordering that his horse and travel clothes be prepared, though he knew that his father had already made all arrangements.
They set out the following morning shortly after dawn. It was an auspicious day, and Yang did not mind traveling on horseback along the dusty roads that led northward into the mountains. An entourage of his father's servants accompanied him that day, and they set up a lavish camp for the night. He dined on roast pig, exotic vegetables, and wild mushrooms taken from the high forest, and he was entertained by his father's favorite courtesan, who played odes and melancholy ballads on the silk–stringed ch'in. And after a dozen glasses of wine, poured for him by his father's favorite concubine, he fell into a stupor, having quite forgotten the old monk.
That night Yang dreamed he was a great general riding to battle in a gleaming war chariot armored in pure gold. He carried a bow that could lay waste to the enemy, for the arrows were magical — they could explode into flames, cause madness, shower down a rain of poisonous glass shards. Yang was confident. He was brave. The one–wheeled chariot — self–propelled, or perhaps drawn by invisible horses — sped into battle, and Yang was the hero, the first to engage the enemy. And in this dream the enemy was not human — they were a horde of cannibal demons wearing the armor of dead soldiers from the time of the First Emperor, carrying antiquated weapons, shouting war cries in their guttural tongues. They swarmed towards him like the foaming waves of the sea, and then, as he noched an arrow and drew back his magic bow, an odd thing happened. The dream split in two, each half playing over the other half, as if the two were superimposed one on top of the other. In one dream his magic arrows caused great confusion and panic, and then he drew his great sword and drove through the demons, mowing them down like a field of ripe wheat. But in the other dream the chariot suddenly stopped and would not move. The single wheel was stuck. There was something wrong with the eight spokes, something having to do with how they converged on a point of nothingness. The demons were upon him like a ravenous swarm of locusts. He was overwhelmed by their stench of spoilt milk and rotting meat, the sight of their goggling round eyes, their red and yellow fur, their sickly white flesh like the bellies of dead fish. They tore him to pieces. And then a third dream superimposed itself over the first two: it was himself, waking up in his tent, covered in furs and silken blankets, sitting bolt upright in a cold sweat, mute, wide–eyed; and he woke at that moment, as if he had entered the dream world from another, unknown world.
Yang found himself in his bed. From the firelight outside the tent, he could make out the sleeping forms of his father's concubine and the servants. He heard a horse snort. He got up, drew on his robe, and walked out into the starlit night.
The old monk was awake — or appeared to be. He sat near the fire counting his wooden prayer beads, which were alternately red and black, made of cherry and ebony.
"Do you have a cure for indigestion?" Yang asked him. "I have just woken from a terrible dream."
Do not overeat, and do not eat what is not easily digested," said the monk.
"Useless," said Yang. "What you say prevents indigestion. It offers no remedy." He let out a foul belch. "I ate too much because I know I will starve up there at your temple. Get some sleep, old man. You will need your strength tomorrow."
Yang went back into his tent and slept fitfully, trying to figure out why the wheel of his chariot would not turn. Perhaps I should have asked the old man, he thought as he drifted off.