Lest the memory grow dim
Listen – listen –
The sea waves wrinkling moonshine
The acacia leaves rimmed white
All the air atremble with breathing night.
Lest the memory grow dim
I lift my pen to write
Few words, a voice, no more.
Ears tuned to paddy frogs croaking,
The converse of shivering silver leaves.
The hill sat brooding unamazed.
Lest the happiness grow dim
I lift my pen –
To write? To listen?
We sat there brooding unamazed
While the night talked.
Listen – listen –
Lest the memory grow dim.
All the cares of military life receded as Yannang and I boarded the crowded ferry and found ourselves seats. It seemed as if, once again, I had entered another world; for I seemed to be living a double life, freedom and happiness with Yannang, my Chinese and university friends and boredom, frustration and occasional rewards in the army. I was both “living and partly living” as Eliot puts it.
At Castle Peak we were rowed ashore in a sampan and set off briskly on our way. Finding a narrow flight of steps running up between large rocks in a grove of bamboo, we climbed to the top. We found ourselves in the forecourt of a well-kept temple. There were two halls, the hindmost on a higher level than the one fronting the court in which we stood. In it there were three large images, not of the gods we were used to seeing in the city but of the three great sages of Chinese wisdom. This was a temple to Confucius, the property of a society which cherished the old rites and customs. Members would congregate here from all over the colony for the official services dedicated to the sages of the old religion of Chinese empire.
The central figure represented Confucius and on his left and right stood Lao-tzu, the Taoist and Sakyamuni, the Buddha. Above them, on a board hanging from the roof, “The Throne of the Three” was written in bold characters. On either side of the altar and around the hall hung lovely drapings of scarlet silk work, covered with embroidered characters and symbolic designs. Grey stone pillars supported the roof some eighteen feet above us. The whole place had an airy cleanliness about it.
We reached the upper temple by a small flight of steps and found a complete pantheon of traditional deities. A hanging board read “The Throne of Enlightenment” and, below it, was the King of Heaven (Ya Wang Shang Ti), presiding over an extraordinary retinue, including Koon Yam (Kuan Yin, the female Avalokiteshvara), here personifying a goddess of Mercy, Dhamo (i.e. Bodhidhama), Sakyamuni himself, Ormitapha (i.e. Amitabha) the Buddha of the Western Heaven, a group of lawmakers and police, General Kang Wan and his two guards, ‘All Seeing’ and ‘All Hearing’, the protectors of the world and twenty-four successors of the Buddha. A separate altar to Koon Yam stood to the left and around them all were wooden screens of excellent carving and beautifully worked hanging tapestries. The tall, stone pillars were half-cased in red painted wood, upon which were many characters and symbols. The caretaker, a dear twinkly-eyed little old lady, came in and lit the evening joss sticks before the altars, whereupon a fine smoke coiled upwards to the roof, filling the halls with fragrance. She was most welcoming and asked us if we had a place for the night.
We walked on around the low-lying shores of the little estuary, where great fishing junks were drawn up on the sand with fires blazing around their hulls, the traditional method of killing shipworm and barnacles. Beyond the village, the path began winding up the hill through small pinewoods, past groups of pots containing the bones of the dead and on to a bare green hillside. Ahead of us, a cleft in the walls of steep rock comprising the ridge of the mountain was filled by a little stream where tall trees grew unblasted by sea winds. The buildings of the monastery were set back against the mountain, protected by the trees clinging to terraces carved from the hill. We passed under an arch bearing an inscription by Clementi, a former Governor, and into the shade of the trees and a strange, enclosing atmosphere.
The light wind was brushing the tree tops, birds fluttered here and there, giving occasional shrill cries and over everything there was a sudden intensification of silence. The pleasant, earthy odour of damp trunks, the respiration of many leaves and a general mossiness filled the place with unruffled calm. Before the gate we turned to look at the view. Below us, through the trees, the small fires were flickering about the hulls of the junks. I felt a kind of redemption, an escape from the worried frowns and threatening rumbles of the political world. Joyfully we stood alone amid the tall trunks hearing the sound of the breeze and scenting the air. At such times together we keep our silences.
Moving on up the path towards the first court of the monastery, we met one of the monks in his grey habit coming down the path. We were about to greet him when we noticed he did not appear to see us. He walked slowly by, eyes on the ground. We were amazed for, at Ngong Ping, the monks were always delighted to see us. Something seemed clearly amiss.
Up on a second terrace a large Buddha in bas-relief grinned at us from the wall, white-faced, yellow-robed, pot-bellied with an immense navel, the centre of his profundity. He seemed obese, if not lewd, with a horrid leer on his flabby face. Dramatic certainly, I felt, but worldly-wise and not in keeping with the surroundings. Climbing the steps we found no one about, a strolling dog came and sniffed us over. An eerie quietude lay about us in the fading light. Another two flights of steps led to a terraced, wooden temple, with a magnificently tiled roof curved up at the corners and embellished with rampant dragons. On either side stood two large buildings, evidently living quarters. At last a monk appeared and sat down in a chair by the door of one of the houses. We approached but he did not even look up until we almost shouted a greeting at him. He was solemn and evasive and we were clearly not at all welcome. Another small monk, with a bristly moustache, an unpleasantly aged, wrinkled face and cunning, little eyes flickering about unpleasantly in all directions, came up grinning. Yannang and he had a conversation and Yannang told me “They have no room and do not take visitors for the night.”
We pressed the point saying we were students and very interested in the monastery. We only needed a place to lie down in, to wash in and perhaps a little food. The old man chattered on and I had the feeling he was telling us it would not be wise for us to stay. He showed us a room we might have had but added that only sick people ever used it. I had visions of leprosy and declined it. Day visitors were acceptable, he told us, but closer intrusion was clearly refused.
“Most strange!” said Yannang.
Two small boys came and stood giggling at us. Finally, we accepted some tea in the little café and, when the old man moved off, we questioned the boys and a young man who had been there for the afternoon. We gathered that the old man was rather eccentric and, although he sometimes permitted visitors, it was unusual for him to do so. He was the senior monk and had meditated for three years in one of the houses further up the hill. I felt that this might account for his inhospitality but said nothing. I was feeling peeved and the light was failing. Yannang, however, seemed not to mind in the slightest and the dismal prospect of tramping back down the hill in the dark through villages full of ferocious and possibly rabid dogs, a tedious head-aching bus journey back to Kowloon and a general loss of face evidently had not occurred to him. Afterwards he told me simply that, since we were not wanted, it would have been stupid to stay there as we could not have been happy. Anyway, perhaps the monks had a reason for wanting privacy. Yannang had simply forgotten about it. I wished I could do the same with my disappointments.
We set off down the hill again looking for a house where we might ask for a bed. I thought I had seen one away on the hillside to our right. Whether I really had done so or whether it was a kind of intuition I cannot tell but we turned off the main path. Twice we nearly gave up to descend the hill to a nearby nunnery when, on rounding a bend in the hill, we came upon a large house, almost a mansion. Most of the outhouses were derelict, the garden rank with weeds and the stonework pitted and worn by the winds of centuries. Passing a garden gate and into a small garden terrace, we found neither light nor sound anywhere and in five minutes it would be dark. We knocked on the door and the sound reverberated through the building. Ghosts of centuries seemed to be rising from their slumbers and the place appeared forgotten, abandoned and as forlorn as I was beginning to feel. There was no reply. We looked into the outhouses, no sign of life, and were halfway towards the little ratchet gate when I heard a sound.
“There is somebody here!” I said with great relief. Hurrying back to the door, we could hear a creaking on the stairs and the tapping of a stick on the floor. Bolts were shot back and the door opened to reveal the shaven head of a monk who was holding a great stick and looking out enquiringly. He said something. Yannang paused and spoke. They did not understand one another in Cantonese so he tried again in Mandarin. “Yes – we can stay here but he has no sheets!” I hastily assured him that visions of beds and mattresses had long gone from my mind. We went in to find a great image glinting down at us in the light of his guttering oil lamp. It was the weirdest image I had ever seen and might have given a child nightmares. A narrow-waisted figure with an inclined contemplative face was seated on a lotus and surrounded by rows and rows of arms, like the legs of some giant crab stretching up and out on either side. I remembered the cruel goddess Kali of India and wondered who this monk could be and what this crustacean image could represent. “Koon Yam of the Twenty-Four Arms,” said Yannang. “The only one in the district.” I was relieved – the goddess of mercy after all. For a moment the tall image in the flickering light had almost made me draw back a pace.
The monk and Yannang were now chattering like old friends and suddenly, interrupting my apprehensions over the image, Yannang turned to me with an expression of triumph and joy on his face.
“He is a real monk, a true one, the first I have met. He has studied a lot, visited India and Burma to buy images for a temple in Hankow but, finding his home town overrun by communists, he abandoned them and came to Hong Kong. I think we can learn from him for he is a true monk. This simplicity is a sign of it.” He was delighted and clearly this discovery, if such it was to be, was going to mean much to him for the world is so full of charlatans.
The monk led the way up the creaking stairs, the banisters shifting dangerously as I put my weight upon them. His robes rustled on the steps and the little lamp he carried sent huge shadows galloping over the damp walls blotched by mildew. Upstairs a large room opened upon a balcony. A little lamp, merely a floating wick in a tumbler of peanut oil, hung from the ceiling. A row of images stood above an altar, Detsang Poussa, Sigamouni Bo and Koon Yam Poussa,11* and, before them, lay the usual implements, a sounding bowl and a wooden fish. Opposite them, stood a military deity as a kind of guardian. The monk led us along a narrow passage, the floorboards bending down ominously as we passed and showed us our bedroom. Ah, mattresses I thought, never mind the sheets! But no – never have I seen so naked a room. It was totally empty, not a single item of anything adorned its simple space, four walls and two barred windows, all in their birthday suits. “Oh well, very nice!” I said, wondering how many mosquitoes lurked there; an ugly thought since we had no nets.
The monk was a cheery fellow becoming increasingly friendly. It was clear that he was immensely pleased to see us and that this was quite an event for him. We returned downstairs where, industriously, he began preparing a meal in a back room, where there was a huge pile of hay, two bricks for a grate and three long sticks which were fed gradually under a pot as they burnt. Grass was fed in to keep the pot boiling. Yannang was quite at home having cooked this way before.
While the monk was occupied, we explored. Not a single piece of furniture could we find anywhere, the altar table and images, a few pots, some cups and bowls, ancient chopsticks and a collection of books, heavily eaten by silverfish, made up the complete list of his belongings. We asked for the lavatory and were shown the back door. The monk rushed to fetch us some water for washing and produced some towels. For some reason I combed my hair and we were ready for dinner.
Tiny stools, standing about four inches off the floor, served as chairs set around a rickety little table, some two feet high. He served us himself with bowls of boiling hot rice and a dish of soya rind with vegetables. We were hungry and in spite of the splintery, old chopsticks I fed eagerly. It was good. As we ate it began to rain and the sound of it sluicing past the paneless windows made me feel almost cosy. Bowl followed bowl while Yannang plied the monk with questions.
Apparently he was the present successor in the line of head monks of the Tien Tai sect and the thirty-third of that lineage. He had spent his early years studying at a Buddhist college and later in the famous Tien Tai mountains of northern China. During the war the Kuomintang had sent numbers of monks to India on goodwill missions. He produced two tattered old identity cards written in Chinese and English whereby I could read that his name was Mun Yiak (pronounced Moon Yea) and that his age would have been about fifty. Ageing seemed to have left no trace on him since his face was quite unlined. The certificates were dated 1942 and 1945 from Calcutta and Rangoon.
The rain stopped and, after the meal, Yannang and I went out on the upstairs balcony and sat upon the stonework. This was to be the night of the full moon and, although the sky was overcast, there were signs of it clearing and we hoped it would soon emerge.
Mun Yiak joined us with his little lamp which he placed on the stonework beside us. Conversation was not easy because Yannang rarely speaks Mandarin and Mun Yiak, being a native of Hupeh, had a marked accent. The solution was the writing of characters. We got a piece of paper and a pencil and by writing the characters for difficult words Yannang and he could understand one another. Although the pronunciations of words differ greatly throughout China, the written characters have a constant meaning, so that literary men of differing backgrounds can converse relatively easily through writing. The talk went on for hours, Yannang every now and then putting the substance of it into English for me.
Mun Yiak sat on the balcony with his legs crossed and his arms composed in the manner of a Buddhist image, his black robes and shaven head silhouetted sharply against the night sky. Yannang listened intently like a pupil before a master. The moon came out from behind the clouds, bathing with light the little estuary and the rolling ranges of desolate hills. On the waters a shaft of moonlight once more cut a rippling path of molten silver, ever-changing with the wind patterns, upon the surface and momentarily fading or re-appearing as slight mist drifted across the face of the moon. Three large fishing junks were easing their way out to sea, their lateen sails and steeply sloping hulls cutting sharp spectral outlines among the moonbeams. Around the house, crickets chirped and, in the rank herbage, a glow-worm or two lit their little phosphorescent lamps. Thousands of frogs in the valley below, intent upon conversation and doubtless much more besides, sent up a muted cacophony. Our magic casement was opening indeed “on perilous seas in fairylands forlorn.”
Mun Yiak was telling us about Buddhism, his voice often rising as he emphasised one point or another. The doctrine of Tien Tai begins within the cycles of mortality and the troubles of life from which one must escape in order to reach the Pure Land of desireless delight. The endless circling through life after life takes a person into different levels of mortality, depending on the way he conducted himself in his previous existence. The future is thus in part determined by the present. It is not so much fate that determines inherited character but action undertaken during development and maturity. Moral choice is thus vital in the unrolling of karma. The highest beings are the Heavenly Ones among whom, surprisingly, the Evil One also lives. Men with peaceful natures rank second, men who like conflict third, then animals, starving ghosts and finally those incarcerated in hell. The gods of this heaven were once human beings, who, through good deeds, acquired special powers in combating the Evil One. Within these cycles everything is constrained by suffering borne upon the wings of desire. One’s ‘original face’ is perpetually disturbed by the longing for something, however trivial or important.
Mun Yiak told us that one of the main pursuits of Tien Tai practitioners was the understanding of the causes and effects of all that happens. It is described in a book called the Fat Fa Ching, where the stated aim is eventual escape from perpetual cycling through existence after existence. Cause and effect represent the final duality which has to be understood and transcended. A practitioner has to study the books and practise a way of life that allows insight to develop. If one can understand the forces of Yin and Yang, accrued in past lives, it becomes possible to so direct one’s present existence as to move towards the final goal. If one cannot perceive these forces, there is a slipping back and a falling away from the path. Everything one does affects in some way one’s future, if not in this life then in the next. The intricate web of Yin Yuen (karma) pulsates down the ages determining the course of human history.
“What is the final goal?” we asked him.
“What is great emptiness?”
“The result of right action. It works like this. The mind is related to the whole as my shoe is to the air around it. If I cover over my shoe with my hand the air inside is cut off and separated from that outside of it. I can seal it in and do things with my shoe which prevent the inside air ever knowing its parent outside. Yet, if, for one moment, I remove my hand, the great sky itself is linked with the fetid air within the shoe. So it is when the self-restricting mind is opened to the spaciousness of emptiness.”
As Mun Yiak spoke he was demonstrating with his shoe and I caught the meaning even before Yannang translated. To achieve a final escape a person must have six qualities; the eyes of Heaven; the ears of Heaven; perception of other men’s thoughts; an understanding of the past, the present and the future; be able to will the mind to reach anywhere and become empty of all desire.
“And how is this done?” we asked, not at all unreasonably I felt. But the light breeze blew out the lamp, so we went indoors and continued scribbling characters on the altar table. In the flickering light the gilt images in shadowy splendour gleamed down at us.
“There is a relatively quick way and a slower way,” said Mun Yiak. “The quick way is meditation, the complete emptying of the mind of all external influences, of thought itself. This requires the most thorough mental concentration and the utmost care. It can be a dangerous method resulting in madness or even suicide. It is very difficult to clear the mind of all thoughts. Even the thought of willing to clear the mind is still a thought. Again, when the mind falls still, there is the danger of an evil thought appearing which, having nothing to throw it out, might gain control entirely. In that way madness comes. To meditate, one must work with a master who understands his pupils’ minds and can lead them without fear of danger.”
Mun Yiak himself used the slower method which he claimed was the safer. All day long during his waking hours, when he was not cooking or working in house or garden, he repeated the name Ormithopha (Amitabha) to himself and counted his beads. The Buddha Amitabha ruled over the Pure Land and repetition of his name would lead Mun Yiak to understand what the Pure Land was.
I had read that the Pure Land sect and the Tien Tai were poles apart in doctrine, so I was intrigued to hear what Mun Yiak had said. I had read that the Pure Land was an imaginary heaven of worldly delight very different from the Plenum Void, the emptiness that is the focus of other sects. I had had the impression, too, that mere repetition of this name was a very low-grade form of practice. The idea of this man’s style of life at first appalled me. Yannang too, for all his appreciation of simplicity, seemed shaken by this practice. After all, muttering a single word all day and sitting cross-legged before an image fingering a string of beads did not seem to be a very profitable occupation – or so it would appear.
“Where is the Pure Land?” we asked.
Mun Yiak spoke and scribbled earnestly for some time and, eventually, Yannang turned to me.
“It’s in the mind!” he said. “Its realisation depends upon one’s degree of training and total view of life. The end is an understanding of the void, a state of empty mind and heart in which the universe is apprehended as a whole and through which the freed mind travels at will. The idea of the Pure Land is also the idea of unspeakable happiness.”
I asked why Mun Yiak repeated his mantra to achieve this end. He told us that since the empty mind of meditation is defenceless against self-destroying influence, emptiness has to be understood at the cost of retaining some defence. The “power word” provides this defence and its continued repetition is an exercise in the concentration that leads eventually to the final experience of release. Amitabha is in the heart, the Pure Land, likewise, and through mental concentration the cover lifts and the universal spaciousness like a great sea pours in.
But Mun Yiak told us he did not want to reach the Pure Land just yet for he would rather have the power to teach. He told us he was actually senior to Fuk Aw, the Abbot of Ngong Ping, with whom he had studied but he needed to have more knowledge and experience.
“You see there are two sorts of leader, those who contact the world and its worldliness through an endeavour to teach and those who by persistent effort and inner realisation are able to enrich themselves spiritually and, through cosmic pervasion, to touch the hearts of the whole world of humanity as well. Such a person may remain in solitude but his existence needs to be known and understood.”
Yannang had pursued our enquiry with great diligence and not without some criticism. “His character writing might be better,” he informed me, “and he talks in great circles before he gets to the point. But he speaks to people so rarely that this can well be forgiven him!”
It was midnight and time to rest. We discovered that Mun Yiak had laid some rush matting on the floor of our room, placed a tin covered with padding as a pillow at either end and provided a heavy, plaited coverlet to keep us warm. We protested as it seemed this was his own source of warmth but he assured us he would hear of nothing else. Before turning in, we strolled down the garden; our lungs were stuffy and our noses stale from the musty fragrance of burning joss sticks.
We found a small stone table and benches at the end of the little terraced garden and sat beneath the opalescent moon. After a while the pauses in our conversation became longer until, at last, we sat there saying nothing, listening to the faint noise of the wind on the mountain, the chirruping of an occasional cricket and the croaking of the frogs in the valley. The moon sailed serenely on, occasional puffs of cloud passing across her face. There was nothing to say, nothing to be done.
At length Yannang said, “This is pure happiness for there is no desire, nothing more is wanted, pure happiness. The thinking and being together is the secret of it.” He shut his eyes and sat there listening to the sounds of night. The air rang with them, tiny sounds curiously significant.
My own mind was not so peaceful. As we sat there, I could feel the tensions of my distress at leaving Brickhill and the demanding work at Stanley, the stupidities at the officers’ mess and the frustration of army life. But there was a deeper unease. I was aware of the dangers of the celibacy I was following in my army life yet, as I sat in silence with Yannang, out of the sorrow of leaving Brickhill and my wonder at the nature of our friendship, there grew a conviction that here was something more significant than passion but which needed both of us to make itself felt. I remembered Plato’s Symposium, in which he argues that from a love of beauty in things and persons there grows a love of the beauty of ideas until, at last, one comes to the threshold of absolute beauty itself. I felt a sudden apprehension that my mind was darkened by sin. I felt shame at the worldliness of my thinking, the contaminated lives of my soldiers and many of my brother officers and the contrast between a soldier and a monk. The purity of our recent conversation was reflected in the worldly mirror of my other life. Yet it was surpassingly beautiful there on the terrace, so much so that never in all my life shall I ever forget the silence between us and the slight noises of the night.
At three o’clock we returned indoors. The house seemed to be holding its breath, no sound at all, merely an occasional splutter from the wick burning in the open lamp. Before the goddess, the flickering light dancing upon her many arms and peaceful face, shadows deepening in the recess behind her, we paused and stood in a silence that was awesome. Here was our history as it were paused in a breathing space.
Mun Yiak was strolling up and down. He was pleased to see us for he knew we had been sitting under the powerful moon. We asked why he did not sleep. “A monk needs little sleep,” he said, “When I feel tired I sit up in meditation for about the length of time a joss stick takes to burn. Then I get up refreshed.” He showed us how to ‘sit’. We tried to assume the Buddha posture in meditation, folding the legs in such a way that both soles of the feet face upwards cushioned on the opposite thigh, hands folded, eyes closed. Mun Yiak laughed heartily at our absurd efforts to get into this posture. It took a long time to achieve, he told us. When he felt ill he ‘sat up’ in that way until the feeling left him and he could carry on as usual.
Upstairs we made ourselves comfortable beneath Mun Yiak’s coverlet. I was very tired and soon slept – but not for long. I awoke to hear an ominous, high-pitched whining above my head – mosquitoes. Hastily we arranged handkerchiefs to cover our faces and placed our noses under the cover near some source of fresh air. The whining continued but I did not appear to be bitten. It was hot, so we opened the window and, after that, we slept. At about five thirty I heard Mun Yiak chanting the dawn ritual, tapping steadily on the wooden fish to create that peculiar plopping sound that so grips my mind.
Awake early and surprisingly fresh and full of life, I went down to meet Mun Yiak who gave me a wet towel and a bowl of fresh mountain water. Soon I had washed and shaved and awoke Yannang. After breakfast, we set out to climb Castle Peak itself or ‘Green Mountain’, as the Chinese call it. Going up through the monastery terraces, we came upon many shuttered buildings through which a steep overgrown path led through rank herbage to a dilapidated house of many rooms surrounding a small court. It appeared entirely deserted, weeds and grasses growing around the terraces and hanging in tufts from the walls. Surrounded by damp trees, it was the highest and most inaccessible house in the monastery and a notice reading “No Admittance” hung near the door. It was probably used for meditation for prolonged periods.
On the summit of steep, bare rock we sat and watched the heavy rain clouds and gazed down on the patchwork quilt of the paddy fields stretching away beyond Yuen Lang towards China. All the way Yannang picked flowers, lovely little mountain irises, small camellias, scarlet and pink, and little blue four-petalled plants we called our mountain stars. He arranged them in bunches with ferns to improve them. In the simplicity of our walk there was joy.
My self-criticism had not abated. In the rare air of the mountain, in the company of Yannang and Mun Yiak, I seemed to myself to be a worldly person far from the equanimity of which we had spoken. I felt unworthy of the beauty of the mountain, of the piety of Mun Yiak. Always I had been rather proud of my thinking, my intellectual abilities, book learning and of what I felt to be a wide tolerant viewpoint. Yet, faced by the experience of yesterday, I felt I was immature, undeveloped. I had a long way to go. Yannang’s smile and the beauty of the monastery terraces on our return reassured me. There were still great hopes.