Chinese Folktales

17. The Priest of Lau Shan

THERE was Once a man named Wang, a young man from an old family who from early youth held the teachings of Taoism in high esteem. He heard that a great many immortals were living in the Lau Shan Mountains. So he humped his box of books on his back and wandered off in that direction.

When he had scaled the summit he caught sight of a lonely temple. A Taoist priest was sitting there on a round bale of straw. His long hair dropped down to his shoulders.

The young man bowed to him and started to speak to him. The priest’s words seemed to him profound and mysterious, and he therefore asked to be accepted as a disciple.

The Taoist priest said: ‘l am afraid you are too delicate and effeminate for hard work.’

But the young man replied that he could do any work. The Old man had a great many disciples. When they all assembled at nightfall Wang saluted them with solemnity. Thus he was accepted into the monastery.

In the morning, When the air was still cool, the priest called him. He gave him an axe and bade him go out with the others to collect firewood. Wang did eagerly as he was

bidden.

A good month had passed. Wang’s hands and feet were covered with blisters and callouses. He could hardly bear it any longer and secretly considered returning home.

One evening, on their way back, they saw two men sitting with their master, drinking wine. The sun had set but the lamps and candles had not yet been lit. Thereupon the master took a pair of scissors and from paper cut out a round disc like a mirror. This he stuck to the wall. Suddenly the moon lit up on the wall and was so bright that the finest hair could be distinguished. All the disciples came hastening up to form a circle around the old man and listen to him.

One of the guests said: ‘On such a beautiful evening, when joy conquers all, men must be happy together.’

With these words he took up a jug of wine from the table to share it out among the disciples. And he persuaded them to drink deep of it.

Wang said to himself: ‘How can one jug of wine be enough for seven or eight persons?’ They all hurried to get beakers and jostled to be the first to be served lest the jug he empty before their turn came. But the man poured and poured and the wine still lasted. Wang was amazed but kept silent.

When the second guest said: “You gave us such beautiful moonlight, but here we are drinking silently to ourselves. How about summoning the moon fairy?’

With these words he took up a chopstick and flung it at the moon disc and a beautiful young girl came out of the brilliant light. At first she was barely a foot tall but as she touched the ground she grew to human size. Slender hips, a delicate neck, flowing garments—thus she danced the dance of the rainbow. Then she began to sing:

You all wish to flee, immortals all
And leave me lonely in this icy hall!

Her voice rang pure and clear like a flute. When she had finished her song she rose, spun round and leapt upon the table. While all eyes were upon her in amazement she once mare turned into a chopstick.

The three old men burst into loud laughter.

Then one of the guests again spoke up: ‘This is a merry evening indeed. But I am now overcome by the wine. Why don’t you accompany me to the moon castle for a parting drink?’ so the three now left their mats and slowly moved into the moon. The disciples saw the three men sitting inside the moon. Beard and eyebrows— everything was seen clearly as in a mirror.

After a while the moon gradually grew dim. The disciples went off to fetch lights. When they returned the priest was on his own, the guests had disappeared, but the remains of the food were still on the table. The moon on the wall was no more than a round piece of paper.

The priests asked them: ‘Have you had enough to drink? ‘

They said: ‘We’ve had enough.’

‘Well then, if you have had enough you must go to bed early to be fit for your work tomorrow morning.’

Obediently the disciples withdrew. Wang felt encouraged by the evening and his homesickness vanished.

Another month passed. His hardships had become intolerable and the priest had not yet imparted to him a single secret.

In the end he could bear it no longer and took his leave: ‘l have come from a hundred miles away to receive wisdom from you. Now I see that I cannot attain the secret of immortality. Still you might have passed on to me something less important, something to satisfy my

thirst for knowledge. Two or three months have now gone by without any other occupation than setting out in the morning to gather firewood and coming home tired at night. This is not the kind of life have been used to.’

The priest said with a smile: ‘l told you straight away that you would not be up to the hard work. Now you see that I was right. Tomorrow morning, I will discharge you.’

Wang said: ‘l served you a long time, you might at least tell me some little trick so shall not feel I come here for nothing.’

‘And what trick would you like to learn?’ the priest asked.

‘Watching you I noticed that screens and walls are no obstacles to you. If I but mastered this trick, I should be satisfied.’

The priest smilingly agreed and taught him a magic formula with which he must bless himself.

Then he called: ‘Now try it!’

Wang was facing the wall but he dared not walk into it.

The priest said: “Try to walk into it!’

Slowly Wang walked up to the wall but it would not let him through.

The priest said; ‘You must bow your head and walk ahead confidently, without fear or hesitation.’

Wang took a few steps back and then ran at the wall.

As he came up against it, it yielded as though it did not exist. He looked behind him and, true enough, he was outside. He was greatly pleased, walked in again and thanked the priest.

The priest said: ‘Well then, go home now! But guard your secret carefully or else it will lose its power.’

Thereupon he gave him food for the journey and dismissed him.

Back home Wang boasted that he had met a saint and that now even the strongest walls no longer presented an obstacle to him. His wife would not believe him. so he wanted to show her his skill, took a few steps back from the wall and ran at it. He hit his head against the hard wall, recoiled and collapsed. His wife picked him up and tended him. On his forehead was a bump the size of an egg. His wife ridiculed him. And he was humiliated and furious and cursed the old priest for being unscrupulous.