Shike – Day 256 of 306

The emptiness of the place seemed utterly strange to Moko. All the Buddhist temples he had seen were adorned with gold, crowded with statues painted in dazzling colours. Shinto temples, bare as they were, were palatial in comparison to this. Only Eisen’s meditation hall was as plain, and even that had a statue of Daruma, the founder of Zen, for trainees to contemplate. The Pearl Temple was nearly filled when Moko entered. The white robes sat in front, grey robes in the rear. Moko sank down near the rear and waited. The hollow booming continued, and behind him he could hear the shuffling of sandalled feet as the rest of the monks entered the temple.

Abruptly, there was silence. Abbot Taitaro and Shiké Jebu came from behind the altar. The shiké was naked. His body, all bone and stringy muscle, was pocked and criss-crossed with scars. Nakedness in a temple? That startled Moko, reminding him of the rumour about unseemly Zinja practices. Taitaro wore his white abbot’s robe.

Father and son faced the assembled Zinja. Taitaro began a long incantation that Moko found impossible to follow. The old abbot called upon the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and various forces of nature to witness and bless what they did this night. The invocation was partly sung, partly spoken in a weird high-pitched keen, and it went on for a long time. Taitaro’s voice in recent years had lost resonance and was frail and reedy.

At last the old abbot said, “Monk Jebu, most deeply do we regret that we must call you from your life of action in the outermost circle of our Order. Are you willing to teach others even though this may deprive you of the opportunity for greater attainments?”

Jebu’s voice was clear and firm, a startling contrast to the feeble voice of his father. “It is time for me to try what I can accomplish in a different circle of the Order.” Moko sensed that both Taitaro and Jebu were reciting lines from an ancient ritual. The aroma of incense filled his nostrils, a scent different from any he had ever smelled, somewhere between cedar and ch’ai. He felt himself relaxing.

“Once before, the Order asked you to undergo an ordeal that might end in your death,” Taitaro said. “This is required of you again.”

“I am willing.”

Taitaro raised an arm. “Let him be bound and threatened.”

Threatened? That gave Moko a little start. He watched with growing horror as two monks in grey came forward and laid Jebu on his back on the altar and tied his arms and legs with ropes to iron rings in the stone. Then, standing on the altar, one of the monks attached a long, heavy spear to a rope coming down from the roof beam, so that the point was directly above Jebu’s chest. Should the spear fall, it would pierce his heart. This is madness, thought Moko. Had the shiké come through the ordeal of Oshu only to be killed by his own people? He wanted to cry out against this folly, but fear paralysed his tongue.

“You may refuse this trial now,” said Taitaro. “If you elect to go on, it will be as when you were first initiated into the Order. You will either prove yourself adequate, or you will cease to exist.”

Tell them you won’t do it, Shiké Jebu, Moko urged silently. Why risk death for something that isn’t even an honour? Why give up your life for the sake of these madmen? But then he remembered that Shiké Jebu, whom he admired above all other men, was himself one of the madmen.

“I will go on,” said Jebu in a strong voice.

“At certain times in each person’s life, an all-important decision must be made,” said Taitaro. “Such a decision will determine the entire course of one’s own future and may affect countless other lives as well. We call these decisions life-problems. Monk Jebu, we know that you are facing a life-problem now, which you must solve to settle your own destiny as well as those of others. To be admitted to the circle of teachers, you are required to answer two questions. First, what is this life-problem you are facing now? Second, what will you do about it? Your answers must show these assembled teachers and abbots of the Order that you have attained a level of insight that qualifies you to be a teacher. You are given all this night. You will be questioned just before sunrise.”

The old monk turned away from the altar where Jebu lay bound and naked with the gleaming steel spear pointing at his heart, and took his place in the front row of white robes. The booming of the stick against the hollow log began again, and the monks raised a chant in some strange, long-lost language. The temple reverberated with their deep droning.

Moko wondered, are we actually going to sit here until dawn? He recalled, from what he had learned in China about heavenly bodies, that this particular night of the Fifth Month was the shortest night of the year. Of course, he wanted the shiké to have all the time in the world to find the right answer to old Taitaro’s strange questions, but this stone floor was going to be awfully hard by morning. It was painfully hard now. The incomprehensible chanting went on and on, and Moko lost all track of time. He found himself nodding off to sleep. He heard the rustling of robes about him and looked up to see that many of the monks were pacing around the temple. Some of them were conversing in low tones and others were even leaving the building. How could they just stroll about and chat when a man lay bound to that altar stone in peril of death? Those who remained in their places kept up that devilish chant.

After a time, feeling a little ashamed of turning his back on the shiké, but realizing that his simply suffering through the night or falling asleep in the temple would do Shiké Jebu no good, Moko stood up and shuffled outside. It was a relief, after the sweet incense, to breathe unscented night air and to watch fireflies twinkling like earthbound stars.

“What do you make of this, Moko-san?” said a voice beside him. Moko started and turned. It was Abbot Taitaro.

His bewilderment and indignation bubbled to his lips. “Holiness, forgive me, but this seems like utter lunacy. I know you love your son. I was with you in the mountains of Oshu when you nearly died yourself, struggling to keep him alive. How can you encourage him to risk his life just so the other Zinja can call him teacher, when it doesn’t seem to mean anything as far as I can make out?” A suspicion suddenly dawned in his mind. “Or, isn’t he really risking his life at all? You wouldn’t let him, be stabbed by that spear, would you?”

“Oh, yes,” said Taitaro. “If his answer lacks true insight, I myself will cut the rope with a stroke of my sword, and the spear will fall and kill him.”

“Why, holiness? What drives you to this?”

“The belief that only a certain kind of life is worth living.”

“I don’t know what that means, holiness.”

“Do not seek to understand everything about an Order whose lifelong members do not always understand it, Moko-san.”

“But why kill a man for failing to answer a question?”

“For Jebu the problem might lie, not in knowing the correct answer, but in admitting that he knows it.” Moko felt Taitaro’s hand give his a light, friendly pat, and then the old abbot was gone.

With a twinge of fear Moko remembered Jebu’s first plaintive words, which only he had heard, on waking up at the Black Bear Temple. Now he understood the test the Zinja had imposed on Jebu. They were offering what he had wished for. Peace. All he had to do was give an answer that would cause the spear to fall. Moko prayed that Shiké Jebu would want to live.

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