Shike – Day 57 of 306

“So, it’s war between us and the Takashi.”

“Not at all. Our relations with Sogamori, even with the provincial governor, are officially cordial. This attack was a probe, to see how easy it would be to destroy one of our temples. We hope we convinced them that it would be too costly. But it was costly for us, as well. Many urns were emptied and refilled in the crypt the day after the battle. Many trees on this hillside were cut down for funeral pyres.”

“Is that why the monastery has been closed?”

“We could have stayed here, but other Zinja monasteries around the islands have suffered great losses as well, both from raids and in this War of the Dragons. The other abbots and I met at Yamatai and decided to combine several of our communities in temples nearer the more important cities.”

“Where is Mother?”

“After the decision to close this temple, the remaining monks and women cleaned up the debris, rebuilt the temple building, and left. Your mother went with them to the Teak Blossom Temple near Hakata.”

“Why didn’t she stay here with you?”

“I wanted to be alone.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you want Mother to leave you?”

“You cannot understand until you are as old as I am. Men and women go through stages in their lives. Each stage carries one on to the next, and all lead to the ultimate insight, to final realization of the Self. At one stage it is appropriate to lead the life of a young warrior, as you do. At another stage one marries and lives quietly and cheerfully with a spouse and carries out duties of leadership in the community, as your mother and I have. But then there comes the stage when one must sit alone on the brink of the infinite and contemplate one’s impending leap into the dark. One can no more hold back or prevent these changes than a caterpillar can stop itself from becoming a butterfly. Indeed, not only do people pass through stages, but so do communities, nations, orders like the Zinja. As I sit here alone on this mountain it becomes more and more apparent to me that the Zinja are entering some final stage. It may be that the light of the Order is going out. I fear that this Sunrise Land is moving into a time of darkness. I believe that this temple will sooner or later be destroyed. The war will go on, and the marauders will come back.”

“I will stay here with you and defend it, Father.”

“No. Spend the day with me, and tonight if you will. This evening I wish to show you certain things that will be of value to you. But you are too young, there is too much for you to do, for you to dedicate your life to caring for the ruins of a temple and of a Zinja abbot.”

That night Jebu and Taitaro went into the temple and seated themselves on the polished stone floor before the altar, facing each other just as they had after Jebu’s initiation ordeal. Taitaro reached into a pocket hidden inside his robe and took out something small and round that sparkled in the candlelight. He leaned forward and held it up so that Jebu could look at it.

“Look deep into this jewel,” said Taitaro. “Fix your gaze on it. Concentrate on it. Think only of it and nothing else.”

Jebu saw that the surface of the transparent crystal was covered with an intricate maze of fine carved lines, made many times more complex because he could see through the jewel to the pattern on the other side. Taitaro held the sphere in his fingertips, turning it this way and that to display the tracery. In the depths tiny fires, hot red flames and hotter blue flames, twinkled and sparkled.

“As you look at the jewel, you will feel yourself getting drowsy,” said Taitaro. “You will feel yourself falling asleep . . . You will sleep . . . You will sleep.”

Jebu was no longer in the temple. He seemed to be floating in midair through a dark forest. No dragon or bird bore him up, he was drifting as if swimming through the air. Ahead of him, in the blackness of the pines, there was light. It glowed, cool and white. He drifted towards the light.

He found himself in a clearing, about half-way between the top and the bottom of an enormous tree. Light came from the tree, and a strange, continuous murmuring. As Jebu drifted closer to the tree, he saw that the murmuring came from soft sounds made by thousands of living creatures. The creatures seemed to grow, like fruit, out of the tree’s branches.

On the lower branches were the smaller animals, the worms, the insects, the fish, the lizards and snakes. In the middle branches, nearest Jebu, were birds, horses, monkeys, cats, dogs and the like. A magnificent striped tiger with glowing green eyes looked at him solemnly, the sort of beast he had seen once or twice in a painting. There were many animals that he did not recognize, many that amazed him. There was one huge creature with flapping ears, a nose as long as a rope that moved with a life of its own, and two white pointed teeth, each as long as a man, that protruded like spears from its mouth. There was a fish that was even larger, as big as a castle, with a mouth big enough for a man to stand upright inside it, yet somehow it seemed comfortably nestled in the branches of this tree. Floating upwards, Jebu saw in the topmost branches men and women of all kinds, some a normal colour, others as black as ebony or as white as snow, some richly dressed, others naked. And above these were beings who glowed as if they were arrayed in jewels, a glow so intense that it hurt Jebu’s eyes to look at them and he could not clearly see their shapes. These must be the kami, he thought.

It came to him with great surprise, awe and joy that all life is one, that living things are not separate from one another but—just as all leaves are part of a tree—all animals, men and gods were one mighty living thing, the Self, manifested in many forms. He laughed aloud at the wonder and simplicity of it, and even as he did so the light from the tree began to dim and he began to move away from it, till he could no longer see the individual creatures in the tree, but only the tree itself, a glowing mountain of light. Then he drifted further away, back into the forest, and the light was only a tiny spark, far in the distance.

The spark became the spherical jewel Taitaro held up before him. “You are awake now,” Taitaro said. “Look at the jewel again.”

The pattern of lines with its rising and falling movement somehow suggested the shape of the tree he had seen in his vision.

“This is called the Jewel of Life and Death,” Taitaro said. “It is a shintai, the dwelling place of a kami. And now, Jebu, it is yours. Take it.” His eyes glowing with a fire almost as bright as that in the jewel, Taitaro held the crystal out to Jebu, who took it in the palm of his hand.

“This is one of the jewels your father brought with him from far away,” said Taitaro. “I do not know where he got it. He never had time to tell me. He gave it to me the night he was killed.”

Jebu’s eye would follow a particular line for a few of its twists and turns, then lose it again in a network of other lines.

Taitaro said, “The pattern carved on the Jewel is called the Tree of Life. It has a special influence on the inner life. When Jamuga, your father, brought it to me, he told me that while contemplating this Jewel he suddenly saw that he had to rebel and that he would have to flee from his homeland. As for me, after your father’s death I looked at the pattern on this Jewel daily. When I took you and your mother in I was still a man with many illusions. I mourned your father, but I secretly rejoiced that his death had brought me a lovely woman for my wife and a fine son. I wanted to be first among all the Zinja abbots in the land. Over the years, as I kept looking steadily into this Jewel, day after day, my illusions faded. And when the time came, as it did after you left, I was able to decide that I no longer wanted to be a Zinja abbot but could happily spend my days living as a hermit and caring for this temple. In a few years, perhaps I can even cease congratulating myself for making such a wise choice.” His deep-set brown eyes twinkled, and Jebu laughed.

Jebu said, “My father came from a land of barbarian cattle herders. Such people could not have carved this Jewel.”

“Oh, certainly not. Undoubtedly your father or one of his comrades looted it from its original owners. But it changed him. It changed me, and it will change you, as well, if you let it. I do not know who made the Jewel, or how. I think it must be the work of great sorcerers, such as lived on the earth in the distant past. I know that if you will spend a little time each day focusing your awareness on this Jewel, concentrating on its design, trying to absorb it into your mind, each day you will become a little more aware of your true Self. You will discover that, as we have always taught you, you are a man of insight, perfect just as you are.”

Tears flooded Jebu’s eyes, blurring the fires of the Jewel. This was a gift that had come from both his natural father and his spiritual father. He held the Jewel in trembling hands and stared into its shifting, multi-coloured depths as if, with the sheer pressure of his gaze, he could penetrate to the answers to all the questions that had plagued him ever since he was a boy. He was half-native of this Sunrise Land, but what was the other half? Who was his father? Who was the man who had killed his father? Who am I?

The vision of the Tree of Life Taitaro had shown him had already moved Jebu profoundly. Now he was shaken to the very core as he held the Jewel in his hands, turning it slowly and, in his mind’s eye, superimposing on its design a memory of the Tree of Life. He would never let go of this Jewel, he resolved, unless to pass it to another as Taitaro had given it to him. Perhaps to a son of his own. And every day he would spend some time contemplating it.

A faraway look came into Taitaro’s shadowed eyes. He turned away from the altar and looked through the temple entrance into the darkness outside. He hurried around the temple, blowing out candles until they were almost in darkness. One small candle remained in his hand.

“A group of mounted men just passed through the gateway. Hide yourself. I will meet them.”

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