（Continued from the April issue）
‘At that time a humble and frail old man came to the temple. For many years he had lived his life as a hermit, and even now he drew no attention to himself. It was said that as he entered old age, according to the average life span of three score years and ten, he achieved enlightenment. Thereafter he made it his mission to save Buddhism in his native country.’
Unhurriedly Broken Gate told the story. ‘Obscurely he went round from temple to temple carrying out the teaching with those who remained. The buildings were crumbling, rotting, being eaten by worms, and the monks and nuns endured deprivation and persecution without end. The master taught constantly so that the teachings would survive. By the time he reached our Yellow Corktree Temple, he was rumoured to be more than one hundred and ten years old. One of the great living masters.’
Broken Gate grinned as he remembered his old teacher.
‘Enough prattling,’ said Old Weng. ‘Just get on with it. These young people haven’t got all day.’
‘The master was subtle and canny,’ said Broken Gate. ‘He knew there were things that held no value or interest to those who were bent on a campaign of vindictiveness and greed. Treasures were looted or surrendered, but there were other poor things that might be passed over, or concealed without arousing suspicion, if by chance they were discovered–sutras, documents, meagre relics. The old master was always careful not to implicate the other monks in what he did. They faced danger and adversity enough. He acted alone in what he did.
‘Every so often he asked me to procure a new cash box for him. Assuming he had forgotten, I told him that I had already found him one. But he said no, that one had gone missing too. I wondered at the time why the cash box kept going missing. I had to go and pester my old friend Weng here, who worked in the records office of the security bureau at that time and had access to supplies of such things.’
‘That’s when I learnt never to ask questions,’ Old Weng chuckled, hearing the story retold.
‘It turned out that when the old master rose alone for meditation in the darkness before dawn, he was carefully removing the floorboards, digging down into the earth and burying the cash boxes, full of as many things as he could stuff into them. Cash boxes, to which he kept the keys.
‘At last the authorities decided to close down our temple altogether,’ Broken Gate continued. ‘We had almost no warning. The master instructed us all to leave at once before ruffians stormed the place. I remonstrated with him, but he insisted that for the sake of the future of the teaching, his teaching, we must take off our robes and put on the blue cotton workers’ uniform of those times and make our escape. Survive was what he ordered us to do. As for himself, he had decided to stay. He said if he was too old to remember his age he was too old to run. He would look after things in his own way. No sooner had we left than a gang of thugs came and beat him to death at the entrance of the temple, for all the world to see. “Stinking Old Thing”, they called him. “Stinking Old Thing”!’
Broken Gate wiped his eyes. ‘I returned as soon as I could,’ he said, ‘but it was many years before our life here was able to resume. Slowly we have been carrying out repairs, restoring the Yellow Corktree Temple to its old glory again. But all this time we have still not been able to rehabilitate the master’s memory fully. That remains our prime task.’
Shen shook his head, casting a quizzical glance at Ruth. They were both wondering why Old Weng had brought them there with such urgency to hear this old tale.
Fingering his beads, Broken Gate proceeded calmly. ‘We restored the compound stage by stage, starting with the main hall, leaving our living quarters until last. Last of all was that small dormitory at the back. It has such bad associations for us that no one wanted to sleep there, so it became the storeroom, where we keep our rice and oil. In the fall it became infested with rats that openly scurried in and out. As we Buddhists are not supposed to harm living creatures, we decided to have a good clean out and get rid of them that way. There were swallows nesting in there too, spiders and moths, and borers in the floorboards. Finally we set to work ripping up those rotten floorboards, and it was then, just the other day, that we heard a bent old nail fall to earth and hit something metallic. We dug down in that spot and found the master’s cash boxes, twelve in all, buried in the ground under the floor. All this time they had been there and we never knew.’
The old monk sat there in silence, enjoying the curiosity of his new listeners. He was an artful tale-spinner. Shen and Ruth sat bolt upright with their senses alert for the denouement.
‘The boxes were stuffed full of precious things,’ Broken Gate said. ‘Our scriptures. Commentaries on the sutras written by our patriarchs. Slips of paper, poems, a few paintings taken off their mounts. Relics of our Buddhist ancestors, including a little bamboo back scratcher in the shape of a hand that was said to be used by the poet Cold Mountain himself. Toothpicks, ear picks, and the master’s own cloak of patched rags. Things for our museum,’ he grinned, ‘when we get it ready for the public. And finally this.’ He unrolled a bundle of paper, handling it with the utmost reverence. ‘The master’s account of his own life.’
Shen looked from Broken Gate to Old Weng for an elucidation of its contents. Why would the old men not simply explain? he asked himself. Why could they not go straight to the point? Or was this supposed to be enough, merely the end of another unrelated trail? While Shen disguised his quandary, the two old men watched eagerly for a reaction. But Shen dared not open his mouth.
‘The master mentions his action in hiding the secret documents of the temple,’ Broken Gate went on. ‘He says there is something unusual among them that posterity might not expect to find there, if any of the documents were lucky enough to survive. It is the record of an exceptional incident that happened here, recollected by a literary gentleman towards the end of his life, that deserves to be added to the lore of the Yellow Corktree Temple. The true story of a woman brought back from the dead through the devotion of another. A testimonial to the compassionate power of Guanyin in relation to our earthly attachments. It was the author’s stipulation that the story should not be published at the time, since he was not seeking worldly fame. The master’s instructions are clear, however, that whatever survives among the buried documents is now ready to be published to the world. Have you guessed what I’m talking about? Here it is.’
Broken Gate’s smooth old hands laid out a gathering of sheets of hand-made paper, each the size of a modern tabloid, on which were rows of characters written with brush and ink. Across the top in different calligraphy was inscribed: The Continuation of the Life of Shen Fu–Two Chapters.
Shen gasped. Then he giggled with childish excitement. Was it another hoax? It was almost beyond disbelief. Old Weng stretched out his arms and grasped Shen and Ruth by their wrists. He did not need to say anything. His whole body was trembling over the find. Ruth felt it in his grip. He was passing on his conviction that here at last was the truth.
Broken Gate held out a pair of embroidered shoes, scarcely faded at all. ‘These were in the same box,’ he said.
Ruth looked at them and smiled. They were identical to the pair she had worn the night she met Shen, the pair she made herself.
‘Yun must have had big feet for those days,’ she said.
‘What’s this?’ Shen asked, noticing the frayed strip of cloth lying in the monk’s hand.
‘The pages were rolled up and the shoes were stuffed inside. It was all tied into a bundle with this bit of red,’ explained Broken Gate.
‘What does the manuscript say?’ asked Shen, looking at each of the old men in turn. ‘Have you read it?’
‘The monks need money to carry on their work,’ said Old Weng. ‘They have decided to sell the manuscript to the highest bidder.’
‘Such a manuscript is beyond price,’ Shen said, ‘if it’s genuine.’ He had still not worked out what the old collector was getting at.
‘Oh, it’s genuine,’ said Broken Gate. ‘We have the master’s word for that. Mr Shen, you have connections with the auction business. We would like you to handle this matter for us. Not everyone can be trusted with something like this, you see. Will you do it?’
Shen was about to burst. An auction was the last thing he had on his mind. He desperately wanted to know the contents of the missing chapters, now found. That was all he cared about. ‘I’m unworthy of this honour,’ he replied with stilted formality. Ruth laughed and gave him a little shove. Broken Gate had reaffirmed his vocation as a handler of old things. Shen could get his job back simply by turning up at Stanley Hummel’s office with an item of the quality of this newly discovered manuscript. And if he wanted to find out what was in those two missing chapters, then he had to agree to do what Broken Gate asked. Ruth saw it all. That was the old monk’s deal. Shen was to be responsible for taking the sole surviving original version of the missing chapters of Shen Fu’s life to the market and the world.
Humbled by that trust, the young man shook Broken Gate’s hand and tucked the precious manuscript under his arm. It took all his self-restraint not to peek. Ruth put her arm round him and kissed his cheek. She was happy. Shen had at last found what he was looking for. He wondered why she was so calm.
To be Continued In the June issue…..