At first bell, the monks awoke. They quickly donned their bright yellow robes. The locals called the color saffron. The Saffron Temple sat high atop the mountain, figuratively and literally watching over the town below. Sleeping in their comfortable beds, the townsfolk would only dream of soft and distant bells, celebrations and greetings from long-dead ancestors chiming through the ages to their somnolent kin.
Now, by torchlight, the monks would scurry silently to the mess hall and take their places at the benches. No seats were assigned, and every monk was expected to randomly choose a seat. This was an expression of the rejection of sentimentality and attachment, and the highly trained monks showed no sign of confusion or commotion as they each located in a spot different from the one held yesterday, different form the one they’d hold tomorrow. Dutifully, filing into the room, every monk remembered only far enough back to know where they sat the day before, and found a new place to sit.
Every monk but two.
It was an unspoken agreement among the other monks that these two were to be seated together. No one knew exactly how they knew which seats to leave empty, but without fail, every morning when the monks filed into the stone and oak hall, two seats remained empty until filled by the last two monks to enter. Every day the seats were different; every day the two were the last to enter the hall; but every single day these monks ended up seated beside one another for mess.
The two entered the mess hall silent as the rest, but strikingly different in stature. Every monk in the hall was 17 years old, slight of build and most of similar height. Every monk had a shaved head and a dark brow, elongated ear lobes and a crooked nose. And perhaps it was the sameness of the rest that accentuated the uniqueness of this pair.
One monk, unlike the rest, had blue eyes, piercing and deep. He was the tallest of the bunch, more toned in his frame, though not what anyone would call muscular. While the others focused straight forward on the task at hand, this young man’s eyes darted left and right, taking in every detail of the room as if sensing something more profound in the placement of the prayer mats and stacked urns that, to most, appeared to be chaotically moved out of the way to make room for this respite. He carried himself with strength, not so much in a regal manner but like he understood the significance of his soul.
The partner, by contrast, was by far the shortest of the monks, though it was clear he considered his size no detriment to his power. He was clearly strong in body, but also carried an intensity read not so much in his face as in his eyes. Like everyone else in the room save his partner, his eyes were brown, piercing and dark to the point of looking black. An observer to the scene might say that the other monks backed away from the powerful aura this young man brought into the room. But their training was so deeply ingrained that no one ever actually moved. Only the most subtle tells, the blinking of eyes or minor twitch of fingers, showed the truth – the others were afraid of this young man, afraid of the pair.
Once the seats were filled, four elder monks entered, wheeling carts to the end of each table. Their robes were saffron but each crossed with an orange sash, a mark of their stately positions and elderhood. Each elder monk was nearly identical in size and appearance, and each with deep brown eyes, though time had aged some more quickly than others. The elder monks started unloading identical bowls filled with identical amounts of rice with some unidentifiable grayish brown paste globbed on top. The bowls were passed down the tables, each monk uniformly grabbing passing, some internalized beat-keeping measure making the scene seem almost militaristic in its spectacle. But soon that spectacle ended, and every young monk had a bowl of food placed before him, and every monk placed his hands on his knees and every monk stared ahead at nothing.
And so the monks assembled and were put into place, each sitting silently on bench seats along the long tables, waiting until the day’s order was set in motion.
The second bell rang now. Down in the village, the caretaker of each home stirred gently, smiling and greeting their dwindling hearth fires as they extended that ultimate effort of relinquishing the warmth of covers and putting that first bare leg over the edge, tender skin to the cold floor. But that moment of anxiety passes for all, and the day begins slowly as this one prepares the home for the waking of the others – wood for the fire, a kettle of tea and a cauldron of oats. Preparing for the rest of their world to follow.
In the Saffron Temple, in the great hall, the rows of identical monks began to eat in unison, in silence. As a tenant of their practice, the monks were given a specific amount of time within which to eat their meal. Anyone who finished early was chided with the Bristles. So every monk looked to one another for a pace within which they would spread out every bite of their meal, trying to finish at exactly the moment the Scabbard entered the hall and began the day’s exercises. Even attempting to eat in front of the Scabbard was an offense punishable with the Bristles.
Unconsciously, everyone in the room glanced toward the pair, Blue Eyes and Storm. Somehow these two seemed to have transcended this manipulation of time. Indeed, Blue Eyes had long before counted out the rice in his bowl, counted the number of seconds between the bell and the entrance of Scabbard. Every day, even while eating, he counted the seconds and he counted the rice. And every day since Blue Eyes had begun this meditation, they came up the same. Until today.
We’re 3 spoonfuls over today, he said internally.
I estimated 5, but yes, we’re over, thought Storm.
Forty three grains per spoonful, if you’re measuring it correctly each bite. Today everyone will come up short.
No facial expression passed between the two – no outward manifestation of their conversation. To everyone else in the room, the two appeared as meditative as the rest, though no one would have stolen a glance anyway, for fear of the Bristles.
Should we increase our pace? Asked Storm.
No, it would raise suspicions. Everyone else would also increase pace, and the Scabbard would know more than we wish him to. Blue Eyes was resolute.
And so they continued at their slow pace, the only ones preparing for the inevitable complication.
Six minutes and 43 seconds later, the double doors to the hall burst open, their creaky hinges ringing and echoing throughout the entire temple. Immediately, the monks dropped their spoons into their bowls, confused by the superfluous food lingering in their bowls but dropping their hands to their knees, their eyes staring forward past the walls, their backs straightened. But the ploy had worked, and one monk, at a table ahead of Storm and Blue Eyes, was caught off guard. Only seconds behind, he had started lifting his spoon again, perhaps too transfixed by the rhythm and the norms of their breakfast ritual, to notice any significant change in plans. Perhaps no one had noticed, thought Storm …
The Scabbard brushed into the room like the front of a storm, trailing his train of saffron and crimson robes behind him. He was of indeterminate age, his face stoic and stone, betraying no hint of emotion at any time. As long as Blue Eyes had known the Scabbard, which was now 12 years, the older monk had shown no love or compassion, no cruelty or enjoyment. He was the Body of the Word, the manifestation of non-attachment. He was the leader of the temple, and the most actualized monk alive. None had embraced and become the teachings so much as the Scabbard.
Without a word, without a sign, the Scabbard moved brusquely and directly to the young monk who had mistakenly continued eating when the master had entered the hall. Without word, the Scabbard reached swiftly into his voluminous robes and, with a flash, struck the young monk soundly across the back of the neck. Well disciplined, the young monk made no sound as he was struck. He did not flinch or cry out, did not reach back to cup the now-bleeding scratches dug into the flesh of his neck. He merely continued to look forward, his hands on his knees, his back straightened.
As the Scabbard moved to the front of the hall, Blue Eyes caught a quick glimpse of the Bristles – they appeared to be nothing but dried straw or twigs, bundled together like a small broom. But in this torchlight, Blue Eyes could also catch a glimmer of something metal, some spiked and barbed wires at the core of the implement of punishment.
The Scabbard moved to the front of the hall now, kneeling with his back to the monks. The moment his knee hit the prayer mat, the monks sprung to action. The bowls were passed and stacked back on the carts, which were wheeled out by the older monks. The tables were lifted and moved to the very sides of the room, stacked perfectly and snugly, the benches next stacked in the remaining spaces. The prayer mats and urns were removed from their chaotic placements and every monk found a place facing the Scabbard.
Again the silence returned, and the temple waited.
The third bell rang out at the first breaking of light. Down in the village, families awoke and were greeted with warm homes and warmer breakfast. Each family said a prayer to their protectors on the mountain above, then began their days. By nightfall, someone might have fallen ill, or be mortally injured in their labor. Attackers might come to the village, scavengers or disease. But whatever horrors might come, the villagers all knew that they had one another, and that high atop the mountain the monks were working on salvation, and that every good deed and good intention towards those monks, from prayers to donations of food and firewood to the temple, promised the villagers salvation in the next life. Let the here and now be painful, physically and spiritually, they would say. Let life test me through torture and punishment, through the breaking of my bones, the rending of my flesh and of my soul. May I, too, be born a monk in the next life …
Fifteen seconds after third bell, the Scabbard began his explanation of today’s exercise. “There will be a sconce placed in front of you. Within the sconce will be unlit incense. You are to light the incense, then contemplate what fragrance you were given and why. You are to remain in strict meditative pose for the duration of this exercise. Begin.”
With that the elder monks moved quickly to place a sconce in front of every young monk. Silence echoed throughout the room, intense and heavy.
Hours passed in such silence. The monks understood these tasks to be contemplative and meditative, what the Japanese called koans – a question without an answer, meant to invoke thought and bring about understanding of the zen. The act of pondering was the real task – what could the fragrance be? How does one ignite without fire? What is the meaning of giving each monk a different scent? Each monk sat transfixed, attempting impossible things like trying to see the fragrance, trying to light the fire through intense staring or fixed blinking, seeing themselves tasking a torch from the wall and lighting the incense.
But while the others spent their time in quiet contemplation, Blue Eyes and Storm became more and more focused on their own exercise – philosophical rebellion.
The mission of the temple is to seek personal enlightment, right? thought Blue Eyes, But to what end? The people below, the people all over the world suffer while we select few enjoy the only refuge allowable.
But by working on our own salvation, we move the universe closer to Nirvana, to salvation for us all. Storm always felt he was a step behind Blue Eyes in their talks. He felt less rebellious, less rejecting of the dogma they were taught. But he saw the passion and the talent in his friend, had seen himself step in line behind his friend and had watched his own talents grow exponentially. He may not always see where Blue Eyes was headed, but he knew well enough to follow. The people do what they can in this life. They help us achieve our own salvation, and through doing so they move themselves closer in their next life.
But what about this life? The people do not gain anything from this bargain. They toil, they suffer, they are raped and murdered and exploited. They watch their loved ones die and they fear for their lives, and every day they still dutifully donate the fruits of their labors to the temple. The anger was building in Blue Eyes, though only Storm could see it – a tightening of the skin, a pulling back of the mouth, ever so slight.
The Scabbard was making rounds to observe the meditations. Now behind Blue Eyes, he leaned over Blue Eyes’ shoulder, checking his sconce. Blue Eyes heard a voice in his head. It was not Storm. No luck? You disappoint me.
The Scabbard said nothing, though, and moved next to Storm, who made an exaggerated show of squinting his eyes and furrowing his brow, as if concentrating on somehow igniting the incense. Blue Eyes nearly smiled. The Scabbard seemed appeased at the effort, and finally moved on.
But soon that levity was gone. Storm asked his friend, So what could we do? The cycle continues, and even if it takes one million lifetimes, we must each strive to reach Nirvana. We must understand there is no self, and rejoin the natural state of oneness …
But what about compassion?! Blue Eyes was intense in his thoughts, and Storm had to keep from impotently covering his ears. Blue Eyes took a moment, composed himself. We are taught that the most important beliefs we have are compassion for others and understanding the interconnectedness of all life. Yet we separate ourselves from the rest of the world – we separate ourselves from the rest of ourselves! Where is the compassion in not easing the suffering of others?
So what would you propose? Asked Storm.
We need to find a way to help one another, to bring everyone along, to end the violence and hate of this life. We need to –
Across the room, the young monk who had earlier been struck slipped. He had become weakened from the hours of meditation, had tried resting the weight of his body on his hands, to his knees, and he had slipped. Like a bolt of lightning, the Scabbard was already upon him. Silent and fast, out came the Bristles. The monks did not look away, but nor did they watch. They merely continued with their meditations, pretending not to see the violence.
The retribution was swift, and it was gruesome. The Scabbard began to strike the monk across the neck, the back, the head. The saffron robes tore open at places, and soon were stained crimson. Blood flowed freely, but still the punishment did not cease. The young monk, trying to remain silent, could not stop the tears running down his cheeks. Seeing this, the Scabbard stopped, looked the monk in the eye, then swung the Bristles hard across the young monk’s face. At this the monk collapsed, and began sobbing, wailing.
And still the Scabbard betrayed no hint of emotion. He ceased his beating, looked about the room. Blue Eyes and Storm both could have sworn that the Scabbard looked each of them in the eye, though perhaps every monk in the room felt the same thing. The monk on the ground continued to sob, huddled in a mass of robes and tears and blood. The Scabbard reached deeply into his robes, and came back brandishing a small and wicked blade.
So fast as to be unseen, the Scabbard was now atop the monk, pinning his shoulders and arms down. For a moment, a crazed look appeared in the Scabbard’s eyes, or so it seemed to Storm. But then it was gone, leaving nothing but the cold and calculating punishment from master to student. The monk now began to thrash, to scream, to beg for mercy. He apologized for his transgressions, and he promised to do whatever was asked. Then, in response to the silent stare he received from the Scabbard, he simply screamed.
The blade was brought in close to the monk’s eyes, waved back and forth. Then the Scabbard shifted his weight, laying his knee on the forearm of the monk. With one hand he grasped the monks palm, with the other he traced the blade’s point across the tips of the fingers. Then, with the flick of his wrist, he cut.
The monk’s pinky flew into the middle of the room, where is sat, silent, and bled. The monks sat in silence.
The Scabbard looked around the room again. Seeing no reaction, he once again grasped the palm of the young monk, who was now hysterically chanting a children’s prayer for a good harvest, begging for some escape from his reality. The Scabbard chose another finger, flicked back his wrist …
A light flared suddenly near the Scabbard’s head. A smell filled his nose, something at once familiar and yet distant, like a remembrance of the soul. He glanced over to see the sconce belonging to this young monk had ignited.
The Scabbard was up in a flash, twisting around to take in the entirety of the room. “Who did this? It was not this trash! Who lit this sconce?” The coldness, the emotionless tone of the Scabbard had waivered.
The monks sat in silence.
“If you will not tell me, then you will watch him suffer more.”
The young monk was curled in a ball now, his robes wrapped around his bleeding hand. He was talking to someone, Pahmi, perhaps some former relative or friend, someone with whom he’d once shared intimacy and affection. Someone who had once loved him. The Scabbard pounced now, pinning the monk’s entire arm to the ground. The monk hardly struggled at all.
“Next will be his hand,” said the Scabbard, who had now regained his lost composure.
The monks sat in silence.
The Scabbard reached down with the knife, connecting with the flesh at the wrist. He began sawing through skin, through meat, into bone. The monk sang louder now, cut occasionally with screaming garbled nonsense, like the afflicted speaking in tongues.
There was a sudden intense heat and light, as if the world were lit on fire. Loud popping noises went off around the room. When the light was gone, in an instant, a smell filled the air.
The monks no longer sat in silence. Their composure broken, they each looked around the room, astonished. Every sconce was lit and burning, thin trails of smoke filling the air with the aroma of incense.
The Scabbard got up, straightened his robes, and composed himself once more. Yet Storm noticed a desperate look in his eyes – a look of victory? It was gone before he could mention it to Blue Eyes.
As the Scabbard exited the chambers, he stopped to speak to an elder monk at the door. This elder monk was different than the rest, his robes pure crimson with an orange sash. Though more aged than the Scabbard, he was lean and hard. Neither Blue Eyes nor Storm had ever noticed him before.
“Take care of that one, then meet me in my chambers. We have much to discuss.”
Without saying a word, the Crimson Monk placed an arm in front of the Scabbard, stopping his egress. The monks in the hall could hear no words pass between the two. And yet …
“Yes,” said the Scabbard, “we have finally found the Dall.”
Blue Eyes and Storm had much to say, much to ask of one another. And in time they would. But for now, each found himself unable to act or even think, overwhelmed by strangely familiar smell of saffron incense.