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April 12 , 2008

Monks, Beasts & Dreams on Heavenly Terrace


This book's pages form the record of events that, according to tradition, really happened in the Tang-period China in the 8th century at Guo-qing Temple nestled on Mount Tian-tai. For this no extra charge has been made with the exception of delightful insight into the background of the four figures: three eccentric persons and the forth—the unnamed tigress, a creature on the back of which Chan monk Feng Gan usually rode. All the four were not poetic ideals, but sentient beings of flesh and blood. At another level, Feng Gan, Han Shan, and Shi De are also prototypes of the crazy saints, wise men, sages, and itinerant hermits who contrast so markedly with the ordinary monastic brotherhood and worldly society lifestyles of the vast majority in any culture or civilization. However, we listen to their advices, methods, and teachings, and, sometimes, follow their poetic prescriptions. When one of his rivals snidely predicted that Han Shan’s poems would soon be relegated to the kitchen, where it would be used as scrap to cover soy sauce pots, he only smiled and said nothing. As successive generations of readers find many observations preserved in his poetry fresh and ever new, perhaps Han Shan has had the last laugh after all. The whole things read like a treatise from Han Shan’s hand-scroll written by Shi De’s brush or, rather, his crude broom, with which he could beat even the King of Mountain, the warrior-guardian with furious face, protruding eyes, and a long staff in his mighty hands. In moments of whimsy and frenzy we give all the three magical and marvellous powers—skills in taming wildlife and healing by means of incantations, ability to disappear and reappear at will, power to penetrate into cliffs and cross the stream on one single leaf. Even techniques for summoning up from the other dimensions the six spirits to be then able to call them forth to obey their commands whenever needed and continually defeating the “six internal thieves” (meaning six senses in Buddhism and their activities—seeing, smelling, tasting and so on), as well as methods for calming troubled souls and staying the natural process of decay and many other amazing things are at their disposal. In addition, such stories, if they are good, lead us into the solemn presence of some truth, which most of us enjoy indirectly, not having paid the heavy price out of our hearts, in their most secret gleanings, the precious and inconvertible treasures of our own dreams.

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