Today’s Writer’s Choice selection is from Story Team newcomer Yoon Ha Lee, who regales us with tales of those mysterious tattooed monks, the ise zumi of the Dragon Clan!
One Path, Many Truths
By Yoon Ha Lee
Edited by Fred Wan
Before the Destroyer War…
Togashi Shintaro had been explaining that the correct relationship between the individual and the Heavens was best understood through examples from nature when one of his two grudging students, Hida Nioka, hauled herself up and scowled down at him.
“This is ridiculous,” she said, not for the first time this hour. “Go pester someone who has time for this nonsense.”
Shintaro watched in mild dismay as she stomped out of the room, leaving her husband to make apologies. In retrospect, perhaps the importance of pollination to the world of flowers had not been the best choice of example when talking to two Crab.
“She’s very set in her ways, Togashi-san,” her husband said. “She doesn’t mean to offend the Dragon.”
Shintaro doubted this, but it was important to allow Nioka’s husband to save face. “This is no reason for you not to continue your own studies,” he said hopefully.
“Not all of us can aspire to be true students of the Tao,” Nioka’s husband said, “but I will give some thought to the ways of nature when I can.”
The truth was, the husband was just as stubborn in resisting instruction as the wife. At least Nioka didn’t conceal her impatience with the whole endeavor behind smiling assurances. Still, there was no help for it.
Shintaro made his farewells to Nioka’s husband and set out toward a cracked boulder that marked the southwest approach to the village. Village lore had it that Hida himself had stubbed his toe on it in the days of old and broken it in half. Moss grew in the boulder’s crevices, and a small beetle scuttled away at Shintaro’s approach. Careful not to step on it, he climbed easily to the top of the boulder and closed his eyes to the gusting wind and the sun’s steady warmth.
He meditated there until late in the evening, reflected on all those he had failed to reach. Togashi Maya liked to say that you never knew what soil a seed would find, but even she might have agreed that the Crab were bound to be cantankerous students. Various versions of “This is ridiculous” had featured heavily in the past years as he attempted to obey Mirumoto Kei’s edict to teach the Tao, and while he wasn’t discouraged yet–
“Excuse me, Togashi-sama,” said a woman’s voice. “What are you doing here?”
Shintaro opened his eyes. It was a woman in merchant’s clothes sewn ostentatiously with symbols for prosperity and good luck, and she was perhaps five months pregnant. When she saw that she had his attention, she bowed deeply.
“I was thinking about the nature of stubbornness,” Shintaro said drily. “I wonder, for example, whether it is something we are born with, and whether it can be unlearned.” And then, because he knew that people rarely interrupted a monk unless they had some kind of challenge for him, “What do you wish to speak of?”
“My name is Yomogi, Brother, and I wished to ask your guidance for my child,” the merchant said. “It will be my first one.”
Shintaro looked at her, nonplussed–surely it would be more appropriate to ask a priest–and then he realized that the world had responded in an unexpected way to his meditations. As he had discovered, it was difficult to get people to take his teachings seriously when they had so many other things on their minds: transplanting rice, compiling range tables for siege engines, the occasional stray goblin. People had many preconceptions about what was truly important in this world.
An unborn child, on the other hand, should have no preconceptions at all. Shintaro wasn’t absolutely certain of this–he had occasionally met other monks or sometimes shugenja who claimed to remember this state, but wasn’t one of them himself–but it seemed like a reasonable starting point. Perhaps an unborn child would be more receptive to his lectures.
“As it so happens,” Shintaro said, “your little one exists in a state as near no-thought as anything can be found under the Heavens. But you can advance the child’s future understanding of the world’s hidden nature by allowing me to instruct it before its birth.”
Yomogi’s eyebrows flashed upwards before she remembered to cover her reaction. Perhaps she had been envisioning something more conventional. “Ah–is it necessary that I partake in the instruction as well, Brother?”
“I’m sure that whatever you have time for will benefit you greatly,” Shintaro said blandly.
Yomogi thought for a moment, then nodded decisively. “Perhaps if you would be willing to–to instruct the child once a week, Brother…?”
For his part, Shintaro was amused by the thought of a merchant haggling over enlightenment. He supposed it was her nature. “It would be my pleasure,” he said.
* * * * *
Togashi Shiori felt the newcomer’s approach in the wind’s eddies and the whisper of rotting leaves, in the way his footsteps kept to the center of the footpath. At the same time, one of her students, a slender girl who had only two years left until her gempukku, was shouting at her. Shiori had to admit that Kiri had an excellent shout. It had taken three years for the girl to get to the point where she was willing to use it in a debate.
Kiri continued to catalogue Shiori’s faults as a teacher, which started with her insistence on teaching abstruse theories that could not possibly have any bearing on reality, continued with the futility of meditations on firelight, and ended just short of an accusation of heterodox thinking. The other students, which included a lamed bushi and a taciturn weaver, seemed unsure whether to be more impressed with Kiri’s figures of speech–at one point she compared Shiori to a drunken pennagolan–or her temerity. She would probably have gone on if not for the newcomer’s polite cough.
The newcomer was a man whose mask was made of braided red silk and scratched black beads, a man who was tall in the way that a spear is tall. His kimono was of unrelieved black brocade, but his obi was tied with an almost festively bright red cord. “Togashi-san,” the man said, “I do not mean to interrupt what is undoubtedly a very engaging”–his teeth flashed quick and bright–”discussion, but I have heard about your teachings, and they have given me some cause for concern. I am Bayushi Gisuke, and if you could reassure me of your intent, I would be most grateful.”
Shiori smiled in return. She had heard it said that testing your techniques against unworthy opponents only dulled your own skills, and even in teaching she reckoned it true. Perhaps here she would find some small challenge. “I am Togashi Shiori,” she said. “You are undoubtedly aware of my champion’s edict regarding the teaching of the Tao, Gisuke-san. I felt there was no better place to go than the lands of our longtime allies.”
Gisuke was eyeing Kiri with great interest, and Kiri was doing a somewhat unconvincing job of trying to look inconspicuous. “Has this child been offering you disrespect, Shiori-san? I could have sworn that I heard a dispute of some sort as I approached, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
“Hardly that,” Shiori said before the girl could turn any redder. “She has proven a most excellent student, and indeed, I am encouraged by her capacity for independent thought.”
He frowned. “This is not a facet of the Tao that is familiar to me, I must confess.”
“It follows naturally from Shinsei’s teachings,” she said. “In order to understand the implications of the Tao, we must examine them. And in order to examine them, we must think about them with a skeptical mind. Blind acceptance suffices for those whose lives do not permit them to undertake deeper study, but critical thought is preferable, for only with such can true enlightenment be found.”
“I’ve heard,” Gisuke said thoughtfully, “that one of your kindred is in Crab lands indoctrinating children who have not yet been born.”
Shiori snorted. She could think of several of her sisters and brothers who might have thought up such a scheme. “What worth is the faith of someone who can’t even think yet?”
“Permit me to ask a predictable question,” Gisuke said. The quirk of his mouth suggested that he was enjoying himself. “What of loyalty?”
“Even there, I would say that a critical mind is to be preferred,” Shiori said. “The loyalty of someone who has questioned every foundation of her allegiance, and discovered each to be worthy, is much to be preferred to the loyalty of someone who merely obeys. For what should happen in the first case if circumstances conspire to cause her to question? She will already have a rebuttal ready, and remain true, whereas in the second case, new uncertainties may be revealed, causing her loyalty to erode. Remember that while the Tao is most properly concerned with the reality behind surface manifestations, those manifestations are yet reflections of that reality. Thus it is never incorrect to seek wisdom in the Tao where a temporal endeavor is involved.”
Gisuke said, “The specifics of your answer are more pragmatic than I would have expected, Shiori-san.”
“Why travel in a crooked line when a straight one will do?” she returned.
“Your argument wouldn’t happen to be influenced by the questioner, would it?” But he was smiling again.
“The world is a very strange place,” Shiori said, “and sometimes Shinsei wears faces that we do not expect.”
“What an unsettling thought,” he said. “I am not entirely persuaded that your teachings are safe, Shiori-san, but I am most curious to see what they will lead to.” He bowed and turned to leave.
“The Tao should never be safe,” she called after him. “You are always welcome to debate that with me, of course.”
* * * * *
After the Destroyer War…
It was strange how the mountains of the Phoenix could be so different from the mountains of the Dragon, and how Togashi Emi never stopped seeing those differences, even years after coming to live here. She had asked if she ought to leave to assist with overseeing the Spider, like other teachers of the Tao, but Togashi Maya had felt that Emi’s particular talents were best exercised among the Phoenix.
The keepers of this small shrine had made Emi welcome, especially once they learned that she, too, was a student of temple geometry. The first sangaku tablet they had set her to solve, which had a puzzle involving circles drawn between a larger circle and an equilateral triangle, had originally been offered as a devotion to Shiba by a samurai-ko some centuries past. The elegance of its problem had been such that it was still one of the shrine’s treasures. Nevertheless, this morning when Emi made her accustomed circuit of the shrine grounds, she had seen tiny pale flowers with heart-shaped leaves that she had never seen in the lands of the Dragon; the dragonflies were different colors, the butterflies had different black patterns on their wings, and the air itself smelled wildly of herbs whose names she was still learning.
At the moment she was sitting cross-legged in the dubious shade of a crooked pine, one foot comfortably braced against a rock half-ringed with pinecones sorted by size during some discussion yesterday. Emi’s back hurt, but she reminded herself not to be overcome by such a banal distraction, and instead made herself watch while gray-haired Isawa Naonobu read over her scroll for the third time. In her past months working with Naonobu, she had learned that he was a slow but powerful thinker, one who liked to approach a proof from all angles before coming to a conclusion. Some of the other scholars who visited Emi found his insistence on checking every brushstroke infuriating. For her part, Emi appreciated the meditative quality of his silences.
“I find every step of your argument eminently defensible,” Naonobu said at last, “and yet the conclusion troubles me.” He paused as though picking words out of a vast pool, then added, “I know you insist the world of abstracts exists in a state of purity unblemished by the material world, but I do not see how this can be so.”
“The Heavens are known to be replete with wisdom, Naonobu-san,” Emi said, “but there are tiers of power. Surely it is not so farfetched that there are infinities that differ from each other in magnitude, so that a greater infinity swallows the lesser?”
“It is not intuitive,” he said, after a longer pause, “that one infinity should be quantifiable in the way of a heap of grains of rice, and the other in the way of points on a line segment. One would think that infinity is infinity. Yet this is what you have set forth. I fear the implications.”
She smiled suddenly. “There is no spiritual danger, Naonobu-san. Clearly the Heavens in their wisdom are represented by the greater infinity, and the dark forces with which Rokugan has often contended are represented by the lesser. But there’s no compelling need to seek such concrete interpretations of abstract results.”
Naonobu studied her, and Emi wondered what he saw. “I once thought as you do, Emi-san,” he said, “but as the years go by, I see the patterns of mathematics in the patterns of the living world. In my travels as a young man, I once saw a peculiar shell in the possession of a Mantis sailor, and the ascending size of its chambers could be described by a certain special sequence of numbers. You can find that same pattern in the spiral of seeds at a sunflower’s heart, or”–he picked up a pine cone–”one of these. It seems impossible that the power of this abstract language to describe the world should be coincidence, or that they should be decoupled in the way that you argue. Surely it is better to accept their correspondence and seek to understand the void by understanding the living world.”
“It may be as you say,” Emi said, “but when I puzzle over a devotional tablet, I am not thinking of shells or balls, but of the naked abstraction, and it is the purity of that experience that will lead me to enlightenment.”
Naonobu nodded slowly. “Perhaps that is the path for you, then, and who am I to deny you?” With great care, he handed the scroll back to Emi then drew a plain wooden tablet, chiseled with an elaborate diagram of inscribed polygons, from his satchel. “You may enjoy this puzzle, then. This is my copy of a devotion found at the shrine called Isawa’s Staircase, which you ought to visit someday…”
* * * * *
Although Togashi Akagi was facing away from the moonrise, he could feel its cool presence over his shoulder. The evening promised to be chilly with the first breath of autumn, and the maple trees in the courtyard of the palace that had once belonged to Doji Numata were turning faintly red. Strange: he was certain that today was the last day of the Month of the Rooster, and for the past eighteen years the Crane had sent someone up the roof to reckon with him once a year on this day.
In times past, the people of the palace had made a game of the endeavor, preparing a feast with sake in the courtyard. Akagi had never been tempted by the sake they offered to send up to the roof, no matter how excellent they claimed it was. If he wanted to cultivate fire, why, he only had to look inside himself. But the children playing jacks outside and the gossiping courtiers were as much a part of the world as the morning dew and the singing wagtails, and equally to be objects of detached contemplation.
Ah, here they came, if an hour late: a cluster of young men and women dressed in varying pale shades of blue, attendants and servants trailing behind them. The Crane were exchanging remarks about the evening that were really about somebody’s banishment from court, or someone else’s appointment as a magistrate, or a third’s unfaithful husband and his exquisitely insincere poetry.
One of them separated herself from the group, pinned up her bounty of dark hair, and began climbing up the wall, not too steadily.
“Careful, Takara,” one of the men called up to her. “We’ll never be able to make amends to your uncle if you break your neck!”
This must be Kakita Takara, then, the youngest niece of Numata’s successor. Akagi had a vague awareness that she had visited now and again in the past, but in truth people came and went so quickly that it was difficult to ascribe any great importance to any single one of them.
“At least I’ll leave a beautiful corpse,” the woman retorted, “which is more than you’ll be able to do.” Still, she slowed her ascent.
Akagi noted that sake was, in fact, involved in the endeavor. The smell was unmistakable. As fortune would have it, no one had actually died climbing the roof to talk to him, but wasn’t change the one constant of the world, after all?
Takara made it safely to the top, tottered–one of her friends bit off a shriek–then steadied herself and bowed grandly. The effect was spoiled when she hiccoughed loudly, but she seemed unabashed. “Togashi-san,” she said, “hello! Are you sure you won’t try some of the sake? I can assure you it is some of the best of the season.”
Akagi smiled and meditated on the way the Moon’s light glanced off the roof tiles, on the cries of the crickets.
The young Crane was undeterred by Akagi’s reticence. “My aunt says that if you’re going to be a family fixture you might as well match the roof tiles, but personally, I rather like the contrast.” This provoked a burst of whispers in the group below, which she cheerfully ignored. ”I can’t say that the view is all that different from the roof my honorable father sleeps beneath, or that temple on the way to Toshi Ranbo whose name I can’t remember just now”–she hiccoughed again–”but it’s easier to climb than that tavern’s and right now I’ll take what help I can get.”
For the first time in a long time, Akagi felt a burning curiosity about the person sent up to visit him. He had never expected to find a student in the way that Togashi Maya had probably intended all those years ago, but–”You are a connoisseur of rooftops?” he asked. “Are you, too, a seeker of enlightenment?”
“Togashi-san,” Takara said with real seriousness, “my mother, who is a wise, honorable, and long-suffering woman, says that I wouldn’t recognize enlightenment if someone wrapped it up in a pillow book and sent it to me as a gift, and that I should focus on my worldlier talents. I have no reason to believe that my honorable mother is wrong. I had asked her once what in the name of all the kami you were doing up here, and she said that I ought to ask you myself. But my honorable mother also said to me that one of the foundations of polite conversation is shared interest, however trivial. So I thought that before I came to see you I had better experience some rooftops so we had something to talk about.”
“And what have you discovered?’
This time she remembered to cover her mouth when she hiccoughed. With exaggerated movements, she sat down to face him. “I have to wonder,” she said, “if I go to Dragon lands and find myself a rooftop there, are they likely to send up any sake?”
“That depends on the rooftop,” Akagi said sagely, remembering Togashi Taro’s unique philosophy regarding drink. He wondered sometimes if Taro had eventually had found his way to the Mantis or Crab.
“Well, Togashi-san,” Takara said, “don’t mind if I make myself comfortable. That’s a lovely moonrise and I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy it right where I am, enlightenment or no enlightenment.”
Akagi smiled, wondering whether to tell her that he recognized the deep expanse of calm behind her lively chatter–but then, he supposed, she already knew in all the ways that mattered.
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