Tuesday's Tale - from China

The Stone Monkey

A very long time ago, on the top of a mountain, there lay a lone, strange-shaped stone egg.  No one knew what bird had laid it, or how it had got there.  The egg lay by itself, until one day it split with a crack, and out came a monkey, whose body was of shining polished stone.  Before long, this wonderful stone monkey found itself surrounded by other monkeys, all chattering as hard as they could.  After a while, one of them came forward and asked the stone monkey to be their king.  He accepted the post readily enough, having already decided that his difference marked him as one fit to rule.

Soon afterward, he determined to travel in search of wisdom, and to see the world.  Making his way down the mountain, he came to the sea-shore, made himself a raft, and sailed away.  Reaching the other side of the great ocean, he found his way to the home of a famous magician, and persuaded the magician to teach him many magical tricks.  The stone monkey learned to make himself invisible, to fly up into the sky, and to jump many miles at a single jump.  It wasn’t long before he began to think himself better and stronger than anybody else, and decided he would make himself Lord of the Sky.

The Dragon prince, on hearing that the true Lord of the Sky was being tormented by the stone monkey, went in search of the Lord Buddha.  “Have you heard of the new king of the monkeys?” the Dragon prince asked.

“No,” answered Lord Buddha.  “What is there to hear about him?”

“He has been doing a lot of mischief.  Having learnt all kinds of magical tricks, he believes he knows more than anybody else.  He now means to turn the Lord of the Sky out of his palace, and be Lord of the Sky himself.  I promised I would ask you to help us, for with your help, I am sure we would succeed against the stone monkey.”

The Lord Buddha promised to help, and the two went together to the palace of the Lord of the Sky.  They found the stone monkey behaving badly and insulting anyone who dared to interfere with him.  The Lord Buddha stepped forward and quietly said to the stone monkey, “What do you want?”

“I want to be Lord of the Sky,” replied the stone monkey.  “I could manage things much better than they are managed now.  See how I can jump.”  The stone monkey jumped a big jump and, in a moment, was out of sight.  And in the next moment, he was back again. “Can you do that?” he asked the Lord Buddha.

The Lord Buddha only smiled and said, “I will make a bargain with you.  Come outside the palace with me and stand on my hand.  Then, if you can jump out of my hand, you shall be Lord of the Sky.  But if you cannot jump out of my hand, you shall be sent down to earth, and never be allowed to come up to the sky anymore.”

The stone monkey could not stop laughing when he heard this.  “Jump out of your hand, Lord Buddha?  Of course I can easily do that.”

So they went outside the palace, and the Lord Buddha put down his hand, and the stone monkey stepped on to it.  He then gave one great jump, and was away far out of sight.  On and on he jumped, until he came to the end of the earth.  There he stopped, chuckling to himself that he would soon be Lord of the Sky.  Looking around, he saw five great red pillars standing on the edge with nothing but empty space beyond.  He decided to make a mark to show how far he had really jumped.  So he scratched a mark on one of the pillars, meaning to bring the Lord Buddha there to see it.  Then he took another big jump, and was soon back in the Lord Buddha’s hand.

“When are you going to begin to jump?” asked the Lord Buddha, as the monkey stepped down onto the ground.

“When?” cried the monkey.  “I have jumped already, jumped to the very end of the earth.  If you want to know how far I have been, you have only to get on my back, and I’ll take you there to see.  There are five red pillars there, and I’ve left a mark on one of them.”

“Look here, monkey,” said the Lord Buddha, holding out his hand.  “Look at this.”

The stone monkey looked but could not believe his eyes.  On one of the fingers of the Lord Buddha’s hand there was the very mark which he himself had made on the red pillar.

“You see,” said the Lord Buddha, “the whole world lies in my hand.  You could never have jumped out of it.  When you jumped and thought that you were out of sight, my hand was under you all the time.  No one, not even a stone monkey, can ever get beyond my reach.  Now, go back down to earth and learn some humility.”

 

This is very reminiscent to stories of Hindu deities that I grew up with, where their omnipotence would be shown through simple means such as this.  This is the only one I personally know that features the Buddha.  A little aside – I’ve always found it weird that, even though the Buddha was originally an Indian prince, and he is one of Vishnu’s avatars/reincarnations, his stories don’t seem to be as well-known as those involving the other Hindu deities.  Also, this story originated in China, where Buddhism is more widespread than in India.

 

Tuesday's Tale - another one from China

First of, apologies for the lack of 'Sunday's Serial', wasn't having a good day and, embarrassingly, posting on the blog slipped my mind.

Back to Tuesday's regular feature ...
 

The Magic Pillow

One day, an old priest stopped at a wayside inn to rest.  Spreading out his mat, he sat down with his bag.  A short time later, a young fellow arrived at the inn.  He did not wear a long robe like the priest or the men who read books; his short clothes marked him as a farm-labourer.  Taking a seat near the priest, the two were soon laughing and talking together.

Indicating his rough dress, the young man sighed and said, “See what a miserable wretch I am.”

“To me, you appear well fed and healthy enough,” said the priest.  “Why in the middle of our pleasant chat do you complain like this of being miserable?”

“What pleasure can I find in this life of mine?  I work every day from early morn to late at night.  I should like to be a great general and win battles.  Or maybe a rich a man and have fine food and wine, and listen to good music.  I would like to be a great man at court where I would help our Emperor, and bring prosperity to my family.  Now that is what I call pleasure.  I want to rise in the world, but here I am a poor farm-labourer.  If you do not call that miserable wretchedness, what is it then?”  Pausing in his long complaint, the young man yawned mightily.

While the landlord was cooking a dish of porridge, the priest took a pillow out of his bag and said to the young man, “Lay your head on this and all your wishes will be granted.”

The pillow was made of porcelain; it was round like a tube, and open at each end.  As the young man put his head down toward the pillow, one of the openings seemed to become so large and bright that he climbed inside, and found himself at his own home.

Soon afterward he married a beautiful girl, and began to grow prosperous.  He took to wearing fine clothes, and spent his time in study.  The following year, having passed his examinations, he was made a magistrate, and in the space of a few years rose to become Prime Minister.  For a long time, he was the Emperor’s trusted advisor.

Then came the day when he got into trouble.  Accused of treason, he was sentenced to death.  He was taken with several other criminals to the place of execution.  Made to kneel, he shut his eyes against the dread sight of the executioner approaching with his sword.  Just as the blow landed, he opened his eyes to find himself at the inn.

Barely able to breathe, he could only stare at the priest resting with his head on his bag, while the landlord still stirred the porridge, which was not quite ready.  He didn’t say a word, and when the food was ready, he ate his meal in silence.  Then he got to his feet and bowed to the priest.  “I thank you, sir,” he said, “for the lesson you have taught me; I know now what it means to be a great man.” With that, he took his leave and went back to his work, enjoying a quiet sense of newly discovered peace.

 

What I like about this tale is the idea that greatness is innate, not tied to wealth or great deeds.  And that the grass is not necessarily greener on the other side.

 

Tuesday's Tales - a Chinese tale

The Wonderful Pear-Tree

Once upon a time, a countryman came into the town on market-day, with a load of very special pears to sell.  He set up his barrow in a good corner, and soon had drawn a large crowd, for everyone knew he always sold extra fine pears, though he always asked an extra high price.

While he was crying up his fruit, an old, ragged, hungry-looking priest stopped in front of the barrow, and humbly begged the countryman to give him a pear.  But the countryman, who was mean and nasty-tempered, refused.  When the priest remained in front of the barrow, the countryman began calling him all the bad names he could think of.

“Good sir,” said the priest, “you have hundreds of pears on your barrow.  I only ask you for one, which you surely would not miss.  You needn’t get angry.”

“Give him a pear that is going bad,” said one of the crowd.  “You’d never miss it.”

“I’ve said I won’t, and I won’t!” cried the countryman, and all the people close to him began shouting, first one thing and then another, until the constable of the market hurried up.  When told what the matter was, he quickly pulled some money out of his purse, bought a pear and gave it to the priest; he was afraid the noise would draw the attention of the mandarin who was close by.

Bowing low, the old priest took the pear, and held it up in front of the crowd.  “You all know that I have no home, no parents, no children, no clothes of my own, no food, because I gave everything up when I became a priest.  So it puzzles me how anyone can be so selfish and so stingy as to refuse to give me one single pear.  Now I am a different sort of man from this countryman.  I have got here some exquisite pears, and I shall feel most deeply honoured if you will accept them from me.”

“If you have pears, why didn’t you eat them yourself, instead of begging for one?” asked a man.

“Because I must grow them first,” answered the priest with a smile.

So he ate the pear the constable had given him, saving a single pip.  Then he took a pick which was fastened across his back, dug a deep hole in the ground in front of him, and planted the pip, covering it with earth.  “Would someone be so kind as to fetch me some hot water to water this?” he asked.

The people, who were watching him intently, thought he was joking, but still one of them ran and fetched a kettle of boiling water and gave it to the priest, who carefully poured it over the planted seed.  Then, while he was pouring, the crowd saw, first one tiny green sprout, then another, come pushing their heads above the ground.  One leaf uncurled, then another, while the shoots kept growing taller and taller.  Before long, there stood before the awe-struck crowd a young tree with a few branches, more leaves, then flowers, and, finally, clusters of huge, ripe, sweet-smelling pears weighing the branches down to the ground. 

The priest’s face shone with pleasure, and the crowd cheered with delight when he picked the pears one by one, handing them with a bow to each man present, until they were all gone.  Then the old man took the pick again, and hacked at the tree until it fell with a crash.  He shouldered it, leaves and all, and with a final bow, walked away.

All this time, the countryman, quite forgetting his barrow and pears, had been in the midst of the crowd, intent on seeing what was happening.  But when the old priest had gone, and the crowd was getting thin, he turned to his barrow, and saw with horror that it was empty.  Every single pear was gone.  It took him a moment before he understood what had happened.  The pears the old priest had been so generous in giving away were not his own; they were the countryman’s.    What was more, one of the handles of his barrow was missing.

In a towering rage, he rushed after the priest.  But as he turned the corner, he saw the barrow-handle, which without any doubt was the very pear-tree which the priest had cut down.  The countryman could do nothing but stand, dumbstruck, as all the people in the market howled with laughter.  As for the priest, no one ever saw him again.

Tuesday's Tales - a story from West Africa

I like 'Anansi' or 'Spider' stories; I used to think that he reminded me of Brer Rabbit, only to find out that the Brer Rabbit stories can be traced back to the trickster figures in Africa!
 

The Conceited Spider

In the olden days all the stories which men told were stories of Nyankupon, the chief of the Gods.  Spider, who was very conceited, wanted the stories to be told about him.

One day he went to Nyankupon and asked that, in future, all tales told by men might be Anansi stories, instead of Nyankupon stories.  Nyankupon agreed, on one condition.  He told Spider (or Anansi) that he must bring him three things – the first was a jar full of live bees, the second was a boa constrictor, and the third a tiger.  Spider agreed.

He took an earthen vessel and went to where he knew there were a number of bees.  When he came within sight of the bees he began saying to himself, “They will not be able to fill this jar”; “Yes, they will be able”; “No, they will not be able” … until the bees came up to him and said, “What are you talking about, Mr Anansi?”  He explained to them that Nyankupon and he had had a great dispute.  Nyankupon had said the bees could not fly into the jar but Anansi had said they could.  The bees immediately said that of course they could fly into the jar, which they did.  As soon as they were inside, Anansi sealed the jar and sent it to Nyankupon.

Next day he took a long stick and set out in search of a boa-constrictor.  When he came to where one lived he began speaking to himself again.  “He will be just as long as this stick”; “No, he will not be so long as this”; Yes, he will be as long as this” … He kept repeating these words until the boa came out and asked him what was the matter.  “Oh we have been having a dispute.  Nyankupon’s people say you are not as long as this stick.  I say you are.  Please let me measure you by it.”  The boa innocently laid himself out straight, and Anansi quickly tied him to the stick from end to end.  He then sent it to Nyankupon.

The third day he took a needle and thread and sewed up his eye.  He then set out for a den where he knew a tiger lived.  As he approached, he began to shout and sing so loudly that the tiger came out to see what was the matter.  “Can you not see?” said Anansi.  “My eye is sewn up and now I can see such wonderful things that I must sing about them.”  “Sew up my eyes,” said the tiger, “then I too can see these surprising sights.”  Anansi immediately did so.  Having made the tiger helpless, he led him to Nyankupon’s house.  Nyankupon was amazed at Spider’s cleverness in fulfilling the three conditions.  And so he gave him permission for all the old tales to be called Anansi tales.