The Outlaws of the Marsh Chapter 6 Nine Dragons Shi Jin Robs in Red Pine Forest

Chapter 6

Nine Dragons Shi Jin Robs in Red Pine Forest

Sagacious Lu Burns Down Waguan Monastery

After crossing a number of ridges, Sagacious saw a path up the mountain through a large forest of pines. He followed it for less than half a li and arrived at a run-down monastery. It was from here that the tinkling of the bells came. Above an arch a faded vermilion sign read in letters of gold: "Waguan Monastery." Lu proceeded another forty or fifty paces, crossed a stone bridge, and entered the compound. He went directly to the guest-quarters. Its front gate was gone and its surrounding walls had crumbled.

"A big monastery like this," thought Sagacious. "How could it have deteriorated so?"

He went to the abbot's hall. It was filthy with swallow droppings. A cobwebbed lock secured its door. Lu pounded the ground with the end of his staff. "A passing monk wants some food," he cried.

Sagacious shouted for a long time, but no one responded.

He walked around to the kitchen. There wasn't any cauldron. The earthen stove had collapsed. Lu untied his rucksack and placed it down before the idol of the kitchen god. Carrying his staff, he went on with his search. In the rear of the kitchen he found a small room in which a few old monks were sitting, their faces sallow and sunken.

"You monks are very rude," said Lu. "I shouted and shouted but none of you answered."

One of the monks waved his hand. "Keep your voice down."

"I'm a monk who's just passing through and I want something to eat," said Lu. "What's wrong with that?"

"We haven't eaten ourselves in three days. How can we find any food for you?"

"I'm from Mount Wutai. Even half a bowl of gruel would be all right."

"We should feed you, since you're from the place of the living Buddha. But what can we do? All the other monks are gone and we don't have a single grain. We have really been hungry for the past three days."

"Liars! I don't believe there's no grain in a big place like this."

"It's true that our monastery was once prosperous. Wandering monks came from all over. Then one of them brought a Taoist priest and they took control. They ruined everything. There's nothing those two won't do. They drove all our monks away. Only we, who are too old to move, remained. That's why we have nothing to eat."

"Liars! What do a single monk and a single priest amount to? Couldn't you have lodged a complaint with the government?"

"Reverend, you don't understand. We're a long way from any government office. Besides, even soldiers couldn't stop them. They're very fierce. Murder and arson mean nothing to them. They're living in a building behind the abbot's hall."

"What are their names?"

"The monk is called Cui. His Buddhist title is Accomplished. His nickname is Cast Iron Buddha. The Taoist priest is named Qiu. His father called him Second Son. His nickname is Flying Messenger from Hell. Neither of them act like men who've renounced the material world. They're just robbers in the greenwood. They only use their priesthood as a cloak."

As Sagacious was questioning the old monks he got a whiff of something fragrant. He took up his staff and went stealthily to the rear. There, on an earthen stove, steam was seeping through the reed cover of a pot. Sagacious raised the lid. Millet was simmering inside.

"You old monks are very rude," he cried. "You say you haven't eaten for three days, but here you're heating a pot of gruel! Monks are supposed to speak the truth!"

Lu's discovery dismayed the old men. They hurriedly took away all the bowls, plates, dishes, ladles and buckets. Sagacious was hungry to distraction. He saw the gruel and he wanted to eat, but the monks had removed all the utensils. Next to the stove he noticed a chipped old painted table, covered with dust. "Necessity is the mother of invention." Lu rested his staff, grabbed some straw from beside the stove, wiped the dust off, picked up the pot with both hands, and poured the gruel on the table.

The old monks rushed to snatch the porridge. Sagacious shoved and tripped them. Some fell, some ran away. Lu scooped gruel from the table and ate. He had just started when one of the old monks said:

"We haven't eaten in three days'. Only today we managed to beg this bit of millet and were making it into a little gruel, and now you're eating it!"

Lu had consumed no more than six or seven mouthfuls, but on hearing this, he stopped.

Outside, someone was singing mockingly. Lu washed his hands, took up his staff and went to take a look. On the other side of a crumbling wall he saw a Taoist priest, his head bound by a black bandanna, wearing a cloth robe tied at the waist by a girdle of many colors, and shod in hemp sandals. On his shoulder was a carrying-pole from one end of which hung a bamboo basket containing a few fish and some meat wrapped in a lotus leaf. A jug of wine, its mouth also covered by a lotus leaf, dangled from the other end. The priest was bawling this song:

In the east are you, in the west am I,

For you no husband, no wife for me.

Without any wife I can still get by,

Without a man how lonely you must be.

The old monks hurried over, waving their hands, and whispered to Sagacious: "That's the priest Flying Messenger from Hell, or Second Son Qiu!"

Sagacious grasped his staff and followed him. The man, unaware that he was being trailed, went through a door in the wall behind the abbot's compound. Lu did the same. Under a green locust tree he saw a table laid with platters of food, three wine cups and three pairs of chopsticks. A fat monk sat in the middle chair. His brows were like streaks of smeared paint, his face was as black as ink. He bulged with muscles. Beneath his chest a swarthy belly protruded. A young woman sat beside him. The Taoist set down the bamboo basket and seated himself also.

Lu walked up to them. Startled, the monk jumped to his fee. "Please have a seat, brother," he cried. "Drink a cup with us."

"What do you two mean by ruining the monastery?" Sagacious demanded, tightening his grasp on his staff.

"Please be seated, brother," the monk replied. "Allow me to speak."

"Let's hear it. Out with it," Lu cut in, glaring.

"The monastery used to be a fine place. Its fields were broad, its monks were many. But those few old monks living in the cloisters like to eat and drink and carouse and spend money on women. The abbot couldn't restrain them. They complained against him and had him expelled. As a result, the monastery has fallen into decay, the monks have all left, the fields have been sold. I and this priest came here recently to take over. We hope to set the monastery in order and repair the halls."

"Who is this woman?' asked Sagacious. "Why is she here drinking?"

"Please hear me, brother," said the monk. "This woman is the daughter of Wang Youjin in the village below. He made contributions to the monastery often. But he's fallen on hard times and has had to sell all of their family property. His daughter has no other relatives, and her husband is ill. She's come here to borrow a little grain. Since her father used to be one of the monastery's donors, we've invited her to have some wine. That's all there is to it, brother. Don't listen to what those old animals say."

Lu was impressed by the monk's polite speech. "Those old monks have been playing tricks on me," he muttered. He returned to the kitchen, staff in hand. The monks had just finished their gruel and had been watching from a distance.

Sagacious pointed at them and said angrily: "So it was you who ruined the monastery. You lied to me!"

"Don't believe that monk, brother," the old men responded in chorus. "He's keeping a woman there right now. He saw you had a knife and a staff. He was unarmed, so he didn't dare quarrel. If you don't believe us, go back again and see how he treats you this time. Judge for yourself, brother. They're drinking wine and eating meat, while we hardly have any gruel. We were even worried that you wanted to eat it." 

"That's true," said Lu. Holding his staff by the lower end, he went to the rear of the abbot's compound. The door in the corner of the wall was shut. Sagacious angrily broke it open with one kick and strode through. Cast Iron Buddha, or Accomplished Cui, halberd in hand, rushed forward to attack under the locust tree. With a roar, Lu sprang into the fray, brandishing his staff.

They fought fourteen or fifteen rounds. Cui, no match for Sagacious, could only parry and dodge. Weakening rapidly, he waited for a chance to run. The Taoist priest, seeing this, strode towards Lu with another halberd from the rear. Lu heard his approaching footsteps, but dared not turn his head. Then he saw the priest's shadow, and knew the man was almost upon him.

"Now," shouted Lu.

Cui, panic-stricken, thought this signalled a blow from the ex-major's staff. He leaped out of the combat circle. Sagacious whirled, so that he was facing both his foes in a triangle. He fought the pair for more than ten rounds. But he was hungry and travel-weary, and couldn't cope with their combined strength. He executed a feint and ran, dragging his staff. His adversaries, waving their halberds, chased him to the outside of the monastery. They fought another ten rounds, and Lu ran again. They pursued him as far as the stone bridge. There, they sat down on the balustrade and rested.

Sagacious continued a long way. When he had caught his breath, he said to himself: "I left my rucksack by the kitchen god. I thought only of escaping and forgot to take it. Now I have no money for the road and I'm hungry. This is a pretty fix. I can't go back because those two rascals are too much for me. It's two against one. I'd only be throwing my life away."

He dawdled along another few li until he came to a large forest. All the trees were red pine. "A wicked-looking wood," he thought.

Suddenly, he saw a man poke his head out of the shadows. The fellow peered at him, spat, then slipped back among the trees.

"That bird is a robber, or I miss my guess, and he's here waiting for business," thought Lu. "When he saw I was a monk he knew there was no profit in me, so he spat and went away. It's just his bad luck that he's run into me. I've a bellyful of wrath and no place to get rid of it. I'll strip the lout of his clothes and sell them for wine money."

Staff in hand, he hurried towards the forest, crying: "You rogue in the wood, come out, quick!"

When the man heard this, he laughed and said: "I'm down on my luck and in need of money and he comes to pick a quarrel."

He grasped his halberd and bounded out from among the trees.

"Scabby donkey," he shouted. "It's you who've come looking for death! I haven't sought you out."

"I'll show you who I am," said Lu. Brandishing his staff, he charged. The other fellow rushed forward with his halberd.

But even as he did so, he thought: "Where have I heard that voice before?"

"Your voice sounds familiar, monk," he said. "What's your name?"

"I'll tell you after we've fought three hundred rounds," Sagacious retorted.

Angered, the man attacked, halberd against staff. They fought a dozen or so rounds. "That monk's a grand warrior," the man said to himself admiringly. After another five rounds he shouted: "Rest a bit. I've something to say!"

Both contestants jumped from the combat circle.

"Really, what is your name?" the man queried. "I'm sure I know your voice." Sagacious told him. The man tossed aside his halberd and bowed. "Don't you recognize Shi Jin?" he asked.

"So it's you, Young Master Shi," Sagacious laughed. The two exchanged salutes and went into the forest and sat down. "Where have you been since we parted in Weizhou?" asked the monk.

"The day after I left you at the tavern I heard that you had killed Butcher Zheng and run away. The police discovered I had helped you in sending off Old Jin and his daughter, the singer, so I decided I'd better leave Weizhou too. I went to Yanzhou, looking for my teacher Wang Jin, but I couldn't find him. I returned to the Northern Capital and lived there a while. But my money ran out, so I came to this place to pick up some more. I never thought we'd meet here. What made you become a monk, brother?"

Lu told his whole story from the beginning.

"If you're hungry, brother," said Shi Jin, "I have dried meat and some buns." He gave them to Sagacious. "You say you left your rucksack in the monastery," Shi Jin continued. "Let's go back and get it. If they won't give it up, we'll finish the rascals off."

"Right," said Lu.

After he and Shi Jin had eaten their fill, they took their weapons and returned to Waguan Monastery. As they neared the entrance, they saw Accomplished Cui and Second Son Qiu sitting on the bridge.

"Come on, you wretches," shouted Lu. "Let's fight to a finish!"

The fat monk laughed. "I've already licked you once. Haven't you had enough?"

Enraged, Sagacious ran towards the bridge, twirling his staff.

Cast Iron Buddha was annoyed. He charged down the bridge with his halberd.

Sagacious knew that he now had Shi Jin to back him up, and this gave him more courage. What's more, he had eaten heartily and was in high spirits. He fought the fat monk eight or nine rounds. Gradually, Accomplished Cui weakened until he began looking for a means to escape. Qiu, the Taoist priest, saw that Cui was losing. He hurried forward with his halberd to assist.

Shi Jin bounded out of the forest and shouted: "Don't any of you try to get away!" He pushed back his broad-brimmed hat and attacked the priest, halberd in hand.

Both pairs battled furiously. The fight between Lu and Cui was reaching its climax. Lu saw an opening. "Ho," he exclaimed. With one clout of his staff he knocked Cast Iron Buddha off the bridge.

The priest saw the monk fall and lost heart. He feinted with his weapon and ran.

"Where do you think you're going?' exclaimed Shi Jin. He caught up and plunged his halberd into the priest's back. The man fell to one side. Shi Jin placed a foot on him and stabbed again and again.

Lu sped down from the bridge. With a single blow of his staff he broke Cui's back.

Poor ruffians, their lives vanished like a dream.

Sagacious and Shi Jin tied the bodies of their victims together and threw them into a ravine. Then they re-entered the monastery and took Lu's rucksack from the kitchen. The old monks, having seen Lu routed and afraid Accomplished Cui and Second Son Qiu would kill them, had all hung themselves. When Sagacious and Shi Jin went through the door in the wall behind the abbot's hall, they found the kept woman had jumped into a well and committed suicide.

They searched eight or nine small buildings but found no one else.

On a bed they saw a few bundles of clothing. Shi Jin opened them. Hidden inside were gold and silver objects. They selected some and wrapped them up. In the kitchen they found fish and wine and meat. They lit the stove, cooked the food and dined.

Then each shouldered his pack. They tied reeds together into torches and ignited them in the stove. When the flames on the torches were leaping, they set fire to the small buildings in the rear. When these had burned almost to the door, they lit more torches and touched off the main hall from behind. Just then the wind rose, and crackling flames were soon spiralling into the sky.

Sagacious and Shi Jin watched for a while. The whole monastery was burning briskly. "It's very beautiful here," they said to each other ironically, "but it's hardly a place to make our home!"

They set out and travelled all night. When the sky was turning light they saw a number of buildings in the distance, evidently a small town. Before long, they entered. They noticed a little tavern beside a single-plank bridge.

Lu and Shi Jin went inside and drank. They had the waiter buy them some fresh meat and rice, and they cooked these themselves. While dining they told each other of their experiences during their separate travels.

"Where will you go now?" Lu asked, when they had finished their meal.

"The only thing I can do is return to Mount Shaohua and join Zhu Wu and the other two leaders," replied Shi Jin. "After some time there, I can decide what to do next."

"Very well, brother," said Lu. He took some gold and silver drinking vessels from his bag and gave them to Shi Jin.

The two then tied on their rucksacks, took up their weapons, paid the bill and left the tavern and the town. When they had walked six or seven li they came to a fork in the road.

"We part here, brother," said Lu. "I'm going to the Eastern Capital. Don't see me off any further. You're going to Huazhou. You take that road. We'll meet again some day. If you know of anyone coming in my direction, you can have him bring me a message."

Shi Jin bowed and bid Sagacious farewell. Each went his separate way.

We'll talk now of Sagacious Lu. After eight or nine days on the road he sighted the Eastern Capital. Lu entered the city. He found it a noisy, bustling place. In the center of town he apologetically asked a passer-by: "Could you tell me where the Great Xiangguo Monastery is?"

"There, ahead, by the bridge."

Sagacious, carrying his staff, went on to the monastery. He looked it over, east and west, then proceeded to the guesthouse. A servant went in to announce him. Soon the reception monk came out. He was somewhat startled by Lu's fierce appearance, the iron staff in his hand, the sword at his waist and the pack upon his back.

"Where are you from, brother?" he asked.

"I'm form Mount Wutai," said Sagacious. "I have a letter from my abbot, requesting Lucid Teacher, the venerable abbot of this monastery, to give me a position as a working monk."

"In that case, please come with me."

Sagacious followed him to the abbot's hall, opened his bundle and took out the letter.

"How is it you don't know the ceremony, brother?" the reception monk asked. "The abbot will be here in a minute. Remove your knife, bring out your robe and mat, and light the incense of faith so that you can do homage to the abbot."

"Why didn't you say so before?" demanded Sagacious. He took off his knife, and pulled a stick of incense and a mat and his robe out of his rucksack. But he didn't know what to do with them. The reception monk placed Lu's robe over his shoulders and told him to put the mat on the floor.

A moment later the abbot, Lucid Teacher, appeared. The reception monk stepped forward and said: "This monk comes from Mount Wutai with a letter to you from his abbot."

"It's been a long time since my brother on Mount Wutai has written," said Lucid Teacher.

"Quick, brother," whispered the reception monk. "Pay your respects to our abbot."

Lu didn't know where to put his stick of incense. The reception monk couldn't help laughing. He placed it in an incense burner. Sagacious kowtowed three times. The reception monk stopped him and presented his letter to the abbot.

Lucid Teacher opened the letter and read it. The letter set forth in detail why Sagacious had become a monk and the reason the had been sent down from Mount Wutai to the monastery in the Eastern Capital. "We pray you will exercise benevolence and give him a working post," the missive concluded. "Please do not refuse. This monk will have great attainments later on."

When he finished reading, the abbot said: "You've come a long way. Rest in the monk's quarters. They will give you something to eat."

Sagacious thanked him. He collected his mat, bundle, staff and sword, and followed a novice out.

The abbot summoned both sections of his clergy. When they had all assembled in his hall he said: "My brother abbot on Mount Wutai really has no discretion. This monk he's sent used to be an officer in a border garrison. He shaved of his hair only because he killed a man. Twice he caused riots in the monks' quarters of the Wutai monastery. He made no end of trouble. My brother abbot couldn't cope with him, so he's shoved him off on me. Shall I reject him? My brother's plea is so insistent that I can't very well refuse. But if I keep him here, he's liable to play havoc with our rules and put us in a terrible state."

"Even though he's one of our brothers," said the reception monk, "he doesn't look at all like a man who's renounced the world. How can we keep him?"

"I've thought of something," said the deacon. "Outside Sour Date Gate we have a vegetable garden behind the compound for retired working monks, don't we? The soldiers of the garrison and those twenty-old knaves living nearby are always despoiling it. They even graze sheep and horses there. It's quite a mess. The old monk in charge doesn't dare interfere. Why not let this fellow take over? At least he wouldn't be afraid of them."

"That's good idea," said the abbot. He instructed his assistant: "When that brother in the guest-room of the monks' hall has finished eating, bring him here."

The assistant went out. He soon returned with Sagacious.

"My brother abbot has recommended that you join us," said Lucid Teacher. "Our monastery has a large vegetable garden outside Sour Date Gate, next door to the Temple of the Sacred Mountain. I will put you in charge. Every day the men tending the garden must deliver to us ten loads of vegetables. The rest will belong to you."

"I was sent by my abbot to become a member of the abbey here," said Lu. "Even if you don't make me a supervisor or deacon, how can you put me in charge of a vegetable garden?"

"You don't understand, brother," the elder interjected. "You've only just arrived. You haven't shown any special merit. How can you be appointed deacon? Overseeing the garden is also an important job."

"I'm not looking after any vegetable garden," cried Sagacious. "I won't be anything but a supervisor or deacon!"

"Let me explain," said the reception monk. "We have various kinds of members. I, for instance, am the reception monk. My job is to receive guests and visiting monks. Posts like prior, personal assistant to the abbot, scribe and elder, are special jobs. They're not easy to get. The supervisor, deacon, director and manager are custodians of the monastery's property. You've just come. How can you be given such a high post? We also have jobs like master of the surras, master of the halls, master of the rooms, master of alms begging, and master of the bath house. These positions are held by middle-ranking members.

"And then we have the keepers—keeper of the kitchen, of the tea, of the vegetable garden, of the toilets. These are all overseers' jobs, comparatively low in rank. If you keep the garden well for a year, brother, you'll be raised to keeper of the pagoda. If you do that well for a year, you'll be made master of the bath house. Only after still another year's good work might you be appointed supervisor."

"So that's how it is," said Lu. "As long as there's a chance for advancement, I'll start work tomorrow."

Lucid Teacher let him remain for the day in the abbot's hall. A notice of appointment was written and posted in the compound for retired working monks, effective the following day. 

The next morning Lucid Teacher sat on his dais and issued the formal appointment of Sagacious Lu to the post of keeper of the vegetable garden. Sagacious accepted the document, bid the abbot farewell, shouldered his pack, hung his knife at his waist, and took up his staff. With two monks as escorts, he went directly to the compound to assume his duties.

In the neighborhood of the monastery's vegetable fields were twenty or thirty rogues and gamblers. They made their living by selling the vegetables they stole from the monastery's fields. That day, when a few of them went to raid the fields, they saw a notice posted on the gate of the overseer's compound. It read:

The monastery has appointed the monk Sagacious Lu overseer of these vegetable fields. Starting tomorrow, he shall be in charge. Those having no business here are strictly forbidden to enter.

The rascals called a conference of the entire gang. "The monastery has sent a monk called Sagacious Lu to take charge of the vegetable fields," they said. "He's new to the job. This is a good chance to pick a quarrel and beat him up. Teach the lout to respect us."

"I have an idea," one of them said. "He doesn't know us; how can we pick a quarrel? Let's lure him to the edge of the ordure pit instead, as if to congratulate him, then grab his legs and toss him in head over heels. It will be a nice little joke."

"Good. Good," approved the scoundrels. After making their plans, they went to seek the monk.

As to Sagacious Lu, on arriving at the overseer's compound, he put Ms pack and luggage in the house, leaned his staff against the wall and hung up his knife. The lay brothers who worked in the fields all came to greet him and he was handed the keys. The two monks who had escorted him there and the monk he was succeeding as overseer bid him farewell and returned to the monastery.

Sagacious then made a tour of the vegetable fields. He saw coming towards him twenty or thirty scamps bearing a platter of pastries and ceremonial wine.

"We neighbors have heard that you've been put in charge, master monk," they said, grinning broadly, "and we've come to congratulate you."

Not knowing it was a plot, Sagacious walked forward until he reached the edge of the ordure pit. The rascals advanced together, one of them intending to seize his left leg, another his right, and toss him in.

The result was: A foot kicked out and a fierce mountain tiger was startled; a fist struck out and a dragon of the sea met a sorry plight. A peaceful garden was instantly changed into a minor battlefield.

What came of the ruffians' scheme to upset Sagacious? Read our next chapter if you would know.

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