Man From Southern Mountain

The Man from Southern Mountain

In his youth, he had been a scholar. His knowledge, wit, and counsel brought him fame throughout the land. Before reaching age twenty, he had become first counselor in the court of the Western Emperor. His influence was great. All feared his disfavor.

But power and influence did not suit him well. The land was torn with conflict, as it had been for as long as anyone could remember. Of the people in the empire, there were four classes. First, the farmers, upon whom all depended for the essentials of life. Then came the soldiers and their leaders, who eternally struggled to make real the visions and dreams of the Emperor. Next were the intellectuals, survivors of countless batteries of tests, interviews, and progressively difficult assignments, upon whose judgment the policies of state hinged. Lastly, the aristocracy, topped by the Emperor, the "divine" center around whom swirled all affairs of the kingdom, as the currents of time rippled onward.

His stature as first counselor brought him no joy. There was no end to it all, no outcome, no resolution. He longed for the day he could be finished with it, and assured of the Emperor's "Well done, counselor!" Others had preceded him. Countless others would follow. But the cycle of birth, suffering, and death continued unabated. Was this what brought Siddhartha Gautama to near despair before his final awakening? Was this what the Buddha came to resolve under the Bo tree?

Taking the Emperor's leave, he left the court to enter the temple. He knew his request could not be refused, even the Emperor must defer to the gods, albeit in his case with no small degree of protest. Temple life proved austere, and its simplicity was a marked change from the always available pleasures of the courtly environment. He studied the Tao, and the life of the Buddha. He spent days in deep meditation, looking for the stillness within, which his seniors promised would free him from all distractions and doubts concerning the very purpose of his existence.

In time, it became clear the way of the temple was not for him. The meditations and rigors of temple life actually distracted him from the inner peace he sought, as had the pleasures and gratifications of the court.

With the Abbot's permission, he returned to the world. The Abbott gave his blessing, explaining that "Each must define his own course, and in the Tao, all courses have equal merit."

He journeyed far to the south, and saw first hand rampant disease, hunger, and all the rages of war. One day, while viewing a headless corpse left unburied on a remote and forgotten battlefield, he experienced what the Abbot might have described as "an enlightenment." Enveloped by the stench, eyeing the vermin veering from his gaze within the armor shell, he saw with absolute clarity how his well reasoned counsel to the Emperor had set into action the string of events leading directly to this body laying at his feet at this spot at this precise moment in time.

"Was he ever a real person? Couldn't this simply be a 'lesson' from the Tao? Yes, I must be dreaming." In the stream of sunlight, he saw his face in the armor. "It all makes so much sense now. This man, his fate, and I are all one and the same."

As though awakening from a dream, he bent forward to touch the swollen corpse. But the harsh edge of stench cut deeply into his senses and snapped him instantly back to reality.

"This is not a dream!"

Thinking back to his days at court, he wondered, "Why couldn't I see this possibility when I was the Emperor's counselor? What good was my learning, my years of training, my dedication to the absolute if this be the outcome?"

Having buried the body, he continued his journey. After a period of aimless wandering, he arrived at the Southern Mountains. There he left the world once again.

For once, he was truly alone. Here was a whole new experience, a whole new knowledge. Even in the temple, in the deep silence, there was always the awareness of others nearby. Silence, but never solitude. Here, the solitude was genuine, supreme, and like the surrounding air, a living part of his environment.

He learned first the lessons of hunger. He was far too removed from his ancestral past to rely on natural instincts to find his food. For the first three days, he was helpless and ate nothing.

It was an eternity. Never had he thought of nothing but food for so long, with such degree of intensity. For every waking minute of every waking hour, he focused on his hunger. And the hunger grew, and as the hunger grew, he focused all the more strongly on it, until time itself seemed to stand still. Tortuous hours became days, and days months. It was the fourth day when he found food, but by then he had experienced eternity!

In his early forages, he focused on the accessible. There were the frogs, the snakes, the cattails, the swamp roots, and the berries. But none of it came easy. Even the food of the temple seemed extravagant in comparison. He fasted often.

The first month, he derived his nourishment from the crystal waters, and the warm radiant rays of the sun. To supplement his meager fare, he ate the leftovers of travelers and highwaymen. Without at first realizing the change, he began to follow the natural cycles. When tired, he rested; when hungry, he foraged for food. All very simple, but bringing to him a deep sense of harmony within his new environment.

He came to know the plants and the ways of the animals. Meat and sustenance soon grew to abundance. What once took a whole day to garnish, could now be done quickly. After the first pangs of hunger, he would begin his search for food, and before long, his stomach was full.

There were others like him. Like him. that is, in that for reasons of their own, they choose to live in the Southern Mountains. There were the outlaws, the deserters, the mystics, the brigands, and the outcasts. Initially, he watched them from afar, and wondered what had brought them into the wilderness. Sometimes, his curiosity would be overwhelming, and he would maneuver to vantage points closer to their camps. He came to be so skilled at this, that he could come within hearing range of their voices, and not be discovered. That was how he kept current on the affairs of men.

One morning, he awoke and inexplicably, he could "see." To "see" went far beyond the normal capacity of sight. For example, on that first morning, he "saw" a band of soldiers entering the valley across the saddle of the white pony. That mountainous ridge was one full day's walk away, but he "saw" with certainty, and with unshakable confidence.

On other occasions, he "heard," he "smelled," and he "felt." It was as though he had become one with all things. When a bird flew overhead, he could "become" the bird, willing his consciousness into the creature, and instantly see down upon his physical body from dizzying heights.

The very next evening he visited the soldiers' camp, sat in their midst as they talked, partook of their food, and shared the warmth of their campfire. The soldiers however, never knew he had been there.

As legends and stories often arise to explain the unknown, there came to be the legend of the man from Southern Mountain. In the night, when travelers heard strange sounds, or saw strange shapes flitter about in the darkness, or when they would awake to find food missing from their sacks, they would always exclaim, "Looks like we had a visit from the man of the mountain!" That was how it was.

To survive on the mountain, he became one with the animals. Even at first, when he still ate the flesh of animals to survive, he would walk undetected up to his prey, and silently issue the coup de grace, as though he and the prey were fait accompli, sharing in some unwritten script.

With infinite patience, he would study the animals closely, all the animals, from the bears, to the panthers, to the lowliest insects.

He had learned lessons that no book could tell, no intellect could pass on. He learned that the human entity was a composite of thought, substance, emotion, and experience. Experience was the driver for all growth, and it was man's tie to the worldly environment, as natural a tie as the stem holding a leaf to the tree. The path to knowledge and understanding was not to be found in books, in the halls of power, or in shaping the destinies of men. The mountain had taught him otherwise. There were other truths to be gathered.

No one knows what became of the man from Southern Mountain. Legends abound. Some say he left the mountains to rally the villages in campaigns against marauding warlords. Others say he founded a temple to his liking, where he consecrated his newfound knowledge to the Buddha. There are even reports that he became one of the immortals and to this day is said to visit the camps of those entering the mountain's sanctuary.

What is certain is that eventually, the Emperor sent his agents to retrieve the errant counselor and return him to court. At first, a polite refusal was sufficient for the agents to leave without event. Of course, before long, the Emperor lost patience. The refusals offended his personal sense of dignity. Frustrated, he sent his secret police to capture the hermit.

Then the confrontations began.

Reports filtered back to the Emperor of a man who fought with supernatural fury and who, on one occasion, had singlehandedly disarmed and disabled fifteen officers of the imperial guard. Such a feat was unheard of in the land, and only caused the Emperor's concerns to heighten.

What the imperial guard did not know was that during his years in the wilderness, the man from Southern Mountain had become whole, melding the lessons of the mountain into an alphabet of motion, making him invincible to those of lesser discipline.

From the bear, he learned strength and power, and commitment in attack. Instantly, he could issue forth with unnerving sounds while swipes of his "paws" easily smashed the strongest suits of armor.

Or he could become the panther, systematically slashing out and weakening his opponent before going in for the kill.

Even as the lowly grasshopper, he could be there, but not there, whenever and wherever you attacked. The animal variations were endless. He and they were one. For one opponent, he was the eagle, for another, the monkey, and for still another, the mantis.

However, the source of all worldly power, even that of the mountain, was the dragon. Dragon rules positive karma, and from his throne, protects the nourishing forces of creation. He governs survival. He rules the natural order. The hermit came to understand dragon as the common denominator between himself, the animals, the mountain, and his maker. The dragon is master of position. Though words are weak in description, an intellectual might say that, "The dragon is always where his power is greatest, and his power is greatest wherever he may be." But the hermit recognized that dragon's strength was rooted intimately in its relationship to the environment. When the dragon sets, there are never openings. When you move against the dragon, you leave yourself open. There are no other possibilities.

The man of Southern Mountain had learned about the dragon as an attitude. He was always in dragon posture, whether walking through the woods, relieving himself, or sleeping. There simply were no openings. Though the Emperor's men could not comprehend this unknown force, they recognized their helplessness and, without exception, returned in disgrace to the court. Unable to risk further embarrassment, the Emperor eventually tired of the pursuits, and returned to his wars, relying upon alternate counsel. The warlords too, found they were better served continuing their greedy quests elsewhere and leaving this man to his mountain.

When the mountain was finally safe from marauders, and soldiers, and brigands, many others came, hoping to learn from the "powerful holy man." Of the many who wandered directionless through the woods of Southern Mountain, a handful were chosen to be students. As for the others, the man from Southern Mountain was not to be found, and probably did not even exist.

Of the chosen, all in time returned to the world of men. it was the wish of the teacher that once they learned the lessons of Southern Mountain, they should return to the affairs of men and serve as guides for others.

These students taught others, and they in turn taught more still. My own master once said that more than forty generations had passed from when the hermit first revealed his knowledge to another. If pressed, he could name the entire line of teachers, from the man on Southern Mountain, to his own master, head Abbot of Fragrant Woods Monastery in the highlands between China and Korea.

Unlike the other arts which varied from teacher to teacher, the style of the animals lingered as a philosophy of images. Like the dragon, the animal styles were forms or thoughts, which adapted to suit the individual idiosyncrasies of each person. The forms themselves remained pure and unchangeable, like beacons in a world darkened by ignorance.

And for that reason, whenever there was a question to be resolved, one only had to reach into the images within to find his own Southern Mountain and once again ... speak to the master.

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