"Zen Story #109"
a short story by G.E. Nordell


        Late one evening in an ashram near a large city, a gnarled old teacher, a Zen sensei, sits chanting in low tones. At the appointed hour, his newest students, tired from their long journey out of the teeming city below, arrive and assemble before him. He tells them about the short journey that they are about to undertake together this night, during which they will receive a most special gift which has been prepared for each and every one of them.

        He instructs them to leave behind all belongings except their sandals and the thin, simple garment that they each wear around their waist. The students remove their shoulder-slung pouches and headwear and take off their pale yellow outer robes. As they do so, familiar visions dance across the dim screens of their consciousness. The young wanton fancies physical pleasure and his heart races from the imagined scent and taste of warm woman-flesh. The glutton considers a menu of delicacies of which he has only heard, imaging them washed down by wines from ice-dark cellars. The mercenary counts the coins of silver and the ingots of gold that he presumes await him, already weighing in his hands the solid heft of sparkling gems of every rainbow hue.

        Outside the timber walls of the ashram, the venerable sensei leads along a track worn smooth and hard by teachers and students and passers-by, by beasts of burden and machines of commerce and members of Mankind, by souls enlightened and not. Abruptly he veers eastward into the uncharted hills and away from the safety of the old dirt road.

        The students follow the course set out for them by the old man, a straight line up an down the hills, gradually ascending the rugged mountains to the east of the ashram. Night envelops them. The moon illumines their path, but also casts terrifying shapes and shadows in the crisp darkness, triggering self-generated fears and doubts, the survival mechanisms of the selves that they work to leave behind. Each student fights an inner battle, essentially alone in the dark against the frightened and frightening forces within, each student still hanging onto the last and final and weakening vestiges of control. Stumbling onward, the dazed students home on the monotonous chant that floats behind their sensei like a silken scarf caught by a summer breeze.

        Soil and leaves and small, sharp pebbles slip between the rough sandals that the students wear and the tender soles of their feet. The dry and brittle vegetation meets and opposes the invading humans passively, wholly willing to be swept aside, yet catching on their spare clothing and scratching evidence of passage on the sweaty surface of their limbs and bodies. The scattered and tattered group trudges thru the eerie night without rest or drink, seemingly ignored by their teacher who pushes inevitably forward without a backward glance.

        The moon is nearing the western horizon as the students come upon their teacher seated standing on a flat ridge-top. He is breathing slowly and softly while chanting some ancient collection of sounds, sounds that no longer have form or meaning or purpose. The sensei silently instructs the panting, out-of-breath students, indicating that they should sit beside him, facing east. He sits, and the weary students sit in a cluster close around him. The delicate whispers of the night and the sensei's chanting lull the students to a deep sleep.

        The moon slips peacefully and silently out of sight.

        A wild and joyous and enormous whoop! from the lips of the sensei wakes the tired and sore and bone-chilled students. Startled flocks of birds rise from their secret nesting places into the brilliant gold and pastel and purple-flaming sky, which sight pours into the sleep-dilated eyes of the students. The incredible color display ignites their optic nerves, delivering incomprehensible messages, touching and warming and soothing the totality of their consciousnesses, filling their hearts and overflowing their dis-used tear-ducts, the sudden joy spilling down their soft cheeks and falling to soak into the ever-dry dust beneath their bodies. Not a word is spoken.

        The wizened sensei looks about him, at the hundredth or maybe the thousandth such group that he has guided on similar journeys, and he remembers his own first time and the last time and all the students and all the times in between. The old man's wrinkled face softens and he smiles. He stands and, knowing that the students will follow in their own good time, he walks back down the mountain.

        And he hums to himself a song from his youth.


Gary Edward Nordell 1979, all rights reserved


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