One of Master Ling’s simple pleasures was an early morning stroll through an immaculately tended bamboo forest within the monastery. In late Spring, the sting of cold had fled leaving a cool mist perfumed by soil and woody bamboo. He closed his eyes, breathed in deeply, and listened to the sounds of insects and rustling leaves.
As he walked, he meditated on his students and the challenge he had issued to them 10 days before. He had challenged them to begin each day by descending down then carrying two buckets of water back up the thousand step ascent to the monastery. The students knew there must be enough water in their buckets to wash themselves, boil rice for their very hungry bellies, and wash their clothes for the next day. Truly, the monks could not spill a drop.
He had not told the students why the challenge was necessary, he just told them they must do it.
Initiate Wang rose early, before his pet finch had begun to chirp. By rote, he donned his robes, fitted his calloused feet with sandals, and picked up the bamboo staff. All at once, the familiar feeling of UGH! hit him. He thought, “I hate climbing these cursed stairs.” Wang had been feeling and thinking these things since the challenge began. He would wake and dread the exertion. It hadn’t changed much these 10 days. He missed his comforting breakfast of congee and aged duck eggs, tending the monastery grounds, and conversing with his comrades. He had come to love his way and to miss it now. The worst part for Wang was how he felt after completing Master Ling’s rigors. In a word, he felt wonderful! The feeling of cool water rinsing the sweaty rigor of the task away was sweet relief. The rice seemed all the sweeter for his effort, and the fresh-smelling robes were a welcome invitation to do it all again the next morning. In addition, his legs, shoulders and arms felt tight and strong. Despite or perhaps because of these benefits, Wang had grown to miss his old ways. Each morning, he felt the challenge of the new and struggled against the succor of what had been.
Master Ling gathered his student monks together for an opulent dinner. Their hearts were merry and laughter echoed within the great hall. Wang took his food in melancholy. After everyone had eaten their fill Ling rose and waited for all to fall silent. He took a long breath and spoke, “Brothers, we approach the end of our journey of 10,000 steps. Tomorrow, we begin again.” He paused and looked at the faces staring back at him. Some were smiling, some were distracted and some like Wang’s were twisted into a frown. He continued, “Your task is the same, yet your challenge is new.” Silence greeted him. The smell of stewed vegetables, fragrant ginger, and shoyu roast pork filled his nostrils. He took a moment to savor the uncertainty of the moment before beginning again. “Each morning for the past 10 days, you have climbed 1,000 steps. Each day, you’ve washed your bodies, satisfied your appetite, and cleaned your robes. You have become citizens of a new land, but what do you think of the country you have left? Yesterday is a place that allows no visitors and bars any from returning. Of the land you inhabit today, what can you say?”
The silence hung in the air for a moment. It was sometimes hard to know if Master Ling’s questions were intended for response. Finally, Wang stood and spoke. “Sifu, I can say that today I feel more focus and commitment than in days past. I am growing to respect my own ability to walk the 1,000 steps. I feel a courage each night to greet the morning, yet I still remember with fondness the sweet things of the past. I anticipate them and miss them when I choose to go this new way. Yes, my body is stronger, my movements are more agile, and my mind is more clear. Despite these things, I say to myself, “Surely, cannot I now return? Have I not obtained what I was meant to find? For what reason must I deny myself the pleasures I remember so fondly?”
Ling replied, “Wang speaks truthfully. What immigrant can truly say he abandons all desire for home? Few indeed.” The room groom silent. Ling locked his gaze on Wang. With the gentle force of a flowing stream he asked, “What will you do?”
Wang remembered how he used to struggle to carry the bricks needed for the new pagoda being built. On those days he had spent idly conversing, he recalled how he had come to wonder why he was at the monastery at all. The satisfaction of a hearty breakfast had been followed by a feeling that he hadn’t yet found the reason for the energy it brought him. A whiff of incense brought him back to the present. He felt the will in his heart, the clarity in his mind and strength in his body. He considered the next 10,000 steps. He felt a sensation like a tingling rush come up from his toes, through his lower body, and gather in his fingertips. Somewhere within him, an openness emerged. Master Ling repeated his question, “Wang, what will you do?” Unable to say more, Wang uttered only, “I will continue.”