Monday, 13 May 2019

rainbow monks

These are not the most famous of the rainbow monasteries. Not the most powerful, wise, or even sinful. They are good temples, for the most part, or at least useful. All of them are corrupt. Their corruptions share a common thread: each vice is a virtue's reflection, the black rainbow shining up from below.

Strike-The-Stone-Producing-A-Spark is a multi-story wooden complex, reconditioned from an old summer manor, surrounded for miles around by fertile countryside. The school is supported by the local lord as it provides a dependable reserve of well-disciplined troops in this time of trouble. It's supported by the local peasants because they like being able to beat up the lord's tax collectors. The price of entry is deliberately simple: bring them a flame from the hearth in your home. It's common for vagrants to claim the road is their home and light a fire then and there. The current grandmaster was especially sly, claiming that as the school was destined to be his home their hearth already held his flame.

The skills taught at Strike-The-Stone are practical; an accessible two-weapon fighting style and the cultivation of inner heat. Most pupils, and thus many people in the surrounding country, can proficiently wield sword, hammer and axe, and light candles with their breath. There is one exceptional talent currently undergoing training, a red-headed peasant girl set to solving increasing opaque riddles by an increasingly nervous grandmaster. Unwilling to have his status usurped, the grandmaster is frozen by indecision. His once vibrant red energy is fading to pyrrous and draining the source of his martial power in a sad, ironic spiral of paralysis that threatens to corrupt him utterly and cause great scandal to the school.

Sun-Heats-The-Stone sits stubbornly on the north face of a squat mountain. Entry for anyone, not just students, requires enduring three nights waiting outside the gate, with the whole order coming out every sundown to beat you with staves. Inside, the beatings are less regular, woven into a draining, demanding, dogmatic training regime that breaks most people's will, though teaching them a lot about suffering and themselves along the way. The school was not always thus. When the grandmaster was more mobile, lessons involved ritual fasting, jogging up and down the mountain, working out in front of big fires, and giving yourself a big pat on the back for a hard day's work. And then the great art of Sun-Heats-The-Stone was perfected, the grandmaster having eaten nothing for a year and a day and achieving self-mummification.

Now the master's star pupil leads a wailing chorus of self-flagellation and refines their tortures upon themselves and the other students, striving for the perfect point of pain in which the grandmaster's voice becomes clear to them once again. This does not happen. The school venerates a false idol, not of the self, but of ideal; their bodies and pain offered to a higher power, instead of used to outline their own true selves. They say the school's kung fu has never been more powerful; their strikes blow memories from the mind and their hated, scarred bodies shimmer into unreality before a blade can land.

Broken-Bough-Falling hunches in the belly of a bustling town. All are welcome to stay the night and share the food, though the bonsai gardens are closed to most that are not monks. The price of training in the art of pruning is variable, though universal. Give away all your worldly possessions, toss all of your riches into the old well in the centre of the house and serve a single night in the kitchens. Most monks stay in the kitchens, serving those on the street where they once lived. Many return to that ascetic life, if they feel called.

The grandmaster is out there now, trying to pass on their great wisdom, never returning to their bed in the temple garden. The grandmaster's greatest technique is very simple; take a loaf of bread, split it evenly, and have both halves hold the same nutrition as the whole. The temple's charity serves a hundred mouths a night, but the grandmaster's hands feed cripples and lepers and lonely souls across the whole city.

Back in the temple's rotted core, in the caverns hidden beneath the old well, the steward squirms on a pile of gold, freely given and yet stolen from the common good. He demands to be called a dragon, guarded by golden axes and hissing cut-throat advice to the merchants, bankers and drug dealers that come for his wisdom, always with a gift. The steward is a shrewd man, and sharp with numbers, though it helps his wisdom along that a petitioner's rivals come just the same as them, spilling everyone's plans and fears on the cold cave's ground.

Leaf-Curled-In-The-Palm rises from the forest on a low hump of earth, its great stones barely peeking above the trees. It is a rock garden and a vegetable patch, roots and vine planted in the long furrows carved by each boulder's painstaking, months-long slide down the slope. The huge, happy, vegetarian monks chortle warmly as they roll the rocks back into more pleasing and productive arrangements. Joining their ranks requires not size, but strength alone. The test is to carry, drag or roll their sacred sow, the size of an ox, from the food troughs to her bath. Quickly though! The act must be done before the grandmaster, the size of two oxen, too fat to even speak, lumbers up behind and hoists the great hog over one shoulder, off for a pampering in petal-strewn water.

The monks are happy and free, blessed by good food and warm rains and growing, always, richer and more content upon their hill. It is the boundlessness of their love that will be their undoing, of course. Their fertile pig, totem of their happiness, has had hundreds of happy hoglets, nurtured by the monks and, with no space to feed them on the hillock, allowed to wander into the forest. Slowly but surely the forest is dying, roots upturned and vines torn and munched. As the forest thins the rains will fade. Crops will fail and the monks, sadly, will wither and move on leaving only a tangle of briar and boar to mark their excess.

Stone-Sitting-On-Water is a fortress jutting sharply from the middle of a raging river. The channels around it have been sculpted over patient years to contain the most treacherous rapids in the known world. The condition of entry is very straight-forward - anyone that can navigate to the great stone library deserves to study there. The monks are a mix of sailors and scholars. Beyond the vast collection of maps, tax records, census scrolls and tide charts, the knowledge is twofold. The first lesson is a mnemonic system based on the movement of water over a stone, which allows one to analyse and memorise the underlying principles of ostensibly any interconnected system, be it the flow of wealth through a kingdom or the course of an entire river delta. The second is a sailing technique known as Two Tortoises Wrestling, which uses the body and sails of a boat as a lens for flowing water, a river stone throwing the oncoming wave at the enemy.

Below the fortified waterline is a labyrinthine filing system containing the uncouth secrets kingdoms have scrubbed from their own records: the actual genealogy of every two-bit king claiming to be the 'Son of the Undying Dragon'; the quiet fraud performed by viziers and spiritual advisors. The grandmaster, chief librarian, sits happily at the center of all this, quite content to act as an appendix to the sum of human knowledge. Below them a cabal of bookish monks works tirelessly to corrupt the library, convinced that it is an engine, a pivot point, a strand of dna, that can be altered to control the flow of the whole world.

Flower-Reflected-On-Rippling-Water occupies almost the entire eastern wing of the Four-Times Hidden Palace. Entry requires first finding the palace, through royal blood, sheer volume of money or an insatiable passion for social insects. The monastery's test is a classic riddle; a nameless monk asks for the name of every termite in one of the mounds outside. Inside they do more than study bugs. There are formal lectures on anthropology, history, philosophy and architecture. Quiet tutorials on sleight of hand, disguise and poison. The grandmaster advises kings and spirits in secret, has performed backroom deals with demons that shape the course of nations. With his real work all under the table, he would actually rather like credit for heading this house of subterfuge, but of course all the students believe that it's an elaborate double-blind, and the real grandmaster must surely be the nameless doorman, or perhaps one of the termite keepers.

The grandmaster's actual ploy runs far deeper. None of the students here have true violet energy, not enough humility to recognise that they, too, are just termites, so the school does not teach real lessons in enlightenment. Instead each individual's education is controlled, coded and recorded, preconditioning an order of mandarins and spies to respond in particular ways to particular pressures, tightening the school's grip on the kingdom like a mandible biting soft clay.


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