Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fiction: The Monk and the Tiger

Two monks, a master and a student, once walked along the riverbank not far from their monastery. They spoke of many things: They spoke of the scent of the woods, the whispers of the wind and the murmur of the waters. They spoke of the many matters of the world, the depths of the karmic cycle, and the question of how a man could reach enlightenment.

And somewhere in the middle of their talk, a tiger pushed itself out of the underbrush, in quite an unexpected fashion. It growled at them, and crouched as though ready to spring at any moment.

The student froze, completely terrified at the sight. But the master remained calm, and, addressing the tiger like a trusted associate, inquired about its well-being.

"Good day to you, friend tiger," he said. "What brings you here on such a fine morning?"

The tiger remained tense, and fixed its glare upon the older man in saffron robes. "I have hungered for two days," it said, "and I wish nothing more than fresh meat. It is fortunate that I come upon you now, two humans in one meal, so that I may feast."

At this the student shuddered, and clung to his master's robes as though he could offer them succor. The master, meanwhile, was unfazed by the tiger's reply.

"Indeed, friend tiger," he said. "I would not dream of interrupting your hunt, as destiny must hold pause for the prey that you deserve. Watch well, my student, for the karmic cycle tells us that even our friend tiger holds a soul, albeit one that has become a slave to its whims."

The tiger laughed at the monk's words. "Soul or no soul," it said, "such a thing does not matter. What need does a tiger have for enlightenment?"

"You may as well ask why you feel hunger, friend tiger," the master answered. "For while your body hungers for meat, your soul hungers for relief. You wish only to consume us because your body compels you to do so. Surely you were a man in one of your previous lives, a man whose existence was ruled solely by his passions and desires, that you would find yourself in this predicament."

"And what if I were once a man?" the tiger asked, suspiciously. "How would that change matters now, with both of you within reach of my claws?"

"Why," the master said, "if you were a man, then we should do our best to enlighten you. Our brothers live in a monastery not too far from here. If you are only aware enough to renounce the hunger that grows in your belly, then we would gladly accept you among our kind. Perhaps even one day we would be able to help you free your soul."

Now, the tiger was no fool. It could see the monk for what he was, fearful and cowardly and willing to say anything to spare his own life. Yet there was a certain attraction in the human's words, although the tiger had no use for enlightenment at all. In truth, the tiger was more interested at the prospect of entering the humans' monastery, that it would find many humans living all in one place, that it would be able to hunt and kill as many as it desired.

"Your words make sense," the tiger said. "What, then, if I renounce my hunger, that you may bring me among your kind to teach?" At this, it relaxed into a more comfortable position, knowing that it could still chase and bring down either of the two humans if they chose to escape.
"You are wise indeed, friend tiger," the master said, "and I am overjoyed at your acceptance of my lessons. I will send my student ahead, then, for the monastery must be notified of your coming, that we may prepare a welcome for our new brother."

"Yes," the tiger growled, "but your student, and only your student. You shall walk with me, old man, for it would be far too easy for me to trust you at this time."

"Nor I you," the master said. At this, he turned to his student and, whispering a few choice words into the young man's ear, sent him off in the direction of the monastery.

"Will you walk with me, friend tiger?" the master asked.

The tiger nodded. It found itself suspicious of the monk, and was fully expecting the human to give a great cry and then plunge into the underbrush in an effort to flee. But the master was an old man, certainly beyond his finest years, and after a few minutes of walking, the tiger concluded that the human was simply too weak to put up any resistance. The tiger then put his thoughts to the feast that awaited him, and let his tongue loll out so that his companion could not see him salivate.

Soon the cover of the trees parted, and the gates of the monastery came into view. The master could see his student standing before the open gates, and two lines of saffron-robed brothers ordered on each side of the garden path, ready to welcome their new arrival. Beyond them stood the entrance to the monastery's main building, the great doors open to the unknown shadows deep inside.

"You speak true," the tiger observed, in a slavering fashion.

"Indeed," the master said, stopping before his student at the gate. "You are our brother now, friend tiger. I welcome you to your new home."

At this the tiger leapt forward, loping down the garden path, between the two lines of monks, and into the monastery entrance. It expected to see more humans there, perhaps docile and unsuspecting of its intent. It would have its share of meat then, enough to satisfy it for a lifetime or more.

But as it passed through the doorway, it felt the unfamiliar sensation of a strand of rope around its neck. And before it knew what had happened, the man at the other end of the stick had tightened it to the point where it could no longer break free. The tiger snarled at this, and roared and fought and raked its claws across empty air... but the monks had been duly warned of its presence some time before, and when the remaining brothers came in from their stance along the garden path, there was no longer any escape.

And as all this took place, the master and his student were content to watch from the safety of the monastery gate.

"Master," the young man finally said after a while, "I am uncertain."

"Yes?" the master asked.

"When we were along the riverbank, you mentioned that the tiger had a soul within. You mentioned that perhaps it was a man, just like us."

"Mmmm," the master said. "So I did."

"Was that true, master?"

The old monk looked upon the monastery doorway with tired eyes. He watched as the tiger, now thoroughly and utterly defeated, was led into a cage from which it would never emerge. He watched as the cage was dragged across the floor with little regard for its unfortunate occupant. He watched as it regarded him with a cold, perhaps vengeful expression, so intent it was upon the trickery that had been visited upon it.

"I told our friend tiger that it was human," the master finally said.

"And regretfully... it was."



Pipe said...

Wow, you really are cranking out these short stories @_@

I'm not sure I've puzzled out the meaning of the monk's statement at the end, and I fear to ask for confirmation lest you be of the position that an explained-story is about as worthwhile as an explained-joke.

I do think that you captured the tone of a fable very well. When I write talking animals, I always have the urge to explain just how and why they can talk, when in a fable such should be written as an everyday occurrence.

Sean said...

Pipe: I'm attempting to come up with at least ten short stories this month, as noted here. So far I'm three out of ten, which means that I'm behind by one or two.

I figured that I would give this approach a try at some point, and I suppose that there's no time like the present. I find that one of the obstacles to doing so, however, is that all the little pieces of Eastern wisdom have since been used up. So at two in the morning, I've had to substitute something of my own choosing, which may or may not have been expressed very well.

With regards to the "talking animals" thing, I think that it only works here because of the presentation. One can probably get an audience to suspend their disbelief as long as one uses the correct style, I suppose.

Shawn Purvis said...

Amazing story! I appreciate the quick and 'open for interpretation' ending that you used. Almost a sadness between the monk's earlier damnation of the tiger as being a human and almost self implication that we are also ruled by our primal desires. Well done!