Fu-han watched the passing boats in the late afternoon sun, carrying their people and wares to the small town just a few miles away. The sun glinted off the surface of the Nine-Bend River and a breeze stirred, swirling the air and tickling the red and gold leaves from the trees. They whirled and twisted in the wind, fluttering down to lay along the edge of the water and drift downstream, carried away by the burbling river.
“Master, do we need more of the moss?”
The old man brushed a few leaves from his faded grey robes and glanced down to the young brother who was gathering moss from a rock along the bank. The young man had good eyes, stronger now than the eyes of the old man who taught him. Fu-han held his gnarled hand out and motioned to the young man, asking him to bring the basket closer to his eyes.
“Is that all we need from this part of the forest? Are the mushrooms here the correct ones or do we need to go upstream?”
The old man gave a crooked smile. Elder Lu was wise to choose this young one to be his apprentice, despite his impatience. Impatience, Fu-han knew, could be mastered, but perception such as the boy’s could not be taught. The young man already perceived even a slight difference in the hours of shade could impart a different character to an ingredient.
“We have enough for this remedy. These mushrooms are fine for healing. Do we have all the other ingredients?”
The young man glanced at the slip of paper in his hand. “Yes, Master.”
“Then, let us begin our walk back,” he said with a smile.
The young man held out his arm for his teacher, who grabbed it along with his walking stick. They started up the small dirt path to the monastery, which was tucked into one of the creeping river valleys of the Wuyi Mountains in Southern China. The humid air was soft in the early evening, and the old man was glad that one of the young brothers had already come down to light the lamps along the path.
“Is it true we will have visitors coming tonight?”
“Yes,” the old man nodded, “Elders Zhang and Lu. They are bringing another immortal with them, a scholar. The scholar carries a book we will have the opportunity to study.”
“What is the book?”
“It is an old manuscript. From the West. The Elders think we may be able to help the young immortal to interpret it.”
“They honor us.”
The old man chuckled. “They do. But then, I am only an apprentice to Elder Zhang.”
“Why does he not study the book himself?”
“The Elders have many important things to do.” Like indulge in the new wine, the old man thought with a private smile. “And I am Elder Zhang’s oldest student. I accept the honor with happiness.”
They walked for a few more minutes, slowly climbing the old stairs as twilight fell and the mist crept up the mountain.
“Why did you not join the Elders when they asked?”
The old man glanced at the setting sun and then up at the tall young man who helped him along the path. It was an important question, so he took his time in answering.
“You will choose your own path, but I am happy to know I have only a short time more in this body. It has been a good life, and I have learned much. I will be ready to move on when death comes for me.”
“But the gift of immortality… is it not an opportunity for even more study? Think of the years you could teach others. Someday, you could be as wise as Elder Zhang.”
He only offered the young man a knowing smile. “Ah, but the gift of mortality offers its own lessons, as well. And though I will never have the wisdom of Elder Zhang, he will never have the wisdom of Master Fu-han.”
The young man’s cheeks reddened at the old man’s apparent arrogance. Fu-han was quick to continue.
“Do not mistake me, I do not compare myself to the Elders. Their wisdom is beyond our comprehension, but they have chosen to step off the path of enlightenment that mortality offers. Just as there is wisdom to be gained from a long life, there is wisdom to be gained from a short one, as well.”
“I do not understand.”
The old man gripped the young monk’s arm as he avoided a thick tree root that had worked its way through the old stone staircase. “The immortals carry the wisdom of our ancestors, but their own enlightenment is slowed by their long life.” As they climbed the stairs leading to the monastery, a small bird came and landed on one of the stone lanterns. Fu-han nodded toward it with a smile.
“Look at the thrush.”
The young man glanced at the small speckled bird as it cocked its head to the side, observing the two men as they moved up the stairs.
“What of the thrush?”
“What lessons might be learned from living in such a small, weak body?” The old monk smiled at the bird, which flicked its tail before flying to perch on the branch of a low-hanging conifer.
“The thrush has a most beautiful song, Master. One could learn to appreciate that.”
“You are correct. And is it a powerful bird?”
The young man smiled. “Of course not. It darts along the branches and eats only seeds and insects.”
“And yet, it does not worry about its life. It is a humble bird, as many small creatures are humble, but it has a beautiful song.” He paused to catch his breath on the stairs and looked up at the young man beside him. “We gain more enlightenment from weakness and loss than we do from strength and victory. That is the wisdom of mortality that our immortal elders cannot grasp. It is only the youngest of them that remember such humility.”