Prologue - 序幕

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Prologue - 序幕

"How much longer till we get there, Shifu (師父)?"

The young man and his Shifu trudged through knee-deep snow, keeping their heads down amidst the howling gale as it whipped around them and pelted their faces with snow. Across the landscape stood pine trees capped with snow and ice, towering over them like silent guardians on eternal watch. Overhead the full moon shone in the starless sky, providing the only source of natural light in the bleak snowscape.

"No sooner than twenty minutes, Sizai (師仔)," Shifu replied, loud enough to be heard over the storm. "Mount Emei (峨眉山) can be a harsh place in winter. All the more reasons to hurry."

Li Zhengyong (李正勇) shuddered as he trudged through the thick drifts of snow, trying his best to keep pace with Shifu Huy (許師父), wincing and shivering every time he felt the frigid winter air penetrate his skin. His lips trembled constantly, even with hands firmly tucked in his armpits beneath his windbreaker. Though Shifu had told him that the way to their meditation hut would be fraught with obstacles, he hadn't expected their ascent to be this daunting, made only worse by today's weather.

Moments later the wind picked up speed, and snow began to fall thicker and faster. Zhengyong retreated deeper into his hood and embraced himself more tightly, repeating through chattering teeth the Heart Sutra, which Shifu had taught him to recite early on in his apprenticeship. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. True mind has no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist. Gone, gone, gone beyond, and gone altogether beyond. O what awakening! Hail Buddha!"

Shifu did not slow down, his steps sturdy as ever. Appearance-wise the two couldn't have been more different. Shifu Huy was tall and heftily built, with a round face framed by a thick full beard and matching eyebrows. Meanwhile Zhengyong had a wiry frame, with an angular, clean-shaven face and curved eyebrows – giving him the look of a novice scholar. As they continued their ascent through the steep snow-covered trail, Shifu kept his breathing slow and even, stopping occasionally to check if his apprentice was still within sight.

"Hurry, Sizai!" he shouted. "Our hut isn't far off. Unless you want to stay out here and freeze to death!"

"I'm trying, Shifu!" Zhengyong managed in a stuttering voice. Closing his eyes, he took several deep breaths, paying attention to his lower abdomen as it expanded and contracted with each inhale and exhale. Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. True mind has no hindrance; without any hindrance no fears exist. His inner voice counselled, spoken in Shifu's firm but gentle tone, bringing him back to the present moment. Opening his eyes once more, he could feel his senses sharpening, fresh vigour coming back to his limbs, and vitality returning to his body. With his newfound strength, Zhengyong finally managed to catch up with Shifu, who was by then already a good distance ahead of him.

"Finally," Shifu Huy said, his lips forming a smile. Just then a strong gust of cold alpine wind blasted them, showering Shifu's beard and moustache with clumps of snow. Yet he pressed on as if nothing had happened. From behind, Zhengyong could only watch with admiration as Shifu ascended the steep mountain trail, displaying immovable calm amidst the cold winter's bite. Such was the fruit of many years of cultivating both body and mind through the practice of Zen-sitting and martial arts.

At last they reached their meditation hut; a small wooden structure with thatched roof covered in thick snow. This was where I first observed my true nature, Sizai, Zhengyong recalled Shifu Huy saying, as did my own Shifu and Master Nan before him. Someday it'll be your turn. As they arrived at the entrance, he took out the keys from underneath his windbreaker, rubbing his hands while unlocking the ancient plank door.

The door opened to reveal a plain room, its floor and walls made of ashen clay from the valley below. In the left corner lay a pile of mats and cushions neatly stacked on top of each other. At the far end stood an alcove with a small hearth overshadowed by a makeshift altar, atop which rested the serene figure of Shakyamuni Buddha flanked by Bodhisattvas Wenshu (文殊菩薩) and Puxian (普賢菩薩) – the Buddhist patrons of wisdom and meditation.

"Start the fire," Shifu Huy commanded, gesturing to the hearth. "We will meditate soon."

Without a word, Zhengyong moved towards the alcove, fumbling for the kindling and logs that they had gathered last summer. Fingers still numb from the cold, he struggled to start the fire at first, before finally managing to ignite a spark. In less than two minutes the spark grew into a steady flame, casting a warm orange glow over the room. Shifu Huy took a cushion and sat down before motioning for Zhengyong to do the same.

"Let us pay homage to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas," Shifu said, his eyes reverently fixed towards the altar. "Namo Benshi Shijiamouni Fo, Namo Daxing Puxian Pusa, Namo Dazhi Wenshu Pusa." Zhengyong followed suit, his eyelids gently closing as he took a deep breath and made a gesture of prostration. The two then began to recite the Heart Sutra, filling the small room with ancient words, their droning voices echoing through the silence. Gone, gone, gone beyond, and gone altogether beyond. Zhengyong could feel the cold and fatigue melting away with each syllable, his mind becoming still and clear.

The sound of Shifu's bell-bowl signalled it was time to meditate. Sitting cross-legged with his hands resting gently in his lap, Zhengyong took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. The room was silent, save for the crackling of the fire and the occasional gust of wind that shook the thatched roof. With eyes half-closed he focused on his breath, feeling the rise and fall of his abdomen with each inhale and exhale, immersing himself in the present moment. Slowly the sound of the windswept roof and crackling fire seemed to fade away, until all that was left is the consciousness of breathing.

And then the visions came. First as sudden flashes of memory, before gradually morphing into scenes from his childhood. Let the thoughts come, but don't attach yourself to them. Observe them, but don't let them control you. Recalling Shifu's advice and his prior training, Zhengyong returned to his breath. Inner fire rising from his lower abdomen and coursing through his body, visions of past and possible futures mingling together in his mind, he opened himself to the vistas that lay before him, as if waiting to see where his mind's eye would take him next...


師父 Shifu – literally means 'father-teacher' – a term of respect commonly used among disciples of Chinese martial arts, or by Buddhist and Taoist monks to their spiritual masters.

師仔 Sizai (Cantonese dialect) Apprentice or Student.

Wenshu (文殊菩薩) – Manjushri (Sanskrit)

Puxian (普賢菩薩) – Samantabhadra (Sanskrit)

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⏰ Last updated: Mar 22 ⏰

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