‘What is firmly rooted cannot be pulled out; what is tightly held in the arms will not slip loose.’
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Book Two – LIV)
An old man lived alone in a forest. His name was Soraki. For year after year he had served the local Lord as warrior and strategist; always exceeding expectation. His looks soured and hardened with scars etched on his face; exhilaration at the heat of battle diminished with eyes dull and voided to violence and war.
Living in a hut made of sugi, the cedar tree that flourished in the forest among the pine; the home faced the East and Soraki lived a simple life of wood cutting and hunting. Each month reciting prayers to the gods of the woods, he would replant a new tree for every one that he cut. The perfection of the forest became a Haven to the trespasses of the world. Every morning the felicitations of the sun would rise to consummate the new day and deeply map the lines on his face; the summits and trenches of his existence.
He would be visited by spirits; the kami would weave the woods with mischief and delight. The spirits benign to his harmonious presence welcomed Soraki with offerings of berry and rabbit. The Fox would glide between bush and tree bringing fruits and poisons to those who would consume them.
Soraki lived alone for year after year. His body wiry and strength of a man that belied his diminished youth, he renounced his trade and retired to the forest. One day from the West came bandits on horseback. The leader a man of advanced years with looks lacking sweetness demanded food and water from Soraki. Keeping to his vows to remain in his Haven; he submitted and provided generosity of food and abundance of water.
The leader of the bandits; a man cursed by the spirits to neverending greed and avarice; demanded all Soraki’s food and water supply. Even though left bereft; Soraki consented, knowing that the Lord of the Castle would provide when Nature could not. The bandits departed sated with the bounty commandeered and made for the mountains. Without food and water; Soraki departed on foot to the Lord he served for many years in need.
At the gates of the castle he was met with indignant arrogance at his simple request for food and water.
‘You wish for food old man? You can provide your own; you are strong of arm and with an eye for the hunt. Begone, our Lord will see you not. He has taken to meditation of all hours and does not beg interruption. Begone old man and see to your own needs.’
Despite his many years of servitude to the Lord of the castle; Soraki departed unabashed. The forest and the kami would provide sustenance. Returning to his hut, he took to the forest in search of berry and nut. The kami smiled and twirled his tail ahead of Soraki’s steps and provided for the woodsman as he had provided for the woods.
The following year, war overwhelmed the lands. Warlords with lust for power and state rose and brought with them bands of men in search of wealth and glory. The Lord of the castle remained above all matters of Earthly fate, preferring to attain perfection through meditation. His lands became lawless and ungoverned. Soon an army arrived to conquer the weakened state.
To Soraki they reached first. The General ordered his men to cut down the forest for siege engines and machinations of the battlefield. Soraki pleaded with the commander to spare but part of the woods, for the kami had made it habitat and their home. The General dismissed the aged warrior and the men commenced clearing. All that remained were stumps of cedar and of pine and the small hut of Soraki; isolated and towering over the feet of the felled trees.
The battle between the invading army and the Lord of the castle raged. Fire spread to the lands and the stumps burned. The touch of flame reached Soraki’s hut leaving nothing in its wake but burned sugi. Soraki, starved and without shelter made for the castle once more to beg mercy of his old master.
The war had concluded, the Lord had been victorious but battle had claimed him to the Heavens. The son and heir, a man of youth but with the wisdom of many received Soraki graciously. He provided food and water for the loyal old man, but shook his head sadly at the loss of the forest; the Haven for Soraki and the kami.
‘I cannot undo what Nature has commanded.’
The young Lord invited Soraki to stay within the castle grounds; to grow old and safe within the confines. However, Soraki yearned for his Haven and with the space of a moon, thanked the glorious Lord with much humility and departed for his home within the woods.
Where had stood tall and proud trees for year after year now were cracked and smouldering remains. Soraki walked among the trees in memory; following the kami as he provided sustenance and fuel. On the floor, the seeds of the pine were scattered and charred. Thousand upon thousand of them nestled in the dirt and sprouting summer grasses.
Soraki knelt to touch a pine cone; the kami had been before him. The seed was growing a brand new shoot, green and vulnerable. Everywhere the pine cones were ushering in new life that the fires awakened*. The kami smiled once more at Soraki as he weaved between the new life and the rebirth of the Haven.
*The cones of Pinus halepensis germinate following a fire.
Words and cover: ©DJA 2016. Traditional Japanese Art copyright respective owners.