Three Mysteries, Seven Staves

Ink and water-colours on cloud-dragon and xuan paper
Each sheet 179 x 48 cm
September, 2014, Sussex
With one pictorial seal of the artist, ‘The Sage in the Lotus.’


When I first met the Lay Devotee of Three Mysteries, I harboured none, so I decided to see if I could help him resolve his three. I am used to secluded mountain retreats, far from urban chaos and expectations, while he enjoyed a substantial waterside estate with everything he might need provided for him by an uncountable entourage at his beck and call. We had met at an elegant gathering of notable scholars and immediately recognized in each other kindred spirits, so he invited me to live with him. Such invitations are not uncommon, arising naturally out of the brethren of staves and strange stones and the eremitic conclave, even if the hermit lives in urban splendour - it is not the surroundings that matter, but the heart. I spent half an ordinary lifetime with him it was so hard to leave. He enjoyed a good many comforts including the finest Anhui papers and ink, the best brushes money could buy, his own mounting shop, and access to all other earthly pleasures which he shared without thought or account, as I too shared such contributions as I could make with equal freedom. While I was with him I rarely ground my own ink, set out my own paper, washed my own brushes, or even undressed alone at night. It was all beguiling, and that, I thought, might well be the first mystery he had to cope with. When afforded easy gratification and indulgence, purpose and meaning tend to slip away. In the heart an unrecognized void opens up and the darkness seeps out. He was a retired official, still immensely wealthy, highly educated, and, therefore, powerful despite having retired early in the face of imperial ignorance and the perfidy of clawing, trampling courtiers.

Perhaps the second mystery was the nature of power. Having spent a lifetime in forging his considerable power, he found, as do all who wield it in the Dusty World, it difficult to relinquish and, thereby, truly find release for himself. It is difficult to give up both the power and the responsibility of a high life style: there are few concubines in monasteries, few fine banquets in mountain retreats, few invitations to the most interesting of elegant gathering; but one also feels responsible for those who have served for so long that they have become a part of the fabric of one’s life, and they and their families become a responsibility. One becomes locked in by both the delights and burdens of power; the door to release seems so remote that it fades from even possibility.

The third mystery is the eternal one: how to transcend the chattering intellect and attain a different level of comprehension; freeing consciousness so that all other mysteries simply disappear.

I am not sure he saw it that way, having spent some time in his youth studying at the Monastery of Three Mysteries on Mount Jiuyi, where other, more mundane mystical concerns seem to have prevailed, but that is how I saw it, and was the perspective from which I determined to approach a solution for him.

So, while I was with him I carved him seven walking staves, seven being an auspicious number lacking any hint of imperial pretension in assuming the still more significant number, nine. Even retired officials are sensitive to lese majeste – well, until they have unveiled the third mystery, at which point majeste becomes irrelevant along with much else, although at that time it is best to retire to a remote mountain retreat to avoid giving that impression in high circles.

On one occasion he came with me into the remotest corners of his estate with the first of the staves I had made for him. He had the gift in him, and soon began to feel the powers of the staff, as I showed him how to control its potential energy. He was entranced, intoxicated, and could not get enough. He had to be almost dragged back to the main house as night fell. He quickly mastered the main qualities of the first staff, a subtle but reasonably straightforward Weather Staff. He delighted in conjuring up storms and low clouds at sunset to the point where he decided to spend most afternoons and evenings honing his new-founds skills. Finally, he set up a bed and a painting table in a small grotto in the furthest corner of his gardens, barely attended by servants at all – although that should be seen from the perspective of a man who had no idea how many servants he employed. He did not set up either bed or table himself, and a book boy constantly and silently waited in the shadows should he want anything at all. So I carved him a second staff. One cannot dictate the powers of a staff when making it, one can only understand the origins of power, its nature and diversity, and lean, perhaps, in one direction or another with subtle material or formal hints, drop hints with the chisel. The end-result, however, will always be whatever it is, regardless, and will nearly always be somewhat of a surprise.

He became steadily more obsessed. Servants stood idly by, puzzled, but un-called upon, concubines and wives, children and callers found him mostly absent. By then I had completed my seven staves, some more mischievously decorated than others, the most powerful being a star staff, which I had intended to some extent, but which surprised me more than even I had expected. In my own hands it could turn the universe on its end and re-arrange the River of Stars until even the swallows couldn’t have found the Spinning Maid with a chart. In his, it eliminated the mysteries.

Thereafter he decided to leave it all behind him, abandon it all and join me in my simple mountain retreat. He told his principal wife and two favourite sons to do as they saw fit with his estate and wealth, after settling generous gifts on many servants.

We entertained a lot thereafter, mostly cranes, mountain goats, eagles and ourselves, but we never again entertained specific mysteries. He died some years later, with one of the staves in his hand at sunset, content and with a smile on his face. He finally stepped free of the chattering mind and found immortality in the light that engulfed his final moments.

So, I try to recall the seven staves, although in some the strange beings seem to have become more alive under my brush, and record these strange events in the hope that it may help to resolve apparent mysteries for others. There are, of course, only apparent mysteries, as beyond the Stage of Time, mystery is a stranger.     

Inscribed by the Master of the Water Pine, and Stone Retreat at the Garden at the Edge of the Universe reaching into the distant past in the closing days of summer September 2014.