The Mysterious Gardener


Dear Members,

This is the last article. I knew the gardener mentioned below a long time ago in another era, and I met him again in this life. This time, he also built a garden while fasting for forty-two days. We were friends. I would sit in his garden often in silence, and I’d listen to him play the Jew’s harp at sunset, which was how he said goodbye to each day. I loved him very much. He was very, very strong, an outstanding man. He taught me a great deal.

So this story below, while set at the time of the Taoist sages of old, is in fact a modern story as well …a true story set in two ages.

Much love and thank you,

The Mysterious Gardener
Stuart Wilde
{ Excerpted from Plum Red by Stuart Wilde }

A tale about your silent power.

Many years ago in old China, there were a group of small villages on the banks of a muddy tributary of a great river in the province of Shan Tung. The villagers were very poor. The crops often failed, and the river flooded from time-to-time, making matters worse. The water really wasn’t very clean; it carried disease and parasites, which affected animals, and sometimes the villagers became sick. At harvest time, bandits would come down from the hills, attacking the villages, and they would carry off the crop. The villagers’ lives were miserable, brutal and hard.

They got together and decided they would build a temple, hoping that through prayer and dedication, their fortunes might change. The land around there was not particularly fertile or attractive, but there was a very nice spot under a small hill, which had a stream running past it. They consulted with a local master who knew where the dragon lines flowed, and he decided that that spot would be an auspicious place to build the temple. He insisted the temple be placed so that the hill was behind it.

Work commenced, and the villagers began hauling stones and digging the foundations, and about forty of them, men and women, were involved in the activity. Each took turns to work on the temple, then he or she would return to their work in fields, and so in this way the temple gradually got going in fits and starts.

They had been working about a month, when a stranger walked into the village. He seemed young. He was tall and strong, but not muscular. He sat by the village well, not far from the building site. The villagers were suspicious of him; they wanted to know who he was.

He told them he was a traveler, and he asked if he might rest by the well for a few days. He assured them he would cause them no trouble.

The stranger hardly ever spoke, except to exchange a few pleasantries with those that came to fetch water. He sat by the well for three days, watching the villagers building their temple. Finally, he asked one of them, “What are you building?” A villager told him their tale of woe, saying how the people had decided to build a temple, hoping that it might bring them better fortune.

The stranger nodded as if approving. A short silence hung in the air, and then the villager returned to his work. The stranger’s presence soon became the talk of the village. They wondered who he was. Some said he must be a sage. Others disagreed; he looked too young to be a wise man. The stranger was dressed in an unconventional way. This gave rise to further discussions and speculation. He carried a long sword strapped across his back, and he wore protective clothing made of leather. His jerkin was studded with metal on the chest and shoulders. Yet the rest of his clothes were those of a peasant with one exception, tied around his waist was a silk sash. It was wound around him several times and knotted at the hip; from there it hung down to his right, almost to his knee.

The sash was plum red in color.

Some of the villagers felt he was an impoverished warrior, between assignments, looking for work perhaps. Others felt he might be a holy man. Yet he wasn’t dressed as a holy man. Soon, curiosity turned to fear as it does at times, and the villagers met and decided to confront the stranger. They wanted to send him on his way. At first, the villagers thought they would organize a group of men to attack and kill the stranger. But it was pointed out by one of the medicine women of the tribe, that killing a stranger that had caused them no harm, at a time when the villagers were building a temple, might bring upon them even greater woes.

In the end, it was decided that they would ambush him at night as he sat by the well, and they would bind him, beat him, and take him down the road and set him free with a warning not to return. Six men were assigned to the task. However, things didn’t quite go as planned. For when the men crept up to the well in the dead of night, the stranger was not there.

The next morning at dawn they found him seated in front of the temple playing a small instrument, which we know today as the Jew’s harp. It’s a small, round, metal instrument that you place against your teeth and pluck. It makes a very haunting, melodious, delicate twanging sound. The stranger sat there in front of the temple, playing his music; around him he had marked a very large circle in the dirt with a stick. The villagers approached cautiously, calling out to him, “Who are you? What do you want here?” The stranger said nothing.

The six men assigned to the task of ambushing him came forward somewhat hesitantly, armed with clubs and make-shift spears. The stranger didn’t move. So the men shuffled further forward, as if making ready to attack. But when they got to the edge of the circle marked on the ground, they found they could go no further. It was as if an invisible wall surrounded the stranger. Now the men became scared, and they and the rest of the villagers backed away in a hurry. They all met outside the village to discuss what to do. By now they were all convinced the man was a sorcerer, one that had been sent by evil forces to hinder them.

No work was done on the temple that day, as the villagers were scared to go past the circle the stranger had drawn in front of the partially constructed temple building. So they just watched him from a distance. He hardly ever moved. Sometimes he played a tune, other times he sat in silence.

By dusk, they could bare it no longer, and one man was assigned to speak to the stranger. The spokesman shuffled forward to the edge of the circle, he had with him a bowl of rice. He bowed and called out saying, “Stranger, I have a bowl of rice here for you. We want to ask you a few questions?”

How many questions?”, asked the stranger.

Hurriedly, the spokesman counted on his fingers, “Four questions, sir,” he answered politely.

The stranger rose from his place in the center of the circle and came over to the edge of the circle, where the village spokesman was kneeling and holding out the bowl of rice. The stranger bowed and took the bowl.

The villager said, “We want to know your name. How old are you? Where are you from? And what is your occupation?”

The stranger squatted at the edge of the circle in silence, eating his rice, saying nothing. The spokesman knelt outside the circle, waiting for the answers.

When the stranger had finished eating, he said, “I will answer three of your four questions. I am thirty-three years old. I am from the mountains that are beyond the western ocean. I work as a gardener.”

As he spoke, the villager noticed for the first time that the stranger’s voice had a strange, eerie quality about it. It was soft and lilting, his words were spoken with an odd cadence that gave the impression the man was talking and singing at the same time. It was a bit like a version of plain song, that on occasions, you may have heard in church.

The spokesman rushed back to the others to report his findings. There was a cackle of confusion, as everyone talked at once. Is he really thirty-three? They wondered, he seemed far too mature to be just thirty-three. Everyone knew that the land beyond the western ocean was a land inhabited by ghouls and demons. Was he a demon? He didn’t seem evil. No one believed he was just a gardener.

Night fell. The stranger sat in his circle and played his tunes. Sometimes he sang, and sometimes he played, and the villagers liked the music, and so they sat at a distance listening. He played most of the night.

Next day, the village spokesman approached again with a bowl of rice. The stranger took the rice saying, “Now, I will ask you a question. What are you building over there?”

“A temple sir,” answered the spokesman.

“Where are the gardens?”, asked the stranger.

“We have no gardens planned. We are poor. It is as much as we can do to pay for the materials for the building,” answered the villager.

The stranger lent forward and said in his quiet singsong voice, “A temple without a garden, is like a song bird without a voice.” Then there was a long pause, and he added, “I’ve come to build your garden.”

“But sir,” said the spokesman, “we have no money to pay you. At most, we could give you some food, as we do now.”

The stranger replied, “I am not asking you for your money. I will begin tomorrow.”

The spokesman rushed off to the villagers and told them how the stranger had offered to build a garden for the temple, that he did not want money, and that he would start in the morning.

The next day, the gardener from beyond the western ocean, sat for four hours by the stream, and then he sat for half an hour under each of eight nearby trees, and at dusk, he returned to his circle and played his little mouth harp. The villagers bought him rice.

The day after that, the gardener sat all day by some rocks, returning at dusk to his circle to eat. On the third day, he lay face down on the ground, it seemed as if he was praying. He did that all day, and once again, the villagers bought rice.

On the forth day, he just sat and meditated in front of the temple. On the fifth day, the villagers were now grumbling, “He says he’s a gardener, and we feed him everyday, and he hasn’t turned one sod of earth in five days. He’s a fraud. He knows nothing about temple gardens. Let us be rid of him,” they said.

The poor long-suffering spokesman was dispatched once more, calling to the gardener from outside the circle, “Gardener, we need to talk to you. We need to know why you are not working.”

The gardener came over to the edge of the circle and knelt down opposite the spokesman, bowing to him politely, he took his bowl of rice and paused and said, “I am working. On the first day, I sat by the stream to talk to the spirit of the water to see what way it might prefer to be directed. Then I entered into each of the eight big trees, and I talked with the spirit of each tree to see which might be cut down and used, and which should be left standing. Then I had to make a friendship with the rocks and look at them closely in a special way, so I could decide which way they might best be placed. Then I had to think for a while and take note of every leaf on every tree, and, knowing which were deciduous and which were evergreens, I had to calculate exactly how the leaves would fall when autumn comes. Then I visited the spirits of the air, those that are familiar with this place, and I discussed with them what directions they might choose, when the late afternoon storms of summer are upon us. One needs to know these things. Then I wondered, measuring in my mind, knowing now the wind and its intention, how the snows of winter will lay upon the temple and its garden. I thought it best to twist the alignment of the garden slightly, so its main features faced more toward the south.”

“Then I went into the ground, and I spoke to the rulers of the earth kingdoms, and it was decided at that meeting, that the earth mounds should be to the east, and the rock piles to the west. The stream would be requested to flow over the rocks. This will freshen the air and please the air spirits, without whose cooperation, we would surely be in difficulty. Then I played my little harp, talking to the birds to see which way they might respond to the disturbance created here. Then I flew along the dragon lines that pass invisibly through this place, and I realized there is a very powerful one that passes right through the temple, and it flows exactly through the middle of the garden. Providing of course, that we align the garden over the large circle I have already drawn on the ground. Placed in that way, you will find it most auspicious. For the dragon lines carry all the fortunate energy and well-being, your villages will ever need.”

Then the gardener talked a bit about the interplay of invisible energies and the way they can knot up a place, or liberate it, depending on how they are understood and treated, but seeing that the village spokesman was now a bit overwhelmed and rather lost, the gardener fell slowly through his singsong cadence, toward silence and his rice bowl.

The spokesman rushed back to the villagers, his knobbly knees pumping up and down. He was a most energetic little chap and really rather likeable, in a simple and honest way. When he told the villagers what the gardener had said, they all calmed down. Now they felt better, as they were sure they knew that the stranger was not a demon, and some even said they were sure the gardener must be a great sage. Yet they were still puzzled as to why he looked so young; traditionally wise people were very much older than thirty-three.

The next day, the gardener began in earnest. He felled a large tree and stripped its bark and all its branches, and he then called the spokesman and three men over to carry the tree into the circle. Two men lifted one end a few inches off the ground, but it was so heavy, they had to drop it. Then the other two men tried the same thing at the other end, with the same result. Four more men were called. After a great struggle and a lot of huffing and puffing, the eight of them finally got the tree over to the edge of the circle, while the gardener stood to one side to watch. Of course, once there, at the edge of the circle, they could proceed no further, so they lay the tree trunk on the ground, and one man asked the gardener how they might proceed to the center of the circle, where the tree was needed.

The gardener walked slowly over to the tree trunk and standing straddled over it with one foot on one side and the other foot on the other, he bent down low, so his mouth was almost touching it. He began making a strange clicking sound with his tongue, and shortly thereafter, you could hear another strange noise all around. It seemed as if the noise hung in the air, suspended in and around the tree trunk, it was much like the sound of the snapping of twigs. The villagers stepped back wondering what was happening. Then the gardener went to one end of the tree trunk, and placing his hands between the tree and the ground, he lifted that end up effortlessly, as if it were light as a feather. Sliding his hands along the trunk of the tree, he arrived at the middle, and from there, he hoisted up the tree trunk, taking the enormous weight of it on his shoulders. He walked slowly into the circle and put the tree carefully where he wanted it. The villagers were amazed.

He worked all the next day bringing tree trunks into the circle. At dusk, the village spokesman brought him a bowl of rice. But this time the gardener declined, saying he was absolutely sure the rice was delicious, but that he wasn’t very hungry and perhaps one of the others might be glad of a bit extra.

On the second day, the gardener moved rocks, and again he politely declined any food, saying that he felt a little too tired to eat, and that the food should be given to one of the others that had worked on the temple. On day three, he toiled all day moving earth, and again he declined to eat, suggesting that the extra rice might be shared with the children. And each day the gardener lifted heavy logs and rocks, and he toiled from dawn until sundown. Each night he made a slightly different excuse, declining the rice each time it was offered.

At night, he slept very little. Mostly he played his mouth harp and guarded his creation, while watching the stars on clear nights. Sometimes, he lay on the ground face down; you could hear him praying.

After a week or so, the garden was taking shape. There was something very serene about the way he had taken sand and gravel and raked it out in straight lines, placing large rocks in it here and there. And now the channel for the stream was halfway dug. You could see how it would flow from the north, past the temple, turning to the west to enter the garden, and meandering round the rocks and mounds; you could see how it would exit and continue on its way.

The first week passed, then the second, and still the gardener had not eaten. The villagers had seen him drinking from the stream, but he took no food. They felt he would soon expire, as no one can take on such heavy work and not eat for weeks on end.

Sometimes it rained, and you could see the gardener was delighted. He danced and sang and played tunes, and he splashed water around like a little child. Sometimes he sat in the rain for hours motionless. Other times, he’d lay on his back with the rain cascading over his body, while he laughed and laughed and laughed. The villagers watched from a distance, under cover, and they would start laughing with him.

All in all, the gardener worked for forty-two consecutive days, during which time he took no food. Then the garden was finished. It was like no other. It was not just the beauty and the composure of it that made it so special, nor the way it was aligned, nor the plants and rocks, or the sound of the stream flowing over the rocks. The garden had invisible qualities. If you are one that can see the dragon line, you would have noticed how they swirled and bathed the garden with an inner light. You might also have noticed that the fairy gods had set up camp on the mounds to the east of the garden, and you’d surely notice the water spirits playing, as they swept like dolphins over the little waterfalls that tumbled over the boulders.

If you ever passed by in autumn, you would have seen the leaves fall mostly in the center of the garden, and you would be more than a little amazed to see that they formed a special pattern, a symbol that was sacred to those parts. In winter, when the snow fell, it drifted in such a clever way that the paths through the garden hardly had any snow on them at all, yet the sides were piled quite high. You would also see how the icicles hanging off the rocks and crags were not haphazard in their formation. They hung beside each other, like upside-down crystal pikes made of glass, each parallel to another, all in perfect order. There were many strange and wonderful things to see in that garden. In fact, the more you looked, the more you saw. Especially, if you looked with your feelings and your heart and not just with you eyes.

On the forty-second day, the gardener called the spokesman, and he said to him, “Spokesman, the garden is finished, any of you may enter now. It and the temple will bring you more good fortune than you can ever imagine. But you will have to be patient, as it will take a while for others to realize this place has a special magic, but once they do, pilgrims will come, and you will have a steady source of income. And the military rulers of this territory will place a special protection over this temple and its gardens and your villages, and you will no longer be troubled by bandits. And the winds will blow gently, and the rain will fall in proper amounts on a regular basis. And all will be made well, in time.”

The spokesman thanked the gardener profusely, and asked him what he wanted for payment, as now the villagers had seen the garden, they suddenly realized what it all meant. They were prepared to give the gardener a handsome payment or gift.

The gardener smiled saying, “You all prayed for a change in fortune, and you took action by beginning your temple, and you asked advice so your building would be placed on an auspicious spot, and then you asked for more fortune, so I came by to ensure you would not be disappointed. For is it not written, that the subtle way of the Tao gives rise to peace and order. Without your summoning the Way, it comes to you, without scheming, its plan is perfect.”

The spokesman kissed his hand and said, “In the morning, we will bring you a plump duck and sweet meats and rice wine and a selection of the very best food we have. Then you can tell us how we might repay you, such is our unbounded, heartfelt gratitude.”

The gardener smiled, and as the spokesman walked away, the gardener whispered under his breath a saying that he was familiar with, one that came from the sacred writings, “You cannot pay the sun, you are the sun. You cannot recompense the rain, you are the rain; you cannot remunerate the earth, you are the earth. And trying to pay the eternal Tao is extremely silly, for is it not written that you are the eternal Tao, the very living spirit that is in all things, eternal and immortal.”

Next day, at dawn, all the villagers came to the garden carrying a plump duck, jugs of rice wine, and baskets filled to the brim with fine sweets and other delicacies.

But the garden was empty. The stranger had gone. On the rock in the middle of the raked sand, next to where the stream tumbled gently over the boulders, in front of the steps that led to the temple, was the little mouth harp placed there, all on its own. The same little mouth harp the stranger had used to call to the spirits of the garden. The one he used to talk to the birds with. The same harp he played to entertain himself while he guarded his garden for forty-two days. The little mouth harp was the gardener’s gift to the villagers.

The villagers searched and searched, hoping to find him. They loved him and missed him, and they wanted to thank him, but he was long gone. They never did find him. The mysterious gardener, the one with the leather jerkin and the sword tied behind his back and the plum red sash wound ’round his waist—they never did find that man. He was not seen in those parts ever again.

Of course, the villagers eventually realized that the gardener meant no insult by leaving. He had to leave, it was part of his destiny to do so, for is it not written:

“When bronze and jade fill your hall,
It can no longer be guarded.
Wealth and place breed insolence,
That brings ruin in its train.
When your work is done, then withdraw!
Such is Heaven’s Way.”

- Tao Te Ching

© 2008 – Stuart Wilde — All Rights Reserved.

Plum Red – Taoist Tales of Old China by Stuart Wilde
“Plum-Red is Stuart Wilde’s 20th book. It’s a collection of stories about a group of Taoist sages called, The Sages of the Plum-Red Robes. They lived at the time Lao Tzu in 500 B.C. The tales are magical and inspirational; Stuie Wilde at his best!…”

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