Yihai is on a healing quest. We are searching for stories about healing and ancient knowledge in China. Our chance meeting in a small Buddhist monastery at the foot of the Zhongnan Mountains occurs on new moon day, an important date for the Buddhist calendar. Whilst the other few monks chant mantras, Yihai walks in circles in the monastery courtyard. His head is tilted to one side as he limps laboriously round and round. Is this a form of meditation? I catch sight of his face, so radiant, fine and clear. I can feel the strength of his presence even from this distance. He has an aura which is hard to put into words.
We enter our simple dormitory on the second floor of the monastery, a dark, musty room and not especially clean. We lay out our beds to air in the sun. Am I going to use a stone for a pillow tonight?
Yihai is waiting for us. When he speaks with us, it soon becomes apparent that he would like us to stay with him for a few days. The Chinese have a word for it, he says, yuanfen – fate. No two ways about it, the matter is decided.
Yihai has made the long and arduous journey from Dali in Yunnan to Shaanxi. He lives reclusively in Dali, as a monk and hermit.
Here in the famous mountains of Shaanxi, he searches for Buddhist teachers who can offer spiritual inspiration and help to heal his sickness.
For some years now, he has been suffering from a serious disease of the nervous system and is unable to walk or sit properly.
Several thousand hermits live in the Zhongnan Mountains. Daoists, Buddhists or simple folk who choose to live outside society. They are scattered far and wide throughout the woods and mountains. Settlers' huts can be seen from the peaks as little dots of colour across the landscape.
Hermits have been regarded as wise men in China for thousands of years. The holy Zhongnan Mountains are their long-established centre, giving rise to countless stories associated with the region, many in the form of song or poetry.
Today he sends us out on our own. He gives us basic directions to visit to an old Buddhist monk and healer. It should take us just 40 minutes to walk to the monastery where he lives, on the far side of the next hill. Yihai intends to visit him several weeks later, we are heading out as an advance party. When we arrive, the old monk appears for a few minutes in the vast courtyard to give us copies of the Buddhist books he has written. Then he quickly disappears back into the building. There is a mightily impressive tower within the grounds, over 1400 years old, containing innumerable little bells which ring in the wind. A nun offers us fruit and tea. We wait for the monk, passing the time by playing with cats, talking to his pair of students and even having a go at grinding herbs – with our feet.
The monk's speech and Buddhist knowledge have healing powers. Cancer, depression, poverty … all within the realms of possibility.
He can look into past lives, gaze into the future and understand how to influence karma to improve this life in the present. There are many stories of successful cures for serious illnesses.
Some hours later, he finally emerges from the monastery building, exhausted from attending to his sick visitors, but he gives me a couple of friendly slaps on the back and beams a smile at me. His students are stunned, it is a rare and special moment for anyone to be touched by him. I should feel honoured, even if his hand has probably left a mark.
We follow him into a small room where the table and shelves are piled up with thousands of things. I am both fascinated and surprised, I expected his “healing room” to be a picture of tidiness.
We drink tea, first green, then yellow.
He talks of our character, my personality is like steel, it cannot be broken. Does that sound about right?
I try not to read too much into his words. I know, one should be like bamboo – strong, unbreakable, yet still flexible.
He tells my friend Phoebe about her previous life and what is means for the one she is now experiencing. I find it all rather unsettling and we decide to leave before he gets around to me. As we are about to depart, he gives each of us a Buddhist armband called a mala and a Buddhist identity document with a Buddhist name. Phoebe is now called “continue to study”, my name is “remain Buddha”. He seems convinced that we are now his students.
The food in the monastery did not particularly agree with us, so we decide to have our dinner in the village. The taxi driver who took us to and from the restaurant tells us that the monk has been looking for us and is waiting nervously at the monastery gate. He was worried about us, apparently.
After a sleepless night in the damp monastery beds, we set off early next morning, this time with the monk.
He gives me his sankha, a conch shell, to put in my rucksack.
Normally the shell is blown like a horn to ward off evil spirits, but Yihai uses it to summon his friends when he reaches a hilltop. We ask who he is calling and where they live. Somewhere in the mountains, he answers cryptically. If they can hear him, they can send a WeChat message to his mobile phone.
We climb three peaks, step by step, the long way itself a form of meditation. For the monk, the ascent is especially tough. We help him through the most difficult parts but his beautiful hat is lost, falling down the precipice. His disability is not going to get the better of him, however, there is no goal today, only a path.
He answers all of our questions about Buddhism, offering us his explanations for the universe, time and space. He enjoys talking about such matters and sharing his profound knowledge.
We are fascinated by his talent for calligraphy. The abbot at one monastery reveals that we are in the company of a grand master. When he sings a mantra, we are enchanted. His voice is transformed from a squeak into a rich and sonorous timbre.
In the evening, we decide to head back to Xian, tempted by the prospect of taking a shower.
Early the next morning, we are back, preparing to look for a very special monk who is said to live on top of a mountain. He is extremely old and wise and has been curing illnesses for over fifty years with a combination of Chinese medicine and Buddhism.
Off we go. The sandy path is narrow and the abyss deep, we think more than once about giving up.
Yihai pushes us onwards, we do not stop to rest all day.
Beyond a somewhat spooky Daoist monastery and two further Buddhist monasteries (not genuine ones, yes, there are also fakes), we arrive at last, many hours later, at the right monastery on the right hill.
What happens next is a surprise.
A one-minute conversation. Everything seems clear, until a woman interrupts to ask if the old monk can cure her ailing friend's cancer.
We set off again, Yihai now seems to fly down the mountain. He laughs at us city dwellers, making such slow and timid progress …