Changbagela's words threw the crowd into an uproar. Meiduo stared down at her old companion, stunned by the gravity of his words.
"What! Changbagela! Did you really encounter a Living Buddha?"
"Hey, I think it's totally possible! Remember what Jeepgela said? He mentioned that we can actually have encounters with gods and Buddhas during near-death experiences!"
"But... I don't get it. How did Changbagela come back to life then? He stopped breathing for so long!"
"H- Hey... Do you think the Living Buddha saved his life? He said he saw a Living Buddha, right?"
"Whoa... I think you might be right!"
"But what's the deal with that strange young man? First, he touched Changbagela's head, then he asked us to turn away. Then a few minutes later, Changbagela came back to life!"
"H- Hey... Do you think that young man is... you know... the Living Buddha Changbagela saw?"
"Pfft! No! That's ridiculous! The young man is a Han Chinese! How can a Han Chinese be a Buddha!"
Changbagela's voice shook Meiduo out of her stupor.
"You're all wrong," Changbagela said. "The Buddha said that everyone is born equal. It doesn't matter whether you are a Tibetan or a Han Chinese. Anyone has the potential to reach enlightenment."
The uproar died down instantly.
"Meiduo..." Changbagela said, reaching out a hand to her.
Meiduo went into panic mode in an instant. "No! Changbagela! You shouldn't move around. You nearly died, Changbagela! Please, you need to rest!"
Changbagela burst into laughter. "Nonsense. I feel fine. In fact, I feel great! I haven't felt this good in twenty years!"
Changbagela placed his palms on the ground and struggled to stand up. Meiduo hurried over to help him up.
"Meiduo... What really happened?" Changbagela whispered into Meiduo's ear once he was up on his feet.
"What do you remember, Changbagela?"
"I remember passing out in the middle of the pilgrimage... After that, I saw a Living Buddha standing behind me, guiding me towards enlightenment."
Meiduo could feel her own eyes growing wide. To have a chance to encounter a Living Buddha... Wow.
Suddenly, Meiduo remembered something.
"Changbagela!" Meiduo nudged Changbagela, then pointed at the two foreigners and the tour guide. "They took your pulse and tried to resuscitate you." Meiduo's lips trembled. "They told us you died."
Changbagela turned towards the foreigners and the tour guide, then pressed his palms together. Changbagela bowed. "Tashi delek. Thuk je che. You have my sincere gratitude for your kindness." (T/N: Thuk je che is Tibetan for 'thank you" and Tashi delek is a form of Tibetan greeting)
The tour guide said a few words to the foreigners. She was probably translating Changbagela's words to them. A moment later, the foreigners mimicked Changbagela's gesture and bowed.
Changbagela straightened himself. "Everyone was saying that a young man saved my life. Is there any truth to the claim?"
Meiduo looked towards the mountain trail again.
The young man was long gone.
Meiduo returned her gaze to Changbagela. "Yes. There was a young man. He came out of nowhere dressed like a beggar. He had long hair and was carrying a large backpack. The bottom part of his face was covered by a dark cloth, but his eyes were sharp. He was barefoot and... Oh! Um… Some kind of long object was sticking out of his backpack, but it was also covered with a piece of cloth. Anyway, he came over and then touched your head for a moment. Then, he asked everyone to turn away while he did something to you. I don't know what he did, but he got you to start breathing again—"
"Meiduo! Where is this man?!" Changbagela asked with a fervor that was uncharacteristic to him. He seemed really riled up all of a sudden.
Meiduo frowned and pointed towards the mountain trail. "He followed the path towards the summit, Changbagela."
Changbagela sighed and stomped his foot. "Oh, Meiduo... Have you forgotten everything I thought you?! Why didn't you ask him to stay? He is the Living Buddha I saw!"
"W- What? C- Changbagela... A- Are you sure?" Meiduo stammered.
Changbagela closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Of course I'm sure. Your description of him was a perfect match for the Living Buddha I saw!" Changbagela exhaled and began chanting a mantra to calm himself.
"But he's a Han Chinese! How can he be a Living Buddha?" someone from the crowd yelled.
Changbagela stopped chanting and glanced towards the source of the voice. "I was about to die. But this man pressed a palm over my head and brought me back to life. Not even Master Dorjee Tenzin is capable of something like that!" Changbagela started to pace around, then stopped. "No, no, no. That young man must be a Living Buddha. He has to be."
Whispers and hushed voices washed over the crowd. Meiduo followed Changbagela's movements. He seemed worried, like he was thinking hard about something.
The whispers in the crowd continued.
"But a Han Chinese... How can a Han Chinese be a Living Buddha?"
"Well... It doesn't really matter, does it? Like it or not, you can't deny that the young man saved Changbagela's life."
"Yeah... Maybe he is some kind of sage among the Han Chinese…"
Meiduo turned away from the crowd and looked towards Changbagela again.
"Changbagela," Meiduo said, grabbing the old man's arm to stop him from pacing. "Should you really be moving around so much?"
Changbagela waved off her concerns. "I'm fine, I'm fine..."
"What's on your mind?" Meiduo asked carefully.
"I'm facing a major dilemma, Meiduo..."
"Tell me what's bothering you. Maybe I can help."
"It's impossible for us find him now..."
"Oh! But I know which way he went!"
"That's not the problem, Meiduo..." Changbagela sighed.
"That what is?" Meiduo asked.
"Tell me, Meiduo. How is it possible for us to catch up to him if we have to kowtow once every three steps we take?"
"Oh," Meiduo answered lamely.
"But this sacred ritual is an important part of the pilgrimage. Failure in its observance is a serious disrespect to Buddha." Changbagela sighed. "There are consequences, Meiduo. If we abandon the ritual, we'll never be able to reach enlightenment after we die."
There was a moment of silence.
Then, Meiduo jumped slightly. "Oh, I know!"
Changbagela gave her a puzzled look.
"Oh, Changbagela… He's headed for the summit, remember? Which means he'll pass by Kathok Monastery! He's probably going to rest there, and who knows? He might still be there when we arrive!"
Hope spread across Changbagela's face. "Oh... That's a wonderful idea..." Changbagela suddenly gave her a stern look. "Meiduo... Why didn't you stop him from leaving in the first place? It isn't like you to behave like this. I taught you better than that." Changbagela narrowed his eyes. "I doubt it's just because he is a Han Chinese either. There was something else, wasn't there?"
Meiduo lowered her gaze, then shook her head sheepishly. "U- Umm... H- He smelled kinda bad... And h- he looked kinda dirty..."
"Y- You!" Changbagela gaped at her for several seconds. "How many times have I told you not to judge a book by its cover?! Have you forgotten all about Buddha's teachings? Everyone is born equal! And we should never judge a person's value by their status, wealth, appearance, or even their cleanliness! Look at how you've treated the kind man? And yet you call yourself my disciple? You should be ashamed of yourself!" Changbagela paused to glare at her. "Do you know that the great Buddha himself was once a beggar?"
Hot tears stung Meiduo's eyes as guilt and remorse stabbed through her. She sniffed, then reached out to grab Changbagela's arm. "P- Please don't be mad, Changbagela. Y- You just came back from the dead, and I'm worried about your health. I'm sorry for what I did, and I will repent. Oh! And I'll apologize to that young man if we run into him later!"
"And what if we don't run into him? What then?" Changbagela answered in a sharp tone, then wagged his finger in front of her face. "Mark my words, Meiduo. If we don't run into him later, you'll never be able to make up for your sins. You'll suffer the laws of Karma!"
Something wet slid down Meiduo's cheeks. She sniffed and quickly turned her face away from the crowd. She didn't want to appear weak in front of the others.
"I think you should go easy on Meiduo, Changbagela," someone from the crowd said while Meiduo was busy dabbing her eyes with her sleeve. "You have no idea how hard she cried for you when we thought you were dead just now."
"Yeah, that's right, that's right! We might still run into the young man if we hurry now!"
"And what if we don't?" Changbagela asked sternly.
The crowd grew quiet. Meiduo sniffed and turned around back around to face Changbagela and everyone else. Time to stop feeling sorry for herself and atone for her errors.
"They're right, Changbagela," she said, smiling brightly. "We shouldn't give up hope. Didn't Buddha teach us that too?"
Meiduo sighed inwardly when Changbagela's features softened. He turned to face the trail leading up to Mount Duonian's summit, then pressed his palms together. When Changbagela kneeled to the ground and kowtowed, the message was clear: let's get on with the journey. Behind her, the crowd fell to their knees and mirrored Changbagela's gesture. After one last glance at Changbagela, Meiduo lowered herself to the ground.
Jack stared after the group of pilgrims who were now continuing their journey towards the summit. Changbagela, the old lama who, just moments ago, had no pulse, was now alive and well, leading the pilgrims up the mountain trail. Jack had been on hundreds of dangerous expeditions, conquered several mountains, and waded through more forests than he could count on one hand, yet he'd never seen something like this today.
How did that beggar do it? How did he bring the old man back to life?
The old man was dead, Jack was absolutely sure of it!
Someone nudged Jack's shoulder. He turned and saw his travel companion, Ruben, staring back at him. "Dude, are you sure the guy was dead when you checked?"
Jack scowled at Ruben. "Who do you think I am, eh? Some amateur? Of course I'm sure! He had no pulse! And he wasn't breathing for more than 10 minutes!"
Ruben raised his palms. "Gee. Chill. I was just asking. No need to bite my head off."
Jack shook his head and turned to Miss Liu Xia, their lovely tour guide.
"Miss Liu, does this kind of thing happen very often in China?"
Liu Xia shook her head. "Not that I know of. This is my first time seeing something like this too."
"Holy shit, dude..." Ruben said. "How did he do it? If the old man really was dead like Jack said..." Ruben raised his palms again when Jack glared at him. "Then there's no way to bring him back to life! What about brain death? Surely there would be brain damage if the guy wasn't breathing for over ten minutes! But the old man just got up and walked it off like it was nothing. What the heck?"
Jack shook his head in awe. "And all the guy did was touch the old man's head..."
"Ah... But we don't know what else he did," Liu Xia said. "He asked us to turn around, remember?"
"Argh..." Ruben scratched his hair, then glared at Jack. "We would be watching a video recording right now if somebody here had the good sense to put his fancy digital camera to good use."
"Hey!" Jack protested. "I was busy trying to save a guy's life, Ruben! I forgot, okay?"
"Whatever man," Ruben said with a dismissive wave. "Miss Liu, those pilgrims were talking a lot just now. What were they saying?"
"Oh. They were planning to go after the young man. The girl suggested that the guy might make a pit stop at Kathok Monastery, so they might still be able to catch up to him if they hurry."
Jack shared a glance with Ruben, who was now grinning like a Cheshire cat.
"Then what are we waiting for?" Ruben said. "Let's go, let's go! Chop, chop! I have a feeling that the show is far from over. And for God's sake, Jack, use that digital camera of yours."
Li Yundong slowed his steps and massaged his chest a few times. Something weird was happening. He'd been experiencing this strange tightness inside his chest since ten minutes ago, like something was squeezing his lungs from the inside.
Li Yundong stopped walking and sat down on the ground, then leaned backwards until his back touched the rough surface of a tree trunk.
What the hell is happening?
Was it something in the air?
Bullshit. The air was here fresh and healthy.
It had to be something else, something that was causing this stifling feeling inside his chest.
Did he lose his Qi when he saved the old monk just now?
Nah. That couldn't be right. He'd made sure to return his Qi into his body every time. Su Chan had basically drilled that into him since she started teaching him about Cultivation. Li Yundong rested his head against the rough tree bark. He shut his eyes and let himself breathe.
Maybe I'm just tired...
Yeah. He was probably just tired.
Ten minutes later, the sensation intensified. Now it felt like an invisible weight was pressing down on his chest. F*ck... What the hell's wrong with me... He struggled to his feet, leaning his whole weight against the tree trunk. Don't panic, don't panic... Then, he remembered something. He closed his eyes and moved his Qi to his Baihui, Lingtai, Shenting, and Huiyin.
Calmness washed over him, but the weird sensation was still there. Which meant the sensation had nothing to do with his state of mind.
Li Yundong exhaled slowly and tried to think. Is this a spell? Is there an enemy nearby?
Li Yundong activated Xianjue.
Nothing. He couldn't feel or predict any threats. But it could mean that the enemy had a stronger Spirit. That thought brought chills down Li Yundong's spine. Alright, stay calm...
Li Yundong activated Eryue and sorted through the ambient noise. He heard rhythmic footsteps and whispers of prayers. The footsteps were uniform. Three steps, then a thud, like they were kneeling down. Then another thud, but this time softer. Then the rustling of clothes, like a group of people standing up. Li Yundong immediately knew what it was—a kowtow. The pilgrims. He was hearing the march of the pilgrims.
There was another sound. Chatter. A few people were having a conversation, and it sounded like English.
Must be the foreigners just now...
Li Yundong sighed. This was pointless. He deactivated Eryue and scanned his surroundings: winding mountain path... trees... more trees.
He should lay low. If an enemy was lurking nearby, then he shouldn't be out in the open. It was too dangerous. Someone could ambush him and he doubted he would even stand a chance. Not in this state, where he was hungry and exhausted.
But where should he hide? Should he climb to the top of a tree and hide there?
Li Yundong activated his telescopic vision and gazed at the mountain path ahead. He zoomed and zoomed until—
There was a bulding. A temple.
Li Yundong sighed in relief. That could work. He could hide inside the temple, and maybe take a few hours' break. He zoomed out and broke off into a sprint. The tightness inside his chest amplified. Li Yundong gritted his teeth and soldiered on. Come on, come on... just run. Don't give up.
The temple's facade grew larger and larger.
When he finally reached the temple, he was completely out of breath and panting for dear life. What the hell was going on? Just yesterday, he could run around for days without feeling out of breath, and now this?
His chest squeezed violently. Li Yundong gasped and fisted the front of his shirt. Something was seriously wrong with his body—the Qis of his five Zangs were drawn out on their own and was now charging along his meridians towards his upper Dantian.
Was is time to make his attempt to pass the Zhuji phase? Was this what Zi Yuan meant when she told him that he would know when it was the right time?
But why was there this feeling of doubt niggling at the back of his mind?
No. This didn't make sense. Zi Yuan mentioned that the ideal state of mind to pass the Zhuji phase was when he was free from all worldly troubles. Right now it didn't feel like he was free from worldly troubles at all. If anything, he felt like he was in a world of trouble.
There was some kind of… of mysterious force.
And this force was somehow capable of messing up his Qi flow.
He detected movement in front of him. He raised his gaze and studied the front of the temple.
That was when he saw it.
Hovering above the temple's rooftop was a golden apparition of a fierce-looking arhat.
There was a bright flash of gold.
Next thing he knew, the apparition was charging straight at him.