When Li Yundong returned to the camps fifteen minutes later, every single one of the pilgrims were on their feet, staring at him with frightful eyes. A few men even had their rifles out while others were armed with hunting bows. Some of the women were hiding inside the foreigners' jeep.
Relief spread across each of their faces when they saw that it was him.
Li Yundong strode past the frightened crowd and stopped in front of Changbagela. "What's the matter? Y'all look like you've just seen a ghost."
Changbagela seemed a little shaken as well. "There was a strange noise," he said. "We thought it was the wolves."
"Oh no, that was me," Li Yundong said. "I was…"
Was what? Blowing shit up? Deforesting?
"Training." Li Yundong cleared his throat. "I was training."
The colors returned to Changbagela's countenance. "So there weren't any wolves?" Suddenly, Changbagela gave him a reverent look. "Or… Did you take care of the wolves as… you know, part of your training?"
Li Yundong laughed. "No. There were no wolves." Li Yundong turned towards the armed men who looked like they were about to charge into a war zone. "Y'all can relax."
Changbagela sighed and waved to his followers. "Alright, settle down, people. No wolves, so we're safe. Return to your tents and get some rest."
There was a collective sigh, after which the crowd began to disperse.
"Changbagela," Li Yundong said when Changbagela turned away to leave. "May I have a word in private?"
From the corner of his eyes, Li Yundong saw Meiduo watching him curiously. She was holding the shoes he had returned to her. Something about Meiduo felt different.
"Sure. Follow me." Changbagela smiled and began to walk away.
Li Yundong followed Changbagela until they reached the inside of Changbagela's tent. Li Yundong declined the glass of water that Changbagela had offered him and sat down at a corner of the large tent.
Changbagela lowered himself across from him and arranged himself into a meditative posture. "So. Are you going to tell me who you really are?"
Li Yundong's gaze rose sharply.
Changbagela merely smiled at him. "I know there's something special about you, so I gave it a little thought and made a few educated guesses. Are you perhaps…" His brows rose just a tad. "A Cultivator?"
Li Yundong held Changbagela's gaze for a moment, then let his head drop. "Yes..."
Changbagela closed his eyes and pressed his palms together. "Amitabha… Perhaps there is some truth after all in the saying that you're the reincarnation of Mahakala…"
Li Yundong rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah… About that… Well, that's actually what I wanted to talk to you about…" Li Yundong dropped his hand and stared into Changbagela's eyes. "Everyone kept calling me by that name. I want to understand why."
Changbagela nodded and took a sip of tea. "How much do you know about Mahakala?"
Li Yundong shook his head. "Not much. I just know that he's a deity that your people worship."
Changbagela nodded. "Mahakala is actually a Sanskrit term. We Tibetans actually call him Nagpo Chenpo, which means Great Black One; or Gonpo, which means protector."
Chills ran down Li Yundong's spine. The Great Black One. Again, this matched the physical description of his personal god, which had dark—almost black—skin.
Li Yundong shook his head a little. "Who, or what, does he protect?"
"Everything related to Buddha and Buddha's teachings, of course."
Li Yundong frowned. "Everything… as in…"
"The worshippers. Temples. Scriptures. Everything." Changbagela smiled. "That's why Mahakala was also known as the Dharma Protector."
Changbagela nodded. "Yes."
"Oh. Um…" Li Yundong scratched his head. "Do you mind elaborating on that? I mean, the Buddhist lingo is a little lost on me, so…"
Changbagela chuckled. "Well, in essence, Dharma means the teachings of Buddha. But in a broader sense, it can be thought of as the ultimate truth which transcends the three realms and the wheel of becoming. You can think of it as the truth or the ultimate truth that governs the way that things really are."
Wasn't that a bit similar to the Tao?
"Wow. That's sounds like a lot to protect…"
Changbagela shrugged. "He is a protector after all. It's in his nature."
Li Yundong nodded, but said nothing.
"Now I have a question," Changbagela said all of a sudden.
Li Yundong regarded the old man for a moment, then nodded. "Fire away."
"What happened earlier? I mean before you ran off on your own." Changbagela paused as though he was trying to choose his words carefully. "You mentioned something about a code?"
"Oh. That. Well, it's just…" Li Yundong shrugged. "I realized that certain parts of the Mahamudra Tantra contained a coded message, that's all."
Changbagela smiled. "Ah. So you had an epiphany then?"
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Well… Sort of…"
"And did you find your answer?"
Li Yundong nodded resolutely. "Yes." Pretty sure the fallen trees, scattered leaves, and broken twigs could attest to that.
Changbagela chuckled. "Maybe it was the right call to give the book to you after all." Changbagela suddenly looked towards him. "Did you know that you uttered Mahakala's other name during your epiphany?"
Li Yundong could feel his own eyes widening. "Seriously? Did I?"
Changbagela chuckled. "My hearing might have declined with age, but I'm quite sure I heard you say Mahavairocana."
"Oh, yeah. I did say that…"
"May I ask why you mentioned that name?" Changbagela paused for a moment. "It had something to do with your epiphany, am I right?"
Li Yundong nodded. "Yes. I realized something about one of Mahavairocana's hand signs."
Changbagela had a thoughtful look on his face.
"Which hand sign, if you don't mind me asking? Well, I'm pretty sure you mentioned it just now, but you were mumbling to yourself, so I couldn't catch what you were saying."
"Um… The Intelligent Fist."
Changbagela's eyes widened just a tad. "Ah… The Intelligent Fist… Now I see…" He chuckled. "No wonder you asked me about the mantra."
Li Yundong sat up straighter and shifted closer to Changbagela.
Li Yundong cleared his throat. "Hypothetically speaking…"
Changbagela laughed, his eyes shone with amusement. "Oh, so we're speaking in hypotheticals now, eh? Fine. Go on, then."
Li Yundong smirked, then continued, "Hypothetically speaking, if these hand signs contain the secrets to hidden powers, what would they be?"
"Then I shall tell you, my friend, that according to Vajrayana Buddhism, each hand sign does indeed hold the secrets to unlock a unique divine power."
"What kind of divine power?"
"According to Vajrayana Buddhism, these hand signs—or mudras—can be split into three categories. The combative, Ganges, and tantric mudras. The Intelligent Fist mudra belongs to the third category since it requires a mantra."
"What kind of divine power does the Intelligent Fist mudra give then?"
Changbagela smiled. "Patience, young man."
Li Yundong blushed. "Sorry."
"The combative mudras, as its name implies, mostly deal physical damage when used. Ganges is the name of a river that originates in the Himalayas and flows southeast across the Ganges Valley." Changbagela smiled. "And as you know, a river nourishes and cleans. It washes away undesirable things. It is a source of life, you see?"
Understanding dawned on Li Yundong. "So the Ganges mudras have healing effects?"
Changbagela nodded. "Not all of them though. Some can be used to end disasters. Others can be used as a form of blessing."
"And the last category?"
"Ah. The tantric mudras are special." Changbagela shot him a pointed look. "They are protective in nature."
"Like a shield?"
"Some, yes. But not all of them are shields."
"What things can they protect their user against?"
"A wide range of things," Changbagela said. "It repels physical objects. It purifies evil and repels demonic auras, etc."
So that's what the Intelligent Fist mudra does... The fallen trees must be the effect of the physical repulsion.
"All these are, of course, hypothetical and have no basis in reality…"
Li Yundong raised his gaze and saw Changbagela staring at him with his brows raised.
Li Yundong laughed. "Of course. These are all hypothetical." Suddenly, Li Yundong stopped laughing and gave Changbagela a serious look. "Suppose that if, in this hypothetical scenario, a Buddhist lama were to give away a precious text containing these secrets… Would he face dire consequences for doing so?"
Changbagela smiled casually. "Who knows?"
"But the lama would've been accused of giving away the temple's secrets."
Changbagela smirked. "Ah. But these hypothetical secrets are so obscure that very few people can unveil them." Changbagela's smirk turned into a grin. "And if anyone does manage to unveil these secrets, then there isn't a single doubt in my mind that the text is in the right hands."
Li Yundong pondered Changbagela's words silently.
"Now I have another question."
Li Yundong stared at Changbagela for a moment. "Are we still talking in hypotheticals?"
Changbagela laughed. "No."
Li Yundong smiled. "Go ahead, sir."
"You always seemed a little defensive whenever we call you Mahakala." Changbagela paused for a moment. "Why is that?"
Li Yundong sighed. "I had…" How the heck was he supposed to explain Ishvara and his personal god? "Well… I had a vision of some sort."
Changbagela leaned forward slightly. "A vision?"
"Yeah… Sort of like a dream, where I was this omnipotent god with six arms and three faces."
Changbagela stroked his beard. "Hmm…"
"Anyway." Li Yundong waved his hand a few times. "It creeped me out a little when you guys described Mahakala to me. Coz you said six arms and three faces, which is exactly what I saw in the vision." He chuckled. "Maybe it's all just a coincidence."
Li Yundong looked at Changbagela, taken aback by his skeptical tone. "I mean, yeah. I'm a Cultivator, but I'm not an all-powerful Buddhist deity."
In fact, he was a complete nobody before Su Chan came into his life, before the Renyuan Jindan.
"You have an aptitude for martial arts, don't you? You have good battle instincts. You're a natural warrior. You anger easily and tend to settle things with your fists..."
"And I have no doubt that you are a great cook too. You know your way around the kitchen and enjoy serving food to others. Also, you have a great desire to protect the poor and the weak." Changbagela raised his brows. "And let me guess, it angers you greatly whenever you see injustice?"
Li Yundong gaped at the old man. "How did you…"
Changbagela pressed his palms together. "Amitabha... All the traits I mentioned belonged to Mahakala. In fact, most ancient Buddhist texts described Mahakala as the god of battle, the Lord of the Kitchen, and the Lord of Justice." Changbagela smiled. "I do not think it is a mere coincidence that you happen to have those traits too, Zhenren Li."
Li Yundong sat there wordlessly, staring at the tent's tarpaulin flooring.
After what felt like forever, Changbagela broke the silence.
"Your difficulty lies in the fact that your mind is filled with assumptions about yourself, Zhenren Li."
Li Yundong looked up from the tarpaulin.
Changbagela smiled. "The mind is a beautiful servant, but a dangerous master. Your assumptions will eventually become a leash through which your mind controls you. Cut the leash. Be the master of your own mind. Discover, not assume. Be aware instead of presumptive. Perhaps then the truth about yourself shall reveal itself to you."
Li Yundong smiled and nodded. "You're a wise man, Changbagela."
Changbagela shook his head. "Not a wise man, Zhenren Li. But a peaceful man."
Li Yundong wondered what Changbagela meant by that. He chuckled. Typical Buddhist monks, always speaking in riddles.
Li Yundong rose to his feet and bowed slightly. "This has been very enlightening, Changbagela. Thank you."
Changbagela pressed his palms together and bowed.
"Good night," Li Yundong said, then walked out of the tent.
After leaving Changbagela's tent, Li Yundong grabbed his backpack and headed towards the brook to take a bath. He had gone longer without one, but he figured he should make full use of the clean water from the brook before he left the camp tomorrow morning. On the way to the brook, he passed by a few women who greeted him in Tibetan. He answered the greetings with polite nods and smiles before hurrying off.
The brook was vacant when he arrived, which was perfect. This wouldn't take long anyway—ten minutes tops, he figured.
He found a rock near the far end of the brook and lowered his backpack onto it.
Then, he pulled out a clean towel from his backpack and began stripping off his clothes. A minute later, he stood in the brook and began to wash the dirt and grime off his body. The sky was clear tonight, and the moonlight was ample enough that he could make out the state of his skin.
He smiled when he began to wonder what Su Chan would think if she saw him now. Surely, his princess would start making fun of him for his lack of hygiene. But of course, she was more than welcome to help him in the personal hygiene department. He certainly wouldn't mind a backrub.
His thoughts about Su Chan ended when he heard a rustling sound behind him. He froze.
"Who's there?!" he yelled and turned around to face the intruder.
He wasn't expecting to see Meiduo standing there without a single stitch on.
Li Yundong gasped and covered his eyes. "What the hell?!"
Then, he scrambled out of the brook and ran towards the rock where he placed his backpack. He grabbed his towel and then covered himself with it. When he was done, he looked up and, much to his horror, saw a still-very-naked Meiduo walking towards him. He gasped and quickly turned around.
"For God's sake, Meiduo! Put some clothes on!"
"Why won't you look at me, Brother Li?" Meiduo said. "Don't you find me beautiful?"
"Come on! Meiduo! Quit messing around!"
"I'm not messing around, Brother Li…"
Li Yundong took a deep breath. "Alright, look. Why don't you put on some clothes first, and then we'll talk, okay?"
More rustling of grass.
"You like me, don't you?"
"Wha— I never said…" Li Yundong uncovered his eyes, but cursed when he saw that Meiduo was still naked. Dammit! Li Yundong scanned the ground until he saw a traditional Tibetan robe lying on the grass several feet away. He ran over and picked up the robe from the ground, then threw the robe around Meiduo's shoulders.
Meiduo reached up and tried to wrap her arms around his neck.
Li Yundong pushed her hands away and stepped back. "Stop this, Meiduo… You shouldn't be doing this… I—"
"Why not!" Meiduo's eyes were filled with tears now. "Why won't you look at me like you did this morning?"
"What? This morning—"
Li Yundong froze. This morning he had mistaken Meiduo for Su Chan and ended up hugging her. Oh God. He had made such a mess of things.
"Listen. About this morning, I can explain—"
"You looked at me with so much love, Brother Li. Why won't you look at me like that again?"
Li Yundong sighed and sat down on the rock. "Because my heart already belongs to another woman."
Li Yundong ran a hand through his hair. "I'm already in love with someone else."
"But this morning… You…" Meiduo gasped. "Oh my God… Y- You thought… You thought I was her this morning…"
Li Yundong nodded. "I was having a dream about her. Then I woke up. It was dark, and… I mistook you for her. I… I'm sorry."
Silence passed between them.
When Li Yundong couldn't stand the awkwardness anymore, he opened his mouth to speak.
"Are you married?"
Li Yundong stared at Meiduo, stunned. Moments later, he regained his composure. "No. I'm not married. I have a girlfriend."
Meiduo burst into tears and sobbed into her hands.
Li Yundong sighed and stood up from the rock. He walked over and placed a hand on Meiduo's quivering shoulders. Slowly, he guided Meiduo towards the rock.
"Sit," he said. "Let me tell you a story."