(originally published in Ashé! Journal of Experimental Spirituality incarnation 7.1; May, 2008)

Two Thieves

A Tale from Old China

Sometimes you believe a legend because belief is all you have left.  That was pretty much the way it was for Zong-li and his dear friend Ping-lau when they first heard about the treasure of the monkey monastery.  They were thieves who had gotten themselves into desperate trouble.  One of their bolder schemes had gone awry and their victim – a wealthy merchant with a thirst for vengeance – had discovered who had stolen from him.  They knew it was only a matter of time until they were hunted down and carved into little pieces unless they left Shanghai and went some place far away.

But where?  They had lived all their lives in the great river city and never been anywhere else.  As they were pondering this problem, they found themselves in a drink house, sitting next to an old man who begged a jar of warm rice wine from them and then insisted on repaying them with valuable information.  He told them about a fabled treasure held in a remote monastery far to the north, near the very top of a great mountain.

The old man’s account was somewhat vague as to the exact nature of the treasure and he wasn’t able to say exactly where the monastery was located.  He was positive about a few things – there was a treasure, and the monastery was a very difficult place to get to.

“Why is it called the monkey monastery?” asked Zong-li.

“Oh, yes, that’s right,” replied the old man.  There is one more thing I’ve heard about the place.  It’s supposed to be infested with monkeys.  Filthy animals who steal whatever they can get their disgusting paws on.”

“Why don’t the monks chase them away?”

The old man shrugged.  “Well, they are monks...”

He didn’t need to finish.  Zong-li and Ping-lau knew what he meant.  Monks were almost always very kind, even to thieves. The real problem with them was that they usually didn’t have anything worth taking.  But in this case...   That very night, the two friends left the great city and headed north. 

As they got deeper and deeper into the countryside, the trip became, by small degrees, more arduous and more tantalizing.  Most of those of whom they made discrete inquiries knew nothing about the monastery they sought -- or claimed they knew nothing -- but there was always someone who had heard of the place, who thought that it was somewhere over the next ridge or across the next river.  Only a few more days.  And a few more.  And so on.

They used up their cash, their clothes became ever more ragged, they lost supplies when a raft they had stolen foundered in a stream that became angry and swift.  But Zong-li and Ping-lau sustained each other through all these difficulties, as they had since their childhood days working as beggars in the great city and then moving up the ladder together to their present status as thieves.  If one was glum the other rallied him, and it was rare for them both to be daunted by anything for long. 

Then the disaster.  It should have been nothing more than an escapade of the kind they’d had so often and laughed about later.  They stopped at a tiny inn in a tiny village.  Nothing but rubes here, so it should have been easy to escape the bill with an old trick. In the morning, when it was time to settle up for the miserable food and pestilential accommodations, Ping-lau offered the inn-keeper a wager, a proposition involving three cups and a coin.  

Of course, the rube went for it, and of course just couldn’t keep track of the migrating coin.  That should have been the end of it and they should have been on their way but the inn keeper’s daughter was a real firebrand.  She attacked Ping-lau with a broom, which would have been comical if she had used the brush end, as most people do, but she raised the other end of the sturdy pole and struck with a broad downward sweep and somehow managed to land a tremendous blow across the right side of Ping-lau’s forehead.  He sat down abruptly, recovered, climbed half way to his feet, then staggered and fell again, flat out.  He seemed to be struggling to breathe with irregular gasps and then made a noise like very deep snoring  and then he stopped breathing, spasmed, and stopped moving altogether.  Ping-lau was dead, struck dead by a girl.  

Zong-li ran, because that’s what thieves do when there’s trouble.  He had seen men die before and he knew Ping-lau had gone on to the next world.  There was no helping him.  If his friend had only been wounded, that would have been a different matter.  Certainly.  Or so Zong-li told himself when he finally stopped to rest, but it must be said that a thief’s a thief and thieves run.

For days, Zong-li wandered without purpose.  He missed Ping-lau terribly, often found himself talking to his old friend, debating whether to press on or just turn around and head back.  Maybe the vengeful merchant had cooled off.  Not likely.

Then late one afternoon as he was scouring the ground for twigs he could use to make the grass soup he was living on, a dreary mist which had been hanging all day suddenly broke and the sun reclaimed the land.  Zong-li’s head came up as the light streamed down, and it was then that he caught sight of something gleaming from a distant slope, about a quarter of the way from the top.  It had to be very far away, so why was he able to see it so clearly?  Of course!  That must be the fabled monastery with the mysterious treasure!  The reason he and Ping-lau had set out in the first place on this damnable trip.  

Instantly, he was seized by a resolve stronger than any he had ever known before. He would climb that slope, he would get to the monastery, he would find the treasure, whatever it was, and he would steal it!  

His resolve sustained him as he crossed the miles to the lower slopes of the great mountain. The sun was bright and warm every day and the ground rose gently.  Soon he was at the mountain and climbing. Even though he somehow just wasn’t ever able to quite catch sight again of that gleam he had spotted, he was sure he knew where it was and that he was headed for it.

He came across lovely meadows with grasses and other plants for food, and stands of trees providing firewood, and got it into his head that the mountain was welcoming him.  He changed his mind the day he saw a lion with a still struggling rabbit in its jaws.  Don’t be a fool, he told himself.  The great river city has its pleasures and its dangers and it’s much the same here.

Soon he was climbing gorges so steep that a single misstep would mean a plunge into oblivion.  Vegetation grew thin.  No meadows, only a few stunted trees.   The weather turned cold, then colder. Time was passing relentlessly toward winter.  The days were shorter.  Some days, clammy mists closed in and there was no sun at all.  Clear days were worse, the mist chased off by a steady wind that was very, very cold and penetrating.  Snow fell.  Ice formed, making even easy stretches precarious. It occurred to Zong-li that he might have lost his way, that he wasn’t heading toward whatever it was he had seen gleaming that afternoon a month or more ago.  Some thief he was turning out to be!   Was he doomed to die in this terrible place, with no one to mourn him or bury him?  At least Ping-lau had had some kind of burial.  He was sure of that.  The inn keeper and his devil daughter were rough, country people, but they wouldn’t deny decent burial and proper rites even for a thief.  Ping-lau.  Poor Ping-lau.  He had left his friend.  What else could he have done? And now he was going to die.  He sat down to wait for death.  Maybe he would see his dear friend in the next world.  That would be fine.  Zong-li was feeling warm and safe, often the final delusion of the man freezing to death, when the mist lifted and the sun blazed through.  He braced himself for the inevitable bitter wind, but the air was calm.  And there just below him – he had actually climbed past it! – were the gleaming slate roofs of the monastery compound.  

He lurched to his feet and stumbled down the few dozen yards to the gate of the monastery, where he collapsed.

He awoke to a bitter smell – an ointment spread so thickly on his chest he could feel its weight.  When he tried to sit up, a hand restrained him from behind.  “Don’t move,” said a voice that was slow and commanding but not threatening.  “Don’t move or you will disturb the needles.”

Needles. Acupuncture. Ointment. Medical treatment.  He must be in the monastery.  He had made it!  The first step accomplished.  Now, to… but he was overcome by drowsiness before he could finish the thought and then he was deeply asleep.

A face as sharp as any thief’s startled him the second time he woke.  Brown eyes specked with gold were studying him with a look Zong-li knew well.  Golden Eyes was calculating whether it was worth the risk of attacking this stranger for any valuables he might have.

“Get away!” and hands clapping sharply saved Zong-li from whatever the monkey  – for it was a monkey that was appraising him – might have done next.

“They have no manners,” said the deep-voiced doctor monk as he approached.  “They are only animals but they seem so much like people sometimes, don’t they?”  As he spoke, he knelt down by Zong-li, draping his fingers over the inside of Zong-li’s forearm to gauge the flow of his patient’s blood and chi.  

“Recovering,” he said, and smiled.

“You saved me,” said Zong-li.  He spoke from genuine gratitude but also this was the beginning of the second step of his plan, which was to win the confidence of the monks.

“If you hadn’t come here,” said the doctor monk, “we couldn’t help you at all.  It’s a good thing you were strong enough to make it.”  Of course, at the time he heard these words, Zong-li had no idea of their real meaning.  How often we miss the real meaning of things.

In the quiet, healing days which followed, no one asked Zong-li why he had climbed the mountain, whether he had just happened on the monastery or had meant to come here.  Zong-li wondered at their lack of curiosity.  Perhaps it was just exquisite politeness.  More likely, they were just a little stupid, these mountain monks.  There were about twenty of them, ranging in age from… well, it was hard to say, maybe their late twenties, a little younger than Zong-li, to well, it was very hard to say how old.  There was a dignified senior monk to whom everyone deferred, but in an easy, informal way.

The monks were slightly outnumbered by the monkeys, of which there seemed to be about two dozen, although it is of course very hard to keep track of monkeys since they are always climbing and hopping about. 

In any event, the monks were a kindly and generally cheerful bunch, who gave Zong-li a cup and a bowl and included him in all their meals.  As soon as he was fully recovered, he began, trying not to be obvious about his intent, to systematically explore the compound. 

He was allowed to go wherever he wanted, and was disappointed to find no sign that the monastery was rich or remarkable in any way.  Except for the monkeys, of course.  The place consisted of only a few undistinguished buildings of various sizes arranged haphazardly around a roughly defined central courtyard, the whole place surrounded by a high wall.  Most of the rooms were small, with few windows and not many candles.  There were a few jade ornaments, nothing of quality, no gold or precious stones.  Maybe the monks were smarter than they looked.  If there was any treasure, they had hidden it well.  Their Buddha, about half life-size, was carved from ordinary dun colored stone.  Certainly wouldn’t be worth carting that down the mountain!  Zong-li began to suspect there was no treasure.  His trip had been in vain.  Ping-lau had died in vain.  No, he thought, there must be some truth to the stories.  Don’t give up hope.  Keep your eyes and your ears open.  Besides, the weather had turned even harsher.  It would be suicide to try to get back down the mountain before the return of spring.

Zong-li was a thief but he wasn’t an evil person or lazy, and soon he was helping out with cooking and other chores.  He began to sit with the monks when they prayed and meditated before their poor stone Buddha.

One day, to pass an idle moment, Zong-li put a few pieces of barley cake out in the courtyard and stepped back, waiting for the monkeys to climb down and claim the food.  There was no sudden swarming as when you scatter grain for birds.  Finally one large creature appeared, sniffed the food and poked at it.  Then he turned and shit on Zong-li’s gift. 

Zong-li, furious, looked for a rock to throw at the offending beast, who quickly retreated to a high wall.  Zong-li was just gauging the distance when a monk happened by and said, “If you throw a rock at him, he’ll likely throw it back.”

        Zong-li dropped the rock. “Why did he do that, anyway?  I just wanted to put food out for them.”

“They prefer to steal.”

“Why, if it’s there for the taking?”

“It may be that they don’t trust people.  Why would anyone give them anything?  It must be a trick.  It must be poisoned.”

“They think all that?” asked Zong-li.

“Maybe not,” said the monk.  “Maybe it’s just their nature.  Monkeys are thieves by nature.”

Winter set in fully.  People went outside as little as possible.  Even the ever busy monkeys were subdued.  Little happened.

Then, gradually, day by day, the days lengthened, sunlight edging darkness out of their lives.  The weather softened.  Branches which had seemed dead began to be decorated with emerging green.  Grasses began to push up through the soil.  And even to Zong-li’s untrained eye, it was apparent that one of the monkeys was pregnant.

Now that the weather was turning, Zong-li began to think about leaving, even if he had to go empty-handed.  Then came the revelation.  Spring’s approach meant a whole new round of chores.  The garden had to be cultivated and planted.  Clothes, mats, bedding had to be washed and dried.  Cabinets containing tools, seed and supplies were flung open… cabinets Zong-li had never suspected existed.  Many of the monastery’s interior walls were in fact double walls, creating long, deep closets.  So there were lots of secret hiding places.  And, as Zong-li was about to discover, one of these held the prize he sought.

Very early one morning, earlier than usual, hours before darkness would dissolve into daylight, Zong-li awoke to the sound of monks up and about.  Usually they went directly to their first prayers of the day, but this time they washed themselves with ceremonial care and put on fresh robes.  Only then did they go to the room where they worshipped. 

The monks knelt in their usual places, facing their stone Buddha, but they did not pray, not yet.  One of the monks slid the shutters open on a small window which Zong-li had never seen open before.  

Then the Buddha began to move slowly backwards as one of the monks turned a small wheel in the wall.  A panel opened, and the statue slid out of sight.  A second panel opened, and another Buddha slid forward, into the room.  A golden Buddha.  

The sky outside had been brightening, birds had begun their songs, dawn was approaching.  The monks sat silently.  And then the sun was shining right through the newly opened window.  The light poured in, falling directly on the golden Buddha, which began to glow.  An aura appeared around and above it, a shapeless, golden glow, a reality at once less clearly defined than the statue itself but intensely bright.  So bright, Zong-li had to shut his eyes and turn away, but even so the golden vision continued to dance before him.  Around him, he heard the monks murmuring their quiet prayers.

Later, after the sun had moved on and the glow was gone and morning prayers finished, a monk answered Zong-li’s questions by explaining that all things have their time.  Just as the green buds hide in the barren twigs until the sun is ready for them, so it was for the golden Buddha.  This had been a special, once a year moment. The sun would not shine through that window at just that angle again until next year but the golden Buddha would remain where it was until the last day of summer.  Then it would be withdrawn and replaced by the stone Buddha. Thus had it been for… oh, well, a very long time.  No one knew for sure how long.

When he thought everyone had left the prayer room, Zong-li went back for a closer examination.  Even if it was only wood gilded with gold, this Buddha was valuable.  This Buddha was worth all he had gone through.  This Buddha was worth stealing.  He ran his hand over it.  

“It is solid gold,” said the monk who was in fact watching him.

“Aahhh…” said Zong-li, surprised.

“I’m sorry,” said the monk.  “I disturbed you at your worship.  Inexcusable.”

Was this a sly remark or a stupid one?  So hard to tell with monks, thought Zong-li.  What he said was, “No, no. I was just… it is very beautiful.”  

It was at this moment that another monk came running with news – the monkey mother had given birth, to a boy monkey.

Zong-li went along with everyone else to see the new monkey, even though his mind was spinning.  Had he given himself away?  Had the monks known all along why he was there, what he was up to? 

The monkey’s mother sat on a high wall, cradling her precious infant.  Monkey mothers are good mothers, and proud.  She leaned forward slightly so that the hairless ones gathering below could admire her beautiful new child.

What Zong-li saw gave him a nasty shock.  The monkey baby seemed well formed… except that it had a narrow dark streak like a birthmark  across the right side of its forehead, beginning just above the eye, running across the forehead, disappearing under the fur of the skull.  So much like the wound that had killed his friend, Ping-lau.

His eyes must be playing tricks on him, thought Zong-li.  He pushed up on his toes, trying to get a better look.  The mother shifted her position slightly, he couldn’t see as clearly, was it just a shadow on the little monkey’s face?  Then the mother tired of the attention and withdrew from sight altogether, along with her baby.  

What had he seen, really?  He’d been cooped up here way too long.  Time to go soon.  With the Buddha, of course.  But how?

On another day he went into the prayer room, this time checking carefully to make sure no one was watching.  He wrapped his arms around the Buddha, lifted, and discovered two things.  It wasn’t attached to the platform it rested on, and although it was only about half life size, it was very heavy.

The days were growing longer and warmer.  The snow had largely melted and the ground hadn’t softened to mud yet.  An excellent time to travel.  But how to carry the Buddha? 

Days passed as he pondered the problem, and then the answer came to him.  A sled.  He would secure the Buddha to a sled and drag it down the mountain.  It took more days to scavenge two sturdy beams to serve as runners, a piece of wood for a platform, a few other pieces for braces, some rope.  He had to find these things and then hide them under his bedding when no one was looking but he was a thief and all this was easy enough for him.  It just took time.

During this time, he acquired a new friend.  The new-born one, whom he soon came to call Little Monkey, seemed intensely curious about Zong-li’s activities, even slipping away from its mother to watch him.  Little Monkey rarely came close enough or stayed still long enough for Zong-li to get a really good look at his face.  There was some kind of a mark.  Maybe it wasn’t really as well defined as it had seemed that first time.  Maybe it was fading.  Maybe his mind had exaggerated it in the first place.  The one time it seemed Little Monkey was coming quite near, there was an explosion of movement as its mother bolted forward to retrieve her baby. She bared her fangs at Zong-li.

After a time, working so carefully, so secretly, Zong-li had acquired all that he would need to build his sled.  His plan was to take the pieces to the prayer hall when everyone else was asleep, assemble the sled there, and then use it to haul the golden Buddha away.  

The monks never bothered to post a watch at night.  They only slept a few hours – part of their discipline and they seemed to get along well without more – but when they slept, they all slept.  Would he really be able to get away with it? It was, he had to admit, a plan that could go wrong in a number of ways, but what else was he to do?  And suppose they did catch him?  They were monks, after all, they had to be gentle with him, didn’t they?  At worst, they’d just send him away.  It was worth the risk.  Nothing to lose.  He had come here for treasure.  He had to try.  It was his duty as a thief.  And if he did succeed!  He would build a fine house for himself and eat and eat until he was fat.  Everyone would respect him.  And he would go back to that miserable inn and retrieve Ping-lau’s poor bones from whatever miserable place they’d been buried and build a fine altar for him in his house.  Ah, if Ping-lau were here now.  Well, enough of thought.  Too much thinking keeps a man from action. 

And so one night, Zong-li carried the pieces to the prayer room and soon had them assembled just as he had planned.  As he carried the finished sled to the golden Buddha, he was suddenly, inexplicably, impelled to pause and bow to it, a silent apology for disturbing its serenity.  Then, gathering his resolve, he lifted and struggled with the statue until he had it on his sled, covered with a cloak and tightly secured with rope.  Slowly, carefully, he began to haul his treasure through the monastery, toward the outside.

Squeaks, a rattle, a bump, then another.  Was each noise really as loud as it seemed to him?  Several times he stopped and listened for some sign that he had roused the monks from their sleep.  Ha!  Perhaps they didn’t sleep much, but when they did, they slept very deeply indeed.

He was outside.  The most dangerous part was over.  Now to put as much distance as possible between himself and the monastery before the monks woke and went to pray.  He glanced over his shoulder.  No one was pursuing him; no sign anyone was up.  Except for the monkeys.  One of them was perched on the arch over the gate, looking at him.  Ai!  Was it, yes, it was Little Monkey.

 Zong-li shivered even though the weather was mild.  Then he pushed off the feeling of -- what was it, foreboding? -- turned and continued on.

The terrain was much harder on him and his sled than the monastery floor had been.  Within a mile or less, he got stuck several times and had to lift the sled and the Buddha -- only a few inches to get free, but the combined weight was enormous.  And then the binding between one of the runners and the platform worked loose and he had to stop and rewrap it.

He struggled to the top of a rise but coming down the other side, the sled hung up on something.  Zong-li pulled, pulled harder.  The sled broke free and shot forward and as it did so, there was a heart breaking crack.  The sled collapsed, lurching to one side.  The Buddha slid precariously.  One of the runners had split lengthwise.  The sled was useless.

Zong-li wouldn’t quit.  He unwound the rope from the sled and rigged up a crude harness, which he draped over the Buddha.  Then he hoisted the crushing weight on to his back.

As he tried to stand upright, he thought, this was a struggle he had to win.  Like breaking in a horse or taking control of a gang.  A test of wills.  He did it, he got upright.  He began to stride forward.  It was just a matter of balance.  Just keep moving.    

He got about eight feet and then began to sway back and forth and side to side. He couldn’t seem to get his balance after all. An odd thought flashed through his mind -- monkeys can’t really stand upright. And then the ground was coming up at him.

When he woke he realized he was about to die.  He was lying face down in a patch of snow which hadn’t melted yet, suffocating in it, firmly pinned by the weight of the treasure he had gone to so much trouble to get, although in his panic, the irony of this eluded him.  His lungs seemed about to explode, his heart pounded.  The most terrifying moments of his life and they seemed to go on forever.  Maybe he was dead and in hell. Yes! He could feel demons pulling at him, and striking him!  

“Breathe, you silly monkey,” said the monk who was slapping his face.  “Breathe.”

Zong-li gasped, sucking air into his lungs.  The monks had found him and pulled him upright in the nick of time.  He was saved.  By the monks.  Again.  There were half a dozen of them gathered round.

With few words, as though this was just another routine task, they used his ropes to make a kind of net, suspending the Buddha between four of them and started back toward the monastery.  Zong-li didn’t know what to do until one of them said, “Come on, it’s almost time for mid-day meal.”

Zong-li was, literally, at a crossroads – continue on down the mountain, empty-handed (it was clear the monks would let him go) or return home.  Home?  What a strange way to think of the monastery.  Well, he was getting hungry and it was cold.  He had food with him, but the meal at the monastery would be hot.  And, of course,  if he went down the mountain he would be doing so empty-handed.  If he returned to the monastery, there might be another chance at the great prize, the golden Buddha.  

As he walked behind the others back to the monastery, he rehearsed various excuses, explanations, apologies, but in fact no one ever said anything other than what they had always said – would you help with this or that, did you sleep well, a beautiful day, a cloudy day.  He bided his time and developed new plans for stealing the Buddha, but each had its flaw and had to be discarded.  Weeks passed and then months and without quite realizing it, Zong-li slipped further and further into the life the monks lived.  He began to learn the prayers, and how to meditate.  At times he felt as young and bright as he had as a child; at other times, he was filled with great peace.  

Months passed.  At the end of summer, as the hours of darkness again began to overwhelm the hours of daylight, there was a special twilight service and the  golden Buddha was returned to its compartment out of sight, replaced by the humble but, as Zong-li was beginning to understand, equally important one of stone.

Through this time, although Zong-li continued to call him Little Monkey, the animal  grew into adolescence and toward powerful adulthood and became more interested in other monkeys and less intrigued by Zong-li.  And the birthmark, however distinct it may have once been, was now barely discernible.  

More months passed. Spring returned, and this time Zong-li took part in the ceremony and special prayers which marked the re-emergence of the golden Buddha. This time he didn’t have to turn away from the brilliant aura.    

As spring ripened, something nagged at him, some task left undone.  Oh, yes, that.  Yes, of course.  He had promised himself, he had promised Ping-lau, that when the time was right again, he would steal the golden Buddha.  He tried to come up with a plan, something better than last time, but he kept forgetting about the theft.  There were so many other things that had to be done -- planting, cleaning, prayer, meditation.  And instruction.

He had began to take instruction.  Like anyone of his faith, he already knew something about the cycles, each soul reborn countless times, in forms reflecting the spiritual achievements and failures of the life preceding… the loyal horse reborn as a human soldier; the cruel soldier reborn as a jackal.  Now Zong-li learned more.  Among the things he learned -- according to the old teaching, the reborn creature recalls its preceding life (which must be exceedingly unpleasant for, say, the proud beauty reborn as a spider or a toad) but this memory only lasts for a while and as the new life crowds in, the old memories are slowly but steadily crowded out.  This is why people can never recall their earliest years.

Little Monkey had seemed attached to him at first and had since drifted away.  Could this be proof that Little Monkey had really been Ping-lau?  Zong-li asked the senior monk about this and the monk said he didn’t know. 

Then one day, a strapping young fellow appeared at the monastery gate with a story about looking for medicinal herbs in the mountains and could he spend a night or two here?  Zong-li instantly spotted him for what he really was – not a dealer in healing herbs, but a thief.  The way the young man looked around, the false smile… it was so obvious!  Soon after the visitor was settled with a cup of welcoming tea, Zong-li drew the senior monk aside to warn him.

“I know,” said the old man.

“You do?”

“There are no medicinal herbs in this area.  Nothing that would be bring a gatherer anywhere near us.  And this is a monastery thieves come to.”

Zong-li, who had been drifting into self-righteousness, was taken aback. “You mean, like me,” he said, abashed.

And now another secret about the monastery was revealed to Zong-li.

“Like all of us,” said the monk.  “We were all thieves.  Every monk here came as a thief.”


The old man helped Zong-li recover from his astonishment (and any bad feeling he might have) by telling how he himself had come, many, many years ago, in search of the treasure of the monkey monastery.  His story wasn’t exactly the same as Zong-li’s but it was close enough that the two men were soon sharing a good laugh over the old man’s long-ago misadventure.  Zong-li still respected the senior monk very much and found it easier than ever to accept the old man as his teacher.

 “And so everyone here tried to steal the golden Buddha?” asked Zong-li.


“And they all failed?”

”It is still here.”

“And they all became monks?”

“No,” said the old man, suddenly solemn.  “Some continued down the mountain.”

“And what happened to them?”

The old man shrugged.

“If they died before they mended their ways, were they reborn as monkeys?” asked Zong-li.


Zong-li reflected on all his new knowledge for some minutes.  Then he asked  if that was why the monastery was built in the first place, as a special place for the saving of thieves.

“It was like this when I came here.  For all I know, it has always been so.”

 “Were the monkeys here before the monastery?”

“They were here when I got here.  That’s all I know,” said the old monk.

 Zong-li’s thoughts returned to a subject of more immediate concern.  “What should we do about our visitor?”

“Treat him as you were treated.”

 “Suppose he remains a thief nonetheless,” said Zong-li.  “Shouldn’t we tell him who we are and all the rest of it?”

“Would you have believed it when you first arrived?”

Zong-li smiled and shook his head.

The old monk continued, “About all one can do is walk the path one is on and if someone else thinks that’s the path for them, they can follow.  It’s their choice.”

 “But for a man to come back as a monkey, that’s a terrible thing,” said Zong-li.

“Yes, it is.”

It was shortly after this conversation that Zong-li made his decision.  He renounced any thoughts of returning to the city and thereafter devoted his life to the tasks of the monastery, to kindness, to meditation and the reciting of prayers.  And every day, he left a small gift of food for Little Monkey, hoping that some day the creature would accept the gift and give up its life as a thief.