Humankind: Life and Death of a Lone Sohei

Kenkei Province of the Himura, Month of the Ox, year 1170

Rubbing the soles of his feet with a heavy sigh, Nyiden tried to quickly recover his breath after a steep climb. The sun was already retreating its warmest light and the old monk did not want to spend another night beneath a chilling sky. He sit up straight and looked around from the top of this hill. The land to the South was growing the tightly-knit shadows of Autumn's sharp bloom. Nyiden imagined that a few people loyal to the Himura family could still live here, but the ground held nothing to eat nor any tracks of animals. Still, he rose and walked again, hoping at last to find someone - someone who knew the True Way, the real spiritual path on which he yearned to walk before it was too late. Beyond his growing fatigue and hunger, that was what he wanted most of all before he died someday soon.

Descending the trail to his left, he noticed that this side of the hill had been taken over by a great bamboo forest. The wind only managed to negotiate a soft breeze between the whisper of long leaves and lean branches. Standing in appreciative silence, Nyiden also heard the distinctive sound of a heavy blade chopping thick bamboo. This sudden sound seemed very near, but he could not spot anyone within that mesmerizing vegetation. He tried to make himself heard.

"Hello? Could you come closer, please? I am a lone travelling monk, my name is Nyiden." - he tried with his most friendly voice.

A large figure approached the trail, but remained behind a screen of the greenest bamboo. Nyiden saw a man in ragged clothes holding a strangely-shaped knife, but could not see his face. He spoke in a most casual tone.

"I work here. This is not a place for monks. Go back to your temple." - he said and calmly walked away. For a moment, Nyiden was stunned by the man's complete disrespect and indifference, but he also noticed a most questionable detail.

"Wait" - Nyiden ventured - "that knife in your hand holds a quite uncommon double-edged blade. It is not a mere working tool."

"True" - the man stopped - "I am not a mere working man. I also use this knife to kill meddling Himura scouts."

Nyiden realized the danger he faced, but curiously did not feel he was being threatened. He chanced a few steps forward.

"I apologize for interrupting your work, but perhaps you can help me before I go on my way. I am looking for an order of monks that may have passed through here. Unlike me, they are usually well-armed and hide their heads and face with a white cloth. Have you seen them?"

The man turned back, came closer and brushed aside the bamboo screen. Like any poor peasant, his face was charred by the sun and his hair was unkempt, but his eyes were steady and expressed no specific emotion - his countenance shone with a particular aura of instinctive wisdom that Nyiden had never seen before.

"I was with them last Spring, but I stayed here this year while they went to travel North." - the man looked around, making sure Nyiden was traveling alone - "Why are you looking for us?"

"You are a sohei? Of the Spider clan?" - the monk also looked around, making sure no one had followed him.

"I am a warrior monk, yes, but I no longer serve any pet clan. I am a bamboo craftsman. My name is Ikkyu." - the man retained his simple casual tone.

"A most unexpected honor" - Nyiden bowed respectfully - "how could I guess you were one of this mysterious sohei? Many thanks for your kind sincerity."

Ikkyu's unflinching gaze reminded the monk that the man had asked a question. Nyiden bowed again and poured his heart.

"I deeply desire to walk the path of the sohei. I have rejected the Dragon clan's teachings this past Winter and, now, I am only loyal to myself. Can you help me?"

"You still wear the robes of your clan..." - the man circled around Nyiden.

"I have used them to travel safely across Rokugan."

"...and you would like to become a warrior monk?"

"I have fight many wars when I was young and I am not looking for more - but I do wish to learn the secrets of your path."

"What do you know of it?"

"Only that it is based on Reality and not on Enlightenment."

"You know everything then."

"To know the way is not the same as walking the way."

"You speak all the right words. There is nothing we can teach you."

"And yet I need to learn."

"Tell me why."

"Because I have spent all my life seeking for Enlightenment and the Dragon's path took me nowhere."

The man stopped circling and he seemed to realize that Nyiden too was being bluntly sincere.

"Are you saying that such a path was false?"

"Yes." - again, he bowed, this time in sadness and shame.

In one brief moment of silence, Ikkyu took a deep breath and appeared convinced.

"Very well. You may walk the path with me." - the man went back into the bamboo forest.

"With you?" - Nyiden followed him - "Please understand that I only meant to find your master."

"Master?" - Ikkyu examined the thickness of a long branch and chopped it with one stroke of his sharp knife - "When the student is ready, the master will appear."

The old monk chuckled and the two of them exchanged a friendly smile.

"It seems that you yourself have had some contact with the Dragon. Still, have you noticed that I probably am twice your age?"

"Don't call me master then." - the man held out the freshly-cut branch - "Carry these for me. We are working now."

Nyiden took that first branch and nodded in understanding. Above them, the clouds moved and wrapped dark colours around the afternoon sky. The two men stepped slowly, one behind the other, zigzagging down the hill. Ikkyu strived for a quiet rhythm - his instincts showing how surely he had done this work countless times - collecting a purposeful variety of bamboo. Nyiden understood the idea of living in the present moment, but had much difficulty in practicing it. Eager to learn more, his mind wondered if this was really what he had been questing for and he tried to imagine what strange techniques did this sohei posses. Maintaining his composure, Nyiden did not say a word, but he observed every detail in the man's steady motion. He noticed nothing out of the ordinary - the only thing that kept grabbing his attention was the double-edged knife. The old monk began to think that he had seen that very same weapon many years ago.

"Ho!" - Ikkyu suddenly shouted right in his face.

The monk blinked and stepped back to keep his balance. Ikkyu did not seem upset, but said nothing else and simply continued working. Nyiden smiled and realized his mistake. Still, where had he seen that blade before?


That night, both men were tired for different reasons. Nyiden, who had traveled all day, was gladly setting his bones near a warm fire. Ikkyu, who had worked all day, was not used to welcoming visitors. His hut was so small that the humble bamboo craftsman had to sleep, eat and cook among his stacks of fishing rods, small bowls, heavy baskets, intricate lamps and simple flutes.

"Do you sell all of these?" - Nyiden admired the consistency of the man's craftsmanship.

"I give them to the farmers in exchange for food." - Ikkyu offered a bowl of steaming rice to his guest and took one for himself - "They sell them mainly to the Yazuki who, in turn, sell them to the Kakita or the Doji."

"Are you somewhat famous then?"

"The farmers understand my need for privacy."

"Thank you for taking me him." - the old monk bowed and raised his bowl.

"Please." - Ikkyu bowed back - "Let us eat in silence."

Nyiden bowed again, but wrestled with some confusion. Here he was sitting on the dirt of a poor hut in a miserable Hiruma province, but his host often acted as he was running a temple on the top of the majestic Togashi mountains. Nevertheless, the rice was good and he enjoyed the warm meal without saying another word. As they finished, Ikkyu sat before him and took a deep breath.

"You have many questions." - he stated.

"Yes." - Nyiden straightened his back - "I am looking for Enlightenment."

"You will not find anything while your mind wanders Elsewhere. That is why we are talking only now and not while we were working on the hill or having our meal here. You need to give yourself fully to the present moment. What is holding you back?"

"How can I accept this present reality? I feel my bones weakening, my breath thinning and my eyesight vanishing. Meditation only delays the inevitable. Soon, I will die just like any old man, but I refuse to do so without completing my path. What must I do?"

"Love your bones, your breath, your eyes and live in the here and now. There is nothing else."

"That sounds so brutal. What about our future?"

"Sometimes we need to visit the future or the past, but we should not dwell in it."

"And the people we care about?"

"We should love or hate them because they are real and not because of some ghostly illusion that we create of them in our minds."

"Should we stop thinking then?"

"Thinking is like breathing: too little or too much of it is dangerous. Also, just like swimming underwater can improve your breathing power, stopping your thinking for a moment can be a good exercise."

"Is that how we attain an enlightened blissful state?"

"No, my friend. Whether from sake, opium, meditation or sex, any blissful state is only temporary. Enlightenment is not a mere experience, it is Reality itself, in all its permanency."

"What about transcending ourselves and rejoining the spiritual essence of the kami?"

"That is a matter of too much faith and faith - like thinking - should also be used with moderation. To believe in ourselves is quite enough and most necessary. To believe in gods, ghosts or monsters is dangerously excessive and this misplaced faith has dragged Rokugan through countless wars and cataclysms."

"And what happens after we die?"

"We turn cold and cease to be."

"Are you telling me that the path of the sohei is not much different from that of an ignorant peasant? That there is nothing else besides what we can see in front of our noses?"

"Most peasants are trapped between the shadows of samurai blades. They do not have or make a choice like we do - but indeed some of them are masters of seeing the world as it is, in all its real natural beauty."

Now they noticed the mumbling rain hammering at the roof, which made Nyiden pause before his next question. Thoroughly exhausted, his relentless mind was starting to slow down.

"I have already experienced Enlightenment, haven't I?" - the old monk smiled - "I am merely trying to feel the same blissful state again, when I should know it cannot last.

"The mind cannot exist without the body."

"And yet" - Nyiden chuckled - "my body had to walk across Rokugan before my mind could realize that I already know everything about Enlightenment."

Ikkyu laughed too and finally said:

"You are welcome to stay as long as like. Sleep in that corner next to the fire and, come morning, we will find you some simple clothes."

"Very well, thank you." - Nyiden leaned against a large beam of dark wood - "I still have many questions, but I think we both need to rest."

"Yes, tomorrow we have a lot of material to work with." - Ikkyu sat down on the opposite corner and seemed to almost immediately fall asleep.

Nyiden closed his eyes and enjoyed the quiet relief of having taken the next forward step in his chosen path. While he no longer feared the future, a rush of old memories came to him in broken flashes. He saw his first days as a Dragon monk, confused and angry at his unforgiving mentor, Togashi Yaku. He remembered the cries of battle years before and how he had been a dutiful samurai and an excellent double-swordsman. He felt again his heart trembling as it once did in his gempukku ceremony, holding the unbearable weight of his father's armor, the great Mirumoto Daikuro.

Most of all, Nyiden recalled the warm laughter of the first and only girl he ever loved, Shiba Hannako. At the time, they were very young and innocent, but she was remarkably mature and intelligent. Hannako held his hand and took him to the seashore, so he could hear the waves for the first time. In that long afternoon, she sang a song that the local fishermen had taught her, she explained the low and the high tides and she told him how her mother started to teach her not only the magic of the spirits, but also the magic of her people, the secrets of the Isawa. Nyiden now remembered that Hannako then had also told him to learn from the peasants, to embrace everyone and everything. She also showed him...

Too tired to even dream, Nyiden fell asleep.


Many weeks passed and the old monk felt younger everyday. He learned how to find and collect the best bamboo according to its purpose. He also met with the few peasants who knew about Ikkyu and noticed how they greatly revered him. In turn, the artisan humbly thanked them for the rice they provided. Ikkyu traded all of his craft-work once a year, on the first full moon of Autumn. When this day came, all of his rods, bowls, baskets, lamps and flutes were gone - he insisted on trading everything out. It was then that I whispered to him:

"You are being robbed by the peasants." - as they were finishing piling up every bamboo work of art into their small wagon.

"Compared to the samurai, these peasants are the kindest of thieves." - he quietly answered as he helped them load the last of his precious work.

That afternoon, Ikkyu surprised Nyiden by taking out a beautiful Go set that was hidden beneath all of his yearly work. He put the heavy board under the transparent shade of a willow tree and said:

"I usually play with my master, but now he seldom comes home."

In stunned silence, Nyiden sat down in front of the board as the man added nothing else and simply offered him the bowl with the black stones. He finally asked:


"Yes, this is his hut and his trade. He allows me to live and work here. I'm sure you know how to play?" - Ikkyu looked at the empty board.

"Who is he? I thought you told me you had no master." - Nyiden took a stone and slammed it masterfully on the board.

"Presently, he is Hida Daoyu, but once he taught me how to craft bamboo." - Ikkyu also applied his stone to an empty corner.

"So he was not a samurai then?" - the old monk paused for a moment and recalled how much he liked this game in his youth.

"He was born a ronin and he is a master artisan, but he joined the Crab during one of the Twenty-Goblin Winters."

"Really?" - Nyiden ventured - "Are you disappointed in him?"

"Daoyu-sama lives to build the Great Wall. I live to chop bamboo. What do you live for, my friend?" - Ikkyu smiled jokingly.

Nyiden was about to answer when he was struck by a sudden flash of inspiration. He playfully took another stone and slammed it right on the middle of the board. Ikkyu immediately looked puzzled. The monk said:

"You should find some bamboo to chop, my friend. This is an old man's game." - and he laughed almost like a child.

"They do say that some Dragon monks are mad" - Ikkyu chuckled - "but perhaps you are not a Dragon anymore?" - he made his move into another corner.

"Dragons do not play Go as well as I do." - he slammed his third stone on the last open corner.

"If you win, I will call you master." - and they both laughed tremendously holding their bellies and forgetting how to breath. The wind shifted the willow tree back and forth and the sun tried to peek into their game. Their voices were calmly enjoying the struggle towards regaining their usual composure. At last, Nyiden replied:

"When I first came here, you told me this was no place for monks."

"Well, every year around this time, the Void fills my simple hut."

"I see." - Nyiden looked towards the trail from where the peasants came and went - "It makes you a better artisan."

They played each following move at a steady pace. The old monk had ascertained that Ikkyu was - as he suspected - a very skillful player, but Nyiden felt superior in how he was both deeply rooted in his experience and also able to think higher and see further than his opponent. He remembered the time when his father first taught him how to play.

"You are a mountain, indeed." - Ikkyu rubbed his forehead and weighed his next move - "I shall be a river."

Mirumoto Daikuro was a very demanding father that never allowed his son one idle moment - but, on that day, he was also very caring and patient. Nyiden remembered how they sat in front of the board by the light of a yellow lantern and together watched the dawn slowly lifting the starlit sky. He was almost twenty years old and, at that time, he was desperately wrestling with the most devastating sadness he had ever felt. Hannako had died, he remembered. Savagely murdered by...

"Hers!" - the monk screamed and threw his bowl of stones into Ikkyu's face and kicked the heavy Go board into his chest.

Caught unaware, the man fell flat on his back. Nyiden jumped and pinned the board against his neck, then smashed it in half with a thunderous punch that landed right between his lungs. Ikkyu only managed to say "I..." as Nyiden threw a flurry of elbows and knuckles into his face. He might also have said " sorry." as the furious monk finally grabbed his neck and ruthlessly headbutted his nose into his brain.

The wind now stopped and the willow's branches hung like tears. Ikkyu's eyes went blank. Nyiden told himself in a weak, hollow voice:

"Her knife, it's... her knife." - as he looked down and noticed the strangely-shaped blade stabbed into his heart.

He felt no pain, but his body trembled and ceased to respond. His hand fumbled until it caught Ikkyu's face and gently closed his eyes.

"A ronin kid. Stole her knife and killed her for it." - the old monk cried in shame and hugged the blade slicing his heart - "No Enlightenment. No Reality. Just the lonely grave of Revenge."

Watching over his former friend, Nyiden turned cold and ceased to be.