Wei’ling was an off-the-map village in ancient China, but it had one feature that set it apart: the silent, faceless, bell-ringing monk.
The movement gradually formed over several months. It all started one morning when, out of the blue, a slight monk walked slowly through town, striking a small bell every tenth step. The monk’s head was hidden beneath a straw bascinet (called a tengai).
The monk made three laps around the village, and then sat to meditate on the outskirts of town. After that, the mystery monk would travel alone back into the woods.
This became a daily ritual. People started following the monk on the trip through the village. A year later, and the whole market would close the instant people heard that bell drawing near. The word spread, and people began to come from all around to walk with the bell-ringing monk.
The bell-ringer’s fame traveled to a Zen monastery. “Who is this monk?” the Abbot demanded.
“No one knows, he’s never given his name.”
“Where does he live?”
“Somewhere in the woods, no one knows for sure; he chases off anyone who tries to follow him there.”
“What does he practice? What is his teaching?”
“He just walks and rings that bell. Then he sits in silence.”
“He doesn’t even share the Buddhadharma?”
“The people say that the bell is his teaching.”
“What nonsense! I have to meet this ‘monk’ immediately.” So the abbot set out on the five day journey to Wei’ling. When he arrived, he was astonished by how many people were crammed into the small marketplace; all them drawn by the promise of walking with the faceless monk.
Suddenly, the roar of industry was swallowed by silence. Well, not quite silent. From the distance, the abbot heard the crisp—but warm—resonance of a small bell. The sellers closed up shop, and the crowed quietly moved toward the source of the sound.
After walking a while, the abbot saw the crowd form into a single file line that weaved in a curve. When the last villager moved out of his line of sight, he saw him: the faceless monk of Wei’ling.
“Not much to look at,” he thought. “Small man, and those robes! Nothing but rags!”
The abbot followed the procession through the village, and sat with them after in a nearby pasture.
Time passed uncounted. Then, slicing through the moment, that tiny bell. Everyone prostrated three times and then dispersed, brimming with grins.
The abbot stealthily followed the monk through the wilderness. They crossed streams, climbed steep hills, and wrestled through bramble patches. Finally, the abbot saw a small hut by a pond. The silent monk walked in.
“I’ll sit out front and wait for him to come out,” the abbot decided. So he sat, and sat, and sat. Impatient, he got up and said, “Hello brother! I’m a member of the Sangha and I’d like to have a chat with you if you don’t mind.”
No one replied. “Hello? Anyone in there?” Nothing stirred in the grass hut. The abbot pushed the curtain aside and dipped his head in. There was no one there, just some rice, a grass sleeping mat, an old pot, and that little bell.
“That’s impossible!” Then the abbot saw it: there was loose grass in part of the wall. Stepping out, he looked up and saw a figure sitting on a hill. “Crafty little bastard, aren’t you?” he whispered.
After climbing to the top, he made the customary bow. The monk just sat there. The abbot snorted and said, “So you’re the faceless monk I’ve been hearing all about. People say that you give wordless teachings. Who was your master?”
The monk just sat. “What temple did you train at?” Silence. “How long have you been cultivating?” The monk just sat.
Furious, the abbot shouted, “Who do you think you are? I’m a Dharma heir of Linji! I’m a well respected abbot! You should at least pay me enough respect to answer my questions!” Face obscured, the monk sat.
“You might have all those idiots in the village fooled, but you’re not fooling me. And take off that ridiculous hat when I’m speaking to you!” He ripped off the hat, and gasped when he saw the serene features of a beautiful young woman.
“This is, this is outrageous! A woman hermit, practicing Dharma in the streets! You should be in a convent! Who are you?” She sat as if he wasn’t even there.
“You are obligated to answer me, woman! Who are you?”
She opened her eyes, a stunning violet. She stood up, met the abbot’s speechless gaze, and blew a firm puff of air into his face. Startled, he dropped her hat. She silently retrieved it, placed it back on her head and returned to her hut while the abbot sat up all night atop the hill.
From that day on, he considered himself to be her student.