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Fiction #224
(published April 28, 2005)
Ping Pang Qiu
by Dr. Christopher Kelen
in memory of my father, Kelen Istvan (1912-2003), who came to Macao in 1938 for this express purpose

Man invented perfect movement and built it into the machine. Now he wants to recapture it through the medium of sport. The three factors of modern life are sport, technique and the cinderella of the moment—thought. The three have always been present in different quantities. It is the task of the present generation to bring these three elements into harmony, thus to improve the position of mankind. This should be the object of what remains of the twentieth century.
—Kelen Istvan, 1936

author's note

Now it's well known that the first emperor of Qin China—of the unified empire—Qin Shi Huang Di, was very interested in immortality. He pursued this prospect—as all his other policies—ruthlessly and remorselessly. It is perhaps ironic that many of his loyal subjects should have met their untimely fate because they were not able to come up with the goods that would guarantee their master eternal life. All kinds of elixirs and spells were brought to the king and as you'll have no trouble guessing (the king being no longer with us) none of them worked. The brighter of the king's servants sailed off well equipped into the sunset Editor's note: Strictly it would be more correct to say that they sailed off into the sunrise. It was the three fabled 'fairy islands' of Penglai, Fangchang and Yingchou—reputed domicile of the Immortals—that most interested Qin Shi Huang Di. According to Szuma Chien, the official Hsu Fu of Chi was sent to the isles with several thousand young boys and girls in his company. It's true that they were not heard from again. I leave it to the reader to consider whether these were the Isles of the Blessed from the story of Cadmus or whether (more likely) one of these islands might have been the famed Luggnagg where Swift's Gulliver met the immortal race of Struldbruggs. Might not both Hsu Fu and his retinue of boys and girls still be eking out a decrepit existence there? Certainly, both places occupy roughly the same place on the map. and if they returned at all, did so under an alias, well into the next dynasty, the Han. (They didn't have to wait very long.)

It's well known also that in a similar region of China's misty past, a certain rather notorious character of simian aspect had been enlisted in a famous journey to the West, the purpose of which was to bring back to the Middle Kindgom a basket of scriptures that would enlighten those benighted tracts with the word of the Buddha Shakyamani, and in particular with the fourfold truth and the five precepts, the true account of the life of the great sage, the rules for monastic life and sundry sutras to accompany these.

Now the astute reader at this point suspects a danger of anachronism. Let that fear be laid to rest. It's true that the life of the historical Buddha precedes that of Qin Shi Huang Di by some centuries, it's also true that Buddhist scripture was—as far as tradition allows—transmitted only orally until some generations after the Qin. One needs to remember however that—despite the first emperor's personal failings on the immortality front—the saints and heroes of the classical world were long lived if not themselves immortal. So what's described in the account given here is in fact an earlier journey to the West. It's because of their experience on this earlier journey that Tripitaka and his dubious though loyal companions were able to make such swift progress the second time around, centuries later, much as Jason paved the way for Odysseus. What Wu Ch'eng En has omitted from his otherwise well documented narrative is the fact that it was for certain misdemeanours on the return leg of this first journey to the West that Monkey found himself re-imprisoned under the mountain, where he had previously been obliged to while away five hundred years. You'll recall the story about the peaches and the wrecking of heaven and the boastful inscription Monkey made on the Buddha's fingers and the little smelly something he left behind there. Well, don't think that Sun Wukong's misbehaviour ended there. He might have been a 'Mind Ape' and an Immortal and all that, he was also a naughty monkey. Space unfortunately does not permit me to deal with events outside of the outward journey in this brief account. The interested reader may care to pursue the other available chronicles.

It's a little known fact that Monkey and Pigsy and Sandy, yes and Tripitaka too, all got tangled up in Qin Shi Huang Di's quest for immortality. There were others in their party as well, whose names we shall probably never know. They all got mixed up with the emperor's evil schemes because (and this has only recently come to light) Monkey—naughty Monkey—was in fact a double agent of sorts. Released by the Buddha to serve the priest Tripitaka, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven (one of Monkey's characteristically boastful appellations) actually had a bet each way. Birth and death and life and desire all end in suffering. But Monkey you'll recall already was an Immortal and so he had mixed feelings about karma. It was true our playful hero had, when challenged, never managed to get out of the hand of the Buddha. But who had rescued him the first time from under the mountain where he had been trapped those hundreds of years? Certainly, Wu Cheng En's readers are given to understand that his release coincided with Tripitaka's mission, but Qin Shi Huang Di's spies would have given a different version of events. Secretly Monkey still harboured resentments against the Buddha for his having been tricked long before.

Qin Shi Huang Di's interest in Monkey was clear cut. He had sent Han Chung and a scholar named Shih to go in search of the elixir of the Immortals. What they discovered was that Monkey had drunk all the currently available stock and that it would be generations before a new batch could be brewed. Han Chung and Shih knew that it would prove fatal for them if they returned to the emperor with such tidings and so they decided to seek out Monkey himself. If anyone could get them some Immortality elixir then surely it would be Monkey. Their journey was arduous and we have no time for its details here but to their advantage was the fact that they were not chasing a moving target. Monkey wasn't going anywhere. He could however speak to them when they found him. And so it was they discovered that Monkey was kept entombed in the mountain by a very flimsy measure. All that was holding the mountain over the Monkey King was a piece of paper fixed on the summit by the disciple Ananda, a piece of paper on which the Buddha had written 'om mani padme hum'. Of course Monkey had been begging passers by for centuries to remove it. None had been brave enough until Han Chung and Shih arrived, buoyed by the inscription the emperor had recently placed on Mount Chihfu, which read in part:

'Great is he, indeed! The whole universe obeys his sagacious will!'

These two travelling functionaries weren't Buddhists, but they were certain about the kind of reception they'd be receiving should they return to the court without the juice. To be owed a favour by the Great Sage Equal of Heaven was just the ticket, as far as they could see.

Perhaps it's ironic then that as this motley company of pilgrims—Tripitaka and Monkey and Co.—set off for the West this first time, their quest was—depending on point of view and on which will should prevail—either to find the secret of immortality or the secret of annihilation, to enable either unlimited desire or else to achieve desire's cessation, either to spread the word of truth to the world or to conceal one man's evil intention. Would their wandering earn them Nirvana or Samsara?

Their second journey is well documented. They got the scriptures and returned with them, each receiving appropriate reward for his labours along the way. The first journey is only obscurely known and so the picture of events given here has been patched together from fragmentary sources, though each of impeccable provenance. It is in any case only the final phases of this first outward journey that must concern us here.

Now at much the same time in a city named Sagala, in the land of the Bactrian Greeks, there lived a King Milinda, a king who was about as wise as you could get to be without dispensing with the need for advice and enlightenment altogether.

It was in quest of such that this king had despatched a team of philosophers, headed by one I'm sure you've heard of, Socrates' disciple, Plato. This story accounts at least in part for what classical scholars refer to as 'the lost years' in Plato's career. And it goes some way to explain the fervour with which Plato promoted the Socratic theory of learning as recollection, in the Meno. Plato's forgotten 'journey to the East' is a kind of ironic non-event in the history of philosophy.

You'll recall the story of Er the Pamphylian, the son of Armenius, as told in the last book of the Republic? That character had the original near death experience, returning to step down from his funeral pyre reporting what he had seen of 'the other side'. Unlike Er, Plato himself and his company had, on the way east and on his return to Athens, been obliged to bathe in the River Lethe and to drink the waters of unmindfulness, the water no vessel can hold. Hence, the lack of a record, hence the 'lost years'.

On their way east King Milinda's party had also come through the land of the lotus eaters. Picture it! Always afternoon, so many enlightened beings and so ethereal they would float on the pond's surface, with only a leaf's thickness separating them from the water. Former expeditions had been lost here, greedy for the lotus root. The faces of the drowned could still be seen in the shallows, contorted in last ecstasies of the passage into light. These lost were however not the enlightened. They were those who had hoped for a cut-rate ticket to Nirvana. Tennyson has faithfully recorded their dying song.

Let us alone. What pleasure can we have To war with evil? Is there any peace In ever climbing up the climbing wave? All things have rest and ripen toward the grave In silence; ripen, fall and cease: Give us long rest or death, dark death or dreamful ease.

The serene beings—boddhisatvas, arhats, buddhas—never even looked down. They had transcended the world of desire and of suffering. How could it profit them ever to look on the empty shells of those cast once more onto the wheel of life? If it were necessary for them to leave their lotus pads for the sacred ablutions then this was not something seen by anyone in King Milinda's party. It was only with the iron will of the watchful dog that Plato and the guardians of his expedition were able to pass through these parts and so approach the mysterious goal to which they had been lured.

Little could these two parties—the Chinese and the Greek—have suspected that their respective quests were leading them to a single point, high in the Himalayas, and from which their progress had been carefully monitored and controlled. Unknown to each party, obstacles had been placed in their way such as to slow or hasten progress so that all would arrive in the holy precincts at precisely the right moment.

I will omit for the sake of brevity the description of the ice bound cave entrances to which the companies came, one on the eastern, the other on the western side of the mountain. Suffice it to say that they were guided in unmistakable signs by the hand of a higher power.

Each group was met on its way by holy creatures: genderless beings who floated unwinged in the thinning mountain air. Each group was provided with a basket—not of scriptures—but containing mysterious implements, a pair of them: part rounded, the size of hand's span, and each provided with a handle that seemed to be for holding. The Chinese instinctively held these as they might chopsticks, the Greeks as if they were shaking hands with a stranger. But however they were held, the question remained, how would the people be enlightened with these? How would the emperor be made immortal? There was no choice but to travel on to the place where truth would be told.

Once the holy mountain had been reached and the parties guided in through the secret ways fashioned by heaven just for these two pilgrimages which were orchestrated as one, our travellers found themselves passing through a long series of chambers and corridors. In some rooms a certain mantra may have been inscribed on the walls, in others were devotees chanting. There were particular corridors and turnings in the mountain where a form of words presented itself unaided to the mind of every member in each party. We know that this impressive telepathic experience especially served to quicken the faith of the pilgrims, to make them receptive to whatever might follow. The purpose of the process of induction experienced by both parties was to prepare them for a kind of silent teaching.

The record we have of the mantras and aphorisms received by them is confused and incomplete. For instance, we don't know which party recorded which lines or whether both parties were tutored in the same texts as they made their way towards the holy of holies. Circumstantial evidence points however to the conclusion that all of the texts extant were heard or seen on the way in, none on the way out of the mountain. It is entirely possible that the parties leaving the mountain were differently comprised from those that had entered. Evidence strongly suggests they were fewer in number. There has of late been some speculation that the bulk of each party never returned but rather went on, the Chinese to Europe, the Greeks to China, perhaps in each case guided to their destination by just one of the original party. This of course is pure guesswork. Still there are those who will not content themselves till they have found traces of Monkey in Greece or of Plato in China.

In perusing the list of aphorisms presented below it hardly needs to be stressed that the caveats already mentioned should caution the student from drawing any firm conclusions as to the precise form or structure of the induction the pilgrims experienced. If we are able to abandon the religious framework into which such ideas were subsequently worked then it will be interesting to speculate as to who might have preceded our pilgrims to the holy mountain. If they were indeed tutored by humans rather than angels, then it is irresistible to speculate as to the place of origin of those who had preceded them, the antiquity of the civilization/s from which they had come to this remote and magical region.

A number of the fragments will be quite familiar—in form and also in content—to the student of the pre-Socratics, others seem curiously to prefigure the koan of the Zen school or even the riddles characteristic of early Anglo-Saxon poetry. But as it is not my intention here to lead the reader towards any specific interpretation or conclusion, I shall merely present some more striking of the extant fragments in the order in which they have come down to us. They are as follows:

Now it may well be—as some have speculated—that these fragments can be conveniently divided into those aphorisms designed to focus the mind and those one might describe as rules of play. The convenience of such an arrangement is appealing but lines such as these are difficult draw on such sparse evidence. These texts have come down to us on flimsy bamboo strips gathered in flimsier baskets. It is impossible to say either how complete a record of the parties' experience is represented by the strips, or how many strips may have gone missing down through the centuries. Nor can the extant material be dated with much accuracy. As most of the strips have themselves had to be physically reconstructed in order that they be read, we cannot in every case even be certain that we have placed the characters on each strip in the correct order. Those scholars stretch credulity who ask us to believe that they have cracked the code and know beyond doubt how the text is to read.

What we do know with certainty is that—in whatever order these maxims were presented to the pilgrims—each party having received them was drawn on inexorably towards a common goal.

Beyond them—all the while as they come—in always a room beyond them, was heard a just slightly arrhythmic subtle tapping, a tapping as of something ethereally light on timber. It is the sound of a motion recorded and it is a curiously human sound. Imagine both parties then, following through the labyrinth of rooms and tunnels, coming closer and closer, each from the other side, closer and closer to this novel sound, a sound almost like horses' hooves, almost like breath.

To the last room, the parties are admitted from either end at one stroke. Two of each side already have the sacred implements in their hands. When they enter the room the ball is already in motion. And so they are drawn into the game.

Some say that the first four are still there today. They require neither food, nor drink, nor sustenance of any kind. . .the secret of immortality is in the perpetual motion in which they were taken up the moment they entered the chamber.

We may suppose from the extant fragments of text that the rest in each party stared goggle-eyed for weeks at the trance in which their compatriots had been arrested. Authorities are uniformly agreed that the ball in play today is still the first, that it has never been dropped. Some speculate that if it were ever to be dropped then all four players would instantly vanish into dust. Be that as it may, we are unlikely to learn much more of these circumstances as it appears the chamber has long since been buried under snowdrifts deep in one of the many lost valleys of the Himalayas.

And yet it remains true that despite the paucity of authoritative accounts, there is for philosophers, even today, only one game. And as you'd expect, it is two. At least. Perhaps the game is innumerable. How inadequate language must be to it! However many the game is, it tunes the body to the mind and more. It tunes the mind to the spheres. The spheres move as some god directs and the thinking person—pure of stroke—is wise to keep the sphere at arm's length.

The romance of the game still stems today from the circumstances of this remote origin. Imagine the scene: that ball, those limbs, each movement minutely slower than the one that preceded it. Perfect harmony of hand and eye. Such is the secret of immortality Qin Shi Huang Di sought but never found. Perhaps if he had given up being an emperor and taken the trip to the Himalayas himself, perhaps then things might have been different.

Fix your mind on the scene and I believe you will soon begin to hear the game, a sound soothing as the fall of water, the pouring of tea. . .

That sound haunts me today: the sound of celluloid on painted timber. Matt green, gloss white the edges. Sound of my coming of age. Motes of dust and light through which the ball rises and falls. Will the hand fail to return it?

A complete collection of the fragments remembered by members of each party has been recently gathered together into a work familiarly known as The Philosophy of Table Tennis. The student of the game may wish to examine this text with care.

Still today there are two games that go by the name of table tennis. I'm not referring to the contrast between the 'ping pong' of slow amateurs lacking in the cultivation of strokes and the official game as played by the rules. What I mean is that there is a game in which the object is to prevent the opponent from connecting with and returning the ball to you. And there's another game—a co-operative game—in which an opponent is entirely lacking. In that game the return of the ball for an indefinite time—for an indefinite number of bounces—is the object. As long as the ball is kept in motion, everybody wins; as soon as the ball stops, all lose. If only it were possible to keep the ball in perpetual motion then perhaps immortality too would be possible: such at least is the conclusion suggested by the legend.

As you'll readily recognize, despite all the hints they were given, the observers in each party brought back the wrong game. So poor was their rendition of it that it was to take another two millennia and more before table tennis would be recognised as an Olympic sport.

It was left to my father's generation to bring the wrong game to life again. He was one of the first to bring this 'novel' sport to life in his 1936 book Success at Table Tennis.

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