Stories & Reflections
By Paulo Coelho
The woodcutter and the demon
At an inn lost in the mountains, a woman they call the Feminine Demon, dressed in a black kimono, came to greet me. I removed my shoes, entered the traditional Japanese room, and immediately realized that I would never be able to sleep in such a cold place. I asked the interpreter to request a heater; the old Japanese woman frowned and said I must get used to Shugendo.
But the woman had already disappeared, having instructed us to dine soon. Less than five minutes later we were seated around a sort of bonfire dug in into the ground, with a cauldron hanging from the ceiling, and fish on skewers lying around. Soon, my guide Katsura arrived with the woodcutter.
– He knows all about the road – said Katsura. – Ask anything you like.
– Before speaking, let us drink – said a woodcutter – sake (a type of Japanese wine made of rice) wards off bad spirits.
– It wards off bad spirits?
– The fermented drink is alive, goes from youth to old age. When it reaches maturity, it is capable of destroying the Spirit of Inhibition, the Spirit of Lack of Human Relationships, the Spirit of Fear and the Spirit of Anxiety. However, if too much is drunk, it rebels and brings the spirit of defeat and aggression. It is all a question of knowing the point beyond which one may not go beyond.
We drank sake, and ate the fish roasting around the fire. The landlady joined us. I asked why people called her the Feminine Demon.
– Because no one knows where I was born, where I came from, my age. I decided to be a woman without a history, since my past only brought me pain; two atomic bombs exploding in my country, the end of moral and spiritual values, the suffering caused by people disappearing. One day I decided to start a new life: there are certain tragedies we can never understand. So I left it all behind, and came to this mountain. I help the Pilgrims, take care of the inn, and live each day as if it were my last. I enjoy meeting different people every day. I always meet strangers – like you, for instance. I had never met a Brazilian in all my life. Nor had I ever seen a black man until 1985.
We drank more sake, the Spirit of Lack of Human Relations seemed to withdraw. I spoke much about Brazil, and began to feel strangely at home.
-Why did people come to Kumano? – I asked the woodcutter.
-To ask for something, fulfill some vow, or they wish to change their life. The Buddhists toured the 99 sacred places which are spread about here, and Shintoists visited the three temples of Mother Earth. On the way they met other people, shared their problems and joys, prayed together, and in the end began to understand they were not alone in the world. And they practiced Shugendo
I recalled what the Feminine Demon told me, and asked him to explain what that was.
– It’s difficult to explain. But let us say it is a complete relationship with nature: one of love and pain.
– In order to dominate the soul, you must also learn to dominate the body. And in order to dominate the body, you cannot fear pain.
He told me that sometimes he went with a friend to the nearby cliffs, tied a rope round his waist, and stayed hanging in empty space. The friend would swing the rope until he hit the rocks several times; when he sensed that he was about to faint, he signaled to be pulled up again.
– Man must know every aspect of nature – said the woodcutter. – Her generosity and her inclemency; only in this way will she be able to teach us everything she knows, and not simply what it is we wish to know.
Sitting around that fire, lost somewhere in Japan, at an inn, the sake pushing back the distances, the Feminine Demon laughing with (or at) me, I understood the truth in the woodcutter’s words: one must learn that which is necessary, and not simply what one wants. At that moment, I decided I would find a way to practice Shugendo on the road to Kumano.
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