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Monday, August 12, 2013

Silva's Tale

Below is the background I wrote for one of my player characters. The reason for the massive write up is that it is part of the campaign setting that can later be used as a source material for the future adventuring.

Silva’s tale as a Monk started when he was five or seven years of age. He remembers walking with his mom and dad along a deserted stretch of the road towards some large stone houses in the distance, must have been the town or city square. Strange birds in the shape of men approached Silva and his parents from the side of the road. They looked human, but their heads and faces were dark and bird-like, with black beady eyes and narrow long beaks. They had leering faces and they started talking to Silva’s mom and dad, smiling and sucking up to them and saying nice things to them. Silva’s parents forgot all about him and started walking away towards the city in the company of two birds, while two others took Silva under his arms and started walking in the opposite direction. Silva started crying and screaming for his mom and dad, but they did not hear him and just walked away, absorbed in their pleasant conversation. As Silva screamed hysterically, one of the birds in human for grabbed Silva and flew into the air. Silva was terrified beyond belief and stared in horror as the ground started falling away from him and then sailed under him. They flew for many days until they flew over a large, large forest, and they flew for several days more, and then they landed in the Monastery. Men in strange clothing walked out of the buildings and walked towards Silva and the birds in human shape. They exchanged respectful greetings and bows, each mocking the other, the birds and the men. The birds flew away and the sound of the dinner gong rang across the monastery. Silva was terrified of the strange buildings, the strange vibrating noise of the low-pitched gong, terrifying statues of fierce beasts and screamed in earnest terror. That night Silva cried himself to sleep, but as he dreamed, he was approached by the strange looking birds and fierce unfamiliar statues of the beasts and the demonic looking men, who were speaking to him. And when he woke up, the strange looking men,  the Monks, talked to him about his dreams and offered him advice on what to say and do to the demons in his dream time.

Silva did not so much snap out of the tears as he grew numb. There were paintings of demons who looked like they were really men and there were men, who had the demonic glow in their eyes. The Monastery was not so much cloisters as it was a secluded village in the middle of nowhere surrounded by trackless thickets and bogs. The forest was white birch and bright green leaves and clear blue sky. There were stone buildings with dark red wooden roofs and grass growing on top. There were clusters of these stone buildings and between them were the monks’ huts, the incense temples and shrines, statues and vegetable patches and small gardens. There were animals everywhere, except that they weren’t really animals. Some spoke in different voices, some stared demoniacally and had no fear of you. Some grinned at you and others made fun and taunted you. It was this unreality that numbed Silva more than anything else – humans that weren’t quite human and animals that were typically, more than animals. There were other children in the monastery, and the other monks treated them with cruelty and good humor. There were uncomfortable sleeping quarters and hot tea in the winter and cold water in the spring. There was breakfast gong and midday meal gong and dinner gong. There were regular audiences with the abbot and other senior monks. The regimen was strict, the work was hard and discipline severe and the monks treated it all as it was a joke. New children arrived regularly and they were typically in stages of crying, hysteria, rage and catatonic withdrawal. Monks only cared if the chores weren’t done or if any of the rules were broken. Discipline was typically harsh and given light-heartedly.

One day several older boys, around 13, came to the abbot and told him that they were leaving. The abbot shrugged okay and pointed at the surrounding forest – they can go. Anyone is free to go. The boys left and three days later they came back – the forest was too thick, the damn sneering animals were everywhere, they wandered around in circles until the gave up and decided not to leave the monastery for yet another circle. Throughout his lifetime as a monk, Silva had seen this happen more than once, except that not all of the children returned alive. Silva lost himself in his work. At first he was put to cleaning the animal pens, the pig sties and the chicken coops. He was later put on to work ploughing the field and working in the vegetable gardens. While other children cringed, Silva learned to escape into his work. The plants and the livestock were a certain kind of a constant. You took care of the plants and they grew and produced food.  For all the mean and teasing intelligent animals in the forest, the monks’ livestock still consisted of the dumb farm animals, which mooed and brayed and ate and shat, but if didn’t hit them and if you weren’t mean to them, they came to you, and if you loved them, they would trust you in return.  One day Silva was done milking the cow and was enjoying spreading fresh fragrant hay around the cow’s resting place. Unbeknownst to Silva, a older monk in charge of the dairy was observing him. When he noticed that Silva  had seen him, the monk laughed and said: “Who is more free – a man who finds freedom in his cage or a man who escapes from a cage into a bigger cage?”. Another time a bunch of twisted humanoid little creatures were encamped near the monastery and one of them tried to trip Silva, but slipped and fell himself. “Ouch! Ouch!” The little creature shrieked in pain as it grabbed its broken toe, “You stepped on my foot!”.

“I am sorry!” Silva stuttered and was jumped by a dozen of these little creatures, who broke his nose and pounded him mercilessly. Adult monks watched without interfering as the little humanoid creatures beat Silva into unconsciousness. When Silva came to, it was dark, all of the monks have left, except the abbot. 

“Don’t complain, don’t explain, and never, ever fucking apologize!!!” The abbot spat, shouted at Silva and went to sleep, leaving Silva alone with the bloody snot running from his nose. Later on, when Silva was a novice monk proper, another child used to idolize one of the elder teaching masters. Every time the elder master would score a teaching point or win an argument, he would raise his index finger up in the air as if was a king’s sword. One day in the back of the kitchen the boy was arguing with other children and he raised his finger in imitation of his favorite teacher. The teacher saw it,  dragged the boy into the kitchen, and grabbed a kitchen cleaver and cut the boy’s finger of, the one he raised in the air like his teacher. The children were left to care for the boy’s injury. The next day the boy came to religious recitation pale from pain. As he recovered from his injury, he became noticeably cooler and people said that he had given up his finger and got a life.

As Silva grew bigger, he was pulled from cleaning out livestock pens and working in the gardens and was put to hard labor first, to clearing farmland and later to carpentry, to cutting down trees, to working with a carpenter’s axe and adze to clear logs of the bark and branches and to trimming logs down to beams and to cutting planks form the smaller logs. Silva built roofs and bridges and got away to work in the gardens and to tend livestock only when he had a chance, where he was now put I charge of supervising younger boys and  to delivering calves and other baby animals.

His religious studies concerned the fate of the eternal human souls free to wander among the six hells in the great wheel of being until they choose Enlightenment and stop the great cycle of rebirth and suffering. Silva was told of the Hell of Suffering where humans were in the state of absolute pain; the realm of Hungry Ghosts, where everyone starved and the slightest bit of nourishment brought pain and suffering; of the world of animals, where animals were stupid and everyone took advantage of them, used them and hunted them; and of the world of Man, where the man had a choice of going into another one of the hellish worlds or choose Enlightenment.  And there were worlds of Demons, with never ending strife and warfare, the world in ruins, and the world of Gods, where they had everything except Love. One day Silva asked the Elder monk about his parents and why the birds in the shape of men brought him here.

“Your parents didn’t want you.” Elder Monk said, and even though Silva didn’t believe him, somehow the Elder Monk’s words sank in and Silva started forgetting his parents and where he came from. Silva was taught that it was okay for people to make their living in any way possible except by killing, by selling weapons, by sex or by selling of sex, by selling alcohol and other intoxicants, by killing animals (as a butcher might) and by selling of slaves. Anything that kept people chained and kept them from reaching Enlightenment was forbidden and was to be stopped.

Silva also heard that not all the souls in Midlands were free to wander between rebirths and seek Enlightenment, but it was a discussion beyond his abilities. One day Silva was sitting underneath a steep river bank feeding some fish in a stream, when he heard the abbot and some Elders in a heated discussion. At first, none of it made sense. The Monastery was here in the White Forest, because Midlands are on the edge of the abyss. All kinds if beings, light and dark beyond dark, fly from the abyss and they get trapped here. For some reason this edge of the abyss attracts the Enlightened beings from all over the world. Something flew from the abyss and was trapped, like most things from the abyss, except this thing will eventually destroy this world as we know it and perhaps other worlds as well. “He who breaks out finds wings, he who breaks in finds an inescapable prison.” The abbot muttered.

Silva sat perfectly still and waited for the Elder Monks to go away, and eventually they did, as the darkness and the night chill came. The next morning the Elder Monks gave Silva peculiar stares and a little after breakfast he was summoned to the Abbot’s office. “It’s time for you to venture out into the world.” The Abbot told him. “We are here to help all souls reach Enlightenment, though they may have no idea of what Enlightenment is. Others proselytize and teach, but you are here to see that even the lowliest peasants do not starve to death when their masters can not provide for them. There is a town just south of our forest several days journey from here. Strife and suffering and coming there. You are to help the common people to survive. Observe everything, and come back after the autumnal harvest.”

Silva spent a day getting his things, and left the monastery the next morning. It took him a little over a week to come out the White Forest along the banks of the Satilla River. A few miles south was a large village or a bustling small town with a Castle near the river and with prosperous orchards on the bluffs overlooking the river.

 Silva soon found the dwellings of the field hands, poor tenant farmers and poorer peasants crowding across the road from the castle beneath the orchards. Summer sowing was coming and the itinerant field hands gathered in the town from all over. All of the rooming houses were crowded, and Silva preferred to sleep in the field on the edge of town, especially since the weather was warm. Finally, he found a common room at a barn that was rented to the wandering field hands. For several days Silva was in shock, wandering around town, pretending to be looking around, making sense of it all. The squalor and the misery on the poor people’s faces, the ignorance on the faces of the men at arms and helplessness of the wealthy farmers surprised and scared him. The men at arms had the red and black livery, with a upside down Eagle’s Claw as their symbol, but they were not mean or cruel, merely content and complacent. Silva was sleeping in the barn alongside many other men when he was awakened by unfamiliar foot steps. Silva snuck out of the barn just as armed men snuck in started ordering the sleeping men to their feet at spear point. On the street he saw people being dragged from their homes and put in chains with the clanking hammers. Some people were stabbed to death, some thatched roof houses were set ablaze. People rushed out in the street and panicked as the pint-sized raiders barked at them to stand still. A Church bell started ringing at the town square. Silva left his disassembled bow as well as all his valuables in the woods outside town, for safety, now he had no weapons. These raiders were only the size of the child, but there were many of them and they had spears. There was safety in numbers. The church was a stone building and it was a sanctuary. Silva ran through the back yards and gardens and made it to the church just as the large doors were being swung shut to keep out the armed raiders. Inside were only few men, mostly women, children and old people.
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  1. I haven't had a chance to read this latest post, yet (Silva's Tale). It's a long one, so I'll need to sit down and read it in one session.

    You mentioned you had comments on Gygax to discuss on your site. Where do we discuss? This is the most recent post here, so unfortunately that's the only place I can post these queries.

    You're getting some harshness at the other site from the host. Anytime you disagree with that guy, he finds ways to snub you entirely by ignoring your posts, gives you some snarky dismissive comment, or slams you in public. You wind up on his personal little black-list. He's got a huge ego that doesn't tolerate dissenting views beyond a very small range of difference.

  2. Neal, I will do a post on Gygax today and we can discuss the topic there. Harshness about differing views on D&D is nothing new or unusual. D&D is a lot like personal philosophy and is a means for the individual to model the reality. Of course some of them will punk out - I am stepping on their soap box and stealing their thunder! Beyond that, some of them are promoting a version of their hobby hoping to make some money off it, much like Gygax mini-me's, and DMing in general tends to swell one's ego, like yeast the dough. Now, let me send that ironclad over to the Alexandrian before I present the Gygax post here.

  3. @ Brooser Bear,

    I just read this, this is great stuff! Is this inspired by any readings of yours? I began to wonder if "Silva" is an adaptation of "Shiva," what with his coming to a monastery and seeing life as it really is.

    What sort of bizarro sadistic monastic sect is this? Why are there smirking malignant animals around that attempt all this harm? If monks are cutting off children's fingers, why are they at all concerned about human suffering and that of the peasants? My first thought is that these were some sect of satanic/demoniac monks that bought slaves from Tengu, but they seem more like some kind of weird Left hand buddhists. Much more cruel, though.

  4. The story, actually a player character's bio from the game, was influenced by non-fiction, actually. Silva was played by a Spanish player, who wanted his character to be of the forest, hence, Silva. No relation to the ancient Hindu deity, I am afraid. This is not at all bizarre, player wanted a Zen Monk, and I gave him the fairly traditional Zen Monastery experience (of the Rinzai school of the Zen Japanese Buddhism, the one that makes the extensive use of Koans and meditation). Keeping in mind that it was told from the point of view of a kidnapped Leonian 8 year old child, the story depicts a typical and a fairly influential (and rich!) monastery in a world, where supernatural really exists! The monastery description is inspired by a trilogy of books on Zen Buddhism written in the early 1970's (years that Gygax was inventing D&D!) by Janwillem van de Wetering, a popular Dutch mystery author, who was a Zen student in his youth. In 1970, he took a freighter ship as a deckhand from Rotterdam Europe to Kyoto, Japan. At the time, Japanese monks would welcome all comers to stay and live with them for 80 days to see if the lay person would want to take the vows of the Monk. Wetering wrote three little books, that became unique classics: Empty Mirror, about his experiences at that Kyoto Monastery, A Glimpse of Nothing, about his life with the American Bhuddists, and Afterzen.

    You have to understand, that while Christ taught in parables and admonished to speak not with words, but with actions, practitioners of Zen were striving to speak not with communication, but with behavior. The understood the clear difference between vicarious learning and reading about something, and actually LEARNING something through the trial and misery of personal experience. There was it's own scene and it's own dynamic as to what purpose Zen monks served in the Japanese society, who joined them and why, and this is largely lost on the Western readers and modern students of Buddhism. Ergo, as that trilogy clearly shows, you can read and learn Koans by reading Koanic literature, in the comfort of your own home, OR, you can actually bust your balls sitting in lotus and trying to figure out the Master's puzzles, with the Master beating you down and mocking you all the way. This way you don't just learn it, you attain Enlightenment, build character and take on a load of emotional baggage, bullshit, somebody's brainwashing, and an indoctrination into what used to be an exempt elite in the Medieval Japanese society that had internal dynamics that was not unlike the criminal underworld, with large egos, privileges, pecking order, dominance/submission, and respect. There is Enlightenment, though. I once met a very elderly Japanese Zen Monk, who could communicate quite clearly with his face and the gestures of his body without speaking. He did not have a language barrier to speak of.

    With regards to the kid who had his finger cut off. You can say that this was done to build the kid's character, to cure him from being a poser. That is a historic example from Zen literature. The kid himself, eventually became an abbot and a Zen mater in his own right. You can read about that kid in Wettering's trilogy, as well as the explanation about One Hand Clapping Koan.

    The bird people, who took Silva away from his parents are Kenku, from the original blue book Fiend Folio, and the AD&D take on the traditional Zen monks.