Upali was almost entirely motionless. His breathing slow and barely noticeable. It had taken a lot of practise for him to relax his body in this way leaving only the subtlest of indications that his chest moved with the gradual breathing of his lungs.
He was seated, cross-legged, with his arms and hands resting in his lap and making a gesture of tranquillity. This particular meditation formed a regular part of his daily routine and he used it to clear his mind as best he could.
He was not yet a master of his art, Upali considered himself to be little more than a novice, though he frequently seemed to impress the people he met on his travels.
The dull roar of a waterfall sounded in the background and was accompanied by the singsong of the morning birds. He was seated on a ledge up a rocky incline near the waterfall that was the source of the frothy noise. Below the water settled and wound its way towards a river that flowed across the landscape.
Along the river was the small village that Upali had been visiting daily. He would sleep and carry on his development in his search to achieve nirvana out in the natural surroundings. During the day he would go to the village and spread the teachings he had been taught to others in exchange for food and other gifts.
Though he would accept miscellaneous gifts, jewellery and cutlery, spare candlestick holders and other assorted items, he would never accept money from the villagers. He would store them in his little bag and use them to hand out as alms another day. The giving of alms was an important part of his path towards enlightenment, it kept him generous and taught him not to rely on material worth.
He enjoyed the almsgiving anyway, to see the smile on people’s faces when he gave them a gift, especially if it was something they truly needed. The alms also helped him to develop a spiritual connection with others and wherever he went he found himself readily accepted by the local people.
When his meditation time had ended he slowly drew his consciousness forth once more. Slowly travelling through his body with his mind from the tips of his toes to the ends of his fingers, waking each limb as he passed.
Roused, with a fresh and clear mind he set about delivering his daily mantra. Upali clasped hold of the mala around his neck and one by one recited his mantra as he drew his finger over each of the one hundred and eight prayer beads.
It was during the recitation of his mantra that something shifted in the corner of his eye. At first he ignored it, but the motion became more obvious as he progressed through his mantra.
Eventually he was able to make out the distinct form of a strange creature. It was humanoid in appearance and completely naked revealing all of its dirty white skin. The thin, skeletal nature of its limbs at first led Upali to believe the creature was an animated skeleton but a longer look revealed the wrinkled skin drawn over its small body.
The creature was crawling across the ground, head and nose down as if following a scent like a bloodhound. It must have been about half of Upali’s own height but had thin arms as long as his creating a strange distorted size. Its legs were short and equally thin such that they didn’t look like they could possibly support its body. It also had a large, distended belly, a sight Upali had unfortunately witnessed before in malnourished children.
Most disturbing of all though was that it had no eyes, only large depressions in its skull where the eyes should have been. The skin that covered the missing eyes moved however, as if mimicking the subtle expressions humans made with their own eyes.
The creature made slow progress and, though odd, did not look as though it could be particularly dangerous. As such Upali made sure to finish his mantra, dedicated as he was to his craft, before reacting to the creatures presence.
He watched carefully as it crawled in circles around his tiny encampment until eventually it came across the bag of valuables he used as alms. It poked and prodded at the bag at first with long fingers until the bag fell open and revealed the trinkets inside. The elation the creature felt was clear and it jumped from foot to foot like a dance and made a faint whistling noise.
It reached a greedy hand in and grabbed a silver plate from the bag. It hugged the object close to its belly with extreme pleasure. Then, much to Upali’s dismay, it raised the plate and took a bite out of it.
Immediately on contact with the creature’s mouth the plate crumbled. In seconds it had rusted and turned to nothing more than ash. Stained with black soot around its shrunken jowls the creature looked woefully down hearted, its face scrunched up as though trying to cry. Upali though shocked at the occurrence couldn’t help but feel pity for the creature.
Suddenly the creature leapt to its feet and began rummage through the bag of alms, grasping gold and silver and copper one after the other and biting them only to see them crumble to dust.
Hastily Upali snatched the bag away from the creature and tied it up with string in order to preserve what items were left. He had to keep hold of the bag whilst he packed away the rest of his belongings as the creature continued to follow him and would snatch at the bag whenever he passed.
Apart from its greed for the valuables the creature was harmless. Upali could not tell if its desire for the trinkets stemmed from a desire for valuables or for the material they were crafted from. But after much thought he deemed the creature to be a preta.
A preta, he had heard, was a hungry ghost. A human reborn as a preta would find only suffering as a punishment for the greed and selfishness they had exhibited in their previous life. They were consumed with an overwhelming desire to eat objects related to their previous desires. Yet everything they touched was ruined. As such they were cursed with an existence of extreme desire and no fulfilment of that desire.
He pitied the creature and had not the heart to shoo it away, but nonetheless he did not want it to destroy the alms that were meant for others. As such he made the journey back to the village on the river carrying the bag over his shoulder with the preta following him the entire way.
Once among the villagers he carried out his day as usual. He assisted with chores and tasks, carrying and plowing as the villagers asked in exchange for food and trinkets. He was careful to avoid letting the creature grasp the objects he was given in lieu of food.
Once though the curious creature managed to leap up and clench its jaws around the base of a chalice being handed to Upali. The chalice, not much more than a bent piece of copper but still of practical use, crumbled much to the surprise of the farmer giving it away. He apologised profusely to Upali who assured him his thanks was payment enough. He had quickly realised the villagers could not see the preta.
In the late afternoon he taught lessons on the four truths and the cycle of samsara to those who gathered about him in the village centre to listen. It was a duty he felt to spread the teachings as they had been taught to him. Whenever he felt his thoughts drift in remembrance of the travelling holy man who had first taught him of the Way that his hands drifted to the prayer beads on his mala. He had carved them from the wood of the same fig tree he had first encountered his tutor and he hoped one day on his travels he would meet the man again.
During his lesson he witnessed the preta wandering the crowd and biting anything metallic it came across. At one point it destroyed the rivets and joints of a cart causing it to crash to the floor with a loud bang and spew its contents across the road.
Upali felt guilty about bringing this menace to the village, though he knew the creature meant no harm. He resolved to lead it away as soon as he could and left the village much earlier than usual.
It was on the way out, passing through a few market stalls that were packing away that Upali and the preta witnessed a small boy attempting to purchase some bread. The boy, obviously poor and probably an orphan, was dressed in ripped and dirt covered clothing. He was pleading with the stall owner for some of the bread though he had no money to pay for it with. The bread seller was strict in that he could not give away food for free, he had his own keep to earn after all he explained.
Upali, resolved to solve the situation, pulled the bag of alms from his back and opened it up. He would give the bread seller something in exchange for the boy’s bread. Before he could do so though the preta leapt at the bag and pulled free a silver-plated jewellery box, it was of course empty but valuable enough to be traded.
The creature raised the box to its face and opened its mouth wide. Upali felt a twinge of frustration at the preta despite his rigourous training. But then it lowered the box and dragged itself over to the boy.
The preta dropped the jewellery box behind the boy and backed away. Upali watched as the boy stepped backwards and nearly tripped over the box. He grinned widely when he saw it and immediately snatched the box up and offered it to the bread seller.
The bread seller asked the boy where it had come from suspiciously and the boy answered honestly that he had just found it lying on the floor. There was a pause between the two and then, with not a word, the bread seller chucked the boy two loaves of bread. The boy ran away and disappeared down the street. Upali, pleased with what he had witnessed, looked around but could not see the preta anywhere.
He returned to his spot near the waterfall alone. The creature did not appear as he carried out his evening practises nor did it appear as he went to sleep. The next day, after carrying out his morning’s ablutions, his yoga exercises, meditations and his mantras Upali still did not see the preta.
Upali packed up his little campsite once more ready to begin his journey again. He would not return to the village, it was time to move on to somewhere else he felt. He had learned something here.
Before he left he placed a plate from his bag, with some bread and fruit on it, at the spot where he had first seen the creature out of the corner of his eye.