Zhang could hardly have found words to express the majesty that unfolded before his eyes from a distance of around one kilometre. It was truly stunning. Since he was little, he had heard stories about how lovely this monastery was. But it was at this very time that he became aware of just how gorgeous the Luo monastery which was situated on a very high hill. Even from a distance, it is difficult to overlook the golden dome roofs of the monastic towers because they gleam in the sky like miniature suns.
"So it is real," said Zhang with a voice tinged with excitement and unease.
"Of course, it is real." Wang patted Zhang on the back when he noticed that his buddy was staring at the monastery with a bewildered expression.
It is just a few days ago that Wang and Zhang first met while travelling to the monastery on the road. Like them, hundreds of other teenage boys have made the difficult trek to this monastery, which is situated at the back of the beyond of the Atlas range. The rugged terrain and bitterly cold temperatures of the Altas Range make it an uninviting area.
Being a monk at the Luo monastery involves several challenges, one of which is that every teenage male must make the journey by himself, without the assistance of their parents or any other relatives who aren't taking part in the selection process. Rumour has it that Luo Monks are occasionally stationed at key locations to monitor the lads' progress along important routes leading to the monastery. For this reason, once the boys exit their town or village gate and get onto a main road, the majority of their relatives and friends abandon them to journey alone. Most of these boys undertaking this journey form a travel party to protect themselves on the way from dangerous animals and slavers that might be on the roads. Some might be from the same village, while others just became friends along the way.
The method of selection used by the Luo monastery is one of the many mysteries that surround it. No one is aware of it. It's believed that the selection process is altered annually and that less than 10% of applicants are accepted. The Luo monks are the most elite in the region, as they have training in a variety of disciplines, such as calligraphy, smithing, martial arts, and so on.
Soon the boys, in their hundreds, arrived at the gigantic copper gate of the monastery. They camped there, waiting for the next stage to happen. The miles-long monastery's walls were dotted with watchtowers at strategic locations, atop which stood monks dressed in their saffron robes, observing the surroundings from above like an eagle observing its prey. The youngsters stood waiting at the monastery's main gate under an improvised tent they had fashioned to shelter them from the elements. They waited for hours but heard nothing beyond the noises made by themselves and occasionally by wandering wild animals.
The guys battled to build a campfire when nightfall finally arrived, but the strong wind at the mountaintop kept putting out their fire. Gathering close to each other to stay warm, they had to make do with a night without fire.
Dan questioned, "What do you think their selection will be about?" He was the smallest person in the group.
Another youngster, his arms wrapped over his fur, replied, "No one knows, but maybe by tomorrow we will find out."
"Look at those monks sitting on top of those watchtowers; they have only their saffron robes on, and yet they don't look freezing," Wang observed.
"Did you expect less from a Luo monk?" Declared Chang, a tall and fat boy who had been posing as the group leader ever since they met on the final main road leading to the monastery. "They must have been trained to withstand even the coldest of all temperatures."
The wind was so cold and biting that it was hard for any of the guys to breathe, and the night was the longest they had ever known.
The following day arrived and the temperature quickly increased to a more comfortable level. With hope, they resumed their wait at the gate after sharing their breakfast of dried meats. The monastery's enormous gate opened at midday accompanied by a thunderous trumpet blast. All the lads attempted to get a peek at the monastery interior, but it was in vain as there was an inner gate blocking their view. However, in front of them stood a young boy who was clad in a saffron robe.
I am Monk Mu, and I am bringing you all of the monastery's orders directly from the abbot. We are sorry to inform you that we are not taking any new monk candidates this year. The abbot thank you for your participation, and we hope you will return next year. To aid your journey back home, we would be giving everyone some travel kit, food, and a Luo token to protect you from harm.
As soon as Monk Mu finished speaking, a brouhaha broke out among the lads; they couldn't believe their ears. Some of them broke down in tears. They had all risked all and given all to make this journey, only to be told to go back. Zhang was in disbelief; he was an orphan, and the only way you could get away from his repressive uncles was to be a monk.
As he started to head back, Monk Mu counseled, "It is better you all start leaving now, because the winter is coming in 3 days and the temperature will get unbearable."
Several of the boys grabbed their kits and began walking back; others stared dumbfounded, wondering what to do next.
Standing side by side, Zhang turned to face Wang and said, "My intuition tells me this is a test. I am not leaving this entrance until the gate is opened to me."
"You must be joking, Zhang; didn't you hear what the young monk said?" Wang replied.
"I did, and that is more reason why we need to stay and not move away and show them we are ready to be monks," Zhang answered.
After a day, the majority of the lads had departed. Only ten boys, like Zhang, thought maybe it was a test by the monastery. But in the middle of the night, cold water splashed over their bodies. They woke up to see the monks on the wall top pouring water on them.
The monks on top yelled, "You overstayed your welcome; go home; the monastery isn't taking anyone."
After being tortured by the monks over the night, the boys who were left packed their luggage and left as daylight came. Zhang, though, remained still.
Wang begged, "Zhang, let's go with them."
"You can, but I'm not. I'm not going to leave this place without becoming a monk. Zhang answered.
Wang, who had become so fond of Zhang that he couldn't bear the thought of abandoning him, decided to stay with him. They sat in the lotus pose, gisted, and waited. The monks above them showered water on them and threw snowballs at them on occasion.
But Zhang didn't back down, telling his companion Wang, "If we endured, we would become monks."
But by the third day of waiting, winter had already arrived, and they were lucky to make it through the night. The next day brought snow, and Zhang and Wang's bodies stiffened. They struggled to breathe, couldn't sit in the lotus posture any longer, and fell to the snowy ground.
"Wang, I'm sorry that I put you in this situation; my intuition was wrong," Zhang remarked slowly and bitterly.
Wang was so tired that he couldn't speak. He grabbed his friend's hand in his and grasped it. Zhang's eyes started to close, but then a trumpet sounded and the gigantic gate started to open. Before Zhang's eyes closed, he saw dozens of monks with stretchers approaching him and Wang. And in that moment, he knew his intuition was correct. It had all been a test, and they had passed it.