Verdant Tea Founder David Duckler has done more than tea research in China.  He got a research fellowship from the Freeman Foundation to go to Tibet and interview writers, attending literary salons, and even tracing the journey of Tibetan novelist Alai documented in his book, The Mountain Stairway.  Below is an excerpt from David’s translation of The Mountain Stairway into English.  The text is a travelogue and a compilation of local folklore in Aba and Ganzi:

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There is a popular local legend. In a distant era, when the gods walked freely about the earth, a great convention was called for the ten thousand mountain gods of the ten thousand peaks. The object of the convention was to clarify the hierarchy of the gods and to figure out a formal orientation for each mountain. Ninety nine thousand mountains radiated outward in each direction from the highest peak of the Himalayas. The mountains of north, south, east, and west all chose representatives for the meeting of the ten thousand peaks. The agenda was finally set. Whoever triumphed over the rest in both a debate on the scriptures and a contest of martial arts would be the leader of all gods.

As the meeting convened, every seat was occupied. Every seat save the throne with jade dragon armrests at the front of the assembly. Whomsoever triumphed would have this seat as their eternal throne as the mountain king. A Himalayan god acting as the moderator looked out over the field of full seats and assumed that every delegate had assembled. He thus belted out a eulogy in his loud clear voice proclaiming the meeting in session. Not a moment later, the sky darkened and a deity approached the convention on a cloud from the east. He lowered the cloud with a movement of his hand and walked imposingly towards the assembly with a leopard skin tied around his waist. Surveying the field, he saw that no seats were empty except for the dragon throne. None of the gods responded to his inquiries of where he might sit because they were already happily seated at the convention, so he simply strutted up to the front and sat straight down on the throne.

The assembly erupted in outrage, but the newcomer made a slight bow and stated with the utmost composure, “I am aware of the debate over scriptures and contest of martial arts, but since there are no seats below, it seems that I was pushed here. How can I oppose the will of the crowd?” He stood and bowed to the assembly. The other gods were unswayed and challenged him to an immediate debate on the scriptures. None could have known that this god from the east was so erudite, his speech so eloquent. Forty-nine days later, his last opponent acknowledged defeat. The gods were yet unmoved. They challenged this upstart to a clash of arms. The god of the east demonstrated every form of martial arts conceivable. He could stand on a drum, fly as he wished, and tear light with his bare hands to fashion it into a sword. After eighty-one days of struggle, he defeated every god. As a result, the assembly was convinced to let him once more ascend the throne. He turned and removed his crown as he bowed, and everyone saw his shining bald head. The gods couldn’t help but shout, “Molto! Molto!”

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Sakyamuni looked down to the vast snowy plateau and saw golden rays of light emanating from the east. He fixed his eyes on the land of Gyalrong and saw the beautiful landscape, the gentle weather and the honest brave people, and he prophesied that some day Buddhism would spread to this land. Thus, when they saw the radiant bald head of the champion as he bowed, the gods couldn’t help but recall the Buddha’s prophecy and cry out in surprise. This is likely no more than the illusion of grandeur for a people who were accustomed to having Molto at the center of Gyalrong culture during China’s Tang and Song dynasties. Qianlong’s reign in the Qing brought about the end of this cultural centrality through ten years of brutal warfare.

Let us return to the story of Molto. When he departed from the championship, one god from the west who had arrived late and who had been unable to compete pursued Molto to the banks of the Tatu river in order to challenge him to a competition. This deity’s martial prowess must have been great indeed to go by the name Darchi, meaning indestructible diamond body. Molto agreed to the tournament and even invited his challenger to strike first. Darchi dispensed with formality, drew his sword and shot Molto again and again with electricity channeled through the weapon, but Molto lightly shifted himself, and the thrusts cut into the ridge below his feet, cutting a flight of stairs up the mountain’s rock face. Darchi did not need to climb the mountain, for with each thrust, his body grew taller. In no time, he had struck out 108 times, making 108 steps. Even today, people who worship Molto climb these stairs. Molto leapt to the summit and smiled, “I gave you 108 strikes against me. Now it is only fair that you take your turn.” Before his voice had even faded, he drew a bow, and fired an arrow that resounded like the tearing of silk. Darchi’s crown fell from his head. This challenger from the west broke into a cold sweat and knelt to admit his defeat.

There is a peak to the northwest of Molto that is reminiscent of a bowing figure, thus people call it Darchi, the defeated god. Looking past Darchi from Mount Molto, you can see a small and perfectly round mountain. Naturally, it is Darchi’s fallen crown. The legend of Molto’s enthronement convolutedly signifies a desire of the local tribes to become a cultural center. In truth, Molto appears nowhere among the names of holy guardian mountains on the Tibetan Buddhist roster. This does not stop the Gyalrong people from elaborating on their Molto mythology. They have conferred the title of Molto’s Gaurdian upon a whole series of mountains such as Nyainqen and Goula Mountain…

Alai, The Mountain Stairway, trans. David Duckler