Once upon a time, at the height of the Mughal empire, a man of great intelligence and refinement sat on the throne. With his nation at peace, he used his wealth to gather around him every sort of beautiful thing and interesting person. He ruled wisely, and the populace venerated him. He pursued whatever inspired him, to his complete satisfaction.
At last, the Mughal Emperor looked around himself and saw that all his wishes and ambitions had been fulfilled. Now, he only had one fear: that he must one day leave his perfect life.
He became obsessed with the thought that he must die and leave it all behind. So, he sent emissaries to seek out the secrets of immortality. They sought up the rivers and across the mountains, for many years, in vain.
Until one day, one of the Emperor’s agents came upon a village at the foot of a mountain. The villagers told him that a Daoist priest lived in a cave below the peak and that the hermit had found a way to defeat death.
The emissary climbed up and found the priest, a shoeless man dressed in a tattered robe. On behalf of the Emperor, the agent begged the priest to come to the Mughal capital and teach the Emperor how to defeat death. The agent offered power and riches to persuade the priest, but the priest refused all enticements outright. He agreed to make the journey and to teach the Emperor without cause or condition.
The priest and the emissary traveled back across the mountains and down the rivers until they arrived at the palace.
The Emperor summoned the priest to him immediately.
Once ensconced in the his chambers with his guest, the sovereign asked the question which had overcome his thoughts entirely.
“How do I defeat death?”
The priest made no answer, so the Emperor tried again.
“I’ve been told that you’ve discovered the secret to immortality. Tell me, how do I live forever? What chants, rituals, potions or salves must I employ?”
The priest sighed, “I am sorry, but you cannot live forever. There is no chant, ritual, potion or salve which will sustain you. You cannot defeat death in that way. But there is another way. If you allow me, I will teach you to lighten up. And if you follow my teachings to their conclusion, you may become so light and insubstantial that death cannot grasp you.”
Here, the record ends.
What happened with the Emperor and the priest? After the priest delivered his news, did the Emperor nod and move on untroubled, or did he have the priest killed? Maybe the Emperor split the difference.
Maybe he nodded without moving on. He might have feigned acknowledgment while nurturing the desire for life in secret. Perhaps he devoted himself entirely to the Master’s lifestyle, becoming more and more consumed with meditation and asceticism until he starved to death rather than have death ambush him.
We may imagine something even worse too. When the priest explained how the world was just one story (as he would have done, since “Dao” indicates “just one story”, nothing more and nothing less), maybe the Emperor grasped at the metaphor. Rather than seeing past the priest’s analogy, the Emperor quickly laid upon it a driving plot, necessary characters, and a storyteller who he symbolized with the image of a book.
Soon, a shrine housing a statue of a Golden book stood in every house in the land. The Emperor wore an amulet in the shape of a book around his neck. At the end, he clutched the symbol tight in his fist while beseeching the storyteller to keep writing his lines.
But since we do not really know the end of this story, why not be more hopeful? Why not make the story more interesting too? Because our stories usually are much more interesting than the story of instantaneous enlightenment at the end of a short lesson, or summary execution.
Let us imagine that the Emperor parted with the priest in a state of doubtful curiosity.
He went back to his duties and avocations watchfully. As he had his moments of fear, triumph, and satisfaction, he tried to see those moments as elements of just one, complete story, rather than belonging to his personal narrative. He got better and better at adopting the single-story viewpoint. In doing so, he dropped the possessive perspective – a collector’s perspective – which had previously obscured his experiences with the demands of ambition, pride, and disappointment.
He had been treating his life like a gilded scrapbook. He came to understand the impossibility of having an experience; one could only experience an experience. He finally managed to set the scrapbook aside.
From that moment on, all the little details were illuminated as never before. He could feel himself lightening up. And at the end, when all the experiences were over, he felt himself possessed of no substance, with none of the associated, substantial troubles.
Maybe that was what happened. But he probably killed the priest instead.
An interesting story.
Why is it that in the east, wisdom is always assumed to be held by some guy on a mountain in rags?
Sid, I think. We have the same tradition though.
When you think ‘prophet’, does ‘3-piece suit’ also come to mind?
Good point. And it’s similar for oracles, druids, etc. I probably should have asked why ancient societies always made that assumption. But if you see wisdom as something civilization lost, you’ll most likely assume it’s to be found well away from it.
I think it has a deeper cultural basis. Look at Einstein for instance. Was he more brilliant than Dirac? I don’t think so, but he had the hair. I mean, yes, there was that whole relativity thing. But mostly, he had the hair.