The Wise Man of the Mountains

The Wise Man
About 9 minutes 55 seconds

Choden Yappur sat at the shrine and prayed for enlightenment. The temple was in the foothills of the mountains, where the air was straight from the hands of Buddha- clean – clean and pure. Rarely would a monk visit the village, which numbered a mere 39 souls, but the shrine was a focal point for the religious hopes of the people.
Choden wished, some day, to be a Holy Man – a monk serving one of the great monasteries, but as a 12-year-old orphan boy, this was just a faraway dream.
Yet he had a fast mind – fast and curious – often causing disquiet in his teachers with his questions and persistence. They tried very hard to answer him, for they all acknowledged his brilliance and felt that some day he would become a truly great Holy Man.
“May I please ask a question now, Master?” said Choden. He had milked the yak and sheep, and cleaned out the stables – definitely a good day’s work. His teacher would surely be happy to talk to him now.
“Yes, of course you may ask, Choden my son,” his teacher replied, hiding the feelings inside that he may be unable to satisfy this young and nimble mind.
“In my search for the understandings of death, I have sat and studied at the stupas and read all the records from our local villages and prayed for enlightenment. For six days and six nights I kept vigil to understand the nature of life and death, O Master.”
“You have done well, my son,” the teacher said.
“I have watched each sun rise and each moon rise and sat and watched the procession of the stars. I have made prayers to our beloved ancestors about the great mysteries, O Master.”
“You have done well, beloved son.”
“I have learned the names of all of those departed ones who have moved on to join the onward procession of life. I have listened to their silent voices in the winds of the night, and I know that I must become a monk and learn more of the great mysteries, O Master.”
“Your studious virtue is a joy to behold, wondrous boy.”
“But as I listened in the night and heard their dead voices, many were in pain and spoke together of their suffering. They bade me find enlightenment and go to the monastery to ease the sufferings of the world.”
“That is a wonderful thing to happen, my Son.”
“This great sorrow, this thing that came upon them all together – please, Master, tell me what was it that took so many lives at one time?”
The Master poured the tea, waited for a while and then in a quiet voice, almost as though he were afraid of his own words, said:
“This was the great illness that came upon the village and took so many lives, my son. It spread from one person to the next and took life after life.”
Choden had read about this illness that often destroyed entire villages. It had been written of in one of the Holy Books, but it was rarely spoken about and the words were spoken only in fear.
“Then what brought this pestilence to an end?”
The Master went silent. The play of expressions on his face spoke of a great dilemma… should he tell so young and innocent a boy the truth? What would the boy do? Finally, he took a big breath, sighed, and nodded his head with each word he said:
“The Wise Man came from high up in the mountains and saved the village,” he whispered resentfully.
He bowed and left the room.
Choden’s mind was in a foment. Who is the Wise Man? He resolved to find out more about him.
The search started by visiting each of the adjoining villages and asking about the great illness; with great difficulty, he extracted similar stories of the Wise Man from high up in the mountains. It was almost as though the villagers disowned this great, great holy man who had saved each village in some way or another. Why was he not honoured? Had they forgotten of his miracles? Choden determined to find the great man.
He knew intuitively that if he declared his quest to the villagers, they would not be helpful and might even try to prevent it, so he kept silent; he kept silent, and made his plans. For two years, he thought and prayed about his holy journey. Finally, he saved up nuts and berries and made a spare pair of sandals until all was ready to seek the Wise Man of the Mountains.
On the day before his departure, he went to speak with the Master.
“Tomorrow I must leave to seek enlightenment. I will seek out the Wise Man of the Mountains. No matter how long it takes, no matter how hard the journey, I must find him as I know that this will be my greatest step towards enlightenment. If death should take me in my quest, then, dear Master I will embrace it as I must.”
The Master remained silent for a while:
“You may not always find what most you seek,” he said with slight tremble in his voice.
“But, Master I have taken all the holy vows. I have sworn that I will never eat of another creature’s flesh, nor drink of the forbidden liquid. I will never yield to the pleasures of my earthly body, nor commit anger against another soul. Surely the Buddha will not block my path to wisdom and holiness?”
The Master was silent for a while; his heart was heavy:
“What you seek most keenly is often to be found deep within your own soul my son, but – “he said, knowing that the younger man’s mind was already set, “ – your Holy Quest may help to find the things that lie buried there in your heart.”
“Thank you, my dear Master. I will keep your thoughts close to me as I seek to learn the wisdom of the stars.”
They bowed to each other. The Master’s heart was full of pain at losing his pupil.
For days and nights, he continued his walk up the mountains. He had long since eaten all the food he had brought and survived on wild berries, roots, and leaves, plucked from the hillside. His feet were sore and his body ached from hunger. Often he would stop at a small village where the people would give him food and water. They were all happy to receive him, but when he spoke of the Wise Man of the mountains they grew reluctant to speak, though when they did speak the story was always the same – of this great man who came down from the mountain in their time of need.
Choden’s stops at the villages were happy ones and the villagers treated him with great respect for one so young. He told them of his travels and of some of his learnings, of his hopes and how some day he would be a monk and learn the teachings of the wise.
Yet, Choden seemed no closer to finding the Wise Man of the mountains. How often had he asked where he could be found, but people said nothing and just raised their faces indicating some higher peaks. On he went, higher each day with the vegetation becoming more and sparse and villages less frequent. The cold was worse too, and often his feet felt like ice. Could he have carried on for much longer? Who knows for sure.
The ‘hungry ghosts’ of foolish thoughts no longer murmured in his brain and only the bravest of birds shared the mountain with him. Pain, cold, and thirst were becoming almost unbearable, and he felt that death could not be very far away, when he came upon a strange village. They welcomed him warmly and the children clapped when they saw him; a solitary traveller was apparently a rare event in these parts. They gave him water and food and a fresh pair of sandals even before they asked of his quest.
“Did the Wise Man send for you?” they asked. Choden explained of his search for enlightenment and how all his searches had led him on this journey. Now he knew he was near, for the Wise Man’s emissaries occasionally visited this village for supplies, and they knew the direction which he must take.
He knew too that this would be the last part of the journey, but the hardest of all with snow and ice, frozen streams and ravines to cross. Choden was well fortified by the stop at the village, and by now his journey had made him strong and able to bear the hardships.
Finally, he saw it: the pagoda itself, the object of his sacred quest, shrouded in mists on the steep side of the mountain. There were many steps leading up to it and he knew he must be fully prepared for the enlightenment he had painfully sought.
At the base of this final climb was a beautiful lake with a shrine to the Buddha and a wooden canopy; Choden knew what needed to be done.
He sat close to the statue of the Buddha, under the canopy and began to clear his mind, for ‘just as the surface of the lake must be cleared of all eddies to see into its depths, so must the mind be cleansed for enlightenment.’ He did not rush, even in sight of his final end, for ‘when the pupil is ready, (only) then will the master appear.’
Finally, fully prepared and with a light heart, he hastened up the steps.
The climb was hard in that high terrain where the air was so thin and as he went through the outer door, he collapsed onto a wooden chair. Then, exhausted from the climb and all his endeavours he fell into a deep sleep.
He felt a hand gently shaking his shoulder and as he awakened, he started in terror; it was a beautiful young woman. Such beauty should not be so exposed; this was not what he had expected.
“Why have you come here, brave young traveller?” she asked in a voice that sounded of the angels. She gave him a drink in an old chalice.
“I have come to find the Wise Man of the Mountains,” he replied.
She bade him drink. The drink burned him as it went down his throat, but warmed him so fully that he felt strong and confident. He drank the chalice dry and as he looked down the mountain felt strains of power and beauty all around and deep inside him. ‘I must wait for the Master,’ he said to himself, ‘My quest is almost over.’ Then, once again, he fell into a blissful sleep.
This time he was awakened by a rough-looking mountain man, partly shaven and oddly for this region, somewhat stout. He had a permanent smile and often broke into a knowing laugh.
“Follow me,” commanded the stranger, leading Choden through the portals and into a hallway.
“The Master is away for some time,” he said, “you had best go back down the mountain.”
“NO!” cried Choden with such passion in his voice that the stranger began to laugh even more. Two more beautiful women walked in bringing food and drink; they stayed to watch, looking with great curiosity at Choden. Again he felt the burning and the wonderful feeling of power. He began to wonder if this was the forbidden drink of his teachers, but of course, that could not possibly be the case as the Wise Man would not allow of such things.
“Tell me of your quest!” said the stranger.
Choden narrated his search for enlightenment, his studies, and subsequent journey up the mountain. The onlookers smiled in admiration and amusement at the young man in such a friendly way that he took no offense. The company of this rough mountain man was wonderful, the drink flowed, and soon Choden was fast asleep again.
When he woke, his three new companions were still watching his face. Had he been asleep for a minute, an hour, or a day? He had no idea.
“Make yourself ready for the journey back,” said the stranger, “for soon you must leave this place.”
“I cannot return without meeting the Wise Man – I cannot!” replied Choden.
He stared fixedly at the stranger who realised that there could be no compromise.
“Very well, you may meet him before you leave, but first, sleep a little longer as you must be exhausted; I will take you to him tomorrow,” he added.
The next morning, Choden washed and changed into the clothes laid out for him. He made himself ready and waited and prayed. Eventually, one of the women walked in and bowed.
“Do you still wish to meet the Master?” she asked.
“More than anything I have ever wished for!” replied Choden.
“Then follow me,” she said.
She led him down a corridor and into a huge room. The room was furnished with soft chairs and beautiful paintings.
“The Master will be with you shortly,” she said and left the room.
Choden was puzzled. The room was so opulent and clearly designed for comfort; this was not the dwelling place of a Holy Man.
Eventually, a man walked in; it was the stranger he had met earlier.
The stranger stood in silence for several minutes.
“I am the so-called Wise Man of the Mountains,” he said finally.
“But,” said Choden shaking his head, “that is impossible.”
They sat in silence for a while, Choden’s mind racing with disbelief. Could this really be the Holy Man who had saved so many people?
“Yes I am that man,” said the stranger as if reading his thoughts. “From time to time I am called to solve problems caused by ignorance and stupidity and I go down the mountain to teach and to heal; but though they accept my help, they do not heed my words, for I do not obey their rules. You are shocked that I live in comfort, drink of the forbidden drink, and enjoy the pleasures of women? That I eat of dead flesh and enjoy every pleasure a man can enjoy?”
“Yes” said Choden, “You are not the Holy Man of my sacred quest” he added with great sadness in his voice.
The stranger looked sad.
“We are alike, you and I,” he began, and holding his hand up to silence the protestations of Choden, “and like you, I would sacrifice anything – absolutely anything – for enlightenment. I will betray my vows, enjoy the forbidden drink and all the pleasures of the flesh – all in the search for enlightenment. It is no great pain to give up what you have never had: the life of the monk is easy. I have travelled much and done many bad deeds. Only when both pain and joy have cut deep into your soul, and you bare your guilt at the heavens, is there room for true wisdom. What an arrogance it is to betray your heritage as a son of the earth and not accept the imperfections thrust upon you? Until you have stood alone, naked and ashamed under the eternal sky, can your soul be emptied to receive Enlightenment?”
Choden could bear no more.
“Thank you for the food and lodging; now I must go and continue my sacred journey.”
The old man looked anxiously at Choden;
“You need not go: you can stay here and I will teach you wisdom; the world down there is so full of pain and nonsense…please stay here with me.”
Choden walked to the door, then turned and bowed. He noticed the tears in the stranger’s eyes, but this was of no concern. He was not the Holy Man. Choden turned and was gone.

He began his trek down the steps, his mind in turmoil. Had he indeed met the Wise Man of the Mountains? So much of what he had heard and felt had cut into him deeply. The stranger’s face haunted him every step down the mountain. He moved quickly as if trying to escape from the bitter memory of the man. There was a great emptiness in his soul; he felt betrayed.
He went back to where he had sat by the Buddha and gazed into the lake; he did not know where his quest could go next and so he emptied his mind and waited. He peered into the depths of the lake and then back onto the smooth surface. There he saw his own reflection, yet it was no longer himself that he saw, but the face of the stranger, a younger version of him, but there could be no doubt. He stared into the water for many minutes, so many thoughts going through his mind. His quest had been a failure, yet… he looked again at the stranger reflected in the water and a tingle of understanding ran through his body. Then for the first time in many months, he began to smile; he smiled a smile of acceptance as he knew now what needed to be done. Now he knew what the expression on the face of the stranger truly meant; now he knew that the stranger had recognised him for who he was; now he was no longer an orphan boy. The “stranger” was right: to achieve Wisdom we sometimes have to give up even holiness. The Buddha teaches non-judgement and forgiveness and armed with this he retraced his footsteps to the pagoda with a light heart to learn at the feet of the Wise Man of the Mountains and his own father.

Bernard Shevlin