The Monk

Our master says he was nothing without his master, and that his master was nothing without his master, and that master, two generations removed was also nothing without his master, and so on so that the chain of masters of this monastery continued ad infinitum to the very first master (may God always keep his soul close to Him) the one who was in direct communion with God Himself.

Ironically, here in the monastery, more than anywhere else, it is quite easy to feel this nothingness as our entire life depends upon our master—he assigns us our duties, makes our schedule, counsels and teaches us, but more often than not, he reprimands us for our mistakes and belittles us in front of the other initiates. What would our lives be without him? It is hard to imagine that now after living here for fifteen years.

As I look back at my life, at the young man who took his first unsuspecting steps into this place years ago, I feel a certain sense of disappointment at what I have become and how little I have accomplished. Alas, this path that I am on now, is unlike any other that I had been on before. It is more than clear to me now that my speed, my agility, the very things that characterised my life before I came here, are of no use to me in this monastery. Here as I while away my days performing my daily chores, and meditating, I feel as if slowly a thick dark curtain is falling around me and I am being slowly enveloped inside it. It feels like everyday I am getting more and more shut off from the world, even from myself, and yet, I do not see any fountains of joy springing up anywhere. I just sense an utter loneliness, an utter darkness.

Now, you might want to know how did I end up here in the first place? Well, that is some story. And perhaps it is the only reason I continue to trod down this path even now. Fifteen years ago when I was serving the royal court in the capacity of a royal messenger, my path happened to cross an old hermit’s who was sitting quietly under a tree, with a gentle smile spread across his face. I could see that all around him small insects had made their homes and after looking at his dust-covered body, I could tell that he had been sitting there for quite a long time. I was getting late however, so I decided to continue onwards on my horse. But then one of the strangest things happened—my horse started galloping on it own volition and however much I tried, I was not able to control its direction. The forest too had changed a little, I no longer knew where I was and in which direction did our destination lay. As I sat on my horse, figuring out the way, I realised that my horse and I were encircling the hermit, instead of moving forward in any particular direction. By now I had given up any hope of controlling my horse, it was almost as if he was under the spell of some forest spirit that my mother used to warn me of. As I circled the hermit, for the tenth or the eleventh time sitting on my horse, I prayed to the forest gods and spirits and asked for their forgiveness. In the meanwhile, the hermit had opened his eyes, and now as I finished my prayers and looked at him, I was startled to find his eyes open, looking at me intently.

My horse also stopped circling the hermit and bent low and sat down, as if asking me to get off. As my left foot touched the ground, a very heavy feeling arose in my heart. I did not know how to describe it then (I am not sure if I can do it even now), it was a kind of fear, but I was not scared or afraid for my life. I think in that moment I knew I was standing at a crucial juncture in my life. Well, now with the benefit of hindsight, I can easily see that all the events of that day portended the sudden change in my path and my becoming a monk. But back then, I could only barely feel this change, hardly understanding or knowing what it was and what it meant.

I finally got off my horse, and looking towards the hermit, started moving in his direction. When I was close enough, I bowed to him, out of fear or respect, I do not know. This is how I always approached our king, who was one of the greatest rulers in this part of the world. With my head hung low, I now waited for the hermit to release me from this position by acknowledging my greeting. But nothing like this happened, and I awkwardly stood there in front of him staring at the ground, waiting for this ordeal to end.

Then I heard a series of small giggles that soon turned into a resounding laughter echoing in the whole forest. I shifted on my feet, quite unsure now as to how to proceed further. It was clear that this was not an ordinary old man. Hermits like him were sought after by hundreds of people, especially by kings, and who knew if this hermit enjoyed favour of my king too. But he could just as easily have been a mad man roaming the forests, and in that case, now in my current situation, I, a palace messenger, was now bowing in front of a mad man. I prayed for this torment to end. Had I not bowed, long enough, I thought. Would it be not okay to raise my head now and stand comfortably?

While I was evaluating all the possibilities, the hermit slowly began to speak. I was immediately relieved, for this meant that I could now look up. And just when I did, I realised he was not in front of me anymore. His voice seemed to be coming to me from all possible directions, as if he was circling right on top of me. Nervously, I looked up and found him, hovering in the air effortlessly, like a bird. My eyes just could not believe this. I had seen magic tricks being performed many times in the palace, but this was a miracle. I now knelt down, and started begging for forgiveness. I thought he was a forest spirit in the guise of a man, and so I started chanting all the incantations I knew for appeasing forest spirits. I was so engrossed in my fear and in my chanting that I hardly paid any attention to what this man/spirit had begun to say. Getting impatient, he yelled, “Enough with this,” and his voice echoed through the whole forest.

Suddenly everything went dead silent. The birds stopped chirping, the frogs stopped croaking, the leaves stopped rustling and I also stopped my chanting. It was as if God’s whole creation had stopped to listen to what this man/spirit had to say. I was by now trembling, scared of facing what my fate had in store for me.

“Do I look like a forest spirit?”, he bellowed while still hovering over me. Then he spat to his left, as if to throw the anger out of his body and became calm and content again. He closed his eyes again, perhaps to gather his thoughts, and then he slowly came back to the ground. He then gestured me to move towards the tree and once there, he sat down in his original position and asked me to join him.

I could hardly believe I was watching this happen in real life. I had an urge to rub my eyes, just to make sure they were working properly, but I held it back, as the hermit was looking at me. I did blink several times though, and this amused the old man to no end.

“Your eyes do not deceive you son, it is you who deceives these eyes,” he said finishing his observation with a muffled laugh, “You only see what you choose to see, unless your eyes catch a glimpse of something you did not expect to see, and then your whole mind gets wholly occupied with this new scene forgetting the rest”.

“Have you ever seen plainly son,” he continued, “Without your mind telling you where to focus? Without the muddle of your thoughts redefining what you were looking at?”

I shook my head, anticipating the negative response to these rhetorical questions that was expected. I still did not understand what this man wanted, and why I was pulled towards him by this strange set of circumstances, none of which were my doing.

It was as if he read my mind. He began saying, “I have been sitting here in this forest under the same tree for the last five years. I have seen you pass by through this route hundreds of times. But before today, you never even noticed my presence.”

He briefly paused probably for me to question or refute him. But I was not sure myself as to how to respond. It was true that I had not seen him, but it could also mean that he was just not there. But then there would have been no need to even bring it up. As these somewhat contradictory thoughts began to rise and swirl in my head, the hermit smiled, stood up and said, “Perhaps you are not ready to hear the truth,” he said shaking his head, “Perhaps a mistake has been made. But how can this be?”

He then closed his eyes again, meditating on the future course of action. On my part, I was only worried lest I was the one who had made a mistake, and given that I was sitting across a sorcerer of sorts who was perhaps capable of inflicting a thousand and one kinds of tortures on me and my family, I only prayed that I be spared for any wrong I may have committed inadvertently.

When he opened his eyes again, he did not look angry, which gave me much comfort. In fact, he seemed quite pleased with himself, but I knew better than to ask him what had happened. I knew the answer to that question anyway, that not even a single leaf had moved or fallen from the tree in these last few moments, essentially nothing really of consequence had happened, but the hermit knew otherwise. He began by saying, “As I sat here with my eyes closed, five leaves fell down from this tree, three right by your feet and two behind your back, a spider started to spin its web around you, an ant found its way inside your left shoe, a cool breeze from the west blew through the forest making all the leaves rustle, and a lot of water went down through the Ganges”.

As soon as he finished his sentence, I felt a sharp pain in my left foot followed by itching. I nervously took off my shoe and found an ant lodged there. I also noticed a whole army of ants possibly making their way towards me. I got up quickly, brushed off all the ants and found a new safer place to sit down again.

All this while the hermit kept smiling, as if enjoying a little comedy show. When I sat down, he put a hand on my shoulder and then held it out in front of my eyes. And of course, there it was, the spider he was talking about.

But I did not understand the need for these theatrics. He had already proved his point by levitating  on top of me. Why set ants and spiders on me?

“Do you always think so loudly son?”, he asked me plainly as if that was supposed to make sense. But then I realised maybe he was able to read my thoughts. I quickly asked my mind to shut up but you know how it is when you tell your mind to shut up. It bombarded me with fifty different thoughts at once and I found my mind racing from the thought of dying in this forest to the tears of mother, to her tears when my father died, to my father’s accident, to the forest where his body was found, to the people who found him, to the guards in the forest who came to my house with my father’s body, to the court where they put in my father’s papers, to the king who appointed me as a messenger in place of my father years later, to the message I was now carrying, to the forest where I was and now finally back to the hermit. I suddenly froze again as I thought of him. In the background I could hear a stream of chuckles again. He again laughed loudly and for a second I felt my mind was completely empty, as if he had erased all traces of all the thoughts from it, but as soon as I realised this, thoughts returned of their own accord, albeit slower than before.

The hermit now waited for me in silence to settle down. To be honest, I was quite shaken by this experience. And the realisation that someone could be inside my head like that, that I had no personal space left, made be a little more scared.

“Sometimes the way destiny weaves its webs around us can even stump an experienced seer like me,” he said breaking his silence, “But that is the beauty of His creation isn’t it, that it still has the power to surprise us?”

I nodded my head in agreement. I had heard that sentence from many people, about the ways of destiny, and had grown quite accustomed to it, as to all the other platitudes, that people said to each other, when they had run out of real things to say. In fact, the first time I had heard it, it was from my uncle, who, when my father had died suddenly from an accident, had said placing his hand on my head, “No one understands the ways of destiny”. Back then and even now, I did not really understand what it meant, but I accepted it as it seemed like my uncle had said it with all the earnestness he could mutter, to convey his condolences and support to a grieving son.

But to speak the truth, I had never myself seen or experienced destiny. All the major events in my life, like my father’s death, or even this meeting in the forest, seemed more like a chance occurring without any correlation to anything else.

The hermit waited patiently for me to finish scanning through my thoughts again. Soon I was aware of his warm gaze lingering on me and once again I looked up at him, expecting him to take charge of the conversation.

“Let me tell you a secret son,” he grinned, spurring me on to share his excitement of getting my hands on to some priceless eternal truths, “There are no accidents in life. Everything that happens, happens for a reason,” and he added with a twinkle in his eyes, “and the reason that anything happens is that it was destined to happen,” and with this he finished his precious insight with a hearty laugh.

I, however, had abandoned any hope of clearly understanding what was happening and what was being said to me without the help of the old man himself. And by now hearing the tone of playfulness and humour in the old man’s statements, my fear of him had also subsided a little and I found the courage to put up my first question to him.

“Then why is it supposed to happen that way and not any other way?”, I asked, carefully observing the face of the old hermit.

“Tell me son, when a chicken hatches out of an egg, do you ask anyone why did it happen? Even if you did, what would people say to you, would they not just answer that this was how it was supposed to happen?”, he retorted back with a chuckle.

Clearly, the old man had now challenged me to prove my point and I shrugging off all my inhibitions replied back boldly, “Not all the occurrences in the world are the same as a chicken hatching from an egg.”

To me this seemed such an obvious point, that I didn’t quite understand why I had to state it so clearly to begin with. But the old man sighed and closed his eyes again. My fear and nervousness began coming back to me as I shifted slightly under the tree making sure there were no ants and spiders around.

We must have sat there in silence for only a couple of minutes but it seemed like an eternity. I was trying my best to keep my mind still and clear of thoughts, lest the old man were to read them again. So I started focusing on my breath, a trick that my father had taught me. He used it to slow down his mind when it would be racing with endless thoughts one after another.

Sitting there under the tree with my eyes closed, focussing on my breath, with this old man I hardly knew, I felt a strange sensation arise in my body. At first it seemed like some energy was flowing in the palms of my hand, and slowly that strange sensation began to rise up from my hands and started flowing through my whole body, from my head to my toe. I had never felt this kind of energy before but when I did now, it didn’t seem strange or scary. It was as if I always knew that this energy always existed within me.

I sat there motionless, lest even a slightest movement of body, should interfere with this flow. Suddenly, I felt someone touching my forehead, in between my eyes, and suddenly I could see everything, but my eyes were still closed. I saw the old man bending towards me, with his thumb on my forehead. He seemed to be saying something. But I could not clearly hear him. I also could not open my normal eyes. I started to become agitated, when in front of me flashed an image of my father riding on his horse.

I was looking at him after fifteen years. It was a miracle! I tried to call out to him, but he didn’t seem to notice me. He stopped in front of a house and got off his horse. A woman came out to greet him with a child in her hand, the woman was my mother. So I realised that I was looking at myself when I was a very small baby. My father took me from his arms and kissed me on my forehead. I think I smiled too looking at this scene and experiencing the love and warmth of my father again.

However, that kiss had lasted only a second when many images started flashing in front of my eyes one after another. I saw myself beginning to grow up. The images were not always clear, especially the background, it was always hazy as if it did not really matter. On the other hand, they were powerful in evoking different feelings, probably the same ones I had felt when I was a child living those moments. Sometimes the people too faded in the background and I just had an impression in place of their image, there were impressions of people I was wary of, people I was friendly with, people I didn’t like, and these impressions replaced many of the images of my family and friends. I could only see my mother and my father clearly and sometimes my father’s horse.

Then that day came when my father met with that fateful accident and died. I remembered that day clearly, so as soon as it started I took a deep breath. I knew I would not be able to stop myself from crying yet again. As the images of the day flickered in front of me I anticipated my mother’s wails and tears had already started to fall from my eyes. But suddenly I realised that I was seeing some of the images, that did not belong to my memory. You see, so far I had assumed, that the old hermit, using some strange tricks, had managed to drag all these memories out of my mind. But how was I able to see something that might have happened but not in my presence? Was I imagining them?

But I hardly had the time to meditate on these technical questions. I knew this was perhaps my only chance to find out what may have happened on the day my father died. Well, I was not really sure if what I was experiencing could be characterised as knowing or whether it was my overactive imagination, nevertheless, I resolved to temporarily suspend all my doubts to see where this was going to lead me.

I saw my father, who was getting ready hurriedly to reach the court as he had been summoned. I was sleeping after my chores at that time and I could see myself too, behind him, lost in dreams and perhaps oblivious to what was to happen later that day. My mother came in and they talked for a few seconds, my Dad told her that the horse had taken sick and that he was planning to let it rest today, but now he had to rush and take the horse with him. My mother then quickly went outside, and I saw her make her way to the stable to check on the horse. She gave it some water and food, and caressed it. The horse also knew, that it was probably not going to get any rest today. It got up, ate its food, drank its water and waited for my father to come.

When my father reached the stable, my mother was still there. She asked him if he could not use someone else’s horse, but my father said that he did not have the time to arrange it. He had been asked to reach the court at once.

Then all of a sudden I saw my father entering the gate of the castle. It looked a little different from what I knew it to be but I did not have the time to notice the details. The pace of memories quickened and I could sense that the hermit was perhaps getting impatient, or maybe I imagined that. Be that as it may, I brought my attention back to my father who was now in a hallway, listening very carefully to the instructions of a courtier. In his hand he held the royal missive and I was reminded of the one that I was carrying and I touched it to make sure I still ad it in my possession. Then after that I saw my father come out of the castle gates on his horse. He looked tense, he was in a hurry, perhaps it did not occur to him that his horse was not in a state to carry him where he had to go. I could already feel what this was going to lead to. And the hermit, perhaps sensing that I now knew what was about to happen and why, quickly fast-forwarded the memories to that dreadful event.

I shifted my weight between my feet as I tried, perhaps unconsciously, to partly offset the emotional turmoil that was now about to ensue with an increase in physical comfort. Back to the memories, I saw my father, trying to make his horse move faster, and the horse while trying its best, but getting more and more tired after every step. And then, and I was surprised to see that it happened so suddenly, the horse accidentally stepped on a piece of rock and was thrown off-balance. While, it was able to stop itself from falling down, my father was catapulted ten metres ahead, his neck got twisted in the fall and he barely lasted a few seconds after that accident.

I moved again in an effort to mask my pain from the old man, but no amount of shifting and moving could take away the grimace that spread across my face as a sharp sting of pain arose in my heart when I saw my father die this way. Then I saw my mother break down on hearing this news. In fact even today, that particular memory comes back to me again and again, reminding me of how fragile our lives are, how our worlds are nothing but grand castles built in air that can be blown away by a gust of wind, how all our dreams and hopes are conditional and how death is the only thing that is guaranteed after birth.

Perhaps the old man had not intended this effect, for as soon as I started to feel despondent, he said, “So you see, it was not an accident. You saw how it happened.”

“But it was still bad luck,” I tried to counter him, “Had the horse been well, this would not have happened.”

“Oh, so now you want to see how the horse got sick. You think that was an accident too?”

Before I could respond, the old man showed me what led to the horse’s illness. It was apparently because of some kind of virus it had caught on one of the trips.

“But, not everyone who is exposed to disease, fall prey to it. Surely, it had to be by chance.”

Then the old man showed me how the horse had fallen sick like that before.

“I don’t believe these images that you are showing me. You are making them up!” I exclaimed exasperated by this part-visual part-verbal argument.

“I am not making up any of this,” he said calmly, “if anyone is making them up, to use your words, it is you!”

At first I thought that the old man had succumbed to the temptation, as we all do, of labelling the labeller, blaming the blamer, and accusing the accuser. I waited for a few seconds for him to regain his composure, but then I realised that maybe he meant what he had said.

“How?” was all I could ask.

“When your father’s body was brought, they had also brought the horse back. After your father did not respond to your calls, you went to the horse, who was sitting nearby and quite unknown to any of you, mourning in his own way. Or now that I think about it, maybe you knew, maybe that’s why you went to him. And then you touched his head and he shared all this with you.”

I closed my eyes and tried to go back to that day again. Then I rewinded in my head the chain of events that culminated to my father’s unfortunate death. I saw how all events were interlinked, the horse getting sick, my father being in a hurry, I also could see that my father was in a hurry because the court was in a hurry probably because of something urgent. The horse was sick because of a reason too, and it slipped because of a reason and slowly I realised, as the old man had wanted me to, that everything that happened had a cause that led to it and whenever I didn’t know what caused a particular event, I explained it by saying ‘chance or luck’, thus with one word approximating an infinite series of causes and effects that lay hidden behind it.

The old man waited patiently for me to come to this realisation. I was learning, albeit slowly, and while my eyes were closed, I could see that he was smiling at me. I opened my eyes, bowed to him and said, “Thank you for showing this to me. I always knew that there was something about that day that I needed to understand. That memory continued to haunt me and I thought it was because I was very attached to my father. But it was not just that. It was the horse that wanted me to know this. Thank you.”

The old man kept sat silently and continued to smile for a few more minutes. He then asked me, “Do you think the horse was responsible for your father’s death?”

“No, he was helpless, as we all are, helpless in front of the circumstances we face.”

I had barely finished my sentence that I heard a rustle behind the tree under which the old man was seated, and then a small stream of air and dust rose from the ground and went towards the sky.

The old man too got up and said, “My work here is done my son. I am sorry to have interrupted you the way I did, but I think you know why I had to do that. As a parting gift, I leave you with a question that has troubled the sensitive and logical minds of the people of this land for centuries. Perhaps, in your journey or journeys, you can find an answer to this little puzzle.”

Suddenly, I felt as if my mind had summoned all its energy and focus to listen carefully to what the old man was about to say next. He chuckled softly and with a twinkle in his eyes asked me, “Now that you know about chance, cause and effect, tell me what came first, the chicken or the egg?”

I almost burst out laughing at the ludicrousness of this question. Instead of a complicated metaphysical conundrum, the old man was asking me to meditate on an age old joke! But again, I stopped myself just in time and started thinking about the answer. It is that question which ultimately led me here and I, who has been contemplating about it now for so many years, still cannot answer it to my satisfaction. It seems to me as though all effects are contained in their causes and all causes contained within their effects, all chickens come with eggs inside them as do all eggs that come with chickens inside them, all life comes with the certainty of death, just as death comes with a promise of new life, all the begins already contains its end and everything that ends gives rise to a new beginning. I think the question is not who or what was first, the real question is, who was watching and when?

And if I leave this place and my path were to cross the old man’s again, he would surely say I came here because I was supposed to and I left because that was destined too. But the future is only hazy now, I will wait for the day when the time comes to reckon with my destiny again.

 

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