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The Sage and the Seeker

The seeker asked the sage, "In order to feel at home in the universe, is it necessary to believe in justice?"

"Do you want to feel at home in the universe," asked the sage?

"I do, venerable master. My spirit is in turmoil."

"You have grappled with this question for some time," said the sage.

"Yes," replied the seeker.

"Tell of me of your struggles," invited the sage. And the seeker responded:

"Justice seems to me like a serpent. It writhes and twists and is difficult to catch. And when I try to grasp it firmly, it bites and I lose it completely.

"The courts, those institutions which claim to dispense justice, often seem like theater. There is as much tragedy and comedy in their verdicts as there is impartiality or even-handedness.

"The learned scholars who give the most rigorous accounts of justice seem just as petty and prone to moral folly as the illiterate. In practice, their justice often amounts to nothing but a shell of justifications for their station in life.

"The shamans I've questioned spoke of transcending their individual points of view and seeing the universe as a stage upon which the roles of both victim and victimizer are played by willing actors who don costumes of temporary ignorance so as to learn from the experience."

"And have you tried the shamans' medicine yourself?"

"No, o sage."

"Why not?"

"Because the shamans seem no more just in their dealings than normal folk. Less so in many cases."

"But if the appearance of justice and injustice is merely an illusion..." began the sage, but the seeker interrupted before he could finish.

"I'm not interested in cosmic justice that does not show itself in human affairs!"

"I see," said the sage. "And what question is it again that you want me to answer?"

The seeker, who had grown visibly agitated over the course of this dialogue, barked, "Do I have to believe in justice to feel at home in the universe?"

The sage poured more tea into his cup. The seeker had not yet touched his cup. It was full of tepid liquid. After a silent moment, the sage asked, "If I were to answer that it IS necessary to believe in justice in order to feel at home in the universe, I expect you would produce a counterexample."

"Yes," replied the seeker. "Beasts and men of low intelligence who care nothing for abstract notions of justice often seem settled and comfortable in their skins."

"Does that not then answer your question?" asked the sage.

"Not to my satisfaction!"

"And if I told you," the Sage continued, "that the devils, demons and fiends of the lower realms, who delight in tormenting the souls of the damned, felt comfortable in their skins, would that convince you that a belief in justice is not necessary to feel at home in the universe?"

"How could it?" The seeker's face had grown livid and his eyes wide with the arousal of his indignation. "The wrathful entities are likely to be tormented souls themselves, only inflicting pain upon their victims in response to the cruelties they themselves have suffered in the past. Those monsters that do feel right and comfortable with their task delight in meeting out torment because the damned have earned their punishment. Such fiends are satisfied to inflict suffering because they know that it is just!"

"I think I follow your reasoning," said the sage. "Demons either perpetuate injustice and are miserable because of it, or they effect justice and so derive satisfaction from their work."


"But the justice that makes the demon pleased with his function is justice on a scale that humans cannot observe in their daily affairs. The scales they balance are celestial or infernal, and beyond the perception of any mortal..." This time the sage trailed off without the seeker interrupting.

"So," said the sage, "An answer of yes is unacceptable to you."

"That is correct, o sage."

"And an answer of no..."

"Equally unacceptable," snapped the seeker.

"I see." The sage took another sip from his cup, set it down and then folded his hands upon his lap. "What sort of answer do you seek from me?"

"I want you to tell me that my question is untenable!"

"I think you can see that it is that," the sage assured him.

"I want you to tell me that my precepts are flawed."

"They don't seem to allow you any peace," agreed the sage.

"I want you to make me meditate in the winter wind while you pour cold water over me."

"It is the wrong season for that sort of discipline," observed the sage.

"I want you to hit me with a stick!"

"I don't have a stick to hit you with," said the sage.

"I've brought one with me." At this the seeker gestured to the stout walking stick that he'd leaned against the door frame when he entered the sage's modest dwelling. "It's sturdy and long, but not too heavy for you to wield, I think."

"There are many spiritual teachers who are known for using such harsh techniques. Why not seek them out?" The sage gestured off into the distance.

"I've been to ALL of them!" By this time the seeker was no longer looking at the sage. So great was his agitation that he could see only red, and his eyes could not focus. The seeker rattled off a litany of inadequacies. "Some teachers struck too hard, so that I feared I would die before I found the answer to my question. Others held back so that their blows were but token gestures incapable of sparking even trivial insights. Some clearly enjoyed it, and I won't take wisdom from a sadist. Others beat me by rote. So uninspired were their mechanistic lashes that I couldn't credit them with any sort of penetrating insight."

"Some hit you too hard," the sage paraphrased. "Others not hard enough. Some with too much gleeful intent, others without conviction."

"Yes. Yes. You understand my predicament."

"I understand that you are ill at ease. Many live and die and never escape that condition. You say you wish to feel at home in the universe, and you say that beasts and men of low intellect sometimes seem content."

The seeker's breathing slowed, and the flush faded from his cheeks. The sage realized that declarative statements calmed the seeker, while questions provoked him. With this understanding, the sage continued. "You believe that contentment is possible for some, though you may not be constituted to achieve it in the manner that beasts and prosaic men do. A better question for you to ask then would be 'How can I, a thinking man, feel at home in the universe?' Tying the question to an understanding of justice complicates matters and keeps you from your goal. As you say, justice is a difficult concept even for the learned and for those with the authority to make pronouncements on what is just and what is unjust."

As he spoke, the sage unrolled a scroll and took a brush from a modest case. He added water to an ink well and dabbed the brush in the ink and rolled it in the ink to shape the tip. He barely seemed to look at the paper as his hand, in a series of fluid strokes, created a delicate design on the paper. "Do you know this animal?"

"It is an elephant," replied the seeker. "A mythical animal, as big as ten horses, said to have lived in a bygone age."

"It is true that elephants, while native to a country that neighbors our own, have all died out in this part of the world, but they were once real. The royal temple in the capital, where I studied and served as a government administrator when I was a young man, housed the skull of an elephant. It was as big as you say. It is said that living specimens exist even to this day in the menagerie of an emperor on the far side of the world ocean. The elephant was a beast, but one with a deeper intellect than most men. I have seen paintings that were executed by elephants."

"Elephants had no hands," objected the seeker. "How could they hold a brush."

"It is said that the elephant's nose, which was as long as you are tall and tipped with a pair of grasping lips, was supple and dexterous enough to hold a brush and produce the most delicate calligraphy. You are right to doubt this extraordinary claim, but the documents that tell of elephant paintings tell of other unbelievable phenomena which the royal alchemists and engineers have confirmed to be factual."

The seeker furrowed his brow slightly, but he made no further protest. The sage continued.

"It is said that in ancient times humans were so numerous that their villages and towns grew larger and larger until there was no land left that was not under cultivation or given over to human habitat. Even then the elephants found a place in the human world along with dogs, monkeys, cats and chickens. It was an unhappy place for them, but a lucky few found some modest satisfaction in the work to which men put them. Then the rains came at the wrong time or not at all, and there was a great hunger across the land, and men could spare no food for any but their own. The monkeys and dogs stole enough to survive the lean times, but the elephants required too much fodder and were too big to escape and live in the neglected spaces of the world of men. And so they perished.

"Here is my challenge to you, seeker. Take this scroll, this brush and this ink. Continue your searching, and every night and every morning, meditate on this image of the elephant. Eventually you will encounter an elephant, most likely in a dream. When you come face to face with this enormous beast, you must quell your natural panic and offer the animal this brush or your walking stick. Ask him to draw the mandala of contented abiding for you or to bludgeon you with your walking stick. And whichever choice you make, ask the elephant about justice."

The sage packed the calligraphy set for travel and handed it to the seeker, but the seeker refused to take it.

"I expected better from the great sage who left his wealth and royal appointment for the life of a mountain hermit. This is just a ploy to send me on my way, and not a very clever one at that. Keep your brush and scrap of paper."

The sage did not bow, as would have been customary if he thought his guest was leaving, nor did the seeker make any move toward the door. Finally the seeker broke the silence.

"Well, don't you have any other wise-sounding non-sense to try to send me on my way?"

The sage replied, "You are not that old, so if you have sought spiritual relief with as many teachers as you say, you must not have stayed with any one of them for very long. I have no fear that you will grow roots under my roof. Even so, you are welcome to stay here for as long as you wish, just so long as you meditate on the image of the elephant at dawn and before sleeping. The people of the nearby village supply all of my needs, and they bring me more food than I can eat, in spite of my request that they bring less. I will share that food with you, and you can build your hermitage next to mine, and we can pass what days remain to me together. I will speak no more of contentment or justice, but I am in no hurry to be rid of you."

The seeker did not believe the sage, and so he stayed. Each day he expected the sage to convince him that the answers he sought could be found elsewhere, but the sage was true to his word. The food the villagers brought was unremarkable, but there was plenty of it. After a few weeks time the seeker's agitated nature drove him to his habitual exodus, and when he left, he did take the scroll and the brush and the ink.

He took his walking stick as well, but he knew that if he ever met the elephant, and if he could master his fear, he would offer the elephant the brush and not the stick.

Not long after the seeker left, the sage died. The villagers notified the monks at the nearby monastery who came to provide funeral rites for the sage. They washed his body, drew the sacred symbols upon his face and hands, and dismembered his corpse and left the pieces on the mountainside for the carrion birds.

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