October 31, 2020

Mukti

(c) J.Singh, 2017

The monk sat, silently absorbed in the deepest meditation. He was the picture of serenity, a calm relaxed expression upon his face. But inside, a fierce battle raged. He was close, so close, to victory. But his enemy was wily, and kept evading him. It was the master of deception, and continued to trick him. As he peeled back layers upon layers of pretense and lies, he discovered more and more obfuscation and subterfuge. But he persisted. He had learned years ago to defend against attacks from his enemy, and now finally he was on the offensive. His enemy was fleeing, and he had to defeat it. If he did not press on with the attack now and destroy it while he had the chance, he may not be able to reach this position again.

He was fighting the ultimate battle. His enemy was his mind.

On the other side was victory. Peace. Tranquility. Truth. Bliss. Freedom.

The monk opened his eyes and regarded all the passers-by as they engaged in their daily lives. They were trapped! Blinded by the same force that had bound them all in this elaborate ruse. So lost in the deception were they that they didn’t even realize what had happened to them. They walked around absorbed in the delusion, completely oblivious of the truth. At first, he felt anger rising within him. But just as the first whispers of the emotion began to take form, he captured them and dissolved them. No, my mind, I cannot be angry at these people. Nor can I be angry at you, the great deceiver, for that is exactly what you want.

He climbed down from his perch on the raised platform that had been built underneath the ancient banyan tree. Slowly, he stretched his limbs. He didn’t know how many hours he had been sitting, but it must have been for most of the day. The sun was about to set. It would be dark soon. He started to feel the gnawing sense of hunger in his stomach. He slipped his feet into his sandals and headed down the path towards the temple.

After a quick meal at the temple, he performed cleaning duties, washing the floor and stairs to the entrance, and then returned to the main hall to sit with the other monks in meditation and quiet reflection.

When it was dark, and time to retire, he soundlessly rose and slipped out of the main hall. Outside, in the hallway, he encountered another monk, maybe the oldest and wisest person he knew. The old monk smiled sagely and said, “You have been a diligent student for all these years. Now, I have a task for you.”

“Yes, anything,” said the monk.

The older monk presented him with a sword, sheathed in a beautiful black scabbard which was inscribed with words of ancient wisdom. He bowed to receive the gift.

“I want you to take this and travel to the ravaged lands to the west of our borders,” the older monk instructed. “Go there and spread the spiritual wisdom of the ancient ones, so that the people may find the way, and stop killing each other in their senseless wars.”

The monk hesitated. “I have been meditating for so many years,” he said, “I am close to enlightenment. If I go now, I will lose my opportunity.”

“You must go now,” the older monk replied with a gleam in his eye, “for this is the only way you will achieve enlightenment, which you have been working so diligently towards for so many years. If you do not travel to these lands now, you will miss your opportunity, and you may never achieve enlightenment.”

The monk bowed in acceptance. But he was confused.

Early the next morning, the monk set out towards the west, carrying only his walking stick, some dry bread, coins, and the sword. It was going to be a long journey on foot, but the pathways in this part of the country were well-formed, shaded from the hot sun, and comfortable. He made good progress during the day, stopping for a meal at noon beside a river. He gathered some fruits from nearby trees and shrubs, and drank the fresh water from the river. Then he continued on his way.

It took several days for him to reach the country’s border. The land here seemed to be barren. It was dry, dusty, and devoid of any vegetation. The wind blew the sand up in small whirlwinds before dissipating. It was the entrance to a desolate place.

The border guards looked at each other in surprise as the monk approached.

“Where do you travel, monk?” one of them asked.

“To the land beyond,” he replied, gesturing ahead with his hand.

“There is war. Why do you go there?”

“To show the people the way.”

“Surely you will be killed, and will not return.”

“I may be killed. I may not return. That is the will of the Divine. But still, I must go.”

One of the guards stepped forward. He was an older man, and it was clear that he had been doing this job for many years.

“Not many people come this way, monk,” he said, “especially since the wars in the west began. I have been a border guard for forty years. I have guarded this post for a long, long time. And in all this time, I have only seen one other monk cross this path. He did not carry a weapon like you, though.”

Curious, the monk tilted his head.

“He never came back,” the old guard continued. “I don’t know what happened to him. But you should know that this is a treacherous path.”

The monk nodded. “I understand,” he said.

The old guard sighed. He nodded to the other guard, and they lifted the barrier to allow the monk to pass. As he set foot into the other country, the old guard said, “may you have the protection of the gods, for you go on a mission of peace.”

The monk bowed, and continued on his journey.

The path was unwelcoming. It was a difficult trek to the first spot where he might be able to rest. There was a small, quiet lake with a few trees offering scant shade from the blistering heat of the sun. He washed his face and hands in the cool water of the lake, and then sat down underneath the tree to meditate.

The monk opened his eyes and regarded all the passers-by as they engaged in their daily lives. They were trapped! Blinded by the same force that had bound them in this elaborate ruse. So lost in the deception were they that they didn’t even realize what had happened to them. They walked around absorbed in the delusion, completely oblivious of the truth. Bewildered, the monk looked around frantically, at the raised platform, at the banyan tree, and all his countrymen and women walking past. He leaned back slowly as the realization dawned on him that the great trickster had deceived him.

It was getting dark already. He climbed down from the raised platform, slipped his feet into his sandals, and raced towards the warm orange glow of the lights from the temple. After a very quick meal, he performed service, washing the floor and entrance steps to the temple, and then returned to the main hall to meditate with the other monks.

After a few hours, he rose and soundlessly left the main hall. Outside, he saw the old monk.

“It is a difficult task,” he confessed. The old monk nodded.

“The closer you get, the more difficult it will become,” he advised. “Be ever watchful, ever prepared. Your enemy will use every weapon it has against you. You must be vigilant!”

The monk bowed in appreciation for this advice. And then retired to his chambers to sleep.

The sound of distant gunfire and explosions roused the monk from his meditation. He opened his eyes and witnessed large clouds of black smoke rising beyond the hills. He was disoriented. He looked around, and saw that he was sitting underneath a tree by the lake. The ground shook as another explosion boomed through the stale, thin air.

He stood up and surveyed the surroundings. He had been traveling, after all. He realized that he must be very close to reaching the Truth. His enemy was desperately trying to prevent him from proceeding further. But his resolve was firm. The sound of another explosion cracked through the air. The explosions were getting louder.

He continued along his journey, ascending through the hills and into the sparse forest. There was vegetation here, but the leaves were wilting, and covered in a fine dust. The air was stagnant and heavy with the thick smog of pollution. It was stifling. He covered his nose and mouth with his hand and pushed through the stale air of the forest.

Eventually he reached the outer edge of the forest, which allowed him a vantage point to see the wide valley below. It was a horrible sight. There was devastation as far as the eye could see. Thick black smoke was billowing from the remnants of buildings. The land had been razed to the ground. Small fires were still burning. The distorted corpses of soldiers and civilians lay scattered about the landscape like grotesque sculptures, twisted in unearthly agony. Barbed wire fences and barricades marked the spots where soldiers had fought and died.

The monk clasped his hands together in prayer for the souls of the deceased. Even as he stood there, he continued to hear the explosions, which came like thunder every few minutes, and grew louder and closer every time he heard them.

He turned and continued his path on the ridge of the hill, walking swiftly. It was getting late in the day, and he would soon have to find a place to rest for the night. It was unlikely that he would find a town where he might find shelter, so he would have to sleep in the wilderness. He started looking for a suitable spot, and as the last light slowly faded, he found a cluster of large boulders that formed a small cave of sorts. He crawled into it and started a small fire near the entrance for light and warmth. As darkness descended, the stars peeked out in the night sky, even as the rumble and thunder of explosions continued into the night.

When he woke, it was still dark, and the last dying embers of the fire were slowlyflickering away. There was someone close by. He heard movement and whispers. Quietly, he sat up, the sword balanced evenly in his lap. He waited patiently for whoever it was to reveal themselves. The whispers grew louder, and grew in number, until they seemed to be close to his own ears. But he could not make out what they were saying. He concentrated. These were female voices. They had an urgent, hushed tone. It was a call.

“Where are you?” he called out into the darkness.

“Don’t you see us?” came back the clear reply in unison. He felt chills. He looked down at the dead fire, wondering if he should attempt to light it again.

“No time,” hissed the voices at him.

“Come,” they urged.

They could hear his thoughts, he realized. These were no physical beings of this realm.

“Reveal yourself!” he commanded. And then, slithering out like snakes from behind the surrounding boulders, trees and shrubs, the women glided towards him. They moved with fluid, hypnotic undulations, their sheer clothing waving in the cold night air, eyes glowing bright. Their long hair draped down over their bare shoulders, falling in cascading waves. Their skin glowed like milk in the pale moonlight. Their look was mesmerizing, and their sensual, erotic voices were like dripping honey, captivating the attention and senses.

He saw three, then four, then seven of them. They all advanced toward him, luring him, calling to him.

“Are you some form of sprite?” he asked, one hand resting lightly on the scabbard.

They all shook their heads in unison. “Come,” they urged, with outstretched arms. “Come with us.”

He knew he must not go. But he found his body reacting. He stood up involuntarily.

“You don’t need that,” they pointed to the sword. “Just come with us.”

Their beauty. Their allure. He could not resist. He set the sword down on the ground and walked out towards them.

“Come with us,” they all urged in unison, their voices animated with excitement. They formed a semi-circle in front of him, calling to him longingly with their voices, outstretched arms, and with their eyes. Their bodies swayed sensuously as they yearned for him.

He had given in to their spell. His senses, totally intoxicated, gave in and told him to join the women, and follow them wherever they wanted him to go. But in the back of his mind, he had a nagging feeling. He knew that this was not real. How could it be, in the middle of a war-torn country, in the middle of the night? He took a step forward, their long delicate fingers were but an inch away from his face, reaching out to him, beckoning him, longing with aching desire to caress him.

“Come,” they whispered softly, almost in his ear, it seemed. He was dazed, as if in a dream. He tried hard to remember the ancient teachings. Something that could help him. But his mind was drawing a blank. It seemed that he was on his own. He had nothing to counter the spell, no defense against these creatures.

He felt his will and his body surrendering. His doubt was also slipping away. This reality seemed to envelop him. He decided to go with them.

Then, that small, tiny nagging voice. “What about the sword?”

By great effort, he forced himself to turn his head and look back at where the sword lay on the ground.

“YOU DON’T NEED IT!” the women seemed to be screaming now, the voices had reached inside his head.

He knew logic. He knew reason. He knew something was terribly wrong. He also knew that somebody (or something) was trying to manipulate him. But beyond that, he couldn’t fathom what was happening. His thinking was murky and slow, as if in a daze. It was difficult to concentrate. Still, the nagging voice kept telling him to get the sword. “Pick it up,” it said. “It was a gift.” That’s right, he remembered the old monk had given it to him. He turned and took and step back towards the cave.

“LEAVE IT!” they shrieked in unison, sending a sharp, shooting pain inside his head. With an invisible, irresistible force tugging at him, he turned back towards them. As they floated backwards, he followed them.

But that small, gentle, nagging voice would not stop. “Open your eyes,” it said softly.

He let go of the struggle. He let go of expectations. He breathed deeply, connecting with his breath, and fully accepted all that there was, all of life in it’s imperfections and all of himself, and all of the world. He opened his eyes and saw that he was alone in the cold dark night, teetering on the edge of the precipice. It was a long, sheer drop to the valley floor beneath. He carefully, slowly, lifted his foot and took and small step back. Then another. And another. Until he was safely back near the entrance to the cave.

Taking up his sword again, he sat down and regarded the cold ashes of the fire. He realized that he was very close to victory. But he wondered how much more difficult things were going to become. Even as he did so, he cleared his thoughts and closed his eyes in meditation.

Dawn came, and with it the constant barrage of gunfire and shelling by the warring factions of the land.

The monk began traveling at the first sign of light, moving quickly in the cool morning air. He wanted to reach a habitable town that day, so that he would have a chance to speak with the local population. He traversed a long distance within a few hours, stopping very briefly for food and rest. He made it out of the forest and down the hills into the valley below. He walked along well-trodden paths, yet he witnessed only devastation along his route. He quickened his pace in the afternoon, and by evening he finally reached a small village which appeared to be inhabited.

The villagers welcomed him with relief. They were frightened, speaking in hushed voices and always looking out towards the horizon for any sign of an attack. They asked him news of the war. But he explained to them that he had come from the east, and that he knew even less about what was happening than they did. They appeared to be disappointed that they could not obtain any new information, but they welcomed him, fed him, and offered him the shelter of a room to sleep and a warm bed. He thanked them graciously and shared some of the ancient spiritual wisdom with them. By the time his talk was over, many of them were smiling, and a common feeling of love and contentment could be felt in the room. The monk nodded and bowed.

The next morning, he learned from the locals more about the conflict that had started this war. It had originally been a dispute over territory. Over the years it had degraded to attacks of vengeance and eventually things had spiraled out of control. Now, the people knew nothing but war, destruction, desolation and fear. So many had died. Those that could, had fled the country. Very few remained who had not taken up fighting for one of the multiple factions involved in the long, terrible conflict. This village was one of the last ones remaining as a community. Most of the others had taken to the forests and jungles to hide.

The monk remained in the village for several days, imparting wisdom to the locals from the ancient teachings. They took solace in the lessons, and many found peace within, which helped them to deal with their crippling fear. At the appropriate time, the monk made his preparations and continued on his journey. The villagers thanked him, for they recognized him as a holy man, and they wished him well on his journey and mission.

It was not long afterwards that that he reached an abandoned city, which was also in ruins due to the ravages of the war. But in this city, shots were still being fired. He could hear shouting, following by rapid gunfire and explosions. There were momentary lulls of silence, followed by the deafening sound of weapons fire. He searched for the soldiers, trying to locate where the noise was coming from. He could hear the bullets whizzing past, and sometimes see the flash of gunfire from a building window or a makeshift bunker, but he could not see the people.

Finally, he walked into the the middle of the road and held up his arms. For a brief moment, everything stopped. He knew they had seen him.

But then, he heard marching boots stomping on the ground in unison. The ground shook as they approached. Puzzled, he turned to see a battalion of soldiers marching towards him on the road. They stopped, aimed their weapons at him, and all fired simultaneously.

The bullets raced through the air towards him. In an instant he realized that something was terribly wrong. O my mind, how you deceive me. He raised his hand, and the soldiers disappeared. The bullets vanished before they reached him.

The monk opened his eyes and regarded all the passers-by as they engaged in their daily lives. They were trapped! Blinded by the same force that had bound them in this elaborate ruse. So lost in the deception were they that they didn’t even realize what had happened to them. They walked around absorbed in the delusion, completely oblivious of the truth.

The monk looked at the raised platform, at the banyan tree, and all his countrymen and women walking past. He sat for a moment, regarding everything, and then climbed down from the raised platform, slipped his feet into his sandals, and walked deliberately towards the temple. He skipped his meal, performed service, washing the floor and entrance steps to the temple, and then returned to the main hall to meditate with the other monks.

After a few hours, he rose and soundlessly left the main hall. Outside, the old monk was waiting for him.

“You have something for me?” he queried.

“Indeed I do,” the old monk, and produced the sword. “It will be your guide in the difficult and dark times ahead.”

He bowed as he accepted the gift.

The shooters began firing again in earnest. They were ignoring him, and continuing their old animosity towards each other. He realized he had to speak with each of them. He ducked into a nearby building and began searching the rooms.

The old border guard peered at him curiously.

“Not many people come this way, monk,” he said, “especially since the wars in the west began. I have been a border guard for forty years. I have guarded this post for a long, long time. And in all this time, I have only seen one other monk cross this path.”

The monk looked around at the barren land, at the border barricade, at the other guard standing behind the old guard.

“I am at the country border,” he stated.

“It was a long time ago, many many years ago,” the old guard continued. “He was a monk, just like you. He never came back.”

The monk blinked.

“It was many, many years ago.”

As if stripping a layer of old paint, the reality dissolved.

“He was a monk, just like you.”

The monk opened his eyes.

“He never came back.”

He looked down at his hands, old and wrinkled with age. The sword lay by his side. He sat by the river, under the tree, the branches now bowed down with the weight of the years. His hair had grown long, and white. His body felt tired. He tried getting up, but his legs failed him and he stumbled. Frantic, he crawled to the bank of the river and looked in to see his reflection. The gently flowing water showed him a face that was ancient, wrinkled with lines of age, and a long flowing white beard and long white hair. Indeed, he had been lost in his meditation for years. He gasped for breath, and lay on the ground, staring up at the sky. How many decades had he been lost in this delusion? What was the sacrifice he had paid? He was frail and old now. His bones were brittle. His legs would not carry him. He was wasting away, his body a mere shell. He was nothing but skin and bones.

And he had still not attained liberation. He was still trapped.

As the realization swept over him, he covered his face with his hands and began to weep. It had been a wasted life. He had failed.

He began to feel despair. He fell into a deep sadness. After a long while, he slowly struggled up to sit, and thought about what to do next. He suddenly realized that he did not want to die alone. He didn’t know how far death was, but he felt very weak and unable to expend a lot of energy. There didn’t seem to be anyone else in sight. He was all alone here.

He thought back to the ancient teachings - we all die alone. The wisdom was of small comfort to him now. He scanned the horizon, but there was no sign of anyone.

Sighing, he looked around for a comfortable spot where he might lay. And then his eyes fell upon the sword. That gift, by the old monk with a gleam in his eye. It was still in it’s beautiful black scabbard, inscribed with words of ancient wisdom.

He stared at the sword for a long time, transfixed by it. Something seemed out of place, but he couldn’t quite understand what. And then, suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, he knew. The sword did not belong here. It had been given to the second monk who traveled to the war-torn lands, not the first. The first one did not carry a weapon. So he could not be the first monk.

The illusion fell away as the wisdom of enlightenment dawned in him. The pieces of his illusion broke like glass shattering into a million pieces. Gone was the tree and the flowing river. Gone was his wrinkled skin and aged body. He sat cross-legged amidst the ruins of a building in the middle of a battle, glowing with light, renewed and rejuvenated, the sword resting gently in his lap.

The soldiers, one by one, ceased to fire upon one another and came out from their positions. Such a sight they had never seen. A monk sitting in samadhi, in the deepest meditation, and glowing with the light of one who has attained enlightenment. Slowly, silently, they put down their weapons, and came to sit around him in reverence. They felt his presence radiating peace, love and understanding. Their hearts responded intuitively to his energy, and one after another, friend and foe alike, they bowed.

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