The Philosopher and the Mystic

Heng San, the philosopher, had been sent by the emperor of Chou Pai province to visit the court of his friend the emperor of Tsung Mu province. Heng San was well respected for his learning and his rationality. The emperor often sought his opinion on issues that were brought to court. The philosopher preached that things should be orderly, the laws explicit and the people obedient, if the province was to prosper. And by and large the province of Chou Pai had prospered. The province of Tsung Mu however struggled to progress. There was great poverty and discontent among the population. It was for this reason that the emperor of Tsung Mu had requested the services of the philosopher to improve his administration and hopefully help his province prosper.

Tsung Mu was about ten day’s journey from Chou Pai. At his emperor’s bidding the philosopher had set off with an attendant to make his way to Tsung Mu.

It was the sixth day of his journey and Heng San, who was now in his sixtieth year, was beginning to tire. His attendant, Huan, noticing the philosopher’s weary gait, said, “Sire, you seem to be tiring. If you will just bear with it for a while, in a half hour or so we shall come to a stream where it would be convenient for us to make camp for the night.”

Heng San nodded. “Thank you Huan – I am sure I can walk another half hour, but I must confess I will be happy to sit and rest my weary legs.”

Heng San marched on and his situation was aided by the fact that the countryside that their path took them through was extremely beautiful, which helped distract him from his weariness. As well the going was easier now, being downhill, as they went down to the stream.

Soon Huan called out, “There is the stream, sire. We shall soon be able to rest.”

Sure enough from their elevated vantage point the philosopher could see, through gaps in the trees, a lovely little stream meandering along, now only a few minute’s walk away. But as they approached the stream they could see some smoke arising from a little fire. And then, as they got nearer, they saw a man tending a small fire and another sitting with his legs crossed on the ground.

Heng San stopped. He looked across at Huan. “Huan, do you think it will be safe to go down there?”

“Yes, sire. It is obvious from his attire that the man sitting on the ground is a monk. He is probably a Buddhist and Buddhists eschew violence.”

“Very well then,” said Heng San and he, somewhat reluctantly, walked down to the stream’s edge.

The man tending the fire suddenly stood up and looked up the path and saw the two travelers approaching. He immediately smiled and called out, “Welcome friends. Come and join us.”

A little more emboldened now, Heng San with Huan in tow, approached the little camp site. Despite the cry of the man tending the fire, the other figure cross-legged on the ground, whom they could now see wore a saffron robe, didn’t move.

Heng San and Huan approached the man tending the fire. He smiled at them and said, “Welcome. My name is Tian. You are travellers also, like us. Come and join us. My master is meditating but he will be finished in a little while. It is our duty to offer hospitality and I am sure he would be happy if you could dine with us tonight. I am in the process of cooking a little supper now. But if you would join us it would be easy to add a few more ingredients to ensure we can all retire with something adequate in our bellies.”

Heng San was unsure about this invitation and remaining somewhat aloof sat down in the little clearing about ten metres from the little cooking fire. Huan however immediately took to Tian. “Thank you friend – we would be pleased to join you. But we are mendicants too and carry a few provisions with us. Let us contribute something to the evening meal.”

Huan opened his back pack and produced a bag with a few dried vegetables. “Would these be of any help?”

“Well of course! How generous! With these I am sure we can all have a satisfying meal.”

Heng San continued to sit a little removed from the others. Tian and Huan seemed to enjoy each other’s company. Soon they were telling stories, sharing jokes and tips on campfire cooking.

After a time the robed figure arose and, smiling, said to Tian. “We have visitors. That is pleasing. Tell me pupil, who are our guests?”

“Well sir, this is Huan. He and his Master have been marching for six days. They are going to the province of Tsung Mu. Huan’s Master is a famous philosopher.”

The robed figure walked over to Heng San. “Sir, I am Partikalama Rinpoche. I am pleased to meet you. It is exciting to have a philosopher among our ranks. Perhaps we will have some interesting conversation around the camp fire tonight.”

Heng San rose and bowed. “We thank you for your hospitality. I am Heng San. I am advisor to the emperor of Chou Pai.”

“Well, well – we have someone of some importance at our camp fire tonight.”

Heng San was flattered by this statement. “It is true sir I am someone of some importance. But do not allow that fact overwhelm you. Tell me more about yourself. Who are you and where are you going?”

Before he could answer Tian interjected, “Well sire, my Master is a famous sage. He is well schooled in Buddhism and seeks to bring loving-kindness into the world.”

The sage scowled. “Forgive my pupil sire. He has not yet acquired too much wisdom. You asked who am I and where am I going. To tell the truth, I am nobody going nowhere.”

Tian quickly went to his Master’s defence again. “Oh I am sorry Master but that can’t be so. You are a respected teacher and you have changed so many lives for the better.”

Partikalama Rinpoche smiled. “Excuse me sir, but my disciple is well-meaning but not yet schooled in the essential wisdom of my calling. Let me repeat, I am nobody going nowhere. But come, it seems as if our companions have cooked our supper. Let us eat.”

And so the four travellers sat down and with a few simple bowls and some basic utensils enjoyed the repast that Huan and Tian had prepared. Once they had eaten they cleaned their utensils and containers in the stream. Then they laid out their bedding on the soft grass on the bank of the stream. Huan and Tian sat alongside the dying embers of the fire and each smoked a pipe.

The philosopher and the sage sat together on the bank of the stream and in the dwindling light of the late afternoon watched the sun set. The sunset was extraordinarily beautiful and filled the sky with a glorious display of colour. The light southerly wind blew about them and made the evening air pleasant after the exertions of the day. The little stream meandered on and the sound of its ripples and gurglings added an extra dimension to the sensuous bestowment of the late afternoon.

By now the sun was a fiery red orb sitting on the edge of the horizon. The sage was sitting cross-legged in his meditation position taking in the aura of the marvelous scene. The philosopher however was mulling something over to himself. Eventually he said to the sage, “How do explain the setting of the sun? What is happening here? Our eyes clearly see that the sun moves across the heavens and then disappears to resume its course in the morning. Where do you think it goes at night? And how does it get from the west, where it sets, to the east where it rises over night? It seems to me that golden orb must make its way unseen in the night from one horizon to the other. How I wonder does it do that?”

The sage smiled. “Why do you concern yourself? See the glorious colours in the sky. Let us bask in their splendour.”

“The colours are of no interest to me unless I can explain them. Don’t you have a need to know how such an array can arise?”

“When I taste honey, do I need to know how it derives its sweetness? I am happy to experience the world as it is. I feel so blessed that I can be something that is aligned to the world. My knowing is not a rational thing that results from intellectual processes. My knowing is an intuitive thing that comes from the alignment of my being with the way of the world.”

The Philosopher shook his head. “I can not relate to that. I can not understand that which my mind can’t compute.”

“Then you are at a great disadvantage, because the universe is complex and beyond the ken of reasoning. There are other ways of knowing than through intellectual pursuit.”

“This is not something I can easily believe. What about this cooling breeze that now blows across our faces? Where does that arise from?”

“It arises from my contentment with the world.”

“What sort of an answer is that? There must be some force of nature that causes the wind to blow. How do you explain that?”

“I have no desire to explain it. The wind cools my face. I welcome it. I am happy to enjoy its benevolence.”

Heng San was getting a little testy now. In a querulous voice he asked, “How can you describe the wind as benevolent? Does the wind have intent? Is it sometimes malevolent as well?”

“Well of course! Sometimes it blows mightily and does great harm. But it does no harm when I understand who I am and how I relate to its impact. Essentially, because I know who I am the wind can never harm me.”

“But that is absurd. The wind might blow so strongly that it uproots a tree which falls on you and kills you. Then you would be harmed.”

“Oh, it is true that my body would be harmed but who I am essentially would not be harmed. I know you will find this hard to accept, but at the level of my essential identity, the world is always benign. All is well. All is well.”

“I have great difficulty in accepting the things that you say. Your pupil says you are a great sage, but it seems to me that you are extraordinarily naïve.”

“My pupil is too generous. I have no claims to be a great sage and you are probably right I could easily be naïve.”

“Then how can you argue with me – someone whose wisdom has been attested to by emperors.”

“Well I can’t compete with that! I know no emperors who give evidence to my wisdom. I make no claims at all in that regard.”

“Then answer me – why does the sun set, why does the breeze blow?”

“It is of no import. I sit and take in the splendour of the magnificent sky illuminated by the sunset. I sit and enjoy the cooling breeze on my face making my evening pleasant. Isn’t that enough?”

“No! Not for me. I need to know the answers. Look at this stream. It runs pleasantly down between these banks. Why does it do this? What is its purpose?”

Just then Huan and Tian had finished their pipes. They were quite convivial and enjoying themselves.

Huan said to his companion, “After a sweaty day’s walking I feel the need to refresh myself.”

So saying he shed his clothes and walked into the stream. He splashed around obviously enjoying himself. Well that was too much for Tian within a minute or two he was in the water too enjoying its refreshing coolness in the dwindling light.

A little startled by the activity the sage and the philosopher stood up to see what was happening. Seeing the two cavorting in the water Partikalama Rinpoche smiled at their antics. Heng San was standing right alongside him. “Well there you are philosopher, you asked what the purpose of the stream was, and maybe it is this.”

And so saying he pushed Heng San in the back so that he fell into the stream, clothes and all. The sage quickly shed his robe and sandals and jumped in as well. He quickly pulled his companion up so that he could stand in the little stream with the water lapping around his middle.

“I am not as clever as you my friend,” he told the spluttering philosopher, “But maybe the purpose of sunsets is to be seen and admired, maybe the purpose of the wind is to be cooled and refreshed, and maybe the purpose of streams is just to be wet!”

27 Replies to “The Philosopher and the Mystic”

  1. Ted, I’ve always loved the Beatles, and your parable calls to my mind George Harrison’s wonderful “the Inner Light”, which goes like this:

    Without going out of my door
    You can know all things of earth
    Without looking out of my window
    You could know the ways of heaven
    The farther one travels
    The less one knows
    The less one really knows
    Arrive without travelling
    See all without looking
    Do all without doing

    “The farther one travels, the less one knows” is said to be based on an old Zen poem and is also credited as a quote from Lao Tzu – we already possess the “meaning” (whatever that may be) and can only hope to understand meaning by looking within. My nine year old asked me recently “what’s the point of music?” Same answer! I can’t explain the rationality, but look (listen) within and the answer becomes self apparent. Study alone won’t get us any closer to the truth unless we also look within ourselves.

  2. We can get far too focussed on the ‘how’ and lose sight of the ‘why’, and even in seeking the ‘why’ we can miss out on the simple pleasures that come our way.


  3. I have missed your last couple of blogs Ted because of the pressures of life. This weeks blog very much brings this into context for me.

    Unfortunately I am a philosopher. I was born with a desire to understand the world and I still pursue this today. That said I am also learning as I grow older to appreciate things as they are without judging or comparing them. Acceptance of the world as it is, for me is an unloading experience. There is no pressure to understand or improve anything, you just let if flow over you and enjoy the experience. Unfortunately this is something I experience all too infrequently. The pressures of life that I create because of my unsubstatiated desire for possessions and comfort gives me little time to stop and smell the roses. I guess I at least know the roses are there waiting for me. I observe some people and think that perhaps they can no longer see the roses let alone smell them.

    PS: I will have to back read you last couple of blogs

  4. ‘Father Robin will no doubt reinforce your perception of my naivety and the futility of trying to espouse an escape from rationality and determinism!’

    ‘your perception’?

    What arrogance!

    Who is you?

  5. Any nominations from anyone?

    They have already tried Socrates, Plato, Kant, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, Einstein, Bohr, Maslow, Jung, Spong, Huxley.

    They are getting desperate.

  6. I don’t want to live in world where nothing is questioned.

    “Why do these children with itchy blotches keep dying.” “I don’t know, maybe it’s just their purpose to die.”

    “Why does this dictator keep beating me”. “I don’t know, maybe it’s our purpose to suffer.”

    I find this parable unsatisfying Ted, and it triggers in me negative sentiment. eg. Mystics sitting around being smug about the their world view, doesn’t grow food, or build shelter or cure disease or all the things done by the “questioners” whose labours we take for granted.

    Life as we know it, might have a purpose (or might not). If, as Dr Phil might say, life is an exercise in individuality being conducted by one spiritual entity, then all manifestations of the life condition (ie. the experiment) are important. This mystics vs philosopher discussion (yes, I’m talking to you too Fr Robin) can be a little tedious when portrayed in such a binary way.

    It might be useful for the monk to understand that heavy rain can make the stream dangerous, notwithstanding that it’s lovely to look at and very refreshing after a long walk. Frankly, if I’d been there I would have pushed the monk in for being such a boring conversationalist!

  7. I must confess Bruno, that I was trying to contrast the differing approaches. I.wasn’t trying to be judgmental. But I believe we live in a Confucious world and that brings some benefits from its rationality. But my disposition is such that I yearn for a little more concern for the qualitative rather than the quantitative and that intuition has a place to play alongside rationality.

  8. Ted,

    I think I understand what your article was getting at and wasn’t trying to be argumentative or give offence.

    Nevertheless, something about the story pushed my buttons, so maybe I’ll just reflect on that for a while.

    “A chair is still a chair
    Even when there’s no one sitting there
    But a chair is not a house
    And a house is not a home
    When there’s no one there to hold you tight
    And no one there you can kiss good night” Burt Bacharach

  9. Father Ted.

    If you could shift your characters and locations a little Westward more of us plebs might have a better chance of following your thoughts.

  10. Aldous Huxley distinguishes between the “quietist” – one who is able to transcend – and what I think he called the “contemplative-activist” – one who is able not only to transcend this world and therefore dwell with the mystics in their seventh heaven, but who is also able and eager to depart or forsake that realm in order to share wisdom with and offer practical charity to us mere mortals left behind. Just like Jesus of course, Buddha, and the saints.

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