There was once a wanderer who wished to be a pilgrim. He lived as a beggar and walked this road and that for many years of his life. He prostrated himself at every temple; spun every prayer wheel. He contemplated the words of saints and prayed their names. He was filled with love and filled with anger. He studied war and ached for peace. He breathed in and held his breath. He breathed out and held his breath. He lay in fields of flowers and begged the clouds to guide him. And he reviled himself without mercy, for nowhere could he find what he sought.
Driven by thirst one day he approached an old woman who was working in a garden near the road.
He bowed to her and said, Mother, I am thirsty.
Then drink, she said, there is good water in that pail.
When he had drunk he said, Mother, I am tired and cold.
Then rest here a while, she said, and let the sun warm you.
After he had rested he spoke again and said, Mother, I am lost.
She answered him saying, You are not lost my son. You are here.
Yes, Mother, I am certainly here, he said. And still I am lost, because I have not found what I seek.
The old woman pointed toward the east and said, Then you must go to the sacred mountain. Walk around it and then return here.
The wanderer bowed in reverence and set off toward the east.
It was a long, difficult journey through country he had, curiously, never traveled. He sometimes met a silent yogi on the road who could point in the right direction. He was losing his place in time when at last he reached the high ranges where the sacred mountain lived. It was winter by then and very cold. He trekked across the frozen land. He slipped on rocks and fell into holes beneath the snow as he walked and crawled around the sacred mountain. By the time he had finished his perambulation, death was near. But he had good fortune. A hermit who lived in the mountain welcomed the wanderer to his cave.
The hermit shared his water and his rice. After three days, the wanderer was strong enough to continue. He told the hermit of his journey and the hermit smiled. They bowed to each other, and the wanderer took his leave.
One year had passed when he again met the old woman at her garden. She spoke to him saying, Have you found what you seek?
No, Mother, I have not. I was cold and alone. I was afraid and faced death many times. I don’t know what kept me going. It is a miracle that I am alive. But I have not found what I seek.
Then I see my mistake, the old woman said. I should have sent you to the sacred river. She pointed west and said, Go to the sacred river. Drink from it and then return here.
The wanderer bowed in silence and set off toward the west.
The journey to the west was no less difficult than the journey to the east. He had to make his way through a dense and ancient jungle where lived fierce animals. It was so hot he could hardly breathe. The sound of the insects was so great it drove all thought from his mind. Numbed and stumbling, he was bitten by a venomous snake, and its poison soon brought him terrifying hallucinations. In his nightmare he was dying again and again, but death would not come. He became the snake, striking himself. He became a leaf caught in a whirlpool, spinning deeper into the dark water. He shot into the sky as an arrow, naked and far from his regrets. Falling back to earth, he fell into the sacred river and was washed away in the flood. Days and nights passed until he awoke in the sand at the edge of the river. Surely I have drunk from the sacred river, he thought, and it has cured me of the snake’s poison. But I am lost in this jungle.
He wandered for another season in the jungle until one morning he found a road.
Another year had passed before he again met the old woman at her garden. Once more she spoke to him saying, Have you found what you seek?
No Mother, I have not. I have been lost in a wild jungle. I have been poisoned and have lost my mind for how long I cannot say. Even now I do not know what is real and what is dream. I am desolate. I can go no farther. And still, after all this time, and after all my trials, I have not found what I seek.
I see now that I have not advised you well, my son. I should have asked you when first we met … What is it you seek?
The wanderer fell silent. He could find no answer.
My son, said the old woman, the journey has become your journey. And now you must come to an end so that you may begin.
The wanderer heard her words and knew they were true, but he could not have said how he knew.
A power came upon him that was at once fearful and loving. Her voice was the only sound he could hear. Her face was the only sight he could see. The sacred mountain and the jungle of the sacred river became radiant in his mind and indistinguishable the one from the other. He knew stillness as he had never known stillness. He could not think of a time when he had not known the old woman.
He bowed his head. Mother, he said, not knowing whether he was speaking words, my mind is confused. Please tell me how long I have known you.
If we are to speak of time, she said, then I have known you for an eon before your grandmother was born. And you have first met me today.
You have come to me saying, Mother, I am thirsty, she said.
Yes, Mother, I have.
Then you must drink.