Young Mika left his village, carrying his meager belongings in a bag slung over his shoulder. From one full moon to the next, he journeyed toward the Hida Mountains. His paternal grandmother had told him that Yakusi, the Zen sage, lived over there. He finally approached the mountains’ purplish crest and, a week later, started – rain or shine – his ascent on an ever rockier, steeper path. His feet bloodied, starved, he emerged at the end of an endless climb in front of a single-storied monastery that crawled along the capricious curves of the stony mountainside. Beyond the rough hewn stone wall, he discovered cultivated land and gardens: this was Mika’s idea of paradise
At his request, the wide portal opened and he was greeted with a smile. Could it be that easy to get an audience with a renowned sage? He was given soup and bread and before his tiredness could he even express itself in disrespectful yawns, he was shown to a small bedroom where he collapsed into sleep, face down into the straw.
The next morning, he breakfasted long after the monks had already settled into their routine. Finding himself alone, without any particular plan, he just wandered about, timidly stepping around at first. Then, under the smiling encouragement of the monks already at work, he sauntered on with more assurance. He walked through tiny fields with straight, well-irrigated furrows; through a garden replete with floral fragrances and along a low wall built of well-aligned stones. Indoors, the floor tiles gleamed with cleanliness; rooms, kitchen, refectory, meditation and prayer rooms outrank each other in order and simplicity.
Mika was feeling useless until he remembered the purpose of his quest. He worked up the courage to disturb a few monks and he received an answer. Following one pointing gesture after another, he found himself in front of a slightly open door. He caught a glimpse of an old man transcribing, in a delicate handwriting, a text from one parchment to another.
– Come in, Mika. He felt compelled to obey such a gentle voice.
– How do you know my name? he asked. And how do you know it’s me? he was tempted to add, since the old man was still turning his back to him.
– Who else would come all the way here? answered the sage.
And, as he was saying this, the old man put down his pen and turned toward Mika who asked:
– You are the wise man Yakusi ?
– My name is Yakusi.
Mika didn’t acknowledge the omission:
– I want to know what life is. That brought a smile to Yakusi’s lips.
– Only a very wise man such as you can answer that question.
Yakusi’s smile deepened :
– Every spring hopes for a blooming summer.
Mika was still trying to fathom himself as springtime when the old sage asked him:
– Would you be willing to help us with something?
– I’ll do anything to help, quickly answered the youth, brimming with enthusiasm.
– The monk in charge of maintaining the corridor floors would be more useful doing something else. Would you be willing to relieve him of that task? You will find a bucket and a brush at the temple’s entrance and water in the well.
Time passed. The brush, as good as it was, was unfortunately quite small given the endless maze of corridors. As he became accustomed to the job, he was occasionally sent to the village on errands. He might have had strong legs but each errand ate most of his morning, sometimes more, depending on the load he had to carry. The climb back from the village was also very steep. Mika was hoping that such hard work wouldn’t go unnoticed by the wise man and that he would, in due time, share with him his precious knowledge.
It was rare for Mika to come across Yakusi, but his presence was always palpable. A monk had taught him how to meditate and he started getting invited to the evening get-togethers after supper, which made his time even harder to manage. Months went by and he was assigned to the gardens. His back breathed a sigh of relief. When he wondered aloud with a tinge of fear who would scrub the floors, the monks only smiled. Over the next few days, he couldn’t help but notice that the floors were poorly cleaned, but that only lasted a while. One morning, he noticed a new monk: he was on his knees, brush in hand. He was very young. The boy smiled at him, his eyes sparkling with a tinge of admiration. Shyly, Mika smiled back at him and kept on going. His time was precious.
Many winters had lost their bite and regained it again when he was assigned to yet another task. One of the monks – an extraordinarily small old man – had died. The novice took Mika’s place in the gardens. And what about the floors? thought Mika. In his mind, the floors, a young monk and his smile suddenly came to life.
Yakusi died. Mika was saddened. Hoku, the new master of the monastery, used to work in the kitchens. He was as gentle and discreet as his predecessor had been. He asked to talk with Mika and greeted him with:
– Mika, the one who wants to know what life is!
Mika smiled at the thought of his old quest, somewhat numbed by time and labor. He waited, hoping for a snippet of teaching, even though this wise man might no be quite as wise as Yakusi had been. The old man only looked him straight in the eyes, said goodbye and sent him back to the temple. On his worktable, pen, book and parchment were awaiting his attentions.
Years went by, one season gently slipping into the next. The monks gave him a blank book for recording the words he shared at meetings in answer to the questions he was more and more frequently asked. He remembered Yakusi’s and Hoku’s manuscript. They now called him “venerable”. Why? Of course, there were many more young monks now than when he had first come. He also knew quite well the routine of the monastery. But, “venerable”?
Without quite knowing why, that question led his steps way back into the garden, toward the pond known as “pond of the revelations”. Its surface reflected back the image of an aging man with gentle eyes. He shed a tear and understood the pond’s meaning. In it, many others had thus discovered themselves.
One cold winter night, as the wind whistled against the stones, he was brought to Hoku’s bedside. Once alone and after a long silence, the wise man spoke in a hoarse voice:
– The sun doesn’t always rise my friend.
Mika was tempted to protest: never would he dare consider himself his friend. But, with a finger, Hoku sealed his lips:
– First, I completed the tasks which Yakusi had entrusted to me. I transcribed his writings and added them to those of his predecessors: a few prayers and one in particular which brings me peace whenever I utter it. Reading the words of the elders made me aware of the vanity of my own writings and particularly of their useless abundance. I cut, I pruned, I simplified my garden and I am leaving the monastery four of my poems. You will be the judge of whether or not they are worthy of the other elders’ writings.
Mika wanted to protest again, but once again the old man lifted his finger to stop him:
– Soon, this bedroom and worktable will be yours. Meditate, and attend to my last hours.
When Mika emerged from his meditation, his legs feeling stiff, Hoku was no more. The monks insisted on setting up the room for him. He didn’t dare touch the writings of the old sages. He could barely set his book down on the table. He read the magnificent prayer Hoku had been talking about. In the ensuing silence, he understood that running the monastery now rested in his hands. One by one, he studied all the tasks and duties with attention and care. One morning he even caught himself, pen in hand, reflecting upon this place he had for so long called home and of the countless years he had been there. That’s when a young village boy was brought to him. He had come to question the old sage.
Mika should have told him that Hoku had unfortunately passed away a few weeks before but, in front of the young man’s candid eyes, he could only smile at him. The boy reminded him of his own youth’s obstinate quest. Impatient, his guest asked:
– Tell me, honorable sage, how does one go about being happy?
In a moment of soft illumination, Mika saw his life as he had lived it and he knew at last what life was. The cleaning of corridors emerged in his conscience:
– Would you be willing to help us with something?
As the young village boy was going out to look for a brush and bucket, Mika returned to his book. First, he’d have to read through the writings of his predecessors and strike out whatever was useless from his own writings. On top of the sheaf of leaves rested one of the sage Hoku’s four poems:
A pebble on the path,
Without a thought awakens one to life.
The sword cuts without cutting itself.
The eyes see without holding illusions.