Past the city gate one walks seven thousand steps, all in one go with no breaks. One stop on the tracks once and the flower is missed. When the flower is seen, one turns to the right, through weeds and bushes, off the main road, walking eight steps. Turn to the left once, eight more steps, and so on, left and right, until one has made forty two turns to the right and forty two to the left. It is custom, so to avoid bad luck, to do one extra turn to the left and one more to the right while standing in one place.
She lives here along with her family and her family’s families, a secluded fortress that is difficult to reach but very easy to leave. And along her and her family and her family’s families also lives one person not related by kin or any other form of relation that everyone here shares. That person is me. Once a traveler and scholar, now a pupil of hers, I have been learning by slowly unlearning.
“At the doorstep, you were carrying so many things.”
“I was. But as you had instructed, everything I had was left outside the door.”
“What was it that you left behind?”
“All my equipment, all my clothes, and several books. Those last ones were the hardest to leave…”
“You did bring much with you, however. You brought yourself, and all the baggage that comes with what makes you you. As well as all the burdens and unnecessary tote bag full of trinkets filling up your mind.”
After saying that, the master goes silent. Following her, she sends me through irregular paths along the entire fortress, before arriving at a small room that we could reach in two minutes, instead of wasting almost an hour strolling pointlessly.
In the room she shows me all of my belongings I had left, that I had thought gone forever. Everything together, including the banned manuscripts of the Maleun Canon. Before leaving me in there, she has some final words.
“When you truly leave everything behind, then you can come after me, or you pick it all up and leave.”
I certainly do not want to leave, so much to learn in this community, in this way of quiet living. Not that they are that unique in their peaceful, almost monk-like customs, but there are so many little fascinating details about their daily, weekly, and monthly rituals that tickle my thirst for knowledge.
“Why are you carrying mountains you have climbed?”
As if reading my mind, her strange words pull me to her. Yet, regardless how hard I try to reason with them, I cannot find concrete meaning to her words. She is knowledgeable herself, why is the same strive of mine different?
“Make peace with the quirky nature of the universe. Make peace with not knowing.”
At least I think so. I don’t think not knowing is bad or shameful; I simply want to know more.
“You are reaching for a destination that will always move further the closer to it you get. This road, my friend, is made for the journey. It has no destination.”
For the first time, I feel this strange sense of understanding. An understanding without knowing, wordless and thoughtless recognition of reality… At least a small portion of it.
“I am not knowledgeable,” the master says. She smiles and walks away, and without looking back she recites something to me. She knew I would follow her, that I would truly, finally, leave everything behind until I had nothing on me. Or did she know? The master is not knowledgeable. She was hoping I would follow her.
I asked the master how to understand.
“Go to the river bed,” she said. “Count all the rocks with smooth edges.”
Daunting task, one that I took as a playful jab at my past striving for knowledge, but as it were, she was being completely serious. It was, not to my surprise, daunting. Even more than I expected. Among all the sharp rocks, and having to restart counting multiple times, I spend eight days and eight nights finding the smooth ones.
So I did, and came back to her.
“How to understand?”
“Go to the river bed,” she said. “Count all the rocks with sharp edges.”
Daunting, yet again. But at least I thought it’d be easier, since they made up most of the rocks last time. I spend eight days and eight nights counting, barely finding sharp rocks among the sea of the ones with smooth edges.
So I did, and came back to her.
“Did you understand?”
“No,” I said.
“That should teach you about asking stupid questions.”
When you follow it, it eludes you.
It cannot be found from the search, nor can it be seen by seeking.
The student asks:
“Then how can I know I am reaching it?”
And the master says:
“If you know it, it is not it. And if you reach it, it has already moved past you.”