Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Absolute

I have managed to escape the guards yet again in the labyrinthine passages and rooms that litter the palaces of the inner court. They have been looking for me since morning under the order of the great Kangxi Emperor. And when I am found I will have to appear before the Emperor and tell of the futilities of my work and the fact that I am no closer now than I was on the day I was brought into his audience and tasked with that monumental impossibility.

‘You could lie.’ Zhing Zhing told me when she came to warn me that the Emperor has asked the guards to bring me to him.

‘No. I can’t, for my order prohibits it. I have never lied in my life and I shall not start now for such a trivial thing as my life.’ I replied.

‘Your life is not trivial!’ Zhing Zhing spoke vehemently suddenly grabbing my arm. ‘Not to me. I need you. I implore you, please hide. I have taught you the recesses in the palaces. Go and stay in one of them. Not everyone knows of them, I have hidden there for years avoiding notice. Go and stay there. If not for you then for me. We could live together there. We can grow old together. Please…’

It was more her implorations than my instinct for survival that led me to this place and I shall wait here for her. In fact, I remember the very moment I realized the futility of my work I was prepared to go and confess to the Emperor with full knowledge that on hearing of my failure he would condemn me to death. There again Zhing Zhing dissuaded me. She told me that unless and until the Emperor summoned me I didn’t have to report anything to Emperor and she held on to me refusing to let me go for fear that I would leave her and commit some folly. Now when the Emperor has summoned me she again comes in front of me and begs me to save myself for her. I am straying from the path but even the monks spoke that the path shall divert for love if for nothing else.

I remember the first time a monk of the order visited my home town. His name was Balasa. I was merely 7 years old then, a son of a yak farmer in the mountains. My father gave him shelter for the night and after dinner he spoke to my father at great lengths of the monastery that lay hidden in the clouds and the monks of the order of which he was a humble member. I eavesdropped from behind the door catching occasional glimpses of the monk sitting on the floor and my father sitting on the chair with his side facing the roaring fire.
That night I dreamt of the monastery in the clouds. I dreamt of walking in there and somehow the world outside it disappeared for me. The place was serene and calm and everywhere I looked I saw the smiling face of the monk that had taken up abode in my house for the night. A light shone inside the monastery and I looked at my hands and saw that the light in fact was shining right through them. I had become incorporeal. I felt removed from all earthly concerns. This was something miraculous.

The next day as the monk was trudging along the path that led him away from our village I caught up to him and held his hand.

‘What is it boy?’ he asked me softly.

‘I want to come with you. Take me to the monastery.’ I said.

He smiled at me and stroked my hair.

’Six years from now if you still feel the same then you shall find the path to the monastery yourself. Now it is time for you to go and play with your friends. But if one day if you do get there remember that I will be waiting.’

He took a berry from inside his cassock and put it in my hand and closed it smiling.

Six years later when I told my father and mother that I wanted to be monk, they didn’t understand it. My father yelled at me and started lashing out at me with the leather belt he made from yak skin. My mother started crying and implored me to the best of her abilities not to leave her behind, that as their only son she wanted to see me here, married and with children looking after the yaks when my father became too old to do it. But that night I crept away taking with me nothing except the clothes on my back and a belief in the words of the monk who had told me that I would find the path to the monastery on my own.

The road was treacherous and the journey tiring. Many a day I had to go without food. The nights were merciless. I would take shelter behind some rocks and yet the cold winds would slice through it freezing me down to my very core and depriving me of sleep. But I wandered and wandered. I asked people I met in villages along the way of the monks and their monastery in the clouds. Some were able to help me and point me in the general direction. The mountains of the Himalayas are hard to climb. Beneath one of them, I was finally able to find a man who evidently procured necessities for the monastery. He took me up there in his yak drawn cart filled with cured meat, wood, vegetables, salt and other essentials. Finally rounding a bend in the road I was able to see for myself the monastery that had for so long haunted my dreams.

Cloaked in white and nestled inside a recess on the mountain the monastery radiated a sense of humbleness and calm. It was huge and was the abode to nearly 200 monks who all lived there fraternally and in blissful peace. There were very few women there. Not many women could undertake the hardships of the journey to the monastery. But those that made it were never turned down. I thanked the man who had taken me so far and went inside the monastery. It was dark and only sparsely lighted by the fires that burned on the torches along the walls. A number of cloaked monks were walking around, some were sitting on the floor deep in meditation and yet others were simply conversing.

‘So you made it.’

The voice made me turn around. It was Balasa. He had grown old, his hair had turned grey and there were wrinkles on his face but I recognized that smile. I went and knelt at his feet. He gently touched my shoulders and lifted me up and I looked again into that smiling face.

My education in the monastery began that day and I remember with a serene joy the time I spent there. Meditating, reading by the light of the fire, talking to the monks, repairing the monastery; life had become a peaceful river, the current undisturbed and constant. Then nearly 9 years later,came the day when I had to leave the monastery. All the monks where required to make a journey to where ever their souls urged them to go, to understand the world and to find their place in it. If in the end one found that one’s soul was still restless, then that meant that they belonged back at the monastery. Then they would return to spend the rest of their lives there in the embrace of a higher power.

When I was getting ready to leave, Balasa, who had by then aged a great deal called me over.

‘My son, I wish you a safe and smooth journey.May your soul find what it is looking for.’ He said to me hugging me close.

‘I think I will return here, for I feel this where I belong.’ I replied.

‘Do not walk the world with a clouded mind my son. Whether you belong here or in the outside world is not a decision for your head to make but rather one for your soul. The world is large and many things await there. All our decisions are but fleeting glares of the ice.’

‘But I am loathe to leave this place master.’

‘I too had to walk the path you are embarking on now. And it was during that time that I had the good fortune of meeting you my son. What would have happened if I had refused to take the journey or had gone out with a clouded mind? You will find the answer. Do not be prejudiced against anything my son. There are things in the world that are more powerful than even Nirvana. You have not yet known a woman’s love, it has dominion over this world and all other concerns bow to it.’

Master Balasa knew more than I did. Now, sitting here in this dark room, I realize that.

The moment I set forth from the monastery I knew where I was heading. Taking the advice of Master Balasa, with an unclouded mind, my soul showed me my destination. In the monastery I had come upon certain works by 12th century Chinese philosopher Shin Jin Hi which deliberated upon definitions of the objects that surrounds us. Shin Jin Hi’s works were collected under the Qing Dynasty’s rule and stored in the libraries of the Forbidden City. I knew that I had to visit the Forbidden City and earn the trust of the Emperor. For only with his permission would I be able to foray into the inner court and to the library in order to examine the philosopher’s works.

Luckily the fame of the order was far reaching and even opened the doors of the palace for me. I had no trouble in obtaining permission to the inner court and to the intricate libraries where the works of countless masters are stored.

‘What do you search for in my library?’ the Emperor asked me on the day I met him.

‘I search for the truth your highness. For the true definition of uniqueness.’I replied

‘Is not everything here unique?’

‘Though you, my liege, have collected treasures from far and wide there is nothing unique here. For everything your majesty has at his disposal are merely relative and not the absolute. It has been said that the only absolute or unique thing in the universe is God. But the great philosopher Shin Jin Hi proposed otherwise.’

‘Do you believe in him monk?’

‘I do your majesty.’

‘Then in return for my permission to access my archives I ask of you monk to produce before me after the rising of 50 full moons something truly absolute.’

I berate myself here for having accepted the Emperor’s order but what could I have done. Blinded as I was by the writings of Shin Jin Hi who, I realized much too late, was just as blind as me. But the threads of fate are inconceivable and it is my path that has brought me here. At least I have Zhing Zhing.

My encounter with Zhing Zhing took place quite by chance. In my exploration of the library I often found a women between the shelves rooting through either one book or the other. I found this strange as not many women were allowed into the library especially into the sections where I was foraging. I tried to talk to her but whenever she caught sight of me she would start to walk away in to the labyrinthine shelves of books and I would lose her in that maze which evidently she knew better than I.

The librarian denied ever having let any women enter the library. He said that it was impossible. But upon my insistence that I had seen such a specter he instituted a search among the shelves for the presence of a woman but without result. I saw her many times afterwards, but the librarian after that failed search refused to believe me and told me I was probably hallucinating from all the dust and the stifling heat that sometimes built up inside the library by midday.

My curiosity was aroused nonetheless and I did not believe I was hallucinating. And even if I was I was sure that the image of a woman would have some meaning that would be necessary in my understanding of life. Thus it was that I asked around and I heard rumors of the hidden children.

The Emperor only had carnal relationships with the empress under the strict dictum of the astrologers who deemed the right time for procreation and the conception of progeny from the movement of the stars. But the Emperor being a man sometimes could not slake his lust with just the concubines in his harem. So it was often natural for the Emperor to disregard the dire predictions of the astronomers and visit the empress to spill his seed. The children born thus, not under the gaze of the right stars as it were, were said to bring forth great unrest and even the death of the Emperor himself.

The Emperor therefore often ordered such children to be killed as soon as they were born. But the empress with the help of some loyal guards would sometimes manage to sneak away her children to other parts of the palace grounds where secret rooms and passageways existed where the children would often be cared for though never allowed to leave their confines and attract the attention of the Emperor. Usually a newborn babe of the myriad of beggars that existed outside the city where procured and killed and presented as evidence to the Emperor so that his ill timed carnal excesses did not spell his doom.

Zhing Zhing was one among those numerous ill timed children. She had grown up not ever seeing her real father or mother. One night, a long time after I had come to know her and love her, she while clinging to me in bed and her hot tears spilling on to my chest told me how she was often abused and treated worse than a slave. Her mother had saved her from death but not given her life. She had hid in one of the many secret rooms that populated the inner palaces and had been left to defend for herself. She had to hide from everyone. And those who found her never led her in front of the Emperor in the fear of the empress and the chief of guard’s wrath, but would often debase her. She had been raped numerous times by the soldiers that patrolled the palaces at night. She had been beaten senseless and I found on her naked body scars of her unjust punishments. I wept for her as well as I held her close that night.

She had learned to write and read thanks to the kindly old librarian that had been in charge of the library, but with his eventual demise and the appointment of the new librarian she was denied her only pleasure in the world: reading. But she found ways to get into the library by other routes, in her 17 years of hiding she had become an adept at all the hidden roads that crisscrossed the palace. That was how she disappeared every time I came to talk to her inside the library.

My perseverance payed off though as one day I finally managed to catch her and talk to her. At first she was frightened; scared that I would hurt her. But slowly she came to trust me. She laughed and her laugh was something new to me. I never realized that a woman’s laugh could ever make me so happy, so full of an unidentifiable feeling. I wanted to make her laugh more and more. I wanted to be the reason for her smiles. She showed me around inner court through her secret passageways that littered it. One day she held my hand as we walked through the garden under the full moon. And that night I kissed a woman for the very first time. I was falling in love.

And I could tell she was as well. She always came to find me. She always brought me something or the other, sometimes soup from the kitchen she had managed to steal or roses or poems she had written. I being a monk of very limited means could give nothing to her except my company. And she seemed to be fine with that. I suppose I was the first person after the old librarian whom she had met that had treated her with respect and like a fellow human being.

One night on dark moonless night, I felt her creeping into bed with me and we celebrated our love for each other. I experienced something that was missing all my life. When she is with me I desire nothing else. I now understand what Master Balasa told me on the day I left the monastery. I had found a new path but I had to lose another to so and I was fine with it.

It was during this time that I realized that my work was an exercise in futility. It was a doomed venture. I was never going to be able to complete the task the Emperor had given me. I had failed.

I was drawn in by Shin Jin Hi who in his books said that the absence of a unique thing in the universe stemmed from our nature of relating one thing to another. For example when we think of a tree we think of bark, trunk, leaves, roots, fruits. They are all related to the tree and the converse also is true. Also when we hear leaves we think of not just trees but small plants, tea, taste, smell, it is a chain. Neither the tree nor its parts are absolute either as it forms part of a different chain all connected. All things in the world are connected and they go around and around in an infinite circle. Explaining one thing entails the use of another and explaining that will make use of something else and so on and so forth until the circle is completed and the first thing whose definition was sought is reached. This is the inherent problem of language and our observation. We find meaning in things where there is no meaning. We try to explain things with other things that have no explanation.

I meant to be rid of this thing and create a language through which each and everything can be uniquely identified. For me the concept not only involved phonetic and symbolic independence but independence of thought as well. I thought of creating a language in which no single sound is ever used twice. A language of written symbols where there is no fixed alphabet. What I envisioned is a language where if I say apple then the words ‘a’, 'p', 'l' and 'e’ will be used never again in the entire language. Thus the word apple should only evoke a singular image of something and I shall not try to explain it by saying it is red or sweet or anything. An image must be invoked with no connection that was the objective of my language. And by thus describing things I shall make them truly absolute and unique. I will be able to make a myriad of gods.
I knew what I was getting into as I stepped up to this great endeavor but what I didn’t realize is the mistakes or flaws in my reasoning. Only now am I able to see them all.

The flaws in my theory eroded it from the foundation up. Yes it was, in theory, possible to create a language where no single sound was ever repeated and each object had a unique identity which could not be explained by any other words or concepts within the language but what I forgot to take into consideration is the loss of uniqueness with the spread of the language. As I tell one person or as I teach one person about my language it loses its uniqueness. That person by repeating the same words I have uttered has not interpreted a unique thing but rather something that I have envisioned, thus making it obsolete. The only way to get over this problem is that the language should have no definite form, in the sense that no two persons can ever use the same word to describe one single thing. This would preserve the uniqueness of the object but the use of language as a medium of communication gets erased forever. And without that what use is a language. I have destroyed the very core of the concept of language.

And furthermore how can I present to the Emperor anything unique. For as soon as I teach him my language and he uses it then it’s over. He is repeating what I have brought into existence and it is no longer unique anymore. And I cannot lie to him or cheat him. My conscience forbids it. I would rather be dead.

And thus it is that I am hiding here, but not only because of Zhing Zhing’s appeals but also because of my desire. Yes, that is the truth. I can lie to myself no longer. I desire to spend the rest of my life with Zhing Zhing and I pray to God right now, the really absolute unnamable God, please let me live my life in anonymity with Zhing Zhing.

I hear footsteps approaching. I hope it is Zhing Zhing and I blow out the candles.


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