Sutra of the Three Sages

Thus have I heard:  On a particular day, the Lord Buddha had taken rest in the park of the palace of the King of Ayodhya when he was approached by two foreigners of strange language.  Both men were old, and as different from one another as both were from the Lord himself.  Each with his interpreter approached the Lord and made obeisance to him, sitting down to one side.

The first man’s hair was short trimmed, still dark, although he was older than the Lord himself.  He had round eyes and a prominent nose, yet his face was fair, clean and strong like that of a youth.  He had a black beard, squarely cut, oiled and perfumed so that it glistened.  Robes he wore were light but impressive, trimmed with gold lace.  These, we were told were the common look of a prominent man of Persia, an officer of the kingdom of the Medes.  Yet there was no hint in the man of opulence or vanity.  His dark eyes shone with a clarity of vision and a kind of open delight, an expectation of sight as much as an awareness of his surroundings.  We took it to be a sign of his interest in the teaching of the Lord Buddha.  But we were wrong.

The other man was from the northern kingdoms, the empire of the Chou.  In contrast to the first man, this one wore simpler robes, indeed apparently because of the heat, he seemed to wear only the undergarments of his dress.  He was heavier than the first man, more ruddy from sun and enjoyments.  His dark Asian eyes glistened with a different kind of delight, a kind of enjoyment of the present.

For a time, there was banter of speech as each of the stranger’s interpreters introduced the two.  They were Lao of the Chou and Belteshazzar of the Medes.  They themselves, we were told, had been strangers until only days prior, when they had met fortuitously on their travels.  They had discovered, said the jolly Northerner’s interpreter, a common love for thought and concern for life, and for many nights they had worn their interpreters weary with discussion.  For discussions such as these had were heavy labor for any interpreter.  But they had also, in those days, heard of the Lord Buddha, and intrigued by the legends had followed the trail to Ayodhya.  It was fortunate indeed for them that Tathagata was so far west.

All this the Lord Buddha heard without moving.  His constant breathing in and out, his calm and placid face showed neither recognition nor concern for these two.  Of the Asian, Lao, certainly there was no sign of greatness, but the Persian, surely, wore the robes and carried himself in the manner of a dignitary.  And still the Lord made no motion of honor or admission.  For us, this was fairly common, as the Lord had often received kings, always without recognition of their glory.  Yet this one, from so far away, and with his strange eyes, seemed different.

But the Asian spoke first.  “We have heard, Sir,” he said with a faint bow and a broad smile, “that you are one awakened to the truth of things.  We, too,” here he gestured to the other man, “my new friend and I, have learned much of the way of things, though we seemed not to agree on what that way might be.”  At this the man paused, seemed indeed to giggle to himself, as his interpreter clarified.  “But come, new friend from the Sakya, tell us the truth.”

For us, the disciples of the Lord, the man’s demeanor seemed terribly inappropriate.  He had asked to hear the Lord’s Dharma, yet he laughed and smiled while our Lord sat quiet and serene.  It was as if the Awakened One’s transcendence of the world had not been palpable.

Yet still, the Lord spoke.  His eyes opened slowly, and with gentle grace he raised his hands to teach, counting his doctrines from finger to finger.  “All things are impermanent,” he intoned, without a rising of voice or a flicker of emotion.  “All things merely arise and pass, and all that arises also decays.  Thus,” and he counted the doctrine, “nothing has substance or essence in itself, not the flower, which withers with the morning sun, nor the stone that stands beneath a thousand suns, nor even the sun itself.  Above all, I have seen that there is no substance to the self, the soul, the man, but that we, too, are but the flicker of a flame, a burning wick that dances for a night and is gone, yet never the same flame for two moments.”  He paused and counted.  “And so all life is sorrow, all life is dissatisfaction, the unhappiness of those who cling to life and seek its fulfillment.  And as we cannot change the transitoriness of time, so we must change only that which we contribute to our sorrow, namely our own desire.”

Both listeners were behind the sermon, as translators struggled with the difficult but profound secrets of death and rebirth.  Others among the bikkhus who surrounded the Lord lent their voices where they knew foreign words, and for a time a cacophony seemed to swallow the group.  Throughout the noisy struggle of understanding, the Asian Lao smiled, then frowned, then clapped his hands or laughed aloud.  The Persian, ever more dignified, yet so strangely aware, pursed his lips and squeezed his brow, nodded perhaps as he saw the reason of the teaching of the Sage of the Sakyas.

Yet it was the Northerner, Lao, who spoke.  “Ha!” he exclaimed quite improperly.  “I followed your wisdom well where you spoke of impermanence and change,” he prefaced, “but can hardly agree that the result is sorrow and dissatisfaction.”

Lao laughed again, and many of the bikkhus were taken aback by his audacity.  Still, I for one could see the happiness in his eyes and heard in his laughter not the mockery of the worldly unbelievers but a kind of jolliness I had not known for many years.  His eyes sparkled as his gaze swept his surroundings.  I felt his delight a moment, and then felt the guilt of worldliness.  I looked to the Lord Buddha; his eyes were shut, quiet, unperturbed.

Others, however, were perturbed.  Sariputra, in fact, spoke with some strength in his voice and urged the stranger to respect.  “This one, sir,” he said with struggling control, “is the Awakened One.  Do not disrespect the Sakyamuni.”

I believe I might have defended the happy Asian myself, but the Persian spoke first.  “You must realize, sir,” he said to Sariputra, “that this man, too, is a great Sage, known in his own land as a master teacher.  Do not disrespect him.”

The Master Lao, as I began to call the happy man in my thoughts, got the interpretation from his translator and beamed at the Persian broadly.  Yet he also waved his hand up and down as if to shoo him away, and he began to laugh.  “What are honors to us, sir,” he called out.  “We old men have all seen that those with the greatest honors often die young, princes thwarted by their brothers, kings assassinated by their ministers.  Better the simple and debased than the complex and elevated.  Kings and herdsmen all become dust, and from dust the food of kings is grown.”

All this was translated, with the interpreter himself nodding as he understood the message of the Master of Asia.  And there were murmurs among the bikkhus, as they recognized the ideas for something very like the message of their Lord Buddha.  And yet it was somehow more worldly, and strangely appealing.

When the translation was done, I thought the Persian would speak, but the Lord Buddha inserted himself, spoke quickly as I had never seen before.  “Life,” he put in, but then paused and settled again into the teaching mudra, “is suffering.  But suffering is itself caused by our desire, and our desire can be conquered.  Thus can life be conquered and release from life and the cycle of lives attained.”

The bikkhus sighed as the translators began.  We knew the message, the Truth, and it rang clear and hopeful to our ears.  But the Asian master shook his head at last.  “But if life is change, then suffering, too, changes, and so the two, suffering and joy, flow and revert to one another.”  Master Lao paused and his smile disappeared into a seriousness I had not expected.  I glanced to the Lord Buddha, whose hand had risen to the teaching mudra.  But Master Lao continued on, not irreverently, but with an assurance of insight I found warm and compelling.  “The changes of time are not bad,” he said, “for each motion finds balance in another.  And behind them both is the great pattern, the Way of Heaven.  For from nothing is the Way, and from the Way is the balance of two, and from the balance of two come the ten thousand things.”  Here at last he paused and he again beamed broadly.  “And the 10,000 things are always in harmony.”

As the Asian master finished, I felt a smile grow upon my face from within, a strange jollity like the one he so freely flowered.  I looked around myself with this new glow and saw that some of the other bikkhus also were smiling, and some almost laughed aloud.  Yet I quickly realized that this was wrong, that this worldliness seemed very unlike the behavior of a true renouncer.  I bowed my head and looked shyly at the Enlightened One, who sat still and quiet, unmoved and unperturbed by the world.  I was ashamed.

Then the Lord spoke again, quietly and without rancor, almost as if no other Master were present.  “Bikkhus,” he said, “it counts little for a true monk to seek the permanent among the transient.  What is the Way but the Dharma of the Buddhas?  What is the path but the 8-fold path that leads to equanimity and peace.  And why?  Because there is no speculation in the teaching of the Buddhas, no guesses about higher harmonies.  Know your own mind and your own world, and see that it arises and falls.  This is your meditation; this is your awakening; this is the way beyond life, death and rebirth.”  The Holy One paused, and the translators and the monks struggled through the words.

And when the translators had spoken, there were murmurings among the bikkhus, but the Asian master said nothing.  Indeed he seemed for the first time almost impatient, perhaps only because he was heavy of frame and was feeling the weight of his sitting.  But of a sudden, the smile was less and the words were simpler.  Then, just as suddenly, he waved a meaty hand at the Persian and spoke in his singing language.  And as the Persian’s translator whispered, the Pali speaker translated, “Come, Belteshazzar, what have you to say to all this?”

The Persian paused, as if listening to the wind, and then spoke in careful words.  His discourse was long, but he paused for the translations at appropriate moments, smiling at the speakers as they struggled for words in the languages of the Arya and of the Chou.  He said something like this:

“Honored One, I was not born into this luxury, but was taken as a slave when still a boy.  I knew prison and the promise of death.  Then, by the power of the Most High God, I knew insight and escape and the pleasure of emperors.  By the wiles of men and the vicissitudes of time, I knew betrayal and punishment and execution.  So the change, of which you speak, I know well.  Indeed I know the changes of time very well.

“For by the power of the Most High God, I have seen the way of time and worlds, the end of ages and the coming of the Holy One who shall redeem my people and be a blessing promised to the earth.  By the power of the Most High God, I have seen mysteries no man could fathom, yet knew them inescapably as truth.  For both realities, the Way of time and the knowledge of the soul, are the work of the Most High God.

“So yes, we know that life is quickly gone by, and that the world melts away before us, like snow before spring sunshine.  For ‘all flesh is grass’, as prophets and poets have declared, and their words are trustworthy and true.  Yet the prophets and poets also tell us that the skies declare the glory of the Most High, and that our own lives are God breathed.  How glorious this world and its being, as you have said, Master Lao.  Yet how torn and shattered by disobedience and calamity, as you have seen, Honored One.  But my people, from the first Fathers to this day, have seen the rise and fall of life and have understood it to be the plan of the Most High God, whose ways are not merely a heavenly harmony, but are the plan of salvation for us all.  Behold the kingdoms that rise and fall!  Hark, the words of life and death that come by the prophets!  Look, for the time is coming when the Holy One Himself will sit on the thrones of the nations and call all people to Himself through His Anointed One.  This is the way of the Most High God.”

As his speech ended, the translators mumbled and stuttered to explain, but the declarations seemed less like a sage’s understanding than the declarations of a priest — a priest or a madman.  Yet this man’s eyes shone clear and looked at each of us around the circle, as if he saw both a distant vision and the gaze of every man.  Mutterings around the circle of bikkhus suggested confusion, an uncertainty of what these words could mean.  But I felt a wonderment and attraction, like an invitation to a banquet that was neither the enjoyment of this world nor its denial, like the promise of the company of friends.

But the Master of Asia spoke in response, smiling with regained mirth as he waved the Persian down.  “Gods and gods,” he said, “is something we know well.  But the gods have little concern with life, and we do well merely to keep them happy and distant.”

And my Lord Buddha, too, spoke in response.  “Truly the gods themselves seek this Dharma of the Buddhas,” he said.  “They, too, gather in these ranks to find peace and liberation from the three realms.  The gods themselves are bubbles in the air, here for the moment and then gone to rebirth and redeath.”

With the translations done, the Persian nodded.  “Yes,” he said, “I know these gods.  But I speak not of these things.  For beyond the gods there is the God of Gods, the one eternal creator of worlds and times, whose breath formed the sun and stars that are the ‘gods’ of the nations.  And this one eternal God is called I AM, for He alone is the permanence of eternity, and the harmony of justice and love.  And I have seen his way — not my own path of deliverance, nor the pathway of the stars of heaven, but the Lord God’s mighty hand in the history of the nations.  And He shall draw all peoples to Himself until every land and every nation has heard His voice.”

To this, there was little to answer.  For what visions of other worlds would the Master Lao claim?  And the Lord Buddha himself insisted there was no use in such visions.  But I, somehow moved like a sail billowed by an unseen wind, spoke.  I spoke.  I spoke when the Buddha was silent.

“But reverend sir,” I whispered, “I have heard that among the Persians, as among the Arya and the Asians, there are many gods.  How can there be one that is ‘Most High’?”

And the Persian noble met my gaze with his dark eyes and smiled.  “Did I not say, young one,” he said to me, “that I was taken a slave?  As a boy younger than yourself, my land was conquered by the Babylonians, and by the conquering masters I was taught the ways of the Persians’ gods, commanded to eat their foods and required to perform their sacrifices.  But I refused.  For there is one God, beyond and above all created things that the nations take to be gods.  And Him alone must we worship.  For the God Most High hears us, moves his hand and his breath among us.  Thus He is God beyond the gods, yet God who deals with the worlds and nations of men.”  Thus he seemed to end his declaration, but then added, “As he deals with each man’s soul.”

I felt silenced, and in that pause, as the translations died away, the Persian again took on a distant yet worldly gaze.  He looked off to the west and pointed as if we could see his vision.  “You see,” he said, “I come from a people called by the One God to know Him uniquely, and to hold fast to the worship of the one God, whatever the nations may do.  I come from a people called since the great Patriarchs to know the Most High God and to speak His name to the nations, whatever they may do to us.  And for this, we are held to a higher standard of holiness, a standard we often fail to maintain.  Yet in the Lord’s mercy and in His glorious plan for the redemption of the world, there is ever a remnant, ever a faithful few that know the eternal Lord God and keep His ways, whether in peace or in war, whether praised by the nations or pursued by their armies, whether raised to the status of a king,” he paused and smiled to himself, “or fed to their lions.”  He looked at me again and almost winked.  “I, Belteshazzar, have been both,” he said.

It seemed to me there was little to say about this Persian slave’s God, and about the wonders he claimed to have seen.  But the Master of Chou seemed undaunted.  “Kings are fed to lions,” he said in the singing tongue of Chou, “as lions are fed to flies.  Flies are food to poultry and poultry is brought to the plates of kings.  Such is the Way of things.”

And then the Lord Buddha spoke: “Nothing is eternal,” he said, “whether gods or souls or the Way of Heaven.  And only in this knowledge, in this teaching of the Buddhas, is there freedom.”

I heard these words of the Buddha, but for a time I could not look to the Enlightened One.  Somehow I knew what I would see there, and simply in that moment did not want his peace and equanimity.  I did not want merely to let the Persian’s God rise and fall in my consciousness, as if His disappearance from my mind would be the same as His disappearance from reality.  I did not want to be unmoved by the God of the Persian slave-king.

Perhaps, as many other sutras so clearly declare, the many bikkhus and gods who heard these closing words of the Buddha were awakened to the truth of his Dharma.  But I, I was not awakened.  Indeed, I was moved, and felt for a moment that I would rather have followed the Master Lao to his way of life, as I was enticed by his delight and jolly pleasure.  And even more, I was moved by the Persian man’s Great God, and wondered that such a great One could act in men’s lives.

But as it ended, the two foreigners merely bowed and left, returned to their nations or wandered out the end of their lives.  And I looked to the unmoved, unmoving Buddha, watching always for joy or purpose or the hand of Belteshazzar’s great God.  But for this, I felt ashamed, and though I have been a monk these many years, I have never truly learned to sit silent and unmoved.


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