Pilgrim, Poet, Prophet, Prince


by Anthony Aikman


This was a rich land of rivers, forests and rice-fields, where princes rode ceremonially on white elephants and priests wore saffron robes. A land of golden pagodas rising above palm trees, bound by mountains on two sides, a mighty river on the east and to the south the ocean. Here the people spoke with one language and there was no ethnic distinction between them.

Several great rivers flowed through this green land and beside one the present prince chose to build his capital. A patient and intelligent ruler who unified the nation, his first priority was to establish a sacred centre. Later would follow culture and commerce.

After the first official salute the prince made to celebrate the founding of his new city, the assembled priests and the people standing in joyful tribute in their thousands filled the land and the sky with a great cry like an echo born beyond the limits of the world – as if this nation were one voice around their prince in full triumph of his reign; - a sound of homage like a great muffled gong booming over vast distances beyond touch and beyond time.

During the seventh year of the reign of this noble monarch after he had defeated and driven back the invaders from the mountains of the West and from across the great river to the East, Somchai was born. And because Somchai was the seventh son born in the seventh year of the present reign his parents who were poor but honest and hardworking folk gave him, on his seventh birthday to the temple to serve the monks.

The priests and monks played a vital role in the well-being of the nation. They interceded for the people, interpreted astrological signs and prayed for the safe journey of souls both after death and before birth. For the wheel of life is like the passage of moon and sun across the heavens – sometimes visible, sometimes out of sight, yet nonetheless there. But if death and rebirth were akin to sunset and sunrise, there was one great difference for the sun knew its course and always reappeared in the same place but the soul, after death, was blind and needed the intercessions of the monks and the prayers of loved ones to guide its journey in the most auspicious way possible back to a favourable new dawn.

Somchai at age seven knew none of these things. Days were playthings to be used up with joy and laughter wherever possible, certainly not sadness or misery. After he moved to the temple his day began early. He slept on a mat in the room of an elderly monk and at four o’clock, long before even the first cockerel had laid claim to the first crow, the old monk roused him and set off to the temple nearby. During the chanting Somchai invariably dozed, to awaken again as the monks, young and old, lined up to go on their rounds seeking gifts of food from shopkeepers and householders and giving a blessing in return. Some days the early mornings were cold and rainy, other times fine, but regardless of the weather they walked in a dignified and unhurried manner with their food bowls wrapped beneath the folds of their saffron robes. The purpose – as Somchai frequently had to be reminded – was not to get as much food as possible but to help whoever wished to make an offering, rich or poor, to gain merit by the simple act of giving. Often more food was collected than the monks needed – but the poor and the homeless were always welcome to come and share it. Somchai, barely waist-high to his kindly mentor, carried a bag to receive offerings the old monk could not be encumbered with. They walked barefoot, but this was natural to the boy, and once they returned he was rewarded with his share of the rich and varied dishes, - for everyone gave only the best they could prepare or afford.

Because Somchai was a temple boy and not a monk he was allowed to play, just as any other boys – duties permitting. In the late afternoon he swam in the river and early in the evening, quite tired out by the long day, he gratefully curled upon his mat and fell quickly asleep.

Just as the pattern of life followed the motion of the sun and stars, so it was with the annual pageants that celebrated time honoured events. Each had their prescribed place in the calendar, each one was anticipated and joyfully fulfilled. At rice planting the Prince ploughed a single furrow behind a white ox with gilded horns, at the height of the dry season there was a water festival, and when the rivers flowed fast came the boat races – sixty or more paddlers to each sleek craft representing towns and villages all over the country. Finally with the full moon that followed the end of the rains everyone paid respect to the rivers, making small floats decorated with flowers and candles, so that as the moon rose in the night sky thousands of dimpled flickering lights seemed to convey the wishes of the nation as they drifted away on the currents.

Years passed, Somchai grew into a young man with a keen and questioning mind. Unlike most of his friends he could not simply accept – he needed to discover for himself. Once he read, ‘”if you tell me the sand on the shore is soft I must put my foot in it to find out.”

The monks at the temple encouraged him to take on the rule of life as prescribed by their founder, and to become one of them but Somchai was less sure. ‘First I will set out on a pilgrimage,’ he declared; ‘It may help me to decide.’ The monks shook their heads in dismay. ‘A pilgrimage must have a purpose,’ they insisted. ‘An aimless journey in the hope it may turn up something is sure to fail.’ And in the privacy of his room Somchai’s old mentor cautioned him. ‘The journey you have in mind is like a ship without a rudder – tossed on the whim of wind and wave.’ He added, ‘Our life is like a globe – our end becomes our beginning. We do not explore to discover – there is nothing new to discover – but to re-discover.’ ‘Rediscover?’ Somchai queried. ‘Everything,’ smiled the old man, ‘for me, it would be to rediscover simplicity, compassion, forgiveness and to know them once again as if for the first time.’ ‘You have counselled me more than you realise,’ thanked Somchai kneeling in love and gratitude before the old monk to receive his blessing. The old man hesitated, ‘I am not sure my blessing will be any use at all. How can I bless a journey without end? Yet it hurts me to withhold my blessing for you have served me cheerfully and faithfully for many years and I love you as I would my own son. I can only hope and pray for your well-being and the fulfilment of your wishes – whatever they may be.’

So Somchai left the temple and after an affectionate and respectful farewell to his parents he left the city, setting out on the highway that followed the river upstream through the green ricefields until, finally looking back, the familiar landmarks he had known all his life vanished from view.

For an instant he was troubled and even considered going back. Ahead lay only the unfamiliar and the unknown. Then he consoled himself with the thought, ‘It is no different to a book – when you start you do not know the outcome, but you keep turning the pages.’

So Somchai turned the pages of his new life day by day without hurry or urgency watching over the rice-fields the white sails of the river boats gliding like swans asleep, keeping him company.

One day as he sat resting in the shade of a tree watching the tranquil unchanging scene the thought grew in him that everything he could see around him and would pass by came from somewhere – but where did somewhere come from? Then he laughed, thinking how the old monk would react to such a suggestion, for it did not surely follow a circular path but a straight one. ‘Good,’ he decided at last, ‘Now I have a purpose for my journey – even if it is straight – to find out where everywhere comes from.’ And the sheer ludicrous nature of his quest cheered him greatly.

‘Where are you going?’ was the common greeting. Only now Somchai could reply, ‘Nowhere.’ Predictably this caused puzzlement, sometimes consternation. ‘You must be going somewhere,’ they insisted. ‘Everyone is going somewhere. You must be seeking something?’ ‘No,’ Somchai corrected politely. ‘I am seeking no thing and going no where to find it.’

‘But how can you seek nothing?’ they agreed, shaking their heads at such misplaced thinking in an otherwise bright-looking young man. But Somchai merely smiled cheerfully and did not try to argue, for gradually he realised that he took delight in seeking nothing when everyone else was so busy seeking something and although it may seem obvious, Somchai began to appreciate that the less he wanted the more he had, and with this discovery he realised he was happy because carried to its conclusion – if he wanted nothing, he possessed everything!

Later when Somchai thought back on what he had announced it seemed to herald a great adventure – this decision to set out on a quest for no thing. After all many were those who searched for something, anything even, but to seek the no thing beyond every thing – the very grandeur and the scope of his enterprise enthralled him to his heart’s core.

Somchai lived now in two worlds – the substantial world of earth and sky – the emerald green rice fields spreading like sea to the horizon with the river running through, the vast span of sky overhead, the villages he came to, the people he talked with; for Somchai was very easy-going and enjoyed a joke and friendly gossip as much as anyone.

His very cheerfulness served as a passport and gained him entry to any dwelling – high or low. Perhaps because of his upbringing Somchai knew no difference between rich and poor, between the pompous pundits who paraded their grand ideas, and the ordinary folk who were just content to get on with the practical purpose of making a living. But Somchai also dwelled in another realm, one that gradually became just as real and substantial as the one his feet trod each day. This was not a spirit world – for Somchai regarded such things as diversions and was wary of superstition lest it should claim dominion over him. Rather it was a non-world, in essence the negation of substance but also its neighbour.

Each morning after bidding goodbye to whoever had offered him hospitality – although sometimes his thanks might be to a tree whose leafy canopy had sheltered him from rain, as to a rich merchant who had sought to impress him with his generosity – Somchai continued on his journey. Through the spreading rice-fields flowed the life-giving river along whose bank ran the highway Somchai followed more or less. Sometimes a grand procession passed, ornate parasols protecting the good and the mighty from the branding sun. More often creaking ox carts passed going to market, or sometimes a convoy of marching soldiers. But what impressed him most was that everyone was going somewhere and he only heading nowhere. Somchai had begun a dialogue with himself to better understand his purpose. As he walked he put questions to himself – but they invariably produced more questions. Sometimes the questions besieged him in quickfire succession and he had no answers to stop them in their tracks.

For instance, how do you make the first decision when there is no context to decide anything – how, for example, he asked himself, does a composer notch that first note on an empty score sheet, or an artist lay that first brushstroke on a blank canvas? He sat under a noontide tree watching a farmer plough a furrow behind his oxen and thought – imagine ploughing the entire country with the tip of a single finger. Is movement endless, he wondered, without start or finish, unless interrupted? Out in the field the farmer paused in his stride. Overhead birds were flying. A boy – the farmer’s son perhaps – stood pelting at them with a catapult. ‘Go on,’ Somchai urged the birds. ‘Keep flying.’ And he realised even the birds had somewhere to go, a schedule to keep – logged deep in their instinct.

So Somchai decided to stop. If he was going nowhere it seemed the obvious thing to do. He also decided to cease living off the goodwill of others and make his own contribution. ‘Surely,’ he counselled himself, ‘If I do not intend to gain anything – why should it conflict with my quest for nothing?’ So Somchai helped the rice farmer when he had stopped. He lived in a little stilt hut next to a stream. A tall clump of bamboo provided shade. At midday a woman paddled her little boat along the stream cooking simple meals over an open clay stove. Half buried beneath an immense straw hat, she stir-fried vegetables and noodles for Somchai as he squatted expectantly on the bank. In the evening, his work finished, Somchai swan in the stream, strummed his home-made guitar and sang with the giggling children who always gathered on the verandah of his hut, and watched the moon and stars rise overhead.

He would have made a fishing net – like his neighbour’s – to lower into the stream but he enjoyed so much feeding little bits of sticky rice to the swarms of small fish darting about his fingers – that it seemed unfair to eat them later. He did not miss eating fish – there were plenty of delicious fruits following one another in a rotation of ripening.

In the cool misty dawn Somchai washed and ate his simple meal before setting out into the fields where the white herons flocked like temple birds sanctifying the land. He followed the measured tread of the oxen, feeling the wet earth between his toes, steeped in some ageless ritual enacted between man and earth. This was his birthright and a sacred duty to tend the land as a steward for those who would come after him. In this manner he respected and honoured the cycle of inheritance. But there came a day when idly watching the river Somchai suddenly wondered if he could learn from it, for the river too was on a one-way journey and never returned to its source.

Somchai bid a fond farewell to his friend the farmer and to the little stilt hut by the stream where he had been happy, and to the children who came to crowd around him when he boarded a bulky sampan that was going down-river laden with clay pots to sell. In charge was a short bald-headed boatman who loved to joke – sometimes laughing so much he forgot his course and only narrowly missed collision with other boats or ran aground on the reedy banks.

‘The river is my life,’ he told Somchai, ‘my drink’ (dipping a scoop over the side), ‘my food’ (tugging on the fishing lines playing out astern), ‘my business’ (tapping the rows of clay pots untidily heaped in straw), ‘And,’ he confided, ‘the river is my friend, my counsel.’

‘But what have you learned from it?’ asked Somchai good-naturedly. ‘Learn from it?!’ exclaimed the boatman, ‘Why, everything. For it is my guide and my guardian. It hurries me on my way when I would stop and chatter. Its lapping lulls me to sleep and its tapping wakes me in the morning.’ ‘It certainly seems a most practical help,’ remarked Somchai, rather disconcerted – for he had been hoping for more abstract lore. ‘And where will it take me?’ ‘To the sea, I suppose, if you persist. I’ve never been there myself. But they tell me the water stretches beyond the horizon.’ He chuckled, ‘And if you’re not careful you may fall over the edge. But why should I go there?’ he queried, ‘Who would buy my pots – the fish?’ And he roared at his own joke, adding ‘Lobster pots, perhaps!’ breaking into fresh gusts of laughter.

As they glided downriver Somchai sensed its mystery, for it revealed nothing of itself – neither where it had come from nor where it was going. It allowed unhindered boats to ply on its surface, children to frolic in its shallows, farmers to divert it to irrigate their fields – but it was quite untamed. Its purpose remained a secret unto itself. Along its banks the reapers harvested the ripening fields of rice, fishermen tossed in their circular nets, barges moved slowly with their loads of timber, sand, salt and spices – all moving downstream to the great city of the king, with its unquenchable appetite for merchandise – but they saw only what the river let them see – their own reflection. ‘Soon,’ thought Somchai, ‘I will reach the city.’ For the old boatman had been busy plucking out his chin hairs to make himself respectable for the taverns and houses of pleasure he had promised to treat himself to. ‘And what will you do?’ he asked Somchai, ‘Are you still set on going to the open sea or will you return up river with me – it’ll be fine sailing, I promise you, the boat unburdened, the wind spilling the sail and the river unwinding like magic ahead.’

When the familiar pagodas fretted the skyline ahead, the proud towers and majestic palaces rising out of their own reflections as from the stroke of an enchanter’s wand, Somchai was torn by doubt. He should return home, and visit the temple. Only what would he reply when they asked him of his quest? For he had nothing to tell them and when he departed again they would be doubly saddened. Better, he decided to just keep going and not cause upset to anyone. So when the newly spruced-up old boatman moored his laden sampan, Somchai continued his journey on another boat setting out to trade down the coast. His mood was less joyful – for he wondered for the first time if the journey was a mistake, if staying put was more rewarding than moving on. Perhaps the river was playing with him, tempting him, holding him in its grasp, swaying his mind with its moods, casting its currents to embrace him.

The ship he chose was crowded with young men, all eager to make a fortune on their voyage. They all lived in a big airy cabin above the stern and drank rough liquor and sang rude songs. But there was no malice in them and they treated Somchai kindly enough – as if he was a bit dim-witted not to share their lust for life.

Gradually the river widened into an estuary. They passed a final pagoda set on a solitary hill and then before them opened the ocean – vast and shimmering as far as the eye could see. At once the sailors burst into new rounds of song – sea shanties they sang to hoist the sails and winch the ropes and spars. Although the helmsman seemed to know where he was heading, Somchai, cooped in his sea-bound citadel – tossed here and there by every caprice of wind and wave, was less certain. Unlike the land, upon the sea’s surface man left no trace of his passage, his domain stopped on the shore. The sea was a law unto itself but it held no mystery. Instead might, majesty and terror reigned supreme. Once during a gale when waves lashed the deck Somchai knew in an instant they could all drown and just a few bubbles would mark their passing. So, he considered, if I am frightened by the immensity of the ocean, how could I ever face the infinity of the Universe? He felt overawed. Because they sailed by the sun and moon and the stars, and Somchai viewing their stately passage across the heavens was reassured by the constancy of their coming and going, he wondered if the old monk was not correct after all to be convinced of the inevitable cycle of life.

Nothing is like the sea, he decided; too immense and terrible to contemplate. I will give up my journey and return home and look after my parents, and marry and have a family and pay homage to my friend, the old monk. I will become a merchant or the secretary to a prince. I will abandon as ‘vanity of youth’ my stupid and selfish quest for no thing and return to dwell somewhere and do something. Anything, he concluded in exasperation, exhausted by day after day moving on the endless ocean.

When Somchai returned up-river to the City of Prince Rama and after he had been joyfully reunited with his parents he went to the temple to pay his respects to the elderly monk. The old man regarded him with affection. Somchai made up no excuses, he knelt and confessed his failure to one who had been his friend and mentor for so long. ‘You are right. A journey with no goal is pointless. I have learned nothing.’ ‘Ah,’ said the priest with a wry grin, ‘Even if you have learned nothing, that is something.’

‘Now,’ Somchai continued, ‘I want to be like everyone else. I want to have ambitions and make money.’ The old monk nodded, ‘Only don’t make too much – just enough.’ ‘Then is there something wrong in being rich?’ ‘I don’t know,’ admitted the monk simply, ‘It rather depends on what being rich means. Only try to be as generous as you are able – and then a little more generous.’

So Somchai went away and set about having ambitions and making money. He was amazed how easy it was. He didn’t have to work. All he had to do was buy something from someone who wanted to sell, and sell – at a small profit – to anyone who wished to buy. After he learned to calculate with an abacus he added to his merchandising skills the business of lending money and gaining interest. Very soon Somchai found himself a rich man, respected by fellow merchants for his business acumen and appreciated by traders, lenders and borrowers for his honesty. Somchai bought some land and built his parents a fine house with a view of the river. Somchai dressed in fine but simple garments. In accordance with convention he no longer walked but was conveyed here and there about the city. Frequently he was invited to dine in the houses of rich merchants and men of fortune and sometimes his advice was sought by the nobility – who too often, squandered their wealth in splendid living, gambling and entertaining. In due course word of Somchai’s abilities and character reached the prince and Somchai was summoned to the Royal Palace. He approached the Presence with head bowed and prostrated himself. There is a way of sitting before a prince that is similar to kneeling near a high priest – half prostrate with both feet to one side. Because he was accustomed to this Somchai felt at ease and the Prince was no haughty monarch, but frequently visited the small villages of his kingdom to learn the problems of his people first-hand, and in so doing gained their respect and affection.

‘Somchai,’ the prince announced, ‘I wish you to enter my service as an adviser, an observer.’ Somchai bowed politely in assent. The prince continued, ‘I shall send you to visit parts of our country and to report back only to me. But as you will represent me remember that I am in your mouth and in your speaking. I am in your mind and in your thinking. I am in your heart and in your understanding. I am in your eyes and in your looking. Then you will not dishonour me. And although I am your prince when you travel remember I walk beside you. I do not walk in front because you may not follow. I do not walk behind because you may not lead. But beside you; we will walk together through this nation to heal wounds, to amend enmity, to honour justice, to discourage intrigue, to prevent plunder, to let wisdom prevail over war.’

So it was with high hopes that Somchai set off according to the prince’s direction and with his seal of assent.

First the prince sent Somchai to the western border where the neighbouring country were raiding – pillaging and destroying. Somchai witnessed great suffering among those people who had lost their homes and their land – whose daughters had been raped and sons butchered. He was greatly surprised however by the apparent indifference of the prince’s captains who seemed on closer terms with the officers of the enemy than with their own countrymen whose hardship did not appear to concern them. Officers on each side even went out hunting together before or after battle. And the battles themselves were regarded more as games of tactics – the hundreds or thousands of soldiers killed merely pawns in a game of chess. Somchai witnessed this and faithfully reported all he had seen and heard to the prince. The prince said nothing.

Next the prince sent him to the forests of the interior. Here the rich timber merchants from the city were forcing local people off their land in order to fell and market the valuable teak trees, which they hauled out by elephant and floated down-river in great rafts. The people brought their grievances to Somchai. ‘The forest is our livelihood,’ they explained. ‘We hunt game and gather wood for our cooking fires and to build our houses. We find many traditional medicines in the forest and the wild honey we collect is a wonderful tonic for young and old. Also the forest prevents floods for it acts as a great sponge during the rainy season and later feeds the streams we need to irrigate our rice-fields.’

And Somchai brought this news back to the prince.

Then the prince sent Somchai to the Far East where a mighty river flowed a thousand miles along the frontier. A great brown river as broad as a small sea that had its source in the snow-capped passes of distant lands to the north and emptied through the wide lush estuaries of distant lands to the south. This river passed through a dozen countries and was a vital route for trade. The prince wanted the other rulers to agree on how best this great waterway should be managed for the benefit of all. But Somchai could only report that each ruler was only interested in the benefits to his own territory, and the taxes and dues he could impose on the trade passing through.

Finally the prince sent Somchai to the far north where the terrible barbarians were always threatening the security of the nation. Just mention of ‘barbarians’ sent dread into the hearts of everyone – young and old alike. Mothers threatened naughty children with the image of barbarians, teachers did the same to disobedient pupils. Any rumours of the coming of the barbarians sent the citizens flocking in hasty clamour seeking the wise counsel of the prince.

But when Somchai arrived he discovered there were no barbarians. ‘Shh,’ a frontier guard whispered on condition of anonymity, ‘there are no longer any barbarians here – perhaps there never were. Only it is a secret that must not be told, for what would we do without the threat of the barbarians?’

Somchai reported all this to the prince and he saw how the news saddened him. Finally he plucked up the courage to address him. ‘Sir, you are a great ruler. All the people respect you and obey your commands, not just here but in other nations. All you have to do is to give the necessary orders and put a stop to all this suffering and violence and intrigue.’ But the prince reproved him. ‘I believe you appreciate the sorrow in my heart when I learn of abuses to my people. But how would it be if I sided with the soldier against his superior, or the farmer against the merchant, or the other way around? I would be accused and abused by one side or the other and in the end nothing would change. I am a symbol only. My power is symbolic. When people come into my presence they bow and kneel but if one day someone stood up and challenged ‘Why?’ then all the symbolism could vanish like mist, together with the respect and authority. I ride a white elephant – only I am entitled to do so but if one day I strolled through the city, drinking in taverns, laughing and joking with the people, they would no longer think of me as Ruler.’ The prince smiled at Somchai, ‘Now I release you from your duties with great thanks and the reward of knowing you have served me faithfully.’

As Somchai left the palace he reflected on his position. He was wealthy. He had married the daughter of a rich and powerful noble and had two delightful children on whom he doted. What else should he now do but devote himself to the well-being of his family, and loyalty to his prince?

News came from the temple that his mentor, the elderly monk was dying. Somchai hurried to see him. The old man pressed his hand. He lay looking up at the ceiling of the same small room Somchai had shared as a temple boy all those years before. Despite his wizened appearance the monk’s expression was sublime. ‘I have arrived at my beginning,’ he murmured peacefully. ‘I have spent my life re-tracing, re-discovering. It has been a grand journey. Now my soul prepares for its liberation from the confines and limitations of being to the freedom of unbeing. This is a time to rejoice for once more it will be re-united with the Spirit of unbeing. Who knows where, when or whom it will be reborn?’ He gazed long and carefully at Somchai. ‘Pray for my soul. More things are gained by prayer than this world dreams of. But I am worried for you. Although you have everything life can give – is it enough? One day you will learn how fragile are the strands that bind us to life. Not those seemingly massive moorings of friends, family, possessions – but threads as insubstantial as a faint breeze, night water rippling on a lake shore, morning mist rising over wooded hills.’ He lifted his hand slightly, ‘A finger tip just moving.’ The dying monk paused as if to gain a final strength. ‘Once years ago, you set out on a journey but you turned back. I often wondered what you might have found had you continued.’ And then, still smiling affectionately at Somchai the life force passed out of him.

In great sadness Somchai walked outside the city and sitting alone on the river bank he gazed up at the night sky, sparkling with stars.

While he was sitting there Somchai became aware of someone nearby. He could not make out who it was. ‘Do I know you?’ he inquired.

‘But I know you,’ came the reply.

‘Who are you?’ Somchai asked, his thoughts still revolving on his memories of the old priest.

‘I am nobody,’ came the reply – which surprised Somchai as it seemed to recall a faint memory.

‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘Nowhere,’ the voice announced. And again a familiar chord echoed in Somchai’s mind. ‘So what are you doing here?’ he said. ‘I am just passing through,’ the voice answered offhandedly, ‘Much the same as you.’ This startled Somchai, ‘But I live here, I ...’ ‘Yes, I know all that. But if you look into your heart, you know you are just passing through. Life is like that. It is folly to pretend otherwise.’ ‘You speak like a wise old man,’ Somchai remarked peering into the gloom, ‘But your voice is young.’ The voice laughed, ‘I am certainly not wise. Nor do I wish to be. Perhaps I am young – I don’t bother with anniversaries.’ ‘I wish I could see you,’ said Somchai, straining his eyes. ‘Perhaps you can,’ came the reply. ‘Imagine me, that’s better. Appearances hardly matter – I’m sure you agree. If you saw me in rags, covered in sores, my hair matted – you would be upset.’ This apparition certainly startled Somchai – though he didn’t believe it. ‘Listen,’ commanded the voice. Somchai listened. He could hear the constant calling of frogs, nothing else. ‘What to?’ ‘Nothing,’ came the disconcerting reply. ‘But how can I listen to nothing?’ he said, and yet now he remembered how many years before on his journey up-country, he might have made the same reply.

‘What was the first cry at the first dawn?’’ suggested the voice. ‘What was the first sound in the absolute silence? What was the first silence in the absolute stillness?’ Somchai sat there on the riverbank, enchanted by the flow of ideas. He listened eagerly as the poet – for Somchai decided he had to be one, continued. ‘Everything has to start somewhere. Everything has to come out of something and something has to come out of nothing or else everything is kept waiting in suspension, in suspense for ever. No thing is waiting no where.’

‘You forget time,’ Somchai suggested.

‘Time progresses, ebbs, flows, moves in a circle, in a silence. But what started it moving? – or is the movement endless with or without start or finish until interrupted? A bird keeps flying so long as its wings don’t stop. Shoot it. Bird falls. Time stalls.’

‘Stop, stop!’ cried Somchai, laughing in delight. ‘I can’t keep up with all your ideas.’

‘Across the evening sea,’ continued the voice poetically, ‘glides a sail, busy seagulls swoop down the sky, a roar rises from the waterfall hidden in the forest. A sudden cry declares birth lost among life. Shoals of tiny fish flee before their pursuer. Is it pursuit that forces stillness into motion? Who thrusts time into gear? Who chases nothing into everything? But what is behind pursuit – decision or indecision? Is that how we are begotten from the unbegotten, made from the unmade – because of doubt? What was there before the beginning? In the uttermost, outermost stillness, in the absolute silence of unbeing? Was it compassion or contempt? What force prompted unbeing into being? Did something tremble in the heart of stillness and out of the subsequent confusion comes creation? After peace comes war – ‘ the voice continued, ‘but what is before? What constant was always there but hidden – or was it just intuition?’ The voice stopped.

‘You should tell this to the City,’ said Somchai reeling under the onslaught of ideas. ‘Perhaps I am the City,’ answered the poet. ‘Perhaps you should speak to the Prince.’ Then the thought came to Somchai, perhaps he is the Prince! ‘Will I meet you again?’ asked Somchai. Instead of replying directly the poet said, ‘When you are sick you ask your body what is wrong. Does it tell you – for it must know? Deep down it must know. Deep down the unbeing in each of us must know how it was born – whispers of our past that may grow in us as we develop.’ He paused. ‘For many, belief in some supreme being offers access and prospect of some pictorial paradise – but the Spirit of Unbeing manifest in people who guide us by their vision or inspire us in their deeds, pervades all ‘being’, - forest, meadow, stream, city street, slum – and grants a broader and more infinite succour and solace than the narrow confines of any one rite or ritual.’ The voice was fainter and Somchai had to strain to hear it. ‘But the concept of Unbeing seems so negative to many that they reject it, and busy themselves in material matters, familiar faiths, traditional trusts, while ....’ the voice faded. ‘But –‘ hesitated Somchai, ‘how can one follow a path into the unknown?’ Yet even as he spoke he knew the answer. The voice had been silent for some while before Somchai realised it had slipped silently away. He rubbed his eyes in bewilderment. Was he imagining things? – perhaps there was no-one and he was only talking to himself. He stretched stiffly. And yet it was almost as if his younger, long-forgotten self had been speaking to the present one. As if, when years before he had been travelling and had turned back – unbeknown to him a part of him had kept on going. Somchai the merchant had grown rich and powerful, but Somchai the pilgrim had learned so much more – had gained such a greater insight.

Somchai walked slowly and thoughtfully back to his mansion on the edge of the City; to familiar sights, scents, sounds. He was not dissatisfied. His family life delighted him and he had no wish to abandon its, but he was puzzled too. Later as he sat playing with his children and listened to his attractive wife animatedly discussing the latest gossip, a part of him was elsewhere, outside or perhaps deep inside – but apart. It was not as if there was a conflict of interest – not yet, at least. It was rather how best to combine the life of the family and business with these other, older aspirations.

The predicament compounded when a few days later the prince asked him to become Chief Magistrate of the City. Despite deep misgivings Somchai’s sense of duty obliged him to accept but his conscience presented him with a dilemma that influenced his judgements. For Somchai frequently felt it was he, and not the accused, who was on trial. The concept of Good and Bad, right and wrong no longer seemed straightforward. The courts were only concerned with ‘facts’ – but it was what lay behind the facts that interested Somchai. Not merely the circumstances but the circumstantial, not just the substantial but the insubstantial. Nor was it possible to hide under façades such as ‘extenuating circumstances’, ‘balance of mind disturbed’, ‘crime of passion’, .... The very nature of TRUTH rose before him like a haunting and beckoning spectre, and demanded answers. For Somchai soon realised there was not just one truth but many and each opposing truth equally valid for whoever believed it. Often as magistrate he had to uphold one truth while denying another. There were many occasions when he privately pronounced ‘Guilty’ on himself just as he publicly declared ‘Guilty’ on the accused. Is the law there for a man as for a woman? Reason says so, but instinct may object. If a poor man steals from the rich to save his starving family, is it the same as rich merchants stealing – by duplicity – from ignorant farmers? Instinct says no, but reason may object.

In desperation, Somchai sought the prince’s counsel. ‘Oh, Prince,’ he pleaded, ‘I have neither the wisdom or the prejudice to judge anyone about anything.’ The prince smiled. ‘Don’t give up. There is one truth but it is elusive – always just out of reach. We must strive for it, but in the meantime,’ he suggested, ‘Never condemn human failing. There are ugly words such as corruption – but corruption is a word fit only for worms and corpses. Surely it is only human nature to seek favours and reward them with gifts.’

Somchai was present, together with all the other officials at the Ceremony of the prince’s birthday when he received petitions from the people. The prince’s declaration to the public astonished Somchai, for the prince announced, ‘When I was in prison you visited me, when I was hungry you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me drink, when I was naked you clothed me. I was a stranger at your gate and you took me in ....’

Then the people answered – ‘but when did we see you a stranger, or hungry or in prison or in need of clothes or food?’

The prince replied, ‘Just as you treat the very least of my citizens – so you treat me.’

Somchai appreciated the wisdom of the prince’s message but it only made his decisions and judgements the more difficult.

So Somchai continued to deal with corrupt officials who were not really corrupt – merely granting favours – for favours in return, law breakers who were not really breakers, but benders – bending laws a little here and there to suit the convenience of varying situations, with violence which was generally self-inflicted as the bribed witnesses all agreed, with theft which never amounted to more than borrowing without remembering to ask first.

What troubled Somchai most was that he found himself able to believe anything and anyone. Why was he so completely gullible? To ease his conscience he repaid victims of his own injustice from his own wealth.

Finally, in desperation he tendered his resignation to the prince – who refused to accept it, instead promoting Somchai to act as his first minister while the prince went for his annual visit to the northern capital.

Before his departure the prince granted Somchai a final audience. He regarded Somchai kindly. ‘Deceit will always betray itself in the end,’ he told him. ‘However beguiling deceit may behave in the end it will make a slip that will reveal itself for what it is.’ He continued, ‘A wise king was once faced with two women claiming to be mothers of the same child. He ordered the baby cut into two halves. One of the women agreed, but the other begged the king to save the child’s life by giving up her claim. Thus the king knew where the deceit lay.’

Shortly after the prince departed, a prophet arrived in the city. He came to Somchai’s attention as a trouble-maker inciting unrest in the City, but Somchai had already heard many rumours about this man and was as eager as anyone to meet him. He had already acquired a considerable following. Some claimed he was a prophet, others said he was a fanatic, and certainly his wild appearance and the strange hypnotic look in his eyes countenanced this. He had by all accounts been wandering around the remoter parts of the Kingdom for many years dwelling alone in desert places no one else would inhabit and living off the land as best he could, fasting for long periods and going into trances in which he heard ‘voices’ that declared he should challenge the people to renounce their ways and live a frugal and sacred life. There were many witnesses to his ability to heal people just by touch or a look, or by announcing their sins were forgiven. He arrived in the city mounted on a water-buffalo and thousands poured into the streets to greet him, hailing him as a saviour of the nation.

But the reason he was brought before the city magistrates was the accusations that he was responsible for a wave of wanton destruction. Apparently, on entering the temple he had smashed money boxes and thrown down sacred statues, declaring the place to be unholy and a den of thieves. The temple guards finally fought back a mob of looters and arrested him, bringing him before Somchai who regarded him with deep misgivings and wished someone else could have been his judge.

‘What name are you called by?’ The man gave no reply. ‘What religion are you?’ Somchai tried. ‘All religions and none,’ declared the prophet in a stern loud voice, that reached the crowd gathered outside. He continued, ‘True religion is born out of dust and flies, out of suffering and hardship – not from gilded images and fancy ceremonials. True religion comes from the heart, not the pocket of every man.’

Meanwhile, the crowd of supporters outside starting chanting, ‘Release him, release him! Cleanse the City! Destroy the images! Repent! Repent!’

When the cries subsided Somchai asked him, ‘And what is true religion?’ But instead the prophet challenged him further. ‘What are your Gods? – Hope, Faith, Compassion – you give this as balm to appease the sufferers. You preach forgiveness. I say revenge. You teach open-mindedness. I say shield your eyes from temptation and gaze steadfastly to the narrow path of repentance.’ He turned to face the packed courthouse. ‘Purge yourselves of idleness and opulence and idolatry.’ His voice rose in a great commanding cry. ‘Purge yourselves. Tear down the model on which this city and this state is founded. Destroy every last trace of it – just as you would burn a field to destroy the pests, so that the next season’s planting comes up pure!’ He pointed an accusing finger at Somchai, ‘And you are one of these pests. What right have you to pronounce judgement on others? Who pronounces judgement on you, protected by privilege and wealth? They say you are a free-thinker.’ He turned to the public. ‘That is a luxury we can no longer tolerate.’ He uttered a loud mocking cry that others echoed as he turned again to face Somchai. ‘I say – banish you and your laws and let the will of the people prevail.’

‘Will or prejudice?’ retorted Somchai defiantly. ‘I doubt you’d let any other opinion prevail except your own.’

But the prophet shouted him down with his booming voice. ‘Deep within us our sacred conscience dictates right and wrong.’ ‘Conscience or reason,’ challenged Somchai, ‘Instinct is our best guide – you manipulate the conscious will of the people with your firebrand rhetoric.’

‘Go,’ roared the prophet. ‘For within three days I will destroy this city. I will tear down the monuments of impiety and level it to the plain it once was. We will drive out all the unholy. Then out of the ground will grow a pure and a just and a holy city.’

Somchai looked about him helplessly – but the very same guards who had brought the prophet before him seemed uncertain which side they should be on. ‘Release him,’ roared the public. ‘Destroy this court’ roared the prophet, and suddenly everyone jumped up and started tearing the place to pieces. Somchai under a barrage of insults and flying objects made a hasty escape out of the back of the building.

He tried to return home but the city was in uproar, - a mad frenzy had possessed the usually calm and civil populace. Fires were blazing out of control everywhere as the frenzied followers of the prophet laid waste and torched what they would.

Somchai wrapped a scarf around his face to shield the pungent, choking smoke. As he pushed his way among the maddened mob he was astonished to see they were even trying to set fire to the Royal Palace. By side routes and alleyways he had not used in years Somchai finally reached the gates of his own house. Although he might have anticipated the servants running off to join the riots – he never expected the hostile reception he received from his own wife and children. His wife had already discarded her fine clothes and covered her head in a plain shawl. His children ignored Somchai’s pleas and ran away. ‘You are not a fit father to us,’ they declared, ‘ You failed to teach us the true faith, the true law.’

Somchai stood outside the gate of the house he was now barred from entering:- exhausted, distressed, bewildered. ‘Why have you turned against me? I love you!’ he shouted – but it seemed to boomerang back like a hollow echo. ‘Love!’ spat one of his children. ‘We scorn your love. We declare our allegiance only to the true prophet. You are corrupt. You would have corrupted us if the prophet had not arrived to save us. Go! You are no longer our father.’

Somchai felt completely helpless and defeated. He backed away and turning, started to run, not knowing where – just to escape from this nightmare.

‘I must get a message to the prince,’ he decided. ‘He will stop this madness.’ Only how could he do it? He needed a place of refuge – but where? On the edge of the square beside the river where the oarsmen waited to take passengers up or down river in their sampans – stood a tall isolated tower. Newly built and still unfinished its purpose remained unclear – but now as Somchai hurried desperately through the city its very isolation beckoned. The base of the tower was half-buried amid heaps of bricks, stone, sand and scaffold. Somchai pushed his way in and battened down the massive door behind him, before climbing slowly up the many flights to steps to the tower top. From this vantagepoint he commanded a magnificent view over the city to the surrounding country.

Somchai searched this way and that, hoping against hope he might see some way out of his desperate situation. But even as he cast his gaze across the familiar sights he saw a huge crowd assembling behind the solitary figure of the prophet as he strode with single-mindedness towards the river. When the crowd reached the riverbank the prophet faced them with his strident cry of ‘Repent!’ Immerse your bodies in the waters and be cleansed of your sins!’ At first hesitantly and then with increasing enthusiasm the crowd surged into the shallows. ‘You are a holy army of martyrs,’ urged the prophet, ‘But like any army you must obey rules.’ The crowd roared its approval.

‘Now,’ the prophet commanded, ‘Go and rout out anyone who will not join us in this great pilgrimage. Burn all the books you find. Books are deceivers. Wisdom comes from the hearts. Books manipulate our thoughts. Therefore destroy all that is written, all history, all legend and myth, sacred texts, tax records, merchants’ accounts, registers of property, laws – destroy them all!’ And from his viewpoint Somchai watched as the newly washed crowd scattered in every direction. Within minutes he witnessed the first scavengers emerging from ransacked houses carrying heaps of books and texts and armfuls of documents. ‘Burn them all!’ screamed the prophet.

As the day proceeded Somchai witnessed the street fires blazing in all directions. Books are not so easy to burn but the prophet soon added new declarations, ‘All ornaments, all pictures, all images – everything of man-made indulgence – find it and destroy it,’ he cried. And the obedient crowd sped off in a fresh orgy of destruction and looting.

Somchai meanwhile had discovered a great scroll that had been intended to be unfurled at the grand opening on the prince’s return. The banner was quite blank but nearby lay pots of paint and brushes ready for the official inscription. Somchai with an eagerness that was akin to bravado decided to publish his own objections to the prophet’s commands and release it for everyone to see. As he wrote in large bold lettering he unrolled the scroll so that his message lowered slowly and majestically outside the tower, lifted slightly by a rising breeze. Somchai felt quite passionately inspired. Her remembered the advice the prince had once given him – but adapted it slightly.

“Compassion, Forgiveness, Humility is the secret of humanity.

“Let them be in my mouth and in my speaking

Let them be in my mind and in my thinking

Let them be in my heart and understanding.”

By this time the scroll had unrolled half way down the side of the tower and as the faces of the crowd turned to look at it, they could also see Somchai busily writing away – at the top of the tower.

Their yells brought him to the attention of the prophet standing far below. ‘Traitor!’ he screamed. ‘Splittist.’ The prophet railed, arms upraised in accusation. ‘Regard the enemy within seeking to cause division in your minds. Destroy his traitorous message, tear down the tower, banish the traitor.’

The crowd advanced on the tower and using the picks and crowbars left there by the workmen they started to demolish its foundations. Although the tower was only a few metres square the walls were massively constructed and would long withstand any battering before it toppled. Meanwhile high above the square Somchai went on writing.

“Beyond everything is the sacred Mystery of No thing.”

“The heart of stillness lies within the heart of mankind.”

As he wrote he could feel the shocks and jolts vibrate up the tower from the attack below. He was so engrossed he scarcely noticed it, nor the wind as it rose in force, swirling the ashes of the burnt books and ornaments and lifting Somchai’s scroll so that from the dust-filled square below it seemed to span the sky like a massive sail.

The wind rose into a howling gale, scattering the debris into twisting plumes of ash and dirt. People clutched at one another for support and the screams and taunts of the prophet were flung away unheard as soon as they were spoken. High in his tower Somchai wrestling with the thrashing folds of the scroll went on writing his message to the world at large.

Over the plains the sky blackened and dark tentacles of tornados twisted ominously onto the earth below. Rain lashed down as if in an unrestrained fury. The crowd cowered, seeking shelter as best they could. Soon only two people remained defiant. High above the tower torn from his grasp by the wind the scroll flew away like the tail of a great kite and vanished among the storm clouds across the river. Far below even the prophet was finally silenced – exhausted he still stood defiant – his raised fist clenched in a menacing gesture. But Somchai, shielding his eyes as he tried to follow the flight of his scroll, saw instead a bright gleam of light shine under the darkened sky and as the glow rose to illuminate the river he could see a line of boats. Straining to see more clearly he could make out a procession of royal barges – paddled by a hundred of the royal retainers in their costumes of red and gold. It could mean only one thing and Somchai clutching at the tower wall for support with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other yelled with all his strength, ‘The Prince, the Prince!’

At first no one else noticed – but as the storm started to subdue, and light streamed in again from all directions, others too on prominent places saw the flotilla and took up the cry.

Soon everyone, as if released, was rushing to the waterside and Somchai high on his tower and the prophet still as a statue in the square below were alone and ignored.

Thus the prince returned to his city. From somewhere a white elephant was produced which the prince mounted – pavilioned in splendour. Did he for a moment gaze up at Somchai pinioned to his tower, or at the prophet turned as if to stone in the square? If so the glance was scarcely visible. Slowly the prince proceeded through the smouldering city and everywhere the crowds parted, cheering before him, united in one cry, ‘The Prince, the Prince.’

Then slowly Somchai descended from the tower, unbarred the massive iron door and stood face to face with the prophet in the deserted square.

After the prince moved back into the hastily repaired Royal Palace, he issued two decrees – banishing the prophet and Somchai to opposite corners of the Kingdom. He sent the prophet to a remote mountain crag, accessible only to the hardiest adventurer – where his followers, if they were not too exhausted by the steep and tortuous climb were welcome to visit him as and when they wished. And Somchai he sent back to the rice-fields of his youth. What passed between the Prince and the prophet Somchai never heard, but to him the prince was most sympathetic.

‘An emperor long ago built a city he declared was a model of heaven on earth. But if we had such a chance what model of heaven would we choose? For you it is no thing and no where. So how would such a city function? For the prophet there are strict codes covering every aspect of daily life leaving no scope for individual imagination and little individual liberty. The two of you represent two extremes. Somchai -– if we followed your uncertainty and indecision and gave total liberty for every individual to decide for themselves what was right and wrong, complete chaos would result. And if we copied the narrow-minded extremes of the prophet, we would become a mean, hard, vengeful society, intent on spreading our doctrine like a wall of flame to consume one and all.’

‘So, what is the answer?’ inquired Somchai.

‘Moderation,’ the prince replied. ‘There is a middle way. It may not be ideal and it may sound like compromise – but compromise is better than confrontation. Heaven,’ the prince concluded, ‘has no replica and is surely as diverse in its judgements as it is in its creation.’ He smiled kindly at Somchai. ‘My role is to try and secure an environment for the safety and harmony of every citizen. Of course there will be abuses. But if we listen to our hearts there is always a desire for reconciliation. Somchai, my friend, your political message of abstraction fails to give people the security they need. For them abstraction is a distraction or a delusion – but not a solution. But we need idealists – both you and the prophet – to spur us on. Therefore I grant you both the freedom to think and say whatever you wish to whoever you wish, to create your own models of society – the prophet on his high crag from where with his keen insight he can survey the horizons of the known world and you, Somchai, in the middle of nowhere – which is where you want to be anyway – in the self-same hut where you once lived so simply and happily, in the rice-fields.’

So Somchai bowed and left the city – even as it was being cleaned and rebuilt – just as he had walked out of it all those years before.

As he passed by his house on the highway following the river, his children ran out after him and his wife waved him an affectionate ‘farewell’. Although Somchai felt saddened at leaving everything – he also felt a sense of hope and anticipation for his journey ahead. For this time he would not turn back and by leaving everything he would discover the reality and fulfilment of no thing – just as the poet within had promised.

 

THE END

 
 
     
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