"The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature."
In the early to mid 1940s English author and playwright W. Somerset Maugham published his novel The Razor's Edge. The novel chronicled the adventures of a young man from America Maugham called Laurence Darrell as he searched for and eventually attained spiritual Enlightenment following WWI. The search led him through Europe to India, the Far East and eventually back to the United States just before the outbreak of WWII. It was of the man Maugham called Darrell that he wrote the above paragraph. The story that follows below tells of one person's account of meeting that "remarkable creature" in person and the to-this-day downstream outflow from that encounter.
Although the person did not follow or belong to any particular Zen or Buddhist sect, and, although his awakening experience was not under Zen dictates, but the guidance of a person on the Indian side of things, as were both the Buddha and Bodhidharma, his awakening, like theirs, was universal. He was, however, one-in-the-same person W. Somerset Maugham crafted his story "The Razor's Edge" around. Where and how they met initially was never made clear, but Maugham, being the master story teller he was, carefully weaved broad bits of true facts with the poetic license of the fiction writer. In 1972, following a series of personal discussions about my Zen mentor and my journey along the path in his footsteps, a friend backtracked through the notes taken and typed the following, which are presented to you now basically unedited:
"Prior to the advent of the soaring '60s, that is, in the unenlightened middle-to-late '50s, I was a teenager growing up in automobile conscious southern California and owned an immaculately spotless early model Ford Woodie Wagon. Like most high school kids whose cars are a big part of their life, I spent enormous amounts of time maintaining and reworking mine in an exacting and meticulous standard never before dreamed of by the manufacturer. I scraped, sanded, smoothed, bleached, stained, and spar varnished the wood beyond the brightest of the brightwork on the most expensive yacht. There was such a depth of reflection to the wood that a person could hold their arm to the darkened inner door panels and see themselves with clarity to their armpit. The most important thing for me however, was the popularity the car provided during my high school years. I could cruise the beach and high school campus with my buddies and girls would literally clamor for a ride.
"During those easy going I-like-Ike high school days, the house next door went up for sale and was purchased by a single older man in what was then an otherwise family oriented beach community. To most of us the man seemed somewhat weird. He walked everywhere and was almost always barefoot. Everyday, weather permitting, he wore the same simple clothes. If warm, a black teeshirt; if cold, a bulky knit navy blue turtleneck sweater with dark pants and a wide belt, topped with a dark blue greek fisherman's cap, which he always tipped most graciously each day toward my grandmother as he returned from his routine early morning walks.
"One morning I parked my car in the driveway in order to work on the wood for the umpteenth trillionth time when I noticed the man next door had stopped to look at the wagon. In a mellow, almost Shakespearean voice he told me how beautiful he thought the wood was and how he admired my endeavors to keep it so. He asked if it would be all right to touch the wood and as I nodded in approval, he ran his fingers softly over the surface in such a strange and exacting manner that he and the wood seemed as one. No racehorse trainer could have stroked or curried a prize thoroughbred in a more loving way. When we made eye contact for the first time I was set aback, almost stunned, by the overwhelming calmness and serenity that seemed to abide in his presence. Never had I experienced anything like it. He thanked me, smiled, and tipping his hat, nodded slightly and strode off.
"Several days passed when one day just after sunrise the man next door appeared on our back porch and asked my grandmother if he might speak with me. He told me several rooms in his house were paneled in floor-to-ceiling knotty pine he intended to refinish and wondered if he might hire me to help him with the job. The feeling of serenity that seemed so captivating the first time we met faded as my mind shot forward to the overwhelming prospect of earning handfuls of money to blow on my car, buddies, girls, and good times.
"My grandmother, after assuring herself that the man was not stranger than my youthful naivete might realize, gave approval for me to work for him. It turned out to be a wonderful summer, not because of the bucks or good times, but because of the insight, knowledge, and intoxicating sense of oneness the man-next-door seemed to possess. At first the man spoke little, listening mostly to my small talk and chit-chat, but as the summer wore on the subjects began to wax philosophical, eventually through him, turning to the Universe and man's place in the scheme of things...when and why, where and how, space and time...all of which was fairly heady stuff for a guy whose primary concern up to that time had been how large the size of a girl's chest was. In a peculiar, general sort of way he seemed to know everything about everything, and as we sanded, worked, reworked, and painted the wood, he talked and I listened. The most elaborate subjects were always described in the most graphic, mind-visual metaphors somehow easily understood on my level of comprehension. His inner soul seemed to breath and undulate with an understanding that penetrated my brain, painting my mind in brilliant splotches of color, running thick with an embryo of knowledge and dripping heavy with meaning...all done with the quiet flair of a person whose thirst had long been quenched and whose only real want, if there even was a want, was to occasionally sip now and then when the need arose.
"Toward the end of summer, several hours after we stopped work for the day, I discovered I had left my wallet at the man's house. I jumped the fence between the yards and bounded up the steps to the porch and through the door still open from the day's work. The man was sitting on a mat on the otherwise bare living room floor naked, that is, stark naked, in the soft twilight of the setting sun, crosslegged, Buddha-style, in front of a burning candle or incense. He seemed as if in a trance and made no conscious effort to recognize my presence. I quietly retrieved my wallet and left.
"The next day, for the first time, I was reluctant to go to work. Arriving late, several hours passed with little conversation. I felt uncomfortable in the stunted quiet, like a kid who without anyone knowing it, had stumbled across his sister or mother in bed with his favorite uncle and didn't know how to handle the information.
"Mid morning came and went. Finally he motioned for a break. Mixing two ice teas, he handed me one, and putting his hand on my shoulder guided me outside to the porch where we sat in the shade on the cement floor, leaning our backs against the dusty white clapboard wall. His house was on the downside of the crest of a hill, somewhat higher than the surrounding area before us so the level of his porch was actually higher than the rooftops of the single dwelling houses across the street. From our vantage point we could see the whole basin outlined by the distant mountains to the north as they fingered their way downward toward the west where they intersected with the deep blue horizon of the Pacific and that of the cloudless pale blue sky. For the first time he spoke of himself.
"He was an only child. Both parents died when he was quite young, his mother giving birth to him, his father sometime around his eighth year or so. He was raised by a guardian. He had inherited a trust fund and had never really worked over any period of time. Although he didn't tell me specifically at the time, during World War I, at age sixteen, he joined the Canadian army, became a pilot, and fought in Europe. He was aware that may thousands of young men were dying on the ground beneath him, plummeted to death by artillery shells, gassed, and rotting to death in the trenches, but it wasn't until his own best friend died in front of his own eyes that he was shaken to his spine with remorse and repugnance. Driven by an unquenchable desire to find the accountability of life and not knowing what to look for, he embarked on a ten year journey that took him through Europe, China, Burma, and India in search of an answer. After a series of events over several years he found himself in the south of the Indian sub-continent studying at the ashrama of a venerated Maharshi...all prior to World War II and before most people had ever heard of the word guru.
"After a year of studying, meditating, and working at stoop labor in and around the fields near the ashrama, he took to taking long solitary pilgrimages into the mountains. One morning high in the mountains he was waiting in his usual spot to watch the sunrise. That morning when the very first glint of light pierced the very top edge of the distant mountains the rays fell across his eyes and shot straight through his pupils directly into his brain. His mind exploded. He actually thought he had physically blown to bits in a brilliant flash of light, that the whole back of his head had been blown off and opened to eternity. The initial sensations abated in a series of bodily contractions and convulsions, leaving him shaking and trembling. Rubbing his arms he could see he was still alive and whole. Never was he so exhilerated, like walking on air, his insides bursting with pleasure. He wanted to yell to the whole world how wonderful he felt, and although there wasn't a fellow human being around for miles to hear his exuberance, he ran down the mountain path toward the forester's hut where he stayed yelling and screaming like a crazy man.
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