Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Court Philosopher encounters a Mountain Sage


I once read an apocryphal anecdote about a close encounter between Confucius and Laotze which greatly amused me. Having heard about the extraordinary wisdom of a wild mountain sage whose original name was no longer known, the Master Confucius was determined to seek him out and learn everything he could from this reputable sage.

After months of unrelenting search, following every lead that came his way, Confucius finally found himself approaching a humble cottage hidden among trees on a remote hillside. But there was nobody home. Determined to find the reclusive mountain sage, Confucius decided to follow a narrow trail that eventually led to a crystalline stream, and there he beheld a spritely elder perched on a mossy log with a makeshift fishing rod.

“Pardon the rude intrusion, but I assume you are the illustrious Master Laotze?” Confucius began. “I have sought you for many moons with a humble request.”

Laotze glanced at the intruder for a brief moment with a penetrating look and then turned back to his fishing. “What do you want?” he asked after a pause.

Confucius approached Laotze and sat down on the grass a respectful distance away. Clearing his throat, he declared: “I am Kung Fu-tze, Resident Philosopher of the magnificent Jing Court, and I have been authorized to offer you a lucrative lifetime tenure as Special Advisor to the King and Senior Mentor to his Offspring – a position that comes with your own luxurious quarters and a minimum of 10 household servants. I beg you to seriously consider.”

There was a long silence before Laotze finally spoke in a quiet voice, pointing to something he had spotted on the riverbank: “Do you see that tiny terrapin dragging its tail through the mud?” He continued, conversationally: “Many decades ago I visited the palace and saw, in the foyer, a gigantic tortoise on display, stuffed and mounted in a glass case, reputed to be the largest within memory. Well, I would much rather be that little fellow over there!”

Confucius was duly impressed by Laotze’s answer. “Forget about my foolish offer, Exalted Master!” he said apologetically, “but please accept me as your humble disciple and diligent student. I shall resign my position immediately and sit happily at your feet.”

Laotze looked directly at Confucius, brow furrowed as though in deep thought; then he burst out laughing and didn’t stop until Confucius, too, found himself laughing along. Finally the wild mountain sage placed a friendly hand on Confucius’s shoulder and gently said: “There is nothing you can learn from me and nothing for me to teach you. Don’t waste my time and your own, my friend. Come, let’s have some tea. You have a long journey home.”

To his credit, Confucius never had a negative thing to say about his brief encounter with Laotze. In later years when asked by his many admirers what it was like to meet the legendary wild mountain sage, he would smile and say: “How does one describe a dragon flying in the sky beyond the sight of men?”

[From a letter to Chris Ang dated 12 February 2020]

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