The cranes stretched their wings in the east of the marsh. The frogs croaked out from their mud. I walked alone, though surrounded by life, towards the 10,000 Steps of Wisdom, which leads up a towering mountain spire shrouded in mist. At the crest of the sacred mountain is a monastery known but to only a few. None but true seekers ever come across this place.
The journey up the 10,000 steps was arduous and long. Along the way, I faced treacherous winds, winding slopes, even packs of hungry wolves. But I knew that I must persist if I expected to reach the Hidden Grotto. When at long last I arrived at the end of the stone pathway, I found an elderly monk seated cross-legged by the massive archway at the entrance of the grotto. His eyes were closed and he appeared to be contemplating great mysteries of the spirit.
I cleared my throat. I said:
“Brother, I have searched the corners of the world for enlightenment. I have forsaken my friends, my family, my life in its pursuit. Is there meaning in my suffering? Have I wasted my life? Is all of this for nothing?”
Without so much as fluttering his eyelids, the monk responded:
“If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I said, “Yes.”
A nearly imperceptible breeze played with the hem of the old monk’s robe. Full of monkly wisdom, he merely giggled and said, “My brother, I think you are missing the point.”
“No I’m pretty sure I’m right about this one,” I said, but the monk just went right on giggling away with the purity of a child. Giggle, giggle, giggle. Was that all these monks ever did? I just walked through half of China to talk to this guy and now he was basically laughing in my face! How nice it must be to be a giggling monk in the mountains, I thought. What a treat for him.
I said, “First off, let’s cool it with the giggles. You’re a grown man. Secondly, the answer is yes. I mean, for one, it’s just basic science. This tree falls, it’s gonna wham against the ground – boom! – and send vibrations every way. That’s what sound is: Air vibrations. And two, you’re telling me there are no animals in this so-called forest? No squirrels? No birds? Nothing? That’s insane! Some animal is gonna hear that tree fall, that’s practically guaranteed.”
The monk simply backed slowly away towards the big gong, shaking his head like he knew something I didn’t. But he was full of shit. He didn’t know anything I didn’t. He didn’t have anything going on near the big gong. He just couldn’t deal with the fact that I was right.
“Fine. Walk away then. This place is bullshit anyway.”
I made a big show out of looking around the vast and ancient monastery, the greenery of the mountains surrounding, and the cascading falls in the distance
“You know what?” I said. “I feel less enlightened than ever here. I’ve never felt further from God in my life. This whole temple sucks. Also, the sound of one hand clapping? That’s just snapping. Everybody knows that. Snap snap snap.”
The monk whipped around. “What did you just say to me?”
“You heard me.”
He chucked his Tibetan singing bowl right at my head. I ducked, but he charged at me while I was still recovering my balance. He was surprisingly fast. He caught me right in the gut.
“Ooof! Goddamn monk, son of a bitch!”
We rolled around in the dirt for a bit. I got a few good shots in but that little shit got me with a mean left-hook-uppercut combo. He hit me so hard I bounced my ass all the way to the bottom of the 10,000 Steps of Wisdom. The whole way down, I thought about how much I regretted ever getting into Buddhism in the first place.
The cops were waiting for me at the bottom of the Sacred Mountain. I knew why they were there. I didn’t even argue with them. I just got in the back of their car. “Fine,” I said. “Whatever.” I was too tired to fight it. I suddenly experienced a brilliant flash of enlightenment but I just shook it off. I wasn’t in the mood anymore.