Conqueror and I remained at our vantage point in the foothills until the weather exhausted itself. With the floods beginning to melt into the countryside, and with no signs of my enemies from the north, our journey to the far country and the cave resumed as we headed for lower ground.
Each step was a trial now, however, sinking knee deep in mud, then sliding and falling down on the slippery ridges as we made our way into the long valley below. The dirty, yellow waters were still raging as we approached the river, full of floating logs and debris as it boiled along its washed-out banks making it impossible to locate any landmarks among the tangled remnants of the storm. My map was useless; I could only follow the near shoreline and hope for a crossing downstream.
I trudged along high embankments and impenetrable forests for three weeks, with my crippled horse limping behind. Knowing that I would eventually have to take a chance, because we couldn't go on like this, I found a a shallow stretch where I thought the river looked relatively calm, rationalizing that we could possibly cross it.
But I was wrong about this treacherous river.
It knocked off my feet as soon as I stepped into it. My fingers dug into the horse's mane, my legs dangling helplessly in the current as Conqueror fought the river with faltering steps, slipping on rocks below as his crippled leg gave way time and again. Debris battered us, tree limbs and animals’ bodies, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw it coming . . . just before it hit me.
The gigantic log tore me from my horse as easily as a tigers tears limbs off its kill, and I found myself tumbling downstream like a rag doll.
I fought the river as I have fought everything in my life, with an unknown strength that comes from nowhere, and belonged to somebody else - someone who deserved the strength more than I, and as a reflex, I unconsciously grabbed hold of the log that dislodged me as we plummeted together down the river. When the log abruptly jammed itself between boulders in the middle of deep rapids, I was able to hold on. And there we remained.
With what little strength I had left, I kept my head above the surging current that roared and frothed just below my nose, but time was running out. I hugged my precious log, my prized nemeses, my benefactor, and I smiled at the irony of the situation.
Not only was I abandoned in this river, but I was forsaken in my impossible quest as well - my key remained as elusive as ever. It was now too late to return to my familiar world, and yet, I could not see my way forward either. I was trapped with no way out. Somehow, I had to find the strength to save myself from this impersonal river that had no compulsion about sparing little lives, I had to make it to that other shore of this river, somehow, and I had to find a way forward in my quest as well.
How did this search for an implausible key become an obsession; a key that unlocked the hidden secret of eternal happiness? I wasn't sure how the passion began, but I knew that I was close to the key, and what could I do now except forge ahead? Everything else in my life was now gone, and nothing in this fleeting world interested me any longer, except for one thing; this, thus far, inaccessible key.
And as I fought to keep my head above water, my thoughts drifted back to the early years of this journey. They had told me then, in the beginning of all of this, that I would only touch the mysteries of that mystical moment sought by truth seekers, that rare consciousness, but given time, I would find a way to remain within it forever.
Yes, I had touched it, I knew that I had, and it was as completely baffling to me then as it was now, but now I could no longer dismiss it as I had before. I knew now that I would either find my key, or die trying. There no longer was a choice in the matter.
Gratitude welled up as I held fast to my log and remembered others that selflessly helped me along this agonizing journey. They took me under their wings as if I was the most important thing in the world, and now I could clearly see, in this decisive moment, my own unrelenting self-centeredness . . . and it sickened me. And I had a stone-cold feeling that this time; I wasn't going to make it.
ut then I caught a glimpse, through the swirling waters, of Conqueror stumbling down the churning river, half-swimming, half falling, exhausted, trying desperately to find his king. What drove this magnificent beast to risk his life time and again for the likes of me?
Death was closing in quickly, however, and I became afraid. The invariable peace that arrives just before the end, the peace that stills the panic, had not yet arrived. Actually, neither fear nor death would have been a problem if I had nothing left to lose - but I had plans. My life still lacked . . . something, and I was not ready to die quite yet. This was apparent because here I was, desperately clinging to this lifeless log with all of my strength, hoping beyond hope that Conqueror would still save me.
It was like a dream sequence - the horse moving ever so slowly toward me. Every one of his precise movements was incredibly detailed and etched in my mind. I watched him for what seemed like an eternity, battling his way to the log where I was hanging on for dear life, and when he finally reached me, I grabbed his mane and we both fought side by side through the heavy waters until we finally somehow made it to the opposite bank. And there we stood with shaking legs.
Although we were thankful that we were safe, the realization soon sank in that we now faced the long backtrack upriver to return to the original crossing spot on the map. Three agonizing weeks later, after struggling along flooded embankments, we finally made it back to our starting point. But this time, we were across the river.
I found myself living off the land again (which a John warned me not to do) until at last we came across some villages with kind people. When I would walk by in my tattered robe, and with my crippled horse, they were always more than willing to give us some food.
One day, the elder of one of the villages asked me if I would be kind enough to give a talk to his people. A John cautioned me that teaching before one is ready would mislead people, as well as mislead the teacher, and until I had been key seeking for at least twenty years I should not teach. Because I lacked confidence in giving talks, I had been using this as an excuse for not speaking, but since I was now in my fifties and began this quest when I was thirty-two, it was time to start repaying the many villagers who had supported me. Regardless that my failure to speak in front of the points of light that one embarrassing night on the mountain remained in the back of my mind, I was willing to try again.
I sat on an elevated seat, crossed my legs, but had no idea what to say. So I just remained within my inner work and didn't worry about it. I was more than willing to sit there in silence, which would be a good lesson in itself. Soon, however, words started appearing in my mind.
"I ask permission to speak, " I said, “Please do not believe what I say until you prove everything true for yourself. I do not know much, as I am not an advanced key seeker, but I will try to give you some useful words from direct experience of my inner work to help your lives become happy, true, level and correct.
"By bringing beings into this world, parents selflessly give children the opportunity to clean up their kamma. When raising these children, it is of the utmost importance that parents completely trust each other and work together on this single goal; to help both yourselves and your children clean up their kamma from past lives. You can do this by being examples to each other and to the children by living correctly - which is much better than merely talking about living correctly. Living correctly is living in a way that will not create any additional bad kamma so that all of you might be someday free from pain and suffering.
"Watch carefully for signs of greed, hatred or delusion. Determine which of these is dominant in each of you, as well as in your children. We all become caught up in these three things, but one of them will stand out in each of us, and since children are very open and honest in their actions, it will be easy to discern where their main tendency lies. Some children will be greedy - very competitive and ambitious, grabbing everything in sight. Others will tend toward hatred - controlling and domineering, strongly disliking others. Others will be deluded - susceptible to lust, illusions and dreams.
"These are things to be understood, not criticized, as they are entrenched habit patterns developed from many past lives and therefore are deeply ingrained. The compassionate thing to do is gently point out each trait so the child can someday ‘see’ the harmful quality in his or her own heart. Then a change will occur. It does no good to say, ‘Do not be greedy. ’ It is much better merely to call attention to the greed.
"Selfless action and love is shown by not criticizing the child, or ourselves, but by being aware of any unconstructive actions. This requires a balance and an acknowledgement of the behavior without blame. This kind of attention and care will communicate a deep registering affection within the child's heart and far exceed excessive discipline, teaching the child an important lesson at a very profound level - how to be treated with love.
"For the parents themselves, mutual trust is crucial. Trusting each other completely means that every obstacle can be overcome, and each can be secure in their feelings and in their work toward a common goal. Without trust, everything falls apart as each is forced selfishly to fend for him or herself, losing the vulnerability and simplicity of love.
"When performing day-to-day duties, always think of your spouse's welfare before taking any action. Our thoughts preclude words and our words many times preclude actions. Therefore, be careful of your thoughts. That is your first protection. If this protection fails, then be very careful of your words because the complications of a first word will grow like flowering vines in springtime. The last protection is your actions. This is where your kamma is made. Be fearful of wrong action for it will haunt you for innumerable lifetimes, as well as possibly making this very existence a living hell.
"Thank you for the opportunity to reflect upon this experience we call life, and I wish every one of you perfect happiness. "
My talk was now over, and after the villagers thanked me for the simple, direct way in which I addressed their concerns, I walked back into the forest to retire. When I returned to the village for food the following day, a committee of villagers was waiting.
"You are a good man of exceptional abilities, and we trust you, " the elder said, “so we invite you to live with us and be our inspiration for spiritual development, and perhaps instruct us regarding the inner work. "
I recognized the underlying cry for help in some of their eyes, and I knew that a few were ready, yet without further inspiration, they might fall by the wayside. Therefore, I wanted to live here and be that inspiration, but my heart, the one I was beginning to trust, reminded me that I was not quite ready - that I should continue with my quest because my job was not yet finished. When it was complete and my key was found, then I would be a much better teacher for all beings.
Remembering a John's words, “A key seeker is not fit to teach until he no longer desires to teach, and When the student is ready, the teacher will appear, " I believed that my talk, as well as my presence in this village, had already affected some and started them on their way. Then, once they began their own search, they would eventually find other teachers who would assist them at the level required by their particular past kamma.
Therefore, I could only answer their request with a sympathetic silence, and an apology - that I could not remain with them at this time. I gave a few more talks about family life, about doing only good and doing no evil, and offered some basic instruction regarding the inner work, but Conqueror and I had no choice but to continue on our way to the cave.
E. Raymond Rock of Fort Myers, Florida is cofounder and principal teacher at the Southwest Florida Insight Center, http://www.SouthwestFloridaInsightCenter.com His twenty-eight years of meditation experience has taken him across four continents, including two stopovers in Thailand where he practiced in the remote northeast forests as an ordained Theravada Buddhist monk. His book, A Year to Enlightenment (Career Press/New Page Books) is now available at major bookstores and online retailers. Visit http://www.AYearToEnlightenment.com