We located a trail heading in the general direction of the pass, and started up. The slope was gentle to begin with, but after a day of climbing, it steepened, and then the weather turned bad. Before I knew it, I found myself walking through deepening snow in my bare feet while fighting a howling wind that blinded me from even following the path. I wrapped my tattered robe tightly around me, but it was of no help, and when I finally couldn't feel my feet anymore, I had no choice but to mount Conqueror and add to his burdens on the treacherous trail. This was more than just dangerous; it was proving to be life threatening, and as I looked down on the warm, peaceful valley below between gusts of wind, I couldn't help but reflect on how things in life can change so unexpectedly.
We climbed higher and higher toward clouds that were blowing around like lost souls, and with nothing to eat, along with the altitude and bitter cold, I soon found myself losing consciousness, and desperately tried to hang onto Conqueror's neck. But when the great horse began to falter, I knew then that the mountain was about to claim two more inexperienced victims, for we had now gone past the point of no return. We could never make it down again.
I fought to remain conscious. I knew that if I fell off Conqueror's back, I was through. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to think clearly, and even if I could, what was there to do? As I tried desperately to focus, a small, white rabbit unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere and darted back and forth, trying to run under the horse's hoofs, as if sacrificing itself to feed us. Conqueror stopped, and I commanded him not to move. I would rather die than eat this unselfish creature.
Then the rabbit looked directly at me for a moment before suddenly turning into a point of light and zipping off the trail, and continuing over a hill to the left. Now I knew we would make it. I allowed myself to slip into semi-consciousness as Conqueror left the trail to follow the helper being.
I woke up in a small cabin, lit by several dim candles. Flames wrapped themselves around a blackened pot that bubbled in the fireplace, and stirring it was an old man who appeared to be completely absorbed in his cooking. He was wearing a fur of some kind, and the only features I could make out were his dark, leathery hands. The cabin was warm and cozy compared to the snowstorm raging outside, and it had a distinct feeling of stillness.
When the old man noticed that I was awake, he came over and put his hand on my shoulder. I smiled and said “Thank you, " but when he answered, it was in an unfamiliar language. I simply nodded, as he went back to his stirrings, and I drifted off to sleep again.
Only a moment seemed to go by before I woke up to the wonderful aroma of a delicious stew. The man spooned some from the black pot and into a bowl, and with a generous slice of barley bread covered with butter, placed it on the table next to me.
After I finished my third bowl, he took the bowl and spoon and began washing them, in silence, just as our meal was eaten. Standing at the sink, he motioned toward the window. Through a blinding, white curtain of snow, I caught a glimpse of a barn with hay piled high alongside. I assumed that Conqueror was safe and fed.
When everything was cleaned up and put away in his sparse cupboard, he came over and sat beside me with a pen and some paper. He sketched what appeared to be a trail over the top of the mountain, winding its way down into a valley where he drew a large city. On a high cliff overlooking the city he illustrated a massive structure built of gigantic stones, as if it was carved from the mountain itself. He pointed to the structure, then pointed to me, indicating that I should go there, After he was satisfied that I understood, he walked to the far corner of the room and sat down on the bare floor. He crossed his knees and faced the wall.
I pulled the warm fur that I found covering my body a little closer, and looked out the window again. Everything was muffled, stillness; the snow hiding the scars and sins of the mountain and insulating its inhabitants from sound. Only the quiet popping of the steady fire softly interrupted this sacred silence, as I began my inner work as well.
My mind calmed down immediately and surprisingly became extremely bright. The small man in the corner was definitely affecting me, and I had a feeling that he was in some way connected with the building he had drawn so carefully and beautifully on his paper. Then, suddenly, five words forcefully appeared in my mind: “Go deeper in the valley. "
I knew that the words were coming from him, and I had a feeling that they were telling me more than to merely travel to the city he depicted; they were telling me to go deeper in my inner work. Maybe somebody in this city could help me - I couldn't wait to get started.
A few hours later, the candles were all but burned down, but I could see by the dim glow of the fireplace coals that the small man was getting up. He lit another candle, came over to me with his paper and pen, and smiled. He looked at me for a few moments and nodded, and I had an eerie feeling that he had just read my mind, and that he knew everything about me. Then he began sketching a series of odd pictures. First he drew a man, then next to the man was an illustration of the man's head, with four more pictures above as if each picture was a separate part of the man's mind. The first picture was that of a hand in a fire. The second portrayed the same hand that was apparently burned and painful. The third depicted the man looking at his burned hand; and the fourth was a picture of the man cooking something on the fire.
He looked at me intently as he pointed to each part of the sketch, lifting his eyebrows and nodding his head up and down. I could only shrug my shoulders; I had no idea what he was trying to say. He pointed to the drawing once more before folding it into the fur that was keeping me warm.
The next morning, with map in hand and sporting a new fur cap, boots, and my warm wrap, I started up the trail with Conqueror. I looked back and waved to the quiet, little man as he stood on his porch. He was smiling and pointing to a small key in his hand, and I had a feeling that we would meet again as Conqueror and I disappeared into the snow.
We made our way over the pass and down into the long valley where an enormous city was spread out below; and in no time, we were mingling among bustling throngs of cheerful people, and markets filled with vegetables, barley, goats and reindeer. Then, I looked up, and at the end of the valley, . Looming above us, was the cliff structure so accurately depicted in the old man's drawing.
We had made it about half way up the steep trail to the structure when we came across a young man who was apparently on his way there as well and had stopped to rest. I said, “Hello, " hoping the lad spoke my language.
When he replied, “Hello to you, " I was delighted! But there was something unusual about the lad, and the manner in which he presented himself was puzzling. He appeared to be only in his late teens, but he carried himself much older, perhaps in his early thirties. And I could swear I knew him from somewhere, but could not quite put my finger on it.
We struck up a conversation and I quickly learned that the lad had traveled here because of the cliff structure's reputation. Apparently, robed men lived there and were true key seekers, willing to help beginners in their quest.
So that was it! The mountain man was leading me to a unique community of key seekers! I was astounded that a lad who appeared to be so youthful would be interested in finding the key. How could he have seen enough of life to understand its disappointments, things that are clear to those older, but usually cleverly concealed from the eyes of the inexperienced young?
When I questioned him about why he would embark on such a difficult quest, he replied, “My father was a key ‘keeper’ but I never knew him. My mother said that he had left one day and she was awaiting his return, not knowing where he was or what he was doing, and although she had asked about him everywhere, there was no information. So, she raised me by herself, and would always tell me stories about my father; how loving and good he was, and said many times how he had always hoped his child would be inclined to follow his footsteps in finding the key.
"As I grew older, I had the same urges that all young men have, you know, girls and such, yet there was something inside that was stronger, pushing me to fulfill my father's wishes. It's difficult to explain, but I somehow loved him very much without ever knowing him.
"My mother taught me well how to live justly and correctly and how to conduct myself, but she admitted that since she had never found the key herself, she could not advise me in this area. Her dedication had its effect, however, and my love and respect for her deepened as the years went by. I never married. I knew in my heart that I was destined to search for the key, and when my mother died last year, my only thought was to fulfill my father's wishes and begin my quest, hoping to run across him somewhere in my travels. "
I was greatly impressed with this unusual young man. “Your father must have been a remarkable person to influence your mother and yourself to such an extent, " I said.
"Oh, he wasn't anything special, " the lad replied. “He was just a blacksmith. "
I quickly turned my head to hide the emotions that erupted. A picture of a cell wall and the last line of a story flashed in my mind, “I forgive you my prince. " How could an innocent man who was locked away to die, erased from the face of the earth and not even able to tell his wife where he was, or ever see his child, his only son, forgive the man responsible for this tragedy.
I looked at the young man for a long time, just now seeing the resemblance to the blacksmith. “You are a true warrior, son, " I said, “and your father will be proud of you. Keep the quest for the key forever in your heart, and if there is anything that I can ever do to help you . . . " I couldn't finish my sentence. I pretended to cough. I could not tell him the truth - at least not yet.
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