Once upon a time there was a hermit. He lived with his garden along a hilltop in a desolate area of Shandong province. Every morning he would rise up and look out at the horizon, seeing the weather for the day and wondering about eternity.
At least, that was the purpose of his mountain retreat. Often the hermit awoke thinking about what chores needed to be done around the house, sighing because he needed to weed the garden and go down and see if the wild plums were ripe for drying.
And try as he might, the hermit couldn’t lose sight of his ragged clothes and wonder what the latest fashions were down in the valley.
Before he had been a hermit, the hermit had been a successful merchant. But when a fire took everything he had and his family had been forced to live with relatives in shame, the hermit had taken to the mountaintop to find enlightenment. So far, it had been elusive.
Every day the hermit would sit in meditation, grasping for peace and good will. Instead he got an angry stream of thoughts about the injustice in the world. When he angrily forced the thoughts aside he missed his family and felt great shame at not being able to provide for them. At no time did he feel peace or a sense of oneness or anything like that.
At long last the hermit left his mountain top in disgust. Nothing had been gained. He descended again into the valley, on his way to the sea to drown his worthless self in the sea. He stopped by to visit his family, and cherished every minute with them. Nothing pleased him so much as to look on his family, and he felt again the shame of his inability to care for them. With much weeping, he left his family and went on to the sea.
The hermit was hungry and cold when he reached the ocean. He had brought only a length of rope with him to tie around his middle and to wrap the other end around a heavy stone to take him to the ocean’s floor.
As he was selecting a suitable stone along the beach, a fisherman called to him. “Hey, can you give me a hand?” The hermit considered for a moment, and thought it would matter little if he died in an hour or two. So he lent the fisherman a hand and helped him unload his catch. “Thanks!” said the man. “I could sure use a fellow like you tomorrow. We have a big haul to do. What if I paid you in food to pull it in with me?” The hermit explained his situation, and the fisherman nodded. “A man’s honor must be fulfilled. Let me help you find a rock, then.”
The hermit was grateful for the man’s help, as the rock they selected was very heavy. The fisherman helped him up the hill and then asked that the hermit wait until he could make it back to his hut and say prayers for the hermit. “Wait until moonrise,” said the fisherman. “That is an auspicious time to die.” The hermit nodded and waited by the stone for the moon to rise. He meditated intensely, waiting for enlightenment. Surely at this critical time it would not fail him. But nothing came.
The moon rose. In despair, the man grasped the stone with both hands and fell with the stone over the high cliff.
As he struck the water with tremendous force, the man experienced true terror. Nothing about his honor, his shame, and his guilt mattered at all. He struggled for air, and thrashed against the rope holding him to the heavy stone. With a snap, it separated, and the hermit struggled to the surface, gasping for air. He was still in a terrible situation, with the high rocks threatening to crush him and the restless sea dragging him outward into its depths.
The hermit saw a light on the water and struck out for it. He came up to the fisherman’s boat, and tread water until the fisherman peered over the side at him. “Hey, it’s a dead man,” said the fisherman. “What to help me pull in my catch tomorrow?” The hermit climbed heavily onboard and they rowed back to land.
For the next few months, the hermit helped the fisherman. He thought about climbing the cliff again, but when he did he remembered his terror as the water swallowed him. It wasn’t bravery that kept him alive, it was a fear of death.
They did well together, and the fisherman talked to the hermit about his family. Together they set about building a second fishing hut, and when it was finished, they sent for the hermit’s family. The family was overjoyed that the hermit was still alive and, although the fishing hut was shabby, it was better than relying on the charity of their family.
Over the years the hermit and the fisherman became like brothers. They worked every day together, and often knew what the other wanted without speaking. At long last, the older fisherman came to the end of his life. As he lay dying, the hermit talked with him at last about his own fear of dying. “If that rope hadn’t parted,” he told the fisherman, “I would have died in terror.” “I know,” said the fisherman. “That’s why I cut the rope as we climbed.” In that moment, the hermit felt at one with the fisherman, his family and even the stars in the night sky. He knew that this was finally the moment of enlightenment, and hugged his friend as he died.
Moral: Some find oneness on the mountain, others need the sea. Still others need other paths to see.
- Discovering the hermit in the garden (oup.com)
- American hermit caught after 27 years (guardian.co.uk)
- The North Pond Hermit (thefirstgates.com)
- Thoughts on Hermit Life (thesimplerlifeblog.wordpress.com)
- Sunrise (akateraka.wordpress.com)
- Fund set up to repay Maine hermit victims (miamiherald.com)
- Hermit who lived in woods for 27 years arrested for burglary (metro.co.uk)
- Hermit accused of hundreds of burglaries after 27 years in Maine woods (jtm71.wordpress.com)
- Being a Hermit Sucks (mittenskittens.wordpress.com)
- Fund set up to repay Maine hermit victims (sfgate.com)