Reproducing the sage II

By “reproducing the sage” I mean recreating the psychological setting if not the actual physical situation of the historical sages as a way of approximating their mental and physical state and moving positively from it. Our efforts will be largely mental, though, but at least they enable one to get started. So perhaps it can be better called “approximating the sage.”

A person in a complex, cluttered, and wealth-dependent setting will not be able to approximate the sage because he or she cannot physically disengage from the physical circumstances of the present. Moreover, such a person will not easily disengage from such a setting mentally either, although an intellectual sleight-of-hand is always possible. The tendency to intellectualize things and make of abstractions as if they were real can be a form of self-deception. On the other hand, living at a level of simplicity that shocks a spoiled person not used to it will not be conducive to right thinking either. Hence the Zen dictum: “Just practice.” Settings and attitudes will adjust accordingly.

But a key element in the path of sages is often overlooked. In biographical accounts of Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, Zoroaster, Pythagoras, and others, we see it but don’t fully approximate it, namely solitude.

The story of Jesus in the desert prior to teaching or the Buddha’s sitting beneath the tree after many austere practices is often presented as a prologue. But in fact it is the whole thing. Many people will never get out from the desert or out from beneath the tree. The whole transformational process is in the desert and under the tree. To stay there as long as necessary may mean being there indefinitely, and that, admittedly, is very unattractive. Yet everyone needs to go there first, see who they are, what they are capable of, and what everything else signifies. It may turn out that the desert or tree is actually the physical setting where we were all along, in all its austerities, and just didn’t realize it because we just aren’t going to be leaving it after all.

Our solitude in this special setting is not self-sufficient. We need the insight of the sages after all. We need the input of the sage in order to see how the transformation actually happens. The leap from emptiness to transformation may be too elusive. Do we slide into it uneventfully? Do we leap as from one cliff to another with a gaping chasm beneath us? Do we bring all of our baggage, dragged with us into the desert and now dragged back? Is there any such thing as a transition anyway?

We have the texts and sayings of the sages, the content of right thought and right living, but the transition to understanding and living them is not actually explained by anyone. We are only bid to get started, to start living “as if” — as if we were already there, checking our thoughts, our actions, our words, testing ourselves as to whether we are really there, or testing ourselves to find out where we are.

This solitary enterprise (solitary because no one else can really confirm its progress for us) is itself the reproducing of the sage, or approximating of the sage. Reproducing the sage is reproducing the solitary, that is, the solitary as a kind of ideal. Which is all that the sage really is.