Book of Serenity #3 -- incorporating also Transmission of Light #26, #27, and #28 (What is this? See "Story Introduction")
Why did Boda Darmé come from the east?
The oak tree in the garden. I am just washing my feet. Pass the cushion. Bring me that chair. Sitting for a long time becomes tiresome. The cow has given birth; take good care of it. Moss growing on one's front teeth. I don't know.
I don't know why he came from the east. Still, come from the east he did, and I and certain of my friends, some of whom I call teacher, are still talking about it. There's a story there, a kind of prayer, in Boda's coming. Whatever else it may be a story of, it's a story about the difference that teachers make.
Before Boda came from the east he spent many years with his teacher, Sofiaster. Sofiaster's teacher was Mitra. Mitra was born Carlos, royalty of Aragon.
Monarchs of Aragon, 1336-1410
Peter IV, b. 1319, reigned 1336-1387
Juan I (son of Peter IV), b. 1350, reigned 1387-1396
Martin (son of Peter IV, brother of Juan I), b. 1356, reigned 1396-1410
Peter was king not only of Aragon, but also of Sardinia, Corsica, Valencia, and -- after invading and conquering the island in 1344 -- Mallorca. He was also Count of Barcelona -- and the rest of the Principality of Catalan. After marrying off a daughter, Eleanor, then age 17, in 1375 to Juan of Castile, he secured peace between Aragon and Castile. He conquered Sicily in 1377, and gave it to his son Martin. After victories in Greece in 1381, Peter also became Duke of Athens and of Neopatria. In addition to these foreign adventures, Peter's 51-year reign was occupied fending off the Union of Aragon, composed of nobles nearly always in revolt. He was a busy guy -- possessed of the requisite talents and cruelty to hold power in a world little conducive to enlightenment. But then, what world is?
When King Peter died at age 67, four of his eleven children survived him: Juan, age 37; Martin (the same King of Sicily), age 31; Eleanor (the same queen-by-marriage of Castile); age 29, and Isabel, age 7. Juan succeeded, and when he died at age 46 after a nine-year reign, two of his twelve children survived: Joanna, age 21, and Yolande, age 12. Juan's daughter Joanna and his brother Martin each claimed the throne, though neither was then in Aragon. Joanna, having married Matthew, Count of Foix, was across the Pyrenees in southern France, and Martin was reigning in Sicily and contending with restive Sicilian nobles. Martin's wife, Maria Lopez de Luna, however, was in Aragon, and she claimed the throne on her husband's behalf. Maria ruled as Martin's representative until Martin returned -- which happened in time to command Aragon's army to repel the forces of Matthew, invading on behalf of wife Joanna.
History records that Martin and Maria, his only wife, had four children, born between 1374 and 1384, during Peter IV's reign. There was, however, a fifth child: Carlos, born 1385. By the time Martin became king, only two of the five still lived: the first born, Martin "the younger," age 21, and the last born, Carlos, age 11. Carlos thus found himself suddenly a prince, second in line to the throne of Aragon.
Carlos had no interest in the machinations of politics and power. It was already clear by age 11 that his interests were spiritual rather than worldly. He had taken to his studies, mastered Greek and Latin, and was well on his way to completing the medieval curriculum (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, grammar, logic, and rhetoric). The life that called to him was modeled more by the monks who were his tutors than by his royal relatives. He would rather have conquered souls -- his own, at least -- than lands or armies. More, he yearned for release from feeling the need to conquer at all.
At age 18, Carlos declared his intent to leave home and devote his life as a monk to prayer and study. King Martin did not receive this announcement happily. He resented his son's rejection of everything Martin stood for. Moreover, Martin was nervous about succession. Prince Martin, now 28, was in good health, but with the vicissitudes of plague and battle no succession was secure.
Nevertheless, King Martin offered Carlos a deal: the son could enter a monastery, but for no longer than five years. After that, if Carlos still wanted to pursue the religious life, he would become a parish priest. Martin saw possibilities for his bright son to rise quickly up the ranks to Monsignor, Bishop, and Archbishop. The crown of Aragon could benefit from having a family member in power in the church. Carlos agreed to eventually become a priest, but added, "As for promotion beyond priest, I can make no promises, Father."
Carlos visited a number of monasteries. Finally, he presented himself to the Abbott of one of them and asked to be admitted as a novice monk.
“Since you wish to leave home to become a monk, what activities would you undertake to do?” asked the Abbott.
“Were I to leave home to become a monk, it would not be to do anything in particular,” answered Carlos.
So the Abbott asked, “What would you refrain from doing?”
“I would refrain from pursuing worldly activities.”
“What activities ought you to do?” continued the Abbott.
“I would undertake the activities of the true nature of all things,” said Carlos.
"Are these activities pursued for the sake of self or for the sake of others?"
"Activities of true nature are pursued neither for the sake of self nor for the sake of others," said Carlos.
"Then what are the worldly activities from which you would refrain?" asked the Abbott.
"If at any moment there is not mindfulness of true nature, then activity is worldly."
"And if there is mindfulness of true nature?"
"Then worldly activity vanishes, and activity of true nature also vanishes," said Carlos.
"What, then, is the purpose of activity of true nature?" asked the Abbott.
"Activity of true nature cultivates mindfulness of true nature, which leads to the vanishing of activity of true nature. So, as I said at the beginning, there is no particular purpose."
The Abbott nodded, and said, "If your father permits, you may join us. In fact, you had better, for your soteriology would not be understood anywhere else."
Carlos said, "I have said nothing of soteriology. Have we not been discussing eschatology?"
The Abbott laughed, and Carlos laughed with him. Then Carlos asked, "Very well, very well. But how do you understand me?"
The Abbott said, "The original ground, at all times, is without even a single blade of grass. Where do a monk’s personal explanations add or subtract anything?"
A New Name
The other monks knew nothing of the background of their new novice, and Carlos never spoke of it. The Abbott alone knew Carlos's royal lineage. Four and a half years later, the Abbott sent word to King Martin that Carlos was very ill. The alarmed father sent the royal physician, whom the Abbott met at the gate with the sad news that Carlos had died. In reality, Carlos was continuing his practice out of sight in the inner cloister closed to the public. Carlos did have in mind to become a priest eventually, but he and the Abbott had agreed that his monastic training should continue a few additional years.
When Carlos's elder brother, Prince Martin, died in 1409, the Abbott conveyed to Carlos the news that he was now, if he wished to claim it, the Crown Prince of Aragon. And when, a year later, Carlos's father, the King, died, the Abbott conveyed the news that throne of Aragon was Carlos's if he wished to claim it. Both times, Carlos simply turned away and went back to his duties and practices.
As far as anyone other than Carlos and his Abbott knew, King Martin died without heirs. After a two-year interregnum, the Compromise of Caspe chose Fernando I (b. 1380), the son of Martin's sister Eleanor and Juan I of Castile, to succeed to the throne of Aragon in 1412. Shortly after Fernando's coronation, Carlos and his Abbott agreed that he was ready to emerge and take on the responsibilities of a parish priest. The Abbott conferred upon Carlos a new name: Punta Mitra ("Point of the Miter") -- an ironic reference to the bishop's headgear that King Martin had wanted for his son. Shortly, Father Mitra was serving the parish of Barcelona.
In 1400, in the poorest section of Barcelona, a baby girl was born. The father was unknown, and the unwed mother did not survive the birth. The girl was indifferently cared for by a grandmother, and then an aunt, and then a neighbor, and then no one at all. No one saw fit to give her a name, until she gave herself one: Necklace, after an item of jewelry she had seen but never possessed.
Necklace spent her days wandering the streets and countryside begging alms and dodging lechers. If one were to call out to her asking why she was in such a hurry, she would shout back, “Why are you going so slowly?” If asked her name, she would answer, “The same as yours.”
The homeless urchin was 14 when her piercing eyes caught the attention of a passing priest -- one Father Mitra.
"Well, hello there," he said, opting at the last instant not to add, "little one."
"Hello," said Necklace, meeting his eyes as she stood, begging bowl in hand. Necklace had seen the priest in the neighborhood before, had wondered at this man with the kindly and gentle manner, and had learned his name.
"Do you remember the past?" asked Father Mitra. It came out as a stranger question than he had intended. He had meant to inquire about the waif's background, if she remembered it.
What Necklace remembered, with Mitra standing before her, was a dream she had had. "I remember that you were teaching me to read. And I did read. I read words that made you startled and made me cry."
At this, Father Mitra was indeed startled. He stared at the ragamuffin, then looked down at her empty bowl. "Let's get you something to eat," he said. "Come with me." Necklace was suspicious, but she was also hungry, and she'd heard of the priest's benefaction to the poor.
She followed him back to the rectory, where Mitra had his cook "bring out some bread, and soup, if we have it, for our guest." Mitra sat watching her eat. Before turning to duties that required his attention, he said, "Come back again tomorrow if you like."
Necklace did return the next day. With the edge of hunger and shyness less keen, she began asking questions about Father Mitra, the church, the rectory, the Bible. She was insatiably curious -- and, Mitra mused, curiously insatiable.
In a time when even most priests were illiterate, Father Mitra was learned, and scholarly. Drawn to this child of striking eyes and speech, he took her in, gave her a small room at the rectory. He was glad to offer his learning to a pupil so eager to receive it. He set up a table near the kitchen, within earshot of the cook, for Necklace to sit at to receive instruction and work on assignments he left her. Her mind as sharp as her eyes, she learned quickly, and, just as she had dreamed, he taught her to read. To do it, she learned Latin and Greek -- for in those days before the printing press, there was little to read in the vulgar languages.
Mitra had the girl baptized, and he christened her Sofia Aster -- Greek for "wisdom star." Sofiaster, as he took to calling her, soon mastered the catechism, so her confirmation followed quickly on the heels of her baptism. By the time she was 16, she was serving as Father Mitra's personal assistant, helping him draft correspondence and tend to the administration of the parish as she continued her studies. She learned the intricacies of Catholic dogma as part of something Mitra called "The Way," which also included teachings not mentioned by the Church's theologians.
One evening, as their time for lessons was extending beyond its usual duration, Mitra sat down across the table from Sofiaster and said to her, "The Way as you have learned it from me is rare, but it is not ours alone. There have been others who have known and taught this Way. When you step onto this Way, you become identical with our predecessors."
"Father," said Sofiaster, "I understand. It is not a matter of one person emerging as another disappears or of both together reaching forth with a single hand. The Way has no multiplicity of types or distinct branches."
"Where is the past?" he asked, testing.
"The past is always right here. To see today is to see the long past, and to look back upon the long past is to contemplate today. Likewise the future."
"Where is the Way?"
"The Way is always right here," she said. "It is born together with you and dwells together with me. To walk the way is to come to grasp that there is no way not to way. Never for a moment is the Way not with us -- including all of the past, present and future."
"And as there can be no separate past, so there can be no separate other and self," he added. "You understood this on the day we met, when you said you were reading to me. That was the presence of all time within the present. Past and present cannot be separated."
Sofiaster was silent a moment before concluding, "Nothingness and existence cannot be separated."
Mitra reached for some paper and the quill. He wrote out: "The light of the moon, reflected in the depths of the pool, is bright in the sky. The appearance of the water, as it flows toward the horizon, is thoroughly clear and pure. Even as you walk the Way, mile after mile, knowing full well that the Way exists, the Way remains so spacious and empty, yet discoverable everywhere, that any attempt to grasp it is completely futile." He gave the paper to Sofiaster, who kept it always with her until her dying day.
Not long after that, Father Mitra came to Sofiaster with a letter in his hand. "I've just received this from the Convent of Sant Francesc in Palma on the island, Mallorca. The Abbott there now is Brother Davido -- we were monks together when I was in the monastery. They have a school. The monks of the Convent provide most of the teaching, but Brother Davido would like to add a little something beyond the traditions his monks know. It's time for you to begin teaching."
So Sofiaster went to Mallorca, to the town of Palma. A small dwelling owned by the Convent of Sant Francesc, adjacent the Convent Proper, was offered to her. She settled into a life of teaching, of prayer, meditation, and study, continuing to deepen in the Way. In her explorations of the Convent library, she was particularly engaged by the discovery of writings by Mallorca's leading intellectual light, the mystic philosophyer Raymond Llull (1232-1316). In the background was always the surrounding sea: so rhythmic yet irregular, capricious yet constant. It reminded Sofiaster of the eternal, and the presence of the not-present.
Her reputation as a teacher grew -- as did the reputation of the Convent school's entire faculty, under Sofiaster's guidance and leadership. Enrollment increased, and a few students began arriving from the mainland. As a greater proportion of the monks were dedicated to teaching duties, Sofiaster found her time increasingly spent in training the new teachers.
Eventually, inevitably, some of her spiritual teachings began to arouse suspicious attention from the church authorities. One day she received an invitation -- or was it a summons? -- to see the Governor of the island, an appointee of the King of Aragon, which at that time had been in control of Mallorca for nearly a century, since Peter IV's conquest of 1344.
Sofiaster well understood the interest that secular authorities have in religion. For them, religion is a tool of social cohesion, and heresy a threat to that cohesion. Kings, princes, and their agents care little about truth -- but they care a lot about order. Enforcing orthodoxy enforces order. For one thing, orthodoxy always admonishes some form of "rendering to Caesar." Criticism of any aspect of orthodoxy threatened the whole structure of obeisance. So kings and governors pretended to care about truth in order to enforce orthodoxy. These thoughts were running through Sofiaster's mind when she arrived at the Governor's palace at noon, one June day in 1443.
She was received much more hospitably than she had feared. Greeted cordially, she was welcomed to lunch by the governor, Rudolfo Darmé, and his three sons -- the youngest of which was a lad of 18 years named Boda.
When the food was laid before them, the Governor invited Sofiaster to say a blessing.
"It is already blessed," she said.
"Do you not recite Bible passages and prayers?"
"As you know, I teach in a Franciscan instituion."
"Your reputation among the Franciscans is very good."
"You have perhaps heard that St. Francis said, 'Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary use words.'"
"Yes," said the Governor. "Are there not times when it is indeed necessary?"
"Perhaps," said Sofiaster. "But what I wanted to tell you is that St. Francis never said that."
"There is no record of it. Not until well after his death do any sources attribute those words to him. Francis did, however, say something similar. He said, 'It's no use walking anywhere unless our walking is our preaching.'"
"How can walking be preaching?" asked the Governor.
"Your Lordship, it can't help but preach the good news. Every movement, every breath declares the holy word. Breathing in, there is no self separable from God. Breathing out, there is no world separable from God."
Sofiaster paused -- breathing in and out again as if to demonstrate -- before continuing. "So I am always preaching God's good news, filling millions of volumes."
"Am I doing so also?" interjected Boda, speaking up for the first time.
"Do you know that you are?"
"I don't know what I know," stammered Boda.
"Then I had better not answer your question until you do," said Sofiaster.
The next morning, Boda appeared at Sofiaster's academy asking to matriculate. He had previously studied at the University in Bologna, and soon began engaging the faculty at advanced levels. His primary interest, however, was Sofiaster's spiritual teachings, and she guided him in both esoteric scriptural interpretations and practices of prayer and fasting.
Sofiaster often began her lessons with a question or series of questions. One day when Boda had been at her school for three years, she came upon him studying at a table in the library. Sofiaster sat down across the table from him, remembering as she did so the way that Mitra had sat down across the table from her.
"What among things is formless?" she asked.
Boda replied, "Non-arising, or nonorigination, is formless."
Sofiaster nodded, and asked, "What among all things is the greatest?"
Bodhidharma replied, "The true nature of things is the greatest."
Shortly thereafter, at Sofiaster's recommended, Boda was added to the teaching faculty as a lay teacher serving the Convent's academy. Meanwhile, his spiritual training under Sofiaster's guidance continued.
Boda rose to prominence among the school's faculty. It was assumed he would head the school after Sofiaster retired or died, yet many years went by without any sign that either was drawing nigh. Sofiaster's vigor continued through her 80s. In 1483, King Fernando II of Aragon (of Fernando and Isabel) authorized the foundation of the Estudi General Lullià, and the Convent academy began to lose students to the new institution, glittering with the prestige and funding of the crown.
Nine years later, now 92 years old, Sofiaster was on the verge of death. In the twilight of a June day, she called Boda, himself 67 by this time, to her chamber. "As you know, we are losing more students every year," she began. "The teachings of our school cannot thrive here. Further, the suspicions of heresy continue. There have always been suspicions, but we've been isolated on this island and have mostly kept our distinctive views to ourselves. Now there's this the Spanish Inquisition that's coming after anything. It won't be long now before they come for us. My days are ending, but as you still have strength, you must leave Mallorca. Carry the teachings to the wider world."
"But where will I go? Whatever persecution can find us here will find me all the faster elsewhere."
"It's time to take the teachings to a new world," said Sofiaster.
"What new world?"
"Go to the port city of Palos on the southern coast of Iberia. In two months, three ships will set sail from there under the command of a man named Christopher Columbus. He is a man interested in power, which, in our world, is to say he is without wisdom or compassion, so I am sorry to send you to him. But he is going to a new world, and you must be on one of those boats."
The next morning Sofiaster was dead. Boda stayed long enough to preside at her funeral, then he left in the night, telling no one.
Blue Cliff Record #1, Book of Serenity #2