The telling of the tale


The young monk found his way up to the cave, a day’s walk from Nalanda University. He stopped at the entrance—curious, and apprehensive. He pulled aside the blanket covering the opening, and called out “Sir?”

Hello! Dear boy! Please do come in. It is so nice to meet you at last… Yes, of course I know you. You are a young man with a most unusual and valuable talent. Valuable to me, anyway, when you accompanied me on my Final Quest. What? Oh, yes, I am sorry, that Quest hasn’t happened yet. We’ve only just met, haven’t we? Time is so confusing.

Do sit down. Make yourself comfortable. You will be here some while. Oh! It is so kind of you to bring me these. Would you like one yourself? No? I’m sorry, I know most people think they are horrifying; I should not have offered you one. I do adore them; I hope you don’t mind if I eat one now?

So. Your teacher, the Chancellor of Nalanda, has sent you here, yes? To learn about the Matter of Life and Death. But what you would really like to hear is about your teacher. You would like to hear how, when he and I were young, we saved Nalanda, and Buddhism, and the world. How we travelled into the realms of the dead and defeated the Dark Lord and all his armies. You have heard a little of that story, haven’t you? And you don’t know whether to believe it. The Chancellor will not speak of it. There is much he did on that Quest that most monks should not learn about, lest they get ideas…

So you hope to hear the story from me. Yet you have heard that I’m a dazed old man, who can’t remember which century he’s living in. Still, whether true history or an old man’s dream, you’d find it a good tale—and you’d learn much about your Chancellor. More than he’d like his students to know.

But the time will come when you have to save Buddhism yourself. That time comes for all of us, in every century. Five hundred years from now, Nalanda was torched by a Muslim army. They hated Buddhism. Thousands of monks were burned alive. It took months to destroy all the books in the university library. Buddhism was completely obliterated in India.

I’ve told your Chancellor about that. So he went north, to the land of the red-faced barbarians, and he planted the seeds of Buddhism there. You went too, and you had important work to do. Oh, yes, I mean, you and he will go there! Please forgive an old man—I came unstuck in time, back when I was your age. A little accident I had on the Quest.

Anyway, the northern barbarians kept Buddhism alive for more than a thousand years. Then a Chinese army that hated religion destroyed their land, and Buddhism had to be saved again, in lands to the west. So it goes.

You’ll have to hear about all that, in time. Before the Final Quest. But your teacher sent you to learn about Life and Death—and that is what I will tell you now.

Of life, there is too much to say; or nothing at all. About death, I know only a little. Really, there is only one thing that is important. Will you remember this for me? Please? The one thing to know is:

Next time you die—pay attention!

I learned that from the vetali. Almost everything I know about life and death I learned from the vetali. So what I will tell you is how I came to be on the Quest of Life and Death; and how I met the vetali; and what I learned from her.

Now, you know, I must begin at the beginning, and continue until I reach the end. Then I will stop. Please try not to interrupt too much! It is so easy for me to lose track of time. I may get hopelessly confused and start complaining about this cave’s lack of modern plumbing, or something. There is a great deal to be said for plumbing, you know. Anyone would think we were living in the Dark Age. It’s not like plumbing is actually difficult, or complicated. It’s just a matter of will. You just need to decide to have hot water, and then—

Sorry—where was I? Yes, I haven’t quite been born yet. We are starting at the beginning, aren’t we?

My father was a Tantrika—a Buddhist sorcerer. I never knew him. He died before I was born. He died defending our village…

Related resources

My metablog post “Next time you die” explains one of the old man’s odd comments.