The Second Immortal

From Watts, A., 2003. Become what You are. Shambhala Publications: United States. 90-96.


Once upon a time there was a man who lived much as other men live. He had a wife and three children and a shop in the Street of Happy Sparrows where he sold cakes, vegetables, and sweet pickles. He rose at dawn and went to bed at sunset; he ate rice three times a day; he smoked two pipes of tobacco in the hour; he talked of buying and selling with his neighbors; he picked his teeth after eating and had his wife scratch his back in the noonday heat. In spring he watched the young grass peeping out from behind the stones; in the summer he lifted an eye at the lazy clouds; in autumn he followed the leaves that danced in the wind; and in the winter he woke to see the tracks of birds in the snow. And in all seasons, between talking and smoking and selling cakes, he chewed watermelon seeds and amused himself by plaiting straw ropes round his toes.

One day, when he went to burn incense at the Temple of Amiable Dragons, his friend the priest approached him, saying: “You are getting on in years and your eldest son is of an age to take care of your shop. It would not be proper for a man such as you to spend the rest of your days in empty activities, for you will go to the grave as insignificantly as old refuse is flung into the river.”

“Such being the lot of man,” answered the cakeseller, “how can I complain?”

“So many are mere vegetables.” said the priest. “But if you are willing to take the trouble you can find yourself a place among the Immortals.”

“And who,” asked the cakeseller, “are the Immortals?”

“They are those who do not depend on their own power to keep themselves alive. Man is a small creature whose life is like a snowflake. But the wind blows on forever; the sun and moon eternally maintain their courses and the rivers have flowed since time began. The Immortals are they who learn the secrets of these things; instead of relying on their own resources, they allow themselves to be maintained and directed by that which maintains and directs the wind, the sun, the moon, and the rivers.”

“But how can one become an Immortal?”

“You will have to find an Immortal to teach you,” said the priest. “I am not wise enough.”

“Well,” said the cakeseller. “I must find one. But there are so many people in the world, and how can one recognize an Immortal?”

“That should not be difficult,” answered the priest. “It is said that their breath is operated by the wind; that the sun gives them the light of the right eye and the moon of the left; that their shouting is assisted by the thunder, their whispering by the murmuring waves and their laughter by the mountain streams. The earth, it is said, maintains their flesh, while their bones and vital juices are supplied by the rocks and the rains. Their thoughts and moods are directed by the coming and going of the seasons and the elements, and having such mighty ones as the movers of all their functions they are said to be free from all the ordinary limitations and more powerful even than the gods.”

“Such a strange being,” observed the cakeseller, “should be easy to recognize,” and immediately he returned home, set his affairs in order, instructing his eldest son in the care of the shop, and the same evening left the city on his journey in search of an Immortal. After many weeks upon the road he came to a hut inhabited by an ancient personage of severe aspect who seemed to him to be at least two hundred years old. His white beard caressed the upper part of his shoes and the top of his head glistened like the elbows of an old coat. Noticing his venerable appearance and also the many volumes of the classics with which he was surrounded, the cakeseller at once approached him and begged for instruction, thinking that surely this must be an Immortal, for he was the most aged person he had ever seen.

“It is a long time,” said the venerable one, “since my advice was asked upon anything, for this is a dissolute age, and the mastery of life is not understood by those who fail to observe the forty-eight precepts and fail to avoid the ninety-one indiscretions. Sit down, and I will instruct you in the words of the ancient sages.” Whereupon he began to read from the classics, and the cakeseller sat and listened until the sun went down. And on the following day he read yet more, and again on the next day and the next and the next, and so on, until the cakeseller almost lost count of time. And he was instructed and made to discipline himself in the eight virtuous deeds, the twenty-nine laudable thoughts, the one hundred and eight ceremonial observances, the forty-two marks of superior character, the thirty-seven acts of filial piety and the four hundred and three propitiations of ill-disposed spirits. And all the while the cakeseller grew in righteousness and high-minded conduct, and was disposed to believing himself well on the way to immortality. But one day he remembered suddenly that he had now been with the venerable scholar for some twenty years; the days of his life were growing shorter and yet he knew nothing of the secrets of the sun, moon, rivers, wind, and the elements. At this he was filled with agitation, and in the night set out upon the road again.

After some weeks of wandering in the mountains he came upon a cave where a strange being sat at the entrance. His limbs were like the trunk of a gnarled pine, his hair like wisps of smoke drifting on the wind and his eyes staring and fiery like those of a snake. Duly impressed, the cakeseller again begged for instruction.

“Immortals,” said this person, “have the wind as their breath. and to learn this you must cultivate the art of the Expansive Lungs. But this cannot be learned by such as you who chew melon seeds and smoke two pipes an hour and eat three meals a day. If you would have the wind as your breath, you must eat but one grain of rice in a day and drink one cup of water. You must clear the smoke from your windpipe, and learn to breathe but twice in a day. Only then will your lungs be able to contain the wind.”

So the cakeseller sat down at the mouth of the cave, ate but one grain of rice and drank but one cup of water a day. And under the instructions of the sage he was made to lessen and lessen the speed of his breath till he thought his eyes would proceed from their sockets and the drums of his ears disturb all the birds of the forest with their bursting. But for many years he practiced until he did indeed breathe but twice a day, at the end of which he saw that his body was as a skeleton hung with skin as spiderwebs cover the branches of a bush, and with a display of exceedingly ill-regulated conduct he fled from the cave.

For many more months he searched for an instruction and finding none began to wonder whether he had perhaps not persevered enough with his teacher. So he began to make his way back to the mountains. On the way he caught up with an itinerant trader who carried a pole over his shoulder to which was attached a bundle containing an assortment of pots, beads, combs, dolls, kitchen utensils, writing materials, seeds, scissors, and sticks of incense. For a while they kept each other company, conversing on idle matters such as the state of the crops, the best ways of driving out fleas, the pleasures of soft rainfall and the various kinds of charcoal useful for making fires. At length the cakeseller told the trader of his desire to find an Immortal who could instruct him and asked whether he knew of any such person.

“Have a melon seed,” said the trader, offering him a handful. “Indeed, I regret I cannot eat melon seeds,” cried the cakeseller, “for if I chew them it will take away my power of Expansive Lungs.” The trader shrugged his shoulders, and for a while they walked on in silence, broken only by the cracking of melon seeds between the trader’s teeth – a sound which filled the cakeseller with a variety of emotions. On the one hand he began to feel an urge to break his discipline, and once more feel that eminently satisfying crack of seeds between the teeth; on the other he felt he should persist in his search and again ask the trader about the Immortals. Perhaps, he thought, the trader had never heard of Immortals, but it might be that he would recognize such beings if he knew what they were like.

“I was wondering,” said the cakeseller, “whether in your journeyings you have happened to meet with anyone of strange and powerful aspect, whose breath is operated by the wind, whose right and left eyes are given light by the sun and moon respectively, whose shouting is assisted by the thunder, whispering by the murmuring waves and laughter by the mountain streams; whose flesh is maintained by the earth, whose bones and vital juices are supplied by the rocks and the rains, and whose thoughts and moods are directed by the coming and going of the seasons and the elements.”

“Oh yes,” answered the trader, “I have seen many such beings. Why, I believe that two of them are making their way along this road.”

“What!” cried the cakeseller. “On this very road? Let us hurry so that we can catch up with them!” And so they increased pace, and when night fell they did not pause to rest, for the cakeseller persuaded the trader that it would be well to gain upon them by a night’s journey. At sunrise they found themselves on the top of a hill from which they could see the road ahead for many miles, but as they looked down upon it there was no one anywhere to be seen.

“It may be,” said the cakeseller, “that we overtook them during the night.”

Whereat they looked behind and again a view of many miles showed them an empty road. At this the cakeseller was very sad.

“They must have taken a side-track into the mountains,” he said,
“for it seems that we are the only people on this road.”

“Oh,” said the trader, “I forgot to tell you. When they go about in pairs one of them is always invisible. You are looking for two men traveling together. Let us look again.”

Once more the cakeseller gazed up the road and down the road, but saw no other man upon it than his companion, the trader.

“No,” sighed the cakeseller, “we have missed them. I see neither two nor one.”

“Are you sure?” replied the trader. “I really believe I can see one. Look again.”

“No,” said the cakeseller, “I see no man on the road at all, excepting yourself.”

At this the trader began to laugh, and as he laughed it seemed to the cakeseller that his laughter was like the sound of a mountain stream

“You!” he exclaimed. “Are you an Immortal? But you look like an ordinary man!”

“Indeed,” laughed the trader, “I must confess it. You see, I have to go about in disguise, for otherwise I should be followed all over the place, which would be most inconvenient.”

“But your invisible companion, asked the cakeseller, is he also here? Does he look like an Immortal? Describe him to me.”

“Surely,” answered the trader. “His breathing is operated by the wind but you do not notice it; the light of his right and left eyes is given by the sun and moon, but you do not see it; his shouting is of the thunder, his whispering of the waves, and his laughter of the mountain streams, but you do not hear it; his flesh is maintained by the earth, and his bones and vital juices by the rocks and rains, but you do not understand it; his thoughts and moods are directed by the coming and going of the seasons and the elements, but you are not aware of it. He does not rely on his own resources; he allows himself to be maintained and directed by that which maintains and directs the wind, the sun, the moon, and the rivers, but you do not recognize it.”

“Marvelous indeed must he be to look upon!” exclaimed the cakeseller. “Please ask him to become visible so that I can understand his secrets.”

“You had better ask yourself,” replied the trader. “Only you have the power to make him visible. There is a magic by which you can make him appear.”

“Tell me about it.”

“The magic,” answered the trader, “is this: in the spring to watch the young grass peeping out between the stones; in summer to lift an eye at the lazy clouds; in autumn to follow the leaves that dance in the wind; in winter to wake and find the tracks of birds in the snow. To rise at dawn and go to sleep at sunset; to eat rice three times in a day; to talk of buying and selling with one’s neighbors; to chew the seeds of water melon and to plait straw ropes around the toes.”

And at this the cakeseller discovered the second Immortal.

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