(retold from the Blue Cliff Record, Case 1, by James Ishmael Ford)
Once upon a time long ago and far away the Emperor was visited by the Sage Awakened Way.
The Emperor had converted to the intimate way, well as converted as one can and still remain an emperor. And he had done many good things, established monasteries, built hospitals, and endowed schools. He told the sage about these things.
Then, because he really cared, and hoped to heal some of the terrible things he had done in his life, no one becomes an emperor and no one remains an emperor without doing terrible things, he hoped for something. He was worried the sage like the priests of the several religions in his entourage would simply say what they thought he wanted to hear. They had been wrong.
He trembled with hope, and anxiety, and waited for the sage to speak.
A silence enveloped the moment. Even those outside of the hall knew something was going on. Even the birds of the skies paused and roosted, waiting. The world waited.
The sage, he was old and ragged, although some whispered that he had once been a prince. He was ugly, not being from the navel of the world but rather from a barbaric country far to the south and west. The hair on his head wasn’t shaved, but simply cut short as if at random moments he would take a handful of hair and cut it with a knife. His beard was red.
The emperor noticed all these things.
Finally the sage said, “There is no merit in these things.”
The emperor was shocked and angry. And, a part of him, it knew he was being invited into something. Something those priests of the many ways, if they knew, did not know how to convey. Or, perhaps were simply too afraid to speak.
He asked quietly, this seemed the right tone for the moment, “Then what is the first of the principles of the intimate way?”
The sage looked at the emperor. He had been warned not to look the emperor in the eyes, but to always keep his gaze down. He looked straight into the emperor’s face and their eyes met.
Within that moment, the sage smiled, just the smallest of smiles, and replied, “Vastness. Nothing holy.”
The emperor felt his breath fleeing his body. He wanted to chase it, but he continued. He whispered, “Who are you? You. You who are standing before me?”
The sage replied, “I do not know.”
Later when people recorded this conversation there was some disagreement. A few claimed the Sage Awakened Way did not say “I do not know.” But rather instead, simply uttered, “Not knowing.”
Others tell us not knowing is most intimate.
With this the sage left the court…