Once upon a time a young man who was acclaimed for his wit and the profundity of his thoughts decided to visit an old sage who lived as a hermit on a mountain. The young man climbed up the steep path to the hermit’s hut and found him working in his garden.
“Great sage,” said the young man, “I have come to you because you are reputed to be very wise, and I wish someday to be as wise as you. So, tell me: what is the secret of your wisdom?”
The old sage sat back on his haunches and looked the young man over. He scratched the side of his nose as he thought. “Wisdom,” he finally said, “is the sea.”
The young man waited a moment in case the sage added anything, but he didn’t, so he replied, “Ah, yes! Of course! Why couldn’t I see that before! Thank you, thank you!” He went back to his town and relayed the old sage’s account, expounding and expanding it, and soon he had built up quite a reputation as a teacher himself.
All the time, however, something was nagging at him, which was the feeling that he didn’t completely understand what it was for wisdom to be the sea. In fact, when he was really being honest with himself, he felt like he didn’t understand it at all. So after ten years had passed, he decided to go back to the sage. He climbed the mountain much more slowly this time, his impending confession weighing heavily on his mind.
The sage was resting under a tree. “Wise sage,” said the young man, “I am grateful for what you revealed to me, but I must admit that I do not fully understand yet what wisdom is.”
The sage looked him up and down, scratched the side of his nose, and thought. After several minutes he said, “What I said before was true, and yet – wisdom is not the sea.”
“Why, of course!” said the young man. “I understand now. It’s much clearer.” And it did seem that way for a while. But then the doubts returned, and he found himself lying awake at night wondering: how is wisdom the sea and also not the sea? He decided the meaning was ineffable. That satisfied him for a number of years, but then the nagging worries began to grow, that maybe his understanding was not so much ineffable as nonexistent.
And so, ten years after his last visit, he returned to the sage. The path up the mountain seemed much steeper than it had been before, and the man had to stop several times to rest. The sage had grown very thin. He was slumped in a chair watching a girl, a granddaughter or even great-granddaughter, tending his garden.
“Oh great sage,” said the man, “I have considered what you said for all these years, but I regret that I still lack your insight. So please tell a poor suffering soul: what is wisdom?”
The old sage looked him over. He thought for so long that the man started to wonder if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. And then the sage said, “Wisdom is the slightest blade of grass and the mightiest mountain.”
“I see,” said the man. “Yes! It explains so much!” And it did seem for a bit like it did. He felt like he was right on the cusp of understanding, but every time he tried to take that last step and grasp the meaning, it would slip away like a ghost. He took to meditating on the sage’s words for several hours a day, but it did him no good. He drank gingko biloba tea every morning, and ate fish for dinner. When he was sick of those, he tried fasting, but he still could not understand.
After ten more years, he could no longer stand his hollow life, where he was wealthy and respected as a learned man but was unable to grasp the simplest truth. So he gave away all his worldly possessions and set out on foot across the countryside seeking enlightenment – until his sciatica got so bad he had to have his brother send him money for a carriage home.
When he returned, he heard that the sage had taken ill. The man realized this might be his last chance to learn what wisdom was. He struggled up the path until he reached the little hut. The sage was bedridden, but the girl – who was now a grown woman, and quite pretty – propped him up on some pillows so he could receive his visitor.
“Oh great sage,” said the man, “I have thought and considered and fasted and meditated for so many years. But I still cannot grasp the secret of your wisdom. You said that wisdom is the sea, and you said it is not the sea, and you said it is the slightest blade of grass and the mightiest mountain. But sometimes I cannot imagine how such things could mean anything at all.”
“Neither can I,” the sage replied, “but it didn’t take me thirty years to figure that out.”