“Nothing!” declared Fuk-Lok as he approached. “There is no exit that I can find,” said Fuk-Lok. “Besides winter is upon us.”
Miri looked at him quizzically.
“More snow,” he said, pointing at the clouds above their heads. “Outside this valley winter is raging.”
Miri sensed he was right, for at night, just on the very twilight of hearing, after the campfire stopped crackling, she could hear the eerie howl of the cold snowy breathing of the mountain gods.
“This is madness!” snapped a frustrated Maitreyi. “I am trapped in my own stupid guidebook! My whole life has become a series of riddles and illusions!”
“But that is what you wanted,” replied Fuk-Lok, “Why else would you search for Shamb-hala?”
“Answers!” replied Maitreyi, “I am sick of riddles! I want the answers to the riddles, not more riddles! All I want from life is the Truth!”
Fuk-Lok laughed. “Yet you have uttered it!”
“What the hell are you talking about?” asked Mitreyi.
“You are in Paradise, yet you cannot see it for you are blinded by riddles and illusions. Look around you,” Fuk-Lok’s arms described an arc about the lush valley. “There is water, there is food, and no one else to bother us! Here, we can do or be whatever we want! We climbed the highest mountains in the world and found Heaven! We are in the world of the gods!”
“You’re mad!” declared Maitreyi.
“You are in Shambhala, but you just can’t see it!”
“And you can?”
Fuk-Lok’s face fell.
“No,” he admitted, “but I am sure that is where we are!”
“Tea anyone?” asked Miri.
The days passed lethargically. Neither of the three traveling companions had the energy to walk far from the camp, or to escape their emerald prison. So mostly they lazed about the campsite. Maitreyi took it upon herself to search for herbs and firewood, of which there was a bounty; the forest floor had never been harvested. Fuk-Lok read his guidebooks assiduously and carried them about, examining every rock and blade of grass in hopes that there he would find a key to finding Shambhala. Miri found a natural perch on a branch that hung low over the pebble beach of the lake beside their camp where she spent hours watching the path of the gentle valley breezes rippling across the lake.
The waves never rose more than a handbreadth above the trough, and they lapped the beach as gently as a mother’s hand rocks a cradle. Over the course of time, she thought she could see a pattern within the ripples, that she could almost see the passing of phantom creatures across the surface of the lake. She narrowed her eyes, as though squinting would bring the imaginary beings into focus, and she thought she could see a darker patch of water she had never noticed before, but a chattering broke her concentration. She looked up.
Hanuman hung from a branch above her head. He handed her a peach.
“Thank you,” she said politely to him, and took the peach from his hands. It was soft and ripe, and she smiled as she took it from him. She opened her mouth to take a bite and then stopped.
“Where did you get this?” she asked Hanuman. He blinked back at her.
“Where did you get it?” She mimed picking from the branch beside her, but Hanuman stared uncomprehendingly at her. Miri jumped from her perch in the tree and held her hand out to Hanuman. He grasped her fingers and swung himself onto his shoulder. Miri hurried back to the camp in time to meet Maitreyi balancing a bundle of firewood from the forest on her head. Fuk-Lok sat cross-legged on a cushion of juniper branches engaged in study. He wrote in another book, a journal, with a bamboo brush. He had fashioned a canopy of sorts to shade him from the slight mist that drifted silently from above to prevent the ink in his palette box and on the page from washing away.
“Look!” shouted Miri, “Hanuman has brought me a fresh peach!”
Fuk-Lok immediately set his journal to one side. Maitreyi threw the firewood down and came closer to examine the peach.
“A peach?” she took it from Miri, and held it to show Fuk-Lok “Where did he get it?”
Miri shrugged. “He brought it to me by the beach.”
“But there are no peach trees there,” said Maitreyi.
The puzzle presented by the peach occupied them thoroughly, for not even Fuk-Lok had seen a peach tree in the valley. They discussed the peach excitedly after dinner.
“We should eat it!” said Maitreyi, as she threw juniper and herbs on the fire.
“No!” cried Fuk-Lok in alarm.
“Why not?” asked Maitreyi
Fuk-Lok hesitated. “It’s just that the peach is a symbol of immortality, and the Immortals become that way from eating a peach on the jade mountain of her holiness Hsi Wang Mu.”
“First of all, we are in a valley, not on a mountain, and sec¾”
“But we are in a mountain!”
“This is stupid! I am so sick of all these riddles!” Maitreyi suddenly snatched the peach, and before Fuk-Lok could stop her, bit into it.
“Oh that is so¾” she was overwhelmed by the freshness of the fruit. Juice ran down her neck and she bit into it again. “This is so good!”
She offered a bite to Miri, but Fuk-Lok grasped Miri’s arm.
“Don’t!” he said.
“What is the matter with you?” Maitreyi asked in annoyance, but before he could answer she felt a strange movement in her stomach. Her head swam and she almost lost her balance. She closed her eyes for a moment and gasped when they opened.
“It’s…” She stared across the lake, “It’s beautiful! The home of Tara!”
Both Fuk-Lok and Miri looked out at the lake, and through the mist, appeared the spires of an emerald palace.
“Can you see it?” asked Maitreyi, “Can you see it?
There was no doubt they were in Shambhala. The emerald green palace of Hsi Wang Mu rose from the center of the sparkling lake. Maitreyi pointed at the mountains about the valley.
“Look, there are eight mountains!” Indeed, there were eight peaks visible through the misty atmosphere, and, topped with snow and catching the setting sun, they glowed pink with the pristine smoothness of a lotus blossom. All about them, the valley had changed. Rocks became tidy stone houses, trees became totems, and a road appeared alongside the river. Peach and plum and ornamental trees surrounded the lake, some in blossom, some in fruit. And once the illusion of the wild valley dissipated, people moved about the three travellers, moving calmly and serenly in a manner befitting immortals in Paradise.
A herald mounted upon a white camel approached.
“Welcome, His highness, Ashura Mazda Matzu, the royal consort and brother of Hsi Wang Mu, welcomes you to the valley of Hsi Wang Mu, The Mother Goddess of the West. You will follow me!”
Fuk-Lok reached for his satchel, but the herald stopped him.
“You can take nothing with you!”
Hanuman leaped onto Maitreyi’s shoulder and the three travellers followed the herald as he drove his camel leisurely along the river road to the lake.
They passed through the valley as through a dream. The movement seemed not to tax them physically, though their senses were filled by more than seemed possible. Each person they met seemed familiar, and the smoke from every kitchen and chimney smelled sweet and fragrant. Their presence was greeted by smiles, but not curiosity. It was as though the people knew who they were. The road ended in a carved ghat by the lake. Just as they arrived, a gilded boat bumped gently against the lower step of the ghat.
Miri thought she recognized the boatman.
“Your Highness,” he said slyly to her.
“Charon?” she asked.
He bowed deferentially. “Perhaps! I could be Nergal, or any number of gatekeepers you might know.”
“You know him?” asked Maitreyi.
Before Miri could answer, Fuk-Lok interrupted. “Have you not noticed everyone seems familiar?”
“I thought it was just me,” replied Maitreyi, “But how is that possible?”
The boatman and the herald helped them into the boat.
“Where is the camel?” asked Maitreyi.
“He was no longer needed,” replied the herald simply.
“Curioser and curioser,” muttered Maitreyi.
“Riddlier and riddlier,” added Miri mischievously.
The water sparkled like liquid diamond. The lake was now covered in beautiful round leaves and lotus blossoms. Swans floated serenely past, while in the far distance cranes danced in the shallows on the receding shore. Royal guards at the dock protruding from the emerald isle moved to meet them and escort them to the inner sanctum of the emerald prasada. The mountain that formed the island was indeed, made of jade, just as Fuk-Lok had predicted.
The island rose steeply from the water, but it was intricately carved and terraced, and every nook and cranny held a garden or tree, exquisite in design and glorious to behold. Miri began to tingle from the sheer joy of seeing them, and she found herself on the edge of ecstasy. Peacocks strutted about the palace as did a dazzling variety of exotic and colorful birds. White cattle on one level, a white elephant on another, and camels, goats and deer, all brilliantly white with decorated gilded horns. Everywhere, royal red and purple trappings. Every plant was intensely green, garlanded with fruits and flowers of an infinite variety combining to create a display of satisfying unity.
They climbed an unending winding staircase, itself tiled with beryl and jasper, balustraded by cool marble, and yet did not tire. Their muscles felt no ill effects from the great climb. Each foot fall upon the stones refreshed their body and every touch of their fingertips to the balustrade infused their souls with contentment. Hanuman dropped from Maitreyi’s shoulder and he scurried happily and excitedly about their feet. At the top of the jade mountain, they came at last to the Reception Hall of The Queen of The West.
The columns were of beautifully carved white marble and the floor was a mosaic of jasper, which set off the natural solid jade from which the palace was carved. The Reception Hall was full of light that had no discernable source.Every object seemed infused with its own inner light. On a natural jade dais, seated on a throne of gold and tortoise shell, perched upon a purple velvet cushion, was Hsi Wang Mu, the Goddess Tara.
She motioned them to enter and they did. Their guard disappeared. Fuk-Lok, Maitreyi and Miri were alone with the Great Goddess. Fuk-Lok prostrated himself before her.
“Forgive me, Your¾”
“There is nothing to forgive, Fuk-Lok Sau. You came because I desired it. My desire became yours, and so, you have dedicated yourself to finding me. As has Maitreyi Nayar. What brings you to me?”
Maitreyi stepped forward.
“I didn’t know you were here. I came to find Shambhala.”
“Now you are here. I am Shambhala.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to know what life is about!” said Maitreyi with a trace of exasperation in her voice.
“You already know it!”
“No, I don’t!” said Maitreyi. “I don’t understand anything!”
“There is nothing to understand,” replied His-Wang Mu, “Life is not about understanding. Life is not a lesson to be learned. Life is not a Path to be followed. Life exists, and there is nothing for you to do except to watch the unfolding of the Universe about you.”
“That’s it?” asked Maitreyi incredulously. “I risked life and limb for that?”
“Yes,” replied Hsi Wang Mu, “You can make what you want of it.”
“There’s nothing to make of that!”
Maitreyi bowed her head, sat down in the middle of the court, and began to cry. Hanuman chirped at her nervously, and Miri moved forward to comfort her. Hsi Wang Mu rose from her throne, brushed Miri aside and and descended upon Maitreyi. The goddess wrapped her arms about Maitreyi, and Tara’s shimmering emerald robes enveloped her. Hanuman scurried away from the goddess in alarm and leaped to Miri’s breast, clutching her neck. Miri closed her arms about the frightened simian. Suddenly, Hsi Wang Mu stood up and Maitreyi had disappeared, absorbed entirely into the goddess’s being.
Miri started, but Hsi Wang Mu held up her hand, and the will of the goddess held Miri fast. The goddess smiled. “Fear not! She is safer within me than without. Maitreyi has served her purpose.” Her gaze fell upon Fuk-Lok Sau. “And you, you came seeking knowledge?” she asked of the old scholar.
Fuk-Lok could not answer.
“Yet you did not eat of the peach as our friend did?” she asked him, “Why not?”
“I am not,” Fuk-Lok hesitated as he searched for the right word. “…worthy.”
“Nonsense!” chided His-Wang Mu, “Who are you to decide upon worth? You vex me with your false modesty! It is not becoming! You scholars are quite alike! You profess to be unworthy, yet you claim knowledge beyond all others, to decide worthiness! Ask yourself this; what made you think you would find my palace?”
“I have read the books,” began Fuk-Lok.
“As have others, but what made you think the fairy tale was real?”
“I didn’t know,” protested Fuk-Lok Sau.
“You came because I wished it! Behold!”
As she spoke, huge serpent coiled itself about her feet and wrapped about her extended hand. She lifted the snake to shoulder height with her left hand and straightened its coils with her right, and the serpent transformed into a staff identical to Fuk-Lok’s. She struck it three times onto the jasper-tiled floor. At the first strike, Fuk-Lok’s staff now became the serpent and he dropped it . The snake writhed for a moment, then slithered away. At the second strike, Fuk-Lok Sau split into two and on the third, he became three. Three different men, his three selves, stared at each other in momentary surprise. Each avatar of Fuk-Lok Sau was different from the other.
“So, now you are Fuk; you are Lok; you are Sau! Your internal discussion can continue without!” All three protested, but Hsi Wang Mu held her hand for silence. “You can discuss your differences without me! When you have agreed upon your reasons for seeking me out, you may return to your homeland in peace!”
Hsi-Wang Mu turned to Miri.
“So, Miriam of Canaan, take my hand.”
The goddess reached out and grasped Miri’s hand in hers. Miri flinched for the brief heartbeat that preceded their hands touching, for neither of her companions had fared well at the goddess’ touch. Yet nothing happened.
“You will call me Tara,” the goddess told Miri. “That is how I am known in most of these parts. Fuk, Lok and Sau have a different name for me, just as you have names by which you know me. Do you wonder at me, Miriam?”
Miri felt as closer to The Queen of the Western Mountain as she had felt to any other, and as she stared into Tara’s eyes, she felt herself being drawn into the very soul of the goddess.
“And you, sister, came for your Tree.” whispered Tara.
Miri did not answer. She knew Hsi Wang Mu knew her heart intimately, and the Queen of The Western Mountains knew her desire before its seed opened within her own heart. Tara was her heart. The soul within her.
“We shall walk,” said the goddess contentedly. “Fuk, Lok and Sau will follow as the Stars follow the Sun. You have questions for me, Miriam?”
“No,” replied Miri, “Is the tree very far?”
“I am the Tree,” said Tara.
“Then, where are we going?” asked Miri.
Tara put her finger to her lips for silence. “She who speaks, cannot listen.”
“I am beginning to feel like Maitreyi,” muttered Miri. Hanuman stared up at her with big brown worried eyes. Miri stroked his head as they walked.
“You miss her?” asked Tara. At that instant the goddess transformed herself into Maitreyi. Miri stopped walking and stared open-mouthed at her friend.
“Maitreyi?” she asked; then in a flash, “You were Maitreyi?”
“Is that so hard to believe?” asked Maitreyi in Tara’s voice.
“Everyone told me there was a demon in you,” said Miri.
“Is there a difference between the two, Miriam?”
“I suppose not,” replied Miri slowly. “One man’s demon is another’s goddess.”
They continued their walk through the garden.
“I am what I am,” said Maitreyi, “How I am perceived by others is of no consequence, yet how I am seen seems to be of great consequence to those who see me. If I appeared in the outer world as Tara, the Lady of The Mountain, then we would be surrounded by the faithful. The flock follows that which they find familiar. Unless I appear as they expect me, they cannot see me. They will not see me at all. But you saw me, and you followed.”
“So why did you bring me here?” asked Miri.
“I did not bring you,” said Maitreyi.
“But I followed you and your guidebook,” said Miri.
“That was your choice,” countered Maitreyi, “You have seen much in your short lifetime, Miriam.”
“Have I seen that which was revealed, that which I am allowed to see, or merely seen that which was there?”
Maitreyi smiled. “Who can tell? If the will of the gods be unknown, then you must always decide for yourself what that will might be. But you know me through your own soul. Your body and soul are not a oneness with me but nonetheless we are inseparable. Your choice is to close off the connection between us or to open yourself to the All.”
“My choice? Can I choose who I am? Can I choose anything but that which I choose?” asked Miri, “I can change my nature only if it is in my nature to change. Where is my choice? Can I do anything other than that which I would do? Do I follow your path or mine?”
Maitreyi smiled. “All is an illusion,” she replied. “That which is called Maya.”
“If my world is an illusion, then why do I find the will to move through it? Of what importance is my doing good or evil? Why even do I struggle to remain within it?”
“Does it matter?”
Miri could not answer, for, at that moment, the garden opened out to reveal a lovingly tended glade. Though the clearing seemed natural, every stone and tree was in the right place. Every leaf and blade of grass, each bamboo stem was set with thoughtfulness and purpose. The garden was perfect; not one detail jarred the unity of form.
“Behold!” announced Maitreyi as they reached the edge of the crystal pool within the garden clearing. Miri gasped. It was the Garden of her dreams.
The same palms laden with dates and figs waved gracefully overhead, whispering secrets to the ancient gnarled olive and proud apricot trees. Wheat and barley grew as though wild, but blessed with plump heads. Large plump purple grapes hung from vines entwined around every bole and trunk in the grotto. Cucumbers, fat and succulent, protruded from creeping vines at her feet. And now, added to the glorious grove were mangos and coconuts, and a sprinkling of plum trees in full flower.
Maitreyi led her by the hand to the edge of the sparkling pool of crystal water. In the centre of the pool was her island, blanketed with lush tropical greenery, above which rose the tree, a large evergreen with seven huge branches, each branch blossoming into a familiar spray of leaves and brilliant white flowers. The tree was decorated with offerings: strings of beads, amulets and objects of adoration, prayer flags and bells that tinkled in the gentle breeze. Turtle doves flitted amongst the branches, cooing and calling to each other. Lights still twinkled within the tree was so alive, it seemed to be the essence of Life itself. Miri ached to touch it. She turned to Maitreyi, but her friend had gone and Tara had become the Tree.
Miri looked about. Five large shoulder high ancient stone pillars set in a circle around the pool. Each stele was inscribed in Sanskrit and upon each pillar stood a chalice. There was a goblet of gold, one of silver, one of copper and another of bronze, and beside her, a beautiful chalice exquisitely carved from a single piece of jade.
The script, carved within the stone caught her eye. She had seen it before in her dreams, but now she could actually read the Sanskrit text:
“Himalaya, Lord of the Mountains, asks of the World Mother:
‘O Maha Devi! Sweet Maheshvari! Great Ocean of Mercy!
Mother of Mountains and Mistress of the Seas,
How should children of earth honour Thee?”
The Mother of All Things answers thus the King of Mountains:
‘Shall I tell Thee of the sacred ceremonies for My worship,
The rites that are pleasing to Me?
Then open thy ears to My Voice and thy heart to My Heart!
Your tongue to My Tongue, thy lip to Mine,
This is where thou will find Me:
Meditate upon an image as you wish,
Or perhaps a clean plot of the ripe earth,
Or seek in the heavens, either Sun or Moon,
Or gaze upon the waves upon the water, or clouds in the air,
In Vana Linga, in Yantra,
Or upon a cloth, with or without a mandala,
Or in the lotus of thy heart, or the one without.
There you will see that I am within the One,
Evident in the All.
And evident in the None.
Knowing in thy heart this Truth,
Meditate and worship in Bliss, Higher than Highest,
She who is Devi.
She, who gave birth to the Universe.
Whose sacred heart is filled with the blood of mercy.
She who blossoms with youth.
Whose colour is the red of the rising Sun,
She who is Love Incarnate,
Whose limbs are exquisitely formed,
Whose beauty o’erflows Her Cup,
On Whose forehead, glows the Moon eternal,
Whose four hands hold goad,
Noose, and the signs of fearlessness
And the wherewithal to grant boons.
When her children worship the external,
When they honour that which can be seen
Or heard or tasted,
Never should they abandon that moment,
For their devotion will reward the heart
In Para Brahma,
The Sea of the Universal Consciousness!
O Lord of the Mountains!
Thus shall we know Samvit,
Thus shall we know My Consciousness
Thus shall we know My Highest Nature with no limitation.
Thus shall we attach our hearts to My Consciousness,
Then shall we appear free from other demands,
Then shall we know constantly this Samvit.
Then shall we see this Samvit through this illusive world of Maya,
Then shall we see beyond their world
And meditate on the Queen of Heaven,
The Witness to All, the Self of All,
And our hearts shall fill with devotion
And our souls shall be free from any Sankalaps,
And no longer bound by fruitless Desire.’
So said The Devi to the Himalayas,
That he could teach the children of the World!”
Hanuman jumped suddenly from Miri’s arms onto the stela and stuck his tiny head into the crystal goblet. He chirped and looked disappointedly at her. It was empty. She shook her head at her companion and lifted the goblet from its place.
She dipped the chalice in the water and filled it with water from the pool. Hanuman grasped her hand in his, and lapped at the water in the cup. Hanuman tried to take it from her, but she was afraid he would break the delicate crystal. He screeched at her petulantly, and she realized he would not back down easily. She pulled him away by the scruff of his neck and lifted the goblet to her own lips. The water tasted sweet yet not sweet, salty yet not salty, and refreshed her so well, it seemed to wash to the back of her brain. She drained the cup quickly and, holding Hanuman at arm’s length, she replaced it on the stela and walked to the next stone.
She removed the gold chalice upon it, filled it with water and relinquished it’s possession to Hanuman. The monkey sat on the edge of the pool, sipping from the golden chalice. Miri turned her attention to the stela. It was a prayer. Also written in Sanskrit:
“O Dawn! I see You rising in your glory,
I watch Your passage o’er the waves of the Eastern sea.
Your blessing opens the way before me,
No longer fraught with unseen dangers,
Your vision shows me the pitfalls and unseen dangers
Rendering the road easy, fair to travel, and rich in rewards.
Under Your gaze, ominous darkness begets benign and friendly skies.
Your sacred luminous eye awakens the heavens,
Black begets blue, Night becomes Day; cold retreats from warmth.
You clothe the world in Your radiant splendour,
You bare Your bosom, and milk of enlightenment spills o’er the Earth.
I see Your shining majestic grace, sweet Goddess of Morning,
I embrace you, Dearest Daughter of Heaven,
With Love unbounded;
I dedicate to You each red heifer of my kine,
To You, belong the mountain tops,
In your glory does their greatness become manifest.
My thanks be to you,
Dearest Daughter of Heaven,
Bring us wealth and give us comfort.
Release Your oxen and bear the chariot of the Sun across the Heavens.
I ask You, Dearest Daughter of Heaven,
To coax the birds forth from their nests,
To raise the farmer from his bed.
And the fisherman from his wife.
And I thank You Sweet Morning.
You, who dispels the blackest night,
And call me early each morning without fail,
I thank You for Your Benificence.
This whole world is interwoven in Thee.”
The stela was on the Eastern flank of the pool. The image of a tiger glared at Miri from each face of the stone pillar. She reached out to touch the stone, but a screech from Hanuman caught her off guard. She whirled about.
Hanuman was excitedly jumping up and down, baring his teeth across the water. A great snake had arisen from the roots of the great tree. Miri called Hanuman to her, and the little monkey leaped from his perch and clung to her side. She walked toward the pool’s edge to face the snake despite Hanuman’s excited objection to her course of action.
“What do you want, Miriam of Phoenicia?” the snake asked.
“I neither am in need or under any desire at this moment,” replied Miri.
“Then why are you here?” asked the snake with irritation.
“You tell me,” countered Miri, “Why am I here?”
“Asking why is an endless occupation,” replied the serpent testily.
“You asked the question, not I” replied Miri, “I am, though, at a loss as to what I am to do next. Shall I stay here indefinitely?”
“Do you wish to?” asked the snake.
“No,” replied Miri, “I came to find the Tree of Life. I have found her.”
“So you have no desire beyond that?”
“I am not sure that I have found what I was seeking.”
“We shall see,” replied the snake sharply, and he uncoiled and disappeared into the roots of the tree. At the moment he disappeared, a huge white owl flapped across the pool from the upper branches of the Tree. As though shaking out her feathers, the owl fluttered to a stop before Miri and transformed herself into Tara.
“You are not ready to join me,” she said.
“No,” replied Miri, “The timing is wrong.”
Would you like me to restore you to your ship, instead?”
“I¾” Miri was shocked at the request.
“Would you like to see it?”
“Of course!” replied Miri.
“Then you shall see your ship!”
Tara passed her hand across the pool. The water shivered and smoothed as flat as polished glass, and the Heart of Isis appeared before her eyes.