Imagine an endless desert, sparsely populated by tribes struggling to survive in a hostile wasteland. Murmuring starts to circulate in the scattered villages about a grotto of incredible treasure so precious that discovering this cave would summon miracles that restore verdant green and life to the desert.
Accompanying the rumors about this incredible treasure are whispers about two mysterious figures who have been travelling to every village, stopping to preach conflicting ways this treasure can be accessed. One, which folk simply call the Wayfarer, urges everyone he meets to take the meager resources and tools they have and journey with him to find this cave. It’s out there somewhere, he proclaims, and while not everyone will live to see it, a generation in the future eventually will. Many are daunted by the prospect of leaving their already precarious life behind to possibly die wandering the desert to locate the grotto, while others are excited by the Wayfarer’s systematic, carefully thought-out plan.
The other, a man villagers only know as the Sage, comes to the inhabitants with an equally incredible proposition. He claims he has visited the cave already, and possesses an insight that the Wayfarer has no access to. He has come back from the treasure with a message. He knows a Way, he claims, that the people should seriously consider and incorporate into their lives. Their faith in the Way will empower them to transform the desert into a lush habitat. While some believe the Sage and begin to practice and share the Way with others, many others feel that the Wayfarer’s proposal is much better.
For me, our universe is that infinite desert, that eternal wilderness of ephemeral human stories. It is the wasteland of knowledge, where we are lost, alone, and frightened. Most importantly. We are parched for insight. The cave represents Truth, that insight into reality that opens a way out of our existential rut. The Wayfarer believes that with the right tools, with enough water, and enough time, we will eventually encounter Truth through rational exploration, trial and error, and discovery. The Sage, however, claims to be passing on an ever-present Truth that is within us. Both seek followers, but in different ways. Are the Sage and Wayfarer as opposed to each other as this allegory makes them out to be? Is it a given that their revelations are contradictory?
I like to think not, and as far as I understand, the Buddhist tradition seeks a meeting between the endless outward journey of science and the infinite interior journey of religion. I’d like to think that the Wayfarer and the Sage both have merits and contributions to make, although as popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “The universe is under not obligation to make sense to you.” Perhaps it would be much more interesting—and helpful—to the desert’s denizens if the Wayfarer and the Sage came together to make sense of the cave. After all, insight is not just “out there,” but nor is it solely “in here.” It’s all around us. It is us.
The cave and treasure are part of the desert.