The 33 Sages of the Plum Red Robes

A story on your tenacity and the spiritual path by Stuart Wilde.
© Stuart Wilde 2011

Many years ago in old China, there was a wise old sage. He traveled the countryside walking from village to village, teaching and healing people; helping in any way he could. He had great wisdom. He had reached that illusive point in his knowledge that many strive for, that egoless state of spirituality and consciousness where one’s sense of self and the eternal nature of things, are as one. He was greatly revered.

From time to time, young men would gather around the old sage, some felt they would give up everything to follow him, for they knew that by just watching him they would learn. The old sage allowed some to follow him, others he turned away with a kindly word, or a promise, or a helpful instruction. But he wouldn’t allow any of his students to stay with him for very long. So young men would come and go, each stopping for a while to learn before being dismissed to return to their villages.

The old sage had been traveling, healing, and teaching for a while, and at that particular time he had with him five students. One night, he gathered the young men together and said, “I have to return to the monastery that is my spiritual home. Each of you is welcome to come with me, but I must tell you that you will have to be diligent and keep up, as the journey is long and I cannot wait for any stragglers. I have to arrive at the monastery in time for the winter solstice”. He went on to say, “I also have to tell you that only one of you will complete the journey with me to the monastery. Do you understand?”

There was a slight pause and then all the students bowed and said, “Yes, old sage,” we understand. “We will come.”

So the next day the old sage and the five students began their journey toward the distant mountains where the monastery lay. After walking for two days, they camped by a small stream. The students prepared a meal and the old sage ate with them. Soon after, the students fell asleep.

At about 2:00 a.m. the old man rose from his place, and as he did so, three of the students heard him, the other two continued sleeping. The sage gathered his things and walked silently out of the encampment.
The three hurriedly grabbed their few possessions and followed him. Two were left behind. The sage and the remaining students walked up a rugged trail climbing towards the distant peaks, and a day or so later they came to a ravine. Across the ravine was a thin log. The sage walked effortlessly across the log traversing the ravine, which dropped hundreds of feet below him. One of the students crossed and then the second, but the third was gripped with a terrible fear. Try as he might, he could not bring himself to make the crossing. So the sage and the two remaining students paused to bow from the other side, and the student was left behind. The old sage continued on his journey with the remaining two.

They had been traveling for several weeks, climbing all the while; the days were getting shorter and shorter, winter was approaching. In the distance, you could see the high mountain ranges, lightly dusted with snow. As the three of them walked through a mountain pass, they came upon a small house at a crossroad, where travelers sometimes stopped to rest. An old farmer owned the house; he had a daughter. The old sage and the students asked for permission to stay the night. They offered a token payment, which tradition required the farmer to refuse. It was not the custom to take payment from holy men. The old farmer invited them in and gave them food, shelter and comfort.

The farmer was not as physically strong as he used to be. He worried for the well being of his daughter, if by mischance anything should happen to him. During the conversation that night the farmer noticed one of the students was very physically fit and bright eyed. Rubbing his chin and wondering, he was later to say to that student, “You seem to be a very strong and honorable young man. If you would stay here and help me, I will give you my daughter in marriage, and when I die you will inherit my house, my land, and my animals.” The student wasn’t sure what to do, because it had certainly been his intention to travel to the monastery with the old sage.

While the student pondered the farmer’s offer, the old man brought his daughter into the room. She was as radiant as the driven snow, feminine and kind, softly spoken and strong within. It was love at first sight for both of them. The student’s mind was instantly made up. He would stay and help the farmer and accept the farmer’s daughter as his wife. His time with the old sage had been the turning point of his life, he had learned and experienced many wondrous things, but the valley and the little house, and the farmer’s daughter, were perfect for him. He felt truly blessed. He knew it was his destiny to remain.

The next morning at dawn, the old sage rose and the student who had decided to stay behind went to him and said, “Old sage, I have decided to remain here in this valley. As much as my heart and spirit wanted to come with you to the monastery, it is my decision to stay. This is where I will marry, have a family, grow spiritually, and be happy. I thank you for great kindness to me.” The student bowed and shortly thereafter the old sage and the last remaining student left the little farmhouse that stood at the crossroads that led to the distant mountains. The snow was gently falling. The time of the winter solstice was approaching. The old sage would soon be returned to his monastery.

At night, the two of them would shelter. Sometimes, the last remaining student would ask the old sage about the monastery and the order of holy men that lived there. The sage told him that the group numbered thirty-three and that they were known as The Sages of The Plum-Red Robes. He went on to say it was their tradition to go out and travel the lands and teach. Some taught agriculture and husbandry, others taught writing and literature; still others were knowledgeable in matters of science and astronomy. Then there were those like the old sage, who were healers and spiritual teachers, each traveled and taught what he knew.
However, it was their tradition that every so often, all thirty-three sages would return to the monastery in time for the winter solstice, which as you may know, in the Taoist tradition, is the most spiritual and sacred time of the year. It marks the lowest ebb of the old sun and heralds the rebirth of the new.

It was now well into December and the snowdrifts were deepening. The old sage and his student traveled on. They walked on for days and days, with the sage leading the way and the student never more than a few yards behind. When the sage walked, the student walked. When the sage made a turn, the student turned. When the sage stopped, the student stopped. When the sage slept, the student stayed awake.

After several more days, they came upon the open ground of a mountain meadow. Gathered there, on a small hill, were a group of young men each sitting on a wooden stool, they formed a large semi-circle. The monastery was in the distance. The sage and his one remaining student walked over to where the other students were seated. His student noticed there was only one empty stool. The sage put his student on the stool and turning to the all the students, there were thirty-three of them, he said, “Wait here until I return. Only one of you will be permitted to enter the monastery.” He then walked off briskly toward the monastery in the distance for he knew from the number of students present that he was the last of the sages to return. The old sage entered through the doors of that place greatly pleased to be home.

For three days at the winter solstice, the Sages of the Plum-Red robes, held a special fast that was particular to their order. They would take no food, yet every four hours they would drink a small glass of plum wine accompanied by a large pitcher of water. As the sages sat together in the refectory of the monastery holding their three-day vigil, they would tap on the refectory tables with special carved, bone tapers that looked like what we would recognize today as pawns from a chess set. They tapped in unison, creating a special rhythm, accompanied by a sacred hum.

Out in the meadow, the thirty-three students sat on their wooden stools; the snow continued to fall. Attendants brought food once a day, there were strict rules. If any student needed to leave the circle, he could do so only at certain allotted times of the day. If any student left at the wrong time, his chair would mysteriously disappear. It was very cold; some of the students could not take it, so they soon left.

But the old sage’s student felt he could endure. He was strong. He remembered the secrets that the old man had taught him. He knew about the flow of energy. He understood that heat was not just a matter of temperature, but that it was also an inner thing. He could concentrate on the warmth of the milky light of the winter’s day and bring it into his heart, so he was able to stay centered even in most extreme of conditions. He knew about the Tao and the eternal nature of things. He knew of the celestial light present in all things, which ebbs and flows as the seasons do. The young man knew these things. At times, he would visualize the warmth of his own heart, its bigness if you like, he would see that as a form of spiritual heat, bringing warmth to his body. He felt he was in control, no matter how hard conditions became. He had little resistance. He sat motionless, often covered in snow. He sat, for he felt it was his destiny to do so.

After three days the distant humming and rapping stopped. The monastery became silent. The winter solstice was over. Many of the students thought that now the old sage would return, but they were disappointed. He didn’t come. Again, the numbers of students dwindled, as more and more gave up to return home.

Months passed and winter turned to spring, which was a great joy to the remaining students waiting on that little hill. Gone was the quietness and dark of the winter; the song of the rebirth of nature was all around. As the student of the old sage sat on his stool he could feel it all. He knew how the living spirit of the Tao gave life to the plants, as they slowly emerged and grew. He imagined he could hear the plants grow, and so he could feel the same process of rejuvenation inside himself. In his heart, he could reach out and touch a tree and embrace it, without leaving his stool, for deep inside his very essence, he was the tree. He would watch birds fly past, and marvel at the grace of their action in flight as they soared and dipped, sometimes gliding, sometimes climbing. He could feel the grace of it all, each of their movements, the motion of their wings, he felt it all inside his body; it was as if the birds flew deep inside him.

Summer came and still there was no sign of the old sage. Now, just ten students remained. The warmth of the summer was a great blessing. When it became very hot, the sage’s student would use his mind to cool himself and at night when the temperature fell, he would warm himself in the same way. He just sat and watched. He was at one and peace with himself and all living things.

When summer turned to autumn, he watched the leaves of the trees begin to fall, sometimes he would cry with joy, for he remembered how much he had released and given away to be in the place where his teacher had placed him. He cried not from a sense of loss but from a lightness of being; from a gratitude; one that he deeply felt from having been liberated from the weight of the emotion of daily life.

The young man had learned to detach and accept life, so he knew how to transcend circumstances. He had touched and found the heroism of his human spirit, he knew it, and he understood the awesome nature of our spiritual journey.

He was brave and yet he also had purity, compassion, and selflessness, qualities he had learned from watching his teacher in the past. As the leaves fell from the branches he would remember the major turning points of his life, and sometimes he would think about his family and his village, and he would compare that to his current situation. It seemed to him that each leaf that fell represented some aspect of his inner self or some part of his life’s journey.

Winter approached once more, and soon the first frost lay upon the little hill, and days later it was followed by snow. Now there were only three other students still sitting, still there was no sign of the old sage. A year had passed. The solstice was approaching once more and the student felt ever more balanced, at peace and at one with himself and the beauty around him. He had learned the art of waiting—a simple strength, in that he did not wait inside his emotions wondering whether the sage might come, instead he had switched his mind to wait inside the eternity, which he knew he was a part of. He felt that if needs be he’d wait forever and die upon that stool if necessary. He was the Tao, the morning dew, the summer breeze; he was the living spirit in all things. He was the yang nestled inside the yin—eternal. Sometimes, he prayed to the feminine essence of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin, for he knew she was the valley spirit and from her inspiration he had learned he was nothing and yet he was all things, eternal, immortal, universal and infinite, for it is not written: “The valley spirit never dies…” And so the young man became like his old teacher, the embodiment of a yang essence, the temperament of a yin serenity, and the reality of an immortal spirit, all these things inside one student’s body and mind.

The holy days of the winter solstice finally came and the young man could again hear the mysterious humming and the rapping of the monks in the distance. Three days passed and as the monks tapped out their rhythm, the student did the same tapping on his stool with a stone, and as the monks hummed, he hummed. He sat and waited.

One morning, just after sunrise, he noticed the monastery was now silent. Looking around the little hill, he saw that all the other students were now gone. He was on his own. It was a strange moment for him, he felt no triumph or elation, it made no difference to him; he just observed the situation.

Then in the distance, he saw the great door of the monastery swing open. It was the twenty-fourth day of the month we know as December. Walking across the snow was the old sage wearing a plum-red cloak. He came over to the student who immediately rose from his stool and bowed.

The old sage said, “Come with me.”

They walked together across the snow in silence. The student walking in the sage’s footsteps, so that there was only one set of footprints on the way back to the monastery.

At the monastery, the student was given food, water, and plum wine, he felt truly blessed. Soon the sage came to him and said, “You have been selected to be the thirty-third sage of the order of the Sages of the Plum-Red Robes.”

The young man, who came from a very humble background, was overwhelmed by the honor. For a moment he was completely speechless, a great emotion rose within him, joy, sadness, elation, humility, he didn’t know what to say. Meanwhile, the old sage took off his plum-red cloak and he gently placed it around the young man’s shoulders, fastening a clasp at the front. The student, having composed himself now, bowed and said to the old sage, “Old sage, I would like to ask a question, if I may?” The old man just nodded. The young man asked, “Why me? Sir, why me?”

The old sage replied speaking softly, in a kindly way, answered saying, “Do you remember that night back in the village over a year ago, when we were together with the other four students? I said that only one of you would complete the journey to the monastery. The other students thought, I wonder if it will be me and you said to yourself, ‘It is I.’ And, when we finally arrived here at this place, and I sat you upon that wooden stool, and there were thirty-two other students sitting there, I said to all of you “Wait here until I return, for only one of your will be permitted to enter the monastery.” Each of the others wondered if they would be selected. Each of them wondered, will it be me? Instead, you said to yourself, ‘It is I.’”

The young man was overcome with gratitude and humility. The old sage smiled. He was well pleased with his student and he congratulated him, embracing him warmly, then the old sage blessed the young man, wishing him well for the future. Decades later, this particular young man, the thirty-third sage of the order of the Plum-Red Robes was to become a living legend in those lands, he became one of the greatest teachers there had ever been, but that’s another story.

Shortly thereafter, the old sage took his student and introduced him to the other sages of the order and the young man duly took his place in the hall where the holy men would sit and eat. Later that same night, just after twelve o’clock midnight, the doors of the monastery creaked open once more and the old sage left the monastery, walking out into the snow. He was never seen or heard of ever again.

Categories: Spirituality

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