(Story begins here) “Um, was that nice?” asked Pete gently, deciding to humour the naked man before him.
“I would not use the word ‘nice’, but I like to think that it was compassionate.” Pete wondered if it was particularly compassionate on the person who had been waiting for him for fifteen minutes.
“You are thinking from the perspective of compassion as applied purely to humans,” said Mahavira, as if Pete had spoken out loud, he received a sheepish nod in response. “Whilst I may have delayed you, what I did not do was tread on any insects. Not a single one.”
“Is that why you…?”
“Yes, I swept the path to remove all visible insects, beetles every living thing that I could find. I am obliged to do this as part of my vows.”
“You must need patience for that?”
“Not so much patience as the right sort of belief.”
“There are plenty of species on other planets from the perspective of whom we are just tiny animals, capable of only the most basic communication noises. They might listen to Shakespeare and consider it little more than a dog barking when compared to the beauty and profundity of their prose and poetry.”
“But surely you just wanted to stroll over and meet me so we could carry on talking?”
“I want to talk more with you Peter, but I do not want to stroll over. I might have killed or worse, critically injured a worm, or a spider, anything.” Mahavira shuddered at the prospect. Pete was baffled.
“Who cares?” asked Mahavira. “A better question is, why do you not care?”
“Because they’re just, well, tiny animals.”
“There are plenty of species on other planets from the perspective of whom we are just tiny animals, capable of only the most basic communication noises. They might listen to Shakespeare and consider it little more than a dog barking when compared to the beauty and profundity of their prose and poetry. However, I would imagine you would not like to be squished by a tripod leg from their spacecraft were they to come to visit?”
“Well, no not really.”
“So what is a tiny animal is not for us to decide. From the perspective of a microbe, a simple beetle is a creature of sublime complexity and intellect. Do you see? It is all relative.”“But surely, we have our own perspective, as humans?”
“That is the trap Peter,” said Mahavira sharply. “We are not humans, we are eternal souls, briefly manifesting as humans. It is seeing this illusion and trying to free ourselves from this artificial and fleeting perspective that gives us the ability to cleanse the karma from our souls and so save rebirths and the associated suffering.”
“But I always thought_”
“Peter, there is no ‘I’” for a split second, Mahavira glared at Pete. But then his face returned to peaceful passivity. “I am sorry Peter, but ‘I’ is a terrible word. With it comes all the evils of subjective thinking. Please,” Mahavira stared wide eyed at Pete, trying to convey the importance of what he was saying, “try to avoid ‘I’.”
“Okay” said Pete slightly taken aback. He decided to make light of the situation. “Well, I suppose at least if you’re travelling slowly, you have time to admire the view!”
“No Peter, if I was found to be admiring the view whilst walking and sweeping I would be immediately removed from my order. It is not an empty gesture to sweep, it is to find and gently remove any wildlife. I cannot do that if I was sufficiently indulgent to be admiring the view. Again, were you to be squished by the leg of an advanced alien spacecraft, your soul, whilst staring down at your mangled body, would doubtless find it cold comfort to learn that it’s painful bodily death had occurred because the pilot had been having a nice time admiring the view.”
“Well yes, I suppose. But could you not have at least walked across the grass? It would be a lot quicker.”
“Peter,” said Mahavira as patiently as he could, “as a Digambara monk I am only permitted to travel on well-used paths. This is because the concentration of insect life is likely to be lower and also because I can see more clearly what is in front of me. Because of your actions, just a few minutes ago, there are young worms who are watching the life ooze from their mother, because of where you placed your foot on your fifth step. From the sixteenth step, there is a centipede who has lost the use of most of his legs, who is now vulnerable to prey. Do you see?”
“Well, the centipede still has a lot more legs than me!” smirked Pete.
“That answer does not befit you Peter. Do you not care about the suffering that you caused?” The younger man thought carefully.
“Well, no, not really”
“This is because you are a sinner Peter. But it is alright. So am I, just a slightly lesser one.”
“I thought it was something Christians said to try and make people feel guilty. ‘We’re all sinners and so on.”
“That is very uncharitable Peter. They say it only because it is true. If we were not sinners, we would be perfect and if we were perfect we would have escaped samsara and no longer manifest in the material world. We are only here to relearn how to be perfect after all. Perhaps a friend of mine can help me explain.” As if on cue, a gentle, slightly effeminate voice called out. “Mahavira? Mahavira?! Are you there?” Pete turned to see a small, shaven-headed man in his early fifties emerge from the temple gateway. He was barefoot and wore a long white cloak. His eyes darted around rapidly and his movements were sudden, as if he were a small bird. His face lit up when he saw the two men sat on the grass. “Ah, there you are!” he hurried over and sat down to join them. “Peter, I would like you to meet my good friend Origen,” said Mahavira, formally. The newcomer beamed warmly at Pete.
“A pleasure Peter, it really is!” The younger man smiled back.
“You too,” he said politely. There was an awkward pause.
“You do not know who I am really do you?” smiled Origen.
“Um, not really,” said Pete, grimacing.
“Well, I lived a long time before you, so it does not really matter,” said Origen, but Mahavira interjected.
“This is one of the greatest minds and founders of Christianity, his peerless intellect, wisdom, learning and spiritual dedication were a light which still reverberates down the millennia.” The naked monk said this casually as a statement of fact. Origen’s glance darted around the temple complex.
“Well, I’m sure you’re being very kind,” he said quietly. “But I might be able to help you understand that we are all sinners.”
“Do you believe it’s true because it is written in the Bible?” asked Pete, feeling that a response was necessary. Origen burst out laughing.
“Oh no Peter! It is the other way around, it is written in the bible because it is true!” Pete scratched his head.
“But surely not everything in the Bible can be literally true? Blind people healed and so on?”
“Like everything, the Bible has a body a soul and spirit,” said Origen, smiling cryptically to himself. “It’s what I taught when I was on Earth.”
“Surely it’s all words, they can’t have a body and a spirit? I mean, if you believed that everything had a body and a spirit, you’d be a… a…”
“Platonist?” suggested Origen quietly.
“Well yes, but obviously you’re not, because you’re a_”
“Christian?” suggested Origen, his smile getting broader.
“But the two aren’t mutually exclusive, Peter. In fact, at a certain level, Christianity is applied Platonism. I and many other Christian founders were Platonists, why I even trained at his academy. I even met Plotinus, he was a rather crotchety individual but that’s another story.” Pete was impressed.
“But how can the rationality of Plato be compatible with the Bible? I mean a lot of the stories are highly irrational.” Pete glanced up anxiously at Origen. “No offence.” Origen just beamed warmly at Pete.
“Would you give an example of an irrational bible story Peter?” The younger man thought for a few seconds.
“Well, Cain and Abel.” Pete noticed Origen’s beam widening further, but continued. “If Adam and Eve are the first two humans, where does Cain’s wife come from? How else could he father his child, Enoch, if his mum was the only woman in existence at that time?” Pete’s brow wrinkled as he thought about it. “Unless_” Origen’s beam froze temporarily.
“No Peter, do not think along those lines. On the literal level, some bible stories are a little out there, but not that out there!” Pete blushed.
“Sorry, I was just thinking who else could have been Enoch’s mother. Plus if there are only four people alive at the time, why is Cain terrified that people will persecute him wherever he goes? There isn’t anyone to persecute him.” Pete warmed to his theme. “Also, why would God reject Cain’s offering in the first place? He seems to till the soil as best he can and offers God his best produce.”
“These are all good questions Peter. Let us have a look at the brothers shall we? Would you excuse us for a few moments Mahavira?”
“Certainly Origen,” the naked monk replied graciously. (continue)