At this point the traveler related the story of the sadhu who was residing in the cave beyond the source of the Ganges. He had heard it from a woman who was living in the small village of ashrams. She had just returned from her trek and had not decided when she would be returning to her other life, if ever. There was something strange about her, he wrote. Her red hair was clipped short and she wore a traditional white Punjabi dress and pant suit. Her eyes, however, contained nothing of the adventurous brightness that could be seen in the eyes of many western pilgrims. Hers were dark and empty. She seemed obsessively engaged with her private world. In the time he spent with her, he was sure that she reminded him of something he had felt in his dreams.
The traveler delayed his departure for the glacier in order to spend time with her. She did not speak much, but what he felt emanating from her left him captivated. He was not interested in her as a woman. Her face was almost expressionless and she seemed to not be involved with her gender at all.
They had quiet talks on a large, smooth rock in the river, which had been worn down by thousands of years of water flowing over it. Now it was exposed to the air, the mountains and the sight of human beings. His descriptions of these conversations eventually became disjointed as he tried to connect his thoughts and questions with her answers. Sometimes, he recorded, there were long periods of silence, during which she stared into the river.
A couple of months ago, she had told him, she had traveled up the river to its source. When she arrived, she saw that the people there were mostly tourists. For her, however, it did not a matter who they were or if there were another mystery traveler on the same quest as she. She was her own self, independent of what was around her or what others said. As she waited to find the right moment to proceed onto the glacier, she heard others speaking. Often the conversations were about whether the water were safe to drink. Not far from the glacier mouth, pack animals waited. They were the source of much of the bacterial content of the river. When tourists drank, they were expressing their own kind of bravery.
Even amidst these dreary thoughts of others, her mind was so focused on the ancient sadhu in the cave that she was able to look on these people, not so much in disgust, but as children who had no idea why they were there and did not feel the fire of life pulling them beyond the mere physicality of the dripping glacier. Appropriately enough, the rush of water that constituted the river’s beginning erupted out of an underground source that could not be viewed without stepping into the river or peering down from the snout of the glacier, which was fragile enough that one crawling onto it risked falling onto hard ice below. Many cameras recorded what was there for the eyes to see.
As the woman approached the deeper mystery of her story, she was less reluctant to meet with him. During those days when she did not appear at their usual meeting place, he sat on the rock around which the river flowed and tried to capture his conversations with her in words. At one point she had gone into a rambling discussion about metaphor, which was bumping up against his classroom instruction about metaphors to high school students. Here, in this place, however, he could in no way be a teacher. His mind had already begun to turn into a porous configuration of his self-knowledge. As he wrote, he was actually hearing this woman more clearly than when she was sitting in front of him.
“Metaphors according to her,” he wrote, “are not comparisons. They are relationships between what is and what isn’t. If I think of the school version of metaphors, I distinguish between the thing to be described and the image used to describe it. In other words, one part of the metaphor is a real thing, and the other part is a device to give that thing greater vividness and meaning. When I brought up this traditional meaning, she did not even acknowledge what I said. In fact, during all of our conversations, she seems not to be talking to me at all.”
As the traveler struggled with her definition of metaphor, he felt something shift inside his mind. Other words she spoke were returning to his thoughts, words which when he first heard them had immediately plunged past his surface mind into its depths. “Why do you accept the world you experience as real?” she had asked him. “How can it not be real? Here we are,” he had responded. “Or,” she had said, “what makes it real?” He had told her it was obvious that it was real. When he had said that, she had bowed her head as if looking for another way to express what she was trying to say. “Is it?” she asked as she lifted her head. At this point she had seemed to shift gears and take on a more penetrating intent. “Any object you experience is real only if you see that it is real. It’s nothing other than what it is. It has no real qualities or qualifications that separate it from any other object. Were it not a thing first, it would not exist as a particular thing. In fact, it would not exist at all. This is what you cannot see and what makes your life a complete illusion. You must know that it exists first as itself, then as the particular item you call real. Without the knowledge of that distinction, everything you experience is an illusion, including me. When you experience the thing as itself in everything you experience, then you know there is only one thing.” “And what is that?” he had asked. “That is the mystery of the sadhu.”