Cave with the Mouth of Moss
Once there was a nun who lived in a convent in the mountains of Northeastern China. She had joined in her early twenties when she couldn't figure out what to do in the world to make money. More importantly, she didn't want to use her life's limited energy to help the companies that ruled the land to generate a profit. Her family and friends were shocked by her decision, as she had graduated from college with high marks and had won numerous awards for her scholarship. They begged her to reconsider, but her instincts won. She donated all of her belongings—the little that she had accumulated, which mostly amounted to books—to charity, shaved off her long locks, and moved to the convent without a second thought.
Once she received her robes and settled in, she began to confront some of her doubts about organized religion, which she had studied in school and while growing up. She had much time to contemplate now without any of the distractions that had been part and parcel of her former life. She liked the message of the convent's religion, which was to treat others as you wished to be treated. She also admired that the convent made spiritual connection a conscious part of daily life, as opposed to the largely unconscious way that most people seemed to float through the life that she had left behind.
But then there were aspects of convent life that she didn't know how to make peace with. She bristled when their religion was spoken of as the one true way to live, as if it invalidated all the other paths that people took around the world. She saw how being born into a family that practiced their religion had unduly influenced her upbringing. For instance, if she had been born into a different family, she likely would have pursued a different religion, which called into question whether choosing her religion was done consciously or out of comfort. She also disliked all talk of good and evil, concepts that she felt made religion easier to understand, but for all intents and purposes, didn't exist. Moreover, even assuming that good and evil existed, she didn't think humans, with all their faults and biases, could serve as impartial judges. On a practical level, she felt that the separation of genders was insulting, and that both sides were being robbed of opportunities to learn from each other's vastly different experiences.
During free periods and evenings, she would wrestle with these misgivings alone in her head. She wondered if having irreconcilable doubts meant that she had made a mistake by pursuing convent life. Against the counsel of her dorm mates, she approached an old master who was visiting the convent from a faraway monastery. After meditation, she waited until he was alone and requested his help. He asked her the nature of her inquiry.
"Doubt," she said.
He stood in silence for a minute and then replied, "Meet me in the cave with the mouth of moss tomorrow at dusk."
That night, she could hardly sleep, as she was anxious to meet with him and to have an answer. The next day, she drifted through her daily practice and chores, barely aware of them. When the sun sank low in the sky, she set out for the cave. She climbed a stone staircase made of hundreds of crumbling steps, reaching a large hill overlooking a valley. Sweating and breathing heavily, she reached the top of the hill, locating the mossy green cave entrance at the base of a looming purple mountain.
At the cave's mouth, she said a prayer and then stepped inside. She sat on a smooth, cool rock to wait for the old master. But minutes turned into hours and there was still no sign of him. Once the moon rose, she knew she needed to return, otherwise she risked being punished for staying out past curfew. Disappointed, she descended in darkness. She approached the old master back at the convent and asked him if he had forgotten about their meeting.
"No," he replied. "Meet me in the cave with the mouth of moss tomorrow at dusk."
Her anticipation renewed, she once again had trouble sleeping that night. The next day, she hurried through her practice and her chores, setting out for the cave around the same time. When she arrived, she said her prayer and sat down in the same spot to wait. But minutes turned into hours and, upon nightfall, she was compelled to return to the convent. In the lecture hall, she found the old master and confronted him about forgetting their meeting for the second time.
"I didn't forget," he said. "Meet me in the cave with the mouth of moss tomorrow at dusk."
She left him, perplexed, unsure whether he was playing a game with her (as the monks were known to do) or if he were simply going senile in his old age. She laid in bed, tossing and turning, enduring another restless night filled with doubt. The next day, more sleep deprived than she had been in a long time, she went through the motions of her day with a curious sense of clarity. Without her normal amount of wakefulness, it felt like the illusion of reality was being revealed to her around every corner. The edges of her environment looked softer than usual, as if they were painted. In the long, narrow dining hall, people's faces blurred together as she let her eyes relax, their voices reverberating in a susurrous blanket that enfolded her. At several points in the day, she had to ask herself whether she were awake or dreaming.
For the third day in a row, when the sun sank low in the sky, she journeyed to the cave. At the entrance, she said her prayer, walked in, and sat in half lotus position to await the old master. Again, minutes turned into hours. But instead of heading back upon nightfall, she relaxed and continued to wait, unafraid of the consequences. She had a feeling she couldn't explain that bade her to be patient, so she let go of all resistance and submitted to her raw intuition. After a substantial slice of time, thick as the cave walls surrounding her, she lost consciousness that she was waiting for anything. She simply sat, not entertaining any thoughts in her head, finally free of the doubts that had plagued her upon arriving at the convent. She breathed in and out, relishing the clean taste of newfound freedom.
As she rested on the border between wakefulness and sleep, the old master entered the cave and sat opposite of her on the hard, stony ground. She blinked a few times to make sure she wasn't hallucinating.
"Tell me about your doubts," he said.
"I've been struggling with the convent's teachings," she said without any resistance left in her voice.
A few minutes passed before he responded. "Did anyone force you to join?"
She shook her head.
"Did you have doubts about me?" he asked.
"Then why did you return here a third night in a row?"
"In spite of my doubts," she said, "I felt you would be here. I put my trust into the universe. I can't expl-"
She trailed off and broke into a huge smile. The old master's eyes twinkled. Just like that, she was enlightened.
Jess Thoubboron is a writer and filmmaker based in NYC. She started practicing mindfulness and meditation four years ago after traveling to Nepal with her mom and picking up a copy of The Diamond Sutra. She loves reading Zen koans and reimagining them, which is what this story is based on.
Jess’ poetry and fiction have been published in Indicia, Ozone Park Journal, and BRIO Journal, among others. Her short film, “Strangers,” played at the Northeast Film Festival and Coney Island Film Festival in 2016. She’s currently in post-production for her next short film, “Conversations with a Demon.”
More on Jess Thoubboron's work can be found on our Links page.