The Great Hall was filled with light and flowers, there were so many flowers, so many candles, the whole floor was covered in them. It felt strange for Aifa to watch the Twins, who were dressed up in their simple white garments and had flowers woven in their elaborately braided hair, sit donning unearthly smiles on top of a mound of flowers, like living statues.
“How come they are so well behaved, doyenne?” Aifa whispered, careful not to disturb the large group of people who had come to offer flowers and sit quietly on the floor next to the Twins and search for the peace of their souls. Outside the festivities were a lot livelier; the citizens of Cré launched colorful paper lanterns and guided their glowing lights with song and dance up into the night sky.
“The Twins have reached the age of wisdom,” grandmother replied.
“But just yesterday…” Aifa mumbled, confused by the fact that those two who had ran her ragged with their irrational demands and endless whims only a month ago, were now presiding over the assembly, almost floating above the ground, their faces illumined by an inexplicable inner bliss.
“Their ways are not our ways, granddaughter. We live lives which span over so many decades; for them life is an endlessly repeating cycle, over the course of nine months every year. If they didn’t get to wisdom early enough in the year, how would they teach it to us?” grandmother said.
“Why do they look so happy, doyenne? They look like they are not even there,” Aifa noticed. All around the Twins people had placed trays of fruit, sweetened grain puddings, and elaborately decorated desserts, but the two didn’t seem to even notice them, so far away up there, in their own world.
“They have moved beyond suffering,” grandmother smiled. “Beyond the illusion of the real.”
“What do you mean ‘illusion’, doyenne?” Aifa asked.
“You like being here today?” grandmother asked.
“Of course!” Aifa said eagerly. “It’s one of the nicest festivals! I can’t wait to release the doves and the butterflies! We get to set all creatures free!” The kindness of this humble symbolic gesture always warmed her heart, since she totally agreed that all living beings should be free.
“So, this night makes you happy,” grandmother looked at Aifa, who nodded in agreement. “What would happen if all of a sudden I told you that you couldn’t attend?”
“Why would you not allow me to attend, doyenne? I didn’t do anything wrong!” Aifa protested.
“What if you simply couldn’t. If you were, say, taken ill?”
“I would be upset if I couldn’t attend, of course,” Aifa agreed.
“So, the same event that made you happy would then make you sad,” grandmother said. “That is the essence of a life of duality, the essence of suffering itself. When we become attached to the ways of this world we get trapped between happy and sad and repeat the cycle endlessly, to no avail.”
“But what if I am never sad, doyenne? What if I could live a life were I only experience happiness?”
“Everyone gets sad at some point, child. Everyone.”
“So, you are saying I should never be happy, so that I don’t get sad either?” Aifa asked, almost on the verge of tears.
“Not at all, granddaughter,” grandmother comforted her immediately. “By all means, let being here make you happy right now. What do you see, when you look around?”
“The Great Hall, beautifully decorated,” Aifa started describing, “so many flowers, lights, so many people I know.”
“Look closer, granddaughter. Look deeper, beyond the form you can see, into the essence of things, into the patterns of repeating things. This festivity happened last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, when the Twins were different, but the heart of the events was the same. Just like tides, life the ebbs and flows of living water, people are born and die, to repeat this celebration endlessly through time. What is all new for you now, a wondrous event, I have witnessed for sixty springs now. The actors are different, but the scene is the same, a recurrent dream in the sleep of the soul.”
“But why shouldn’t I enjoy it, doyenne? If it makes me happy, why shouldn’t I enjoy it?” Aifa insisted, because the sounds, and the colors, and the whole spectacle of public joy looked so wholesome and completely devoid of guile it simply felt wrong to question it, instead of taking it to heart.
“You should enjoy it. And after you enjoyed it for many years, you should also see it repeating. You should realize that all its variations never stray from the theme, and no matter how many times you’re going to experience it in the future, it will always be the same. If it makes you happy, you’ll be less and less happy as time goes by, and when it can’t make you happy anymore, you’ll experience suffering. It’s only a matter of time until you start asking yourself if this is all there is, or if there is anything beyond it. And then you find yourself picking at the edges of life, trying to see if you can peel them off, to find out what’s underneath. When you manage to do that, the events will make you neither happy nor sad, because you realize they are like a painting, a varnish for the reality underneath.”
“What kind of reality, doyenne?” Aifa asked.
“It is like love, or faith, it is impossible to explain, but you know when you experience it, you know it without a doubt, it instantly permeates every place, person and event, everything becomes suddenly clear and you wonder how you never realized it before.” She looked at Aifa, who had a painfully worried expression on her face.
“Don’t burden your mind with the worry of it, granddaughter. When reality reveals itself to you, its simple existence removes the motivation to feel pain, and if you are blessed when you are filled with its essence, you too, just like the Twins, will experience bliss.”
“Why? I don’t understand.”
“Because all suffering is caused by the craving of things we don’t have, but in reality, those things don’t actually exist, at least not in the way you think they do, so why should you be saddened when they look like they are no longer there? Don’t worry, granddaughter, very few people reach this point of total detachment, and those who do are never distraught by it, they experience unconditional bliss. For now you should strive to reduce this life’s suffering, that in itself is a worthwhile goal. Keep your mind always attentive, attuned to the things around you. Everything in this life is an endless back and forth between cause and effect, a push demands a push back of equal force, so you must start small and build on your progress: let your actions be blameless and watch your words, your thoughts, and your focus, until there is nothing left there to distract you from the truth. Every step that you perfect in this progression allows your spirit to rise to higher ground, where it gets a broader view. It is in the seeing of things that the suffering gets dissolved.”
Aifa looked in the Twins’ direction, and noticed that the two had become very animated, telling people stories and engaging them in conversation, enjoying the sweet treats and laughing. She realized she’d been so absorbed in her conversation with her grandmother, she didn’t even notice how much the scene had changed. There was a completely different group of people around them now, most of whom Aifa didn’t recognize.
“The Twins look like they’re enjoying every second of this festivity. They don’t look like they are detached from outcomes at all!” Aifa protested.
“Being detached from an outcome doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy it. You can still enjoy a beautiful flower even when you are aware that it will only last for a day.”
“So, what exactly are we celebrating today, doyenne?”
“Every year on this day the Twins are awakened to their true reality. That is when their life as teachers begins. You have been their mother and their caretaker up to this point. Now you become their student.”
The crowd kept moving steadily past Ama and Jal, happy to linger around them for a while, to listen to a story or be offered comfort, and after that they moved forward slowly, sprinkling the Twins with water from the large bowl that was placed between them, as a blessing. Aifa just wanted to say that the Twins’ life seemed so unfair, having to repeat the same year again and again, without even being aware of it, for who knows how many centuries. How did any being manage to cope with an existence like that?
“What makes you think yours is any different?” grandmother commented, with a little laugh. “Just because you can’t remember the never ending iterations of life, that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.”
“How many times, do you think?” Aifa frowned.
“Who knows?” grandmother replied. “That does put things in perspective a little bit, don’t you think?”
“So, all of us, and the Twins, will come back again and again forever?”
“Every time the Twins return, they are just a little wiser than before. At some point they will just reach perfect wisdom, and after that year they will not need to start over. They will remain among us, existing in bliss and perfect peace, and they will never grow old or die. I guess that works the same for us too, but it will probably take us a lot longer.”
The festivities had moved outside, to enjoy the sight of thousands of paper lanterns dotting the night sky in the presence of a giant moon, which looked almost too large to be real. People were throwing flower garlands at the Twins’ feet, the candles had burned almost to the ground and the time was drawing near for Aifa and her family to go home.
“Doyenne,” Aifa started tentatively, “I don’t want to come back again and again just to suffer, that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Then do what is in your power to do to end the cycle,” grandmother smiled. “All suffering starts in the mind, and that’s where you have to eradicate it. Don’t let evil thoughts be born and take root in your mind and replace the ones that are already there with good thoughts. Those good thoughts will become your foundation. They are like a little stepping stone on which you can get high enough to see. The more you can see, the less evil thoughts can keep their hold on you.”
“What do you mean?” Aifa said.
“Do you remember when you were very young how terrified you where when people brought the dragon through the streets of Cré? For years I couldn’t persuade you to get close enough to it to notice that it was made of paper and strings. All human suffering is a paper dragon, Aifa, we are just too afraid of it to get close enough to it to notice. Don’t live your days in the shadow of a paper dragon, but even most importantly, don’t cast the shadow of a paper dragon on others, that activity is always guaranteed to bring you suffering.”
“So why do people do it, doyenne? Why would anybody do something for which a negative result is all but certain?” Aifa asked.
“Some do it because they don’t know, others do it because they don’t believe; most do it because the results haven’t happened yet and they expect they never will. But the law doesn’t care about your knowledge or belief, it is immutable, like the path of the sun across the sky: when the sun comes up, day follows; when the sun goes down, night follows. Without exception. Keep your mind in the light, granddaughter. It will not keep unpleasant events out of your life, but it will not allow them to make you suffer. There is a silver lining in unpleasantness. When we are happy, we don’t want to let go of the fact that our happiness is not real, so we hold on to it for as long as we can and become attached. Nobody wants to be attached to suffering, so the mind is more willing to see it for what it is, a fleeting illusion. But in truth, both suffering and happiness are fleeting shadows, they just reside at opposite ends of the paper dragon. There is no true contentment other than the one born inside your soul.”
“So, what should I do then?” Aifa asked, confused.
“What you always have: every morning, bring water from the well.”
(A Year and A Day – Excerpt – May)