I had not spoken with Master William since that first meeting, when he showed up at my door one evening, accompanied by the monastic Brother Alfred and the aspirant Mountain Lake. I had seen him many times, his lanky figure always on the go, or talking to someone, so often serious and focused, as if looking ahead and planning; and he had seen me too, recognized me and greeted me in passing.
The most curious thing I ever noticed about Master William, him being a monastic after all, was that he could be very comfortable in a suit and tie, complete with polished shoes, and he tended to conduct himself with a sort of military precision. To see him on the street, on one of those days, one might have thought he was a Fed or a Secret Service agent. But I only saw him dressed that way on those brief passings, when he was going somewhere or had just arrived.
I learned, over time, that he was a resident priest at the ashram, but he handled much of the legal and business aspect of the order; and he was often called upon to engage with ‘outside contacts’. His easy-going, persuasive manner also marked him as a ‘recruiter’. Unlike the nomadic priests, Master William would leave the ashram often, but he would always come back with something.
He had been qualified to serve with the body (the governing council of the order), but he had declined, saying simply that he did not feel ready; and he had agreed to serve as interim Temple Priest, only if the need should arise – but he saw himself as ‘too precariously balanced on the tightrope of the ego and too susceptible to corruption’ to assume any type of authority in a permanent way.
The ‘outside world’ took its toll on Master William, but of course, he had his own effect on the outside world. In the name of art, he shaped hills and valleys in several deep-wilderness areas, he filled small lakes and large ponds, and he even opened up a number of little rivers and some great waterfalls. And, as far as anyone knows, he had no human help in accomplishing these feats.
Only the members of the order, a very few at a time, have ever been allowed into these little wonder-worlds; the journeys themselves require planning and preparation and become significant venues of teaching and training and conditioning.
On one of his ‘tours’, he was heard to say, “Since they first stood erect, people have always reshaped parts of the world so as to serve their own needs; they seldom concern themselves with how these changes affect the rest of the world. People will push aside and even annihilate other people just to have access to what they need or want of the world.
“I change parts of the world for the sake of the beauty and the health of the environment; and I close my eyes to whatever effect these changes might have on mankind. By the time anybody discovers these places, there will be no clue that they were man-made.
To me, of course, this was all legend; as I saw some of these places, it was difficult to put into perspective that they were the works of one man … and not designs of the Spirit … at least, not directly.
That same person that I glimpsed at the ashram, looking like a Clark Kent flying off to save somebody, or moving furtively, as if looking for a place to change his clothes – that same monastic would go into the wilderness and turn into a madman for a month or two (This simply means that he would become one with it.) – and then, he would always return.
My first session with Master William appears to have come about by chance … but in that place, one never knows. I had been living at the ashram for over a year by then … learning, changing, becoming. I was allowed to indulge in some free time now, and it was the early evening of my ‘Friday’, in the latter part of a burdening, hot summer.
There was a Sister Gata Alumbra, a newly designated aspirant who had transferred over from another ashram shortly after my arrival; and she and I had become good friends very quickly, for the obvious reason that she played a flute, and I played a guitar. It became a frequent activity for us, sharing music, songs, and poetry; there were so many places in the ashram to find quietude and draw an audience, or not.
Tonight, we had planned on bringing some bread and juice, along with our instruments, over to the deck on the lake, and there, we would celebrate the stars. No one had ever said that the lake and its attributes were the work of Master William, but everything about it had his signature.
There was the stream that fed it, which came up out of the ground at the fringe of the acreage. The lake drained into a marshy watershed that had once been only seasonal; it would hold water when it rained, but much of it would seep and evaporate in the course of the seasons. Now, it flowed continuously, slowly and silently. It was said that the water flowed around the perimeter of the property, with another stream that twisted through the middle, roughly forming a yin-yang.
Sister Gata met me by the Great Hall, and we proceeded readily down to the lake. The deck was about fifty yards away and the pier extended out about another fifty yards onto another deck or landing. The younger initiates loved sitting out there, learning to attract the fish empathically, feeding them and petting them.
And tonight, we could see one lone figure, appearing to be sitting in a lotus and meditating; it was twilight, and the person was fully covered with a traditional cowl.
There were cowls in every closet in every building in the ashram, to be used as needed; no one wore them all the time anymore, except the recondite monastics that distanced themselves from the community. Yes, there are those who isolate themselves from those who are already isolated.
Sister Gata and I quietly shared second thoughts about our plans. It was unusual to see someone meditating at this time and in what was considered community space; it just wasn’t done. But here, somebody appeared to be doing just that. We considered that it might be an initiate or a newcomer, unaware of the custom, but then, such people were all accounted for and probably learning discipline at that very moment.
We were going to move on to some other place, there was no shortage of these; but then, we saw the person move, and our curiosity drew us over. The lake was almost motionless, with little tiny ripples stirring here and there, cautious and flitting.
As we approached, the person turned to face us; it was Master William. “Ah,” he exclaimed, “Fellow musicians, welcome.”
Sister Gata smiled broadly, “Good evening, Master William! Are you really a musician?”
“If you play something, I can slap my knees and make vocal sounds to accompany you.”
She giggled, he smiled; but there was something uncertain about his smile. And he looked at me, and I could see that he knew that I was sensing his feelings; and just like that, we had connected empathically.
“Would you join me and allow me to vent?” He looked at each of us individually.
I set my things down without saying anything, and Sister Gata did likewise. We sat in silence for a moment, Master William in the middle, looking out over the lake; and we all reacted in unison when we saw the first star reflected in the water.
“I’d like to make a confession,” he said quietly.
Sister Gata and I looked at each other uncertainly; I looked at him, but he was still looking out over the lake. “Are you sure you want to talk to us, Master?” I asked. “I’m not sure we’re qualified …”
“You are here now. Your presence qualifies you to be whom you are.”
I was still trying to clarify that statement, when he said, “I hate people.” A moment passed. “I do business with them, you know. I have to live in that world, in order to monitor our proprietary interests and holdings and ensure their security – in order to continue serving as we do – it’s all for good, and I know that.”
He took a deep breath and sighed. “But I see what they do, and I hear what goes on . . .
“Sometimes, it seems as if mankind is bent on killing off everything and then depleting and destroying the Earth. When you leave this place and you behold that world out there, you cannot help but perceive the shadow of evil and the veil of illusion that seems to drape over everything … and everyone.”
There was another pause. “And so, I arrive at this sort of threshold, and I find myself immersed in a detestation of people.”
In the silence that followed, Sister Gata stood up and lit a couple of the cattail torches that were mounted on the posts. While she was doing that, Master William turned to me and said, “You don’t know what to say, do you?”
I cleared my throat, “Well, Master – I’m sure you realize that not all people are destructive … and those that are still have some measure of worth in them.”
Sister Gata knelt beside us. “Master William, it’s alright that you allow yourself to feel hate, as you allow yourself to feel remorseful about it. There is a reason for everything, and this will all pass. You are part of the plan, and this makes you beloved.”
He gave her a prolonged look of appreciation, and then, he grinned widely. “Well said, brother and sister! I will always remember what you have taught me here tonight.
“But I am a humble priest, seeking absolution for the sin of hate.” He stood up. “And I cannot be absolved until I am cleansed.”
Having said this, Master William abruptly stepped out of the cowl and stood before us completely naked. “Would you like to be part of my cleansing?” he said, just before he turned and dove into the lake.
I was dumbfounded for a moment. Then I looked at Sister Gata and saw that she was quite stunned, her mouth and eyes completely agape … and I couldn’t help but break into laughter. “Well” I said, “follow the master!” And I stood up and swiftly removed my sparse clothing and jumped in. As I was coming up for air, I experienced a very telling moment.
I knew Sister Gata would be coming … and I wanted to see her … just before she jumped in. But I turned away and waited until I heard the splash. She came up smiling, and when we made eye contact, we both laughed. The water felt wonderful!
Now we looked for Master William and did not see him. We swam out a ways and separated, we called out to him; but we could not find him, and he did not respond.
When we got back on the deck, we found Brother Gabriel waiting for us, with towels. He listened patiently and serenely as we toweled off and dressed and babbled excitedly about Master William.
“He’s out there … and he’s gone!” I was saying. “Should we be getting help or something!?”
Brother Gabriel smiled, “Oh, Master William has to go and be one with the wilderness now. He’ll be fine.”
Sister Gata was as puzzled as I. “But where did he go?”
“No one knows. He just swims out there and then sets course.”
“Is he that good a swimmer?” I said in wonder. The lake was just big enough that you couldn’t see the other side.
Brother Gabriel sat on one of the benches, “May I be included in your celebration?”
Sister Gata and I exchanged looks and smiled. “Of course, ” we both said simultaneously.
As we were settling ourselves down, Brother Gabriel said, “You know, he’s very fond of otters … and eagles … we think he changes out there somewhere … and then continues the journey.
Sister Gata was not yet familiar with the subject of ‘shape-shifting’ or transformation, so Brother Gabriel and I explained the concept, during which time, we also broke the bread and shared the juice. As it had been for me, the idea, for her, was exciting and disturbing at the same time; I knew that she would be thinking about it often from now on.
And that brought me to raise the question. “As I understand it, every time one shifts, one loses a segment of life. If Master William is doing this on a regular basis, is he just giving up his life?” I looked from one to the other; Sister Gata was still soaking in what she had just been told, and Brother Gabriel was looking straight into my eyes, with no expression. “I mean, are we really allowed to do that?”
“Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?” he said. “For Sister Gata, that journey of contemplation begins tonight. But you, Brother Coyote, have had some time to dwell on it now. You will soon have to realize the answer to the question, ‘Is it worth it to lose a part of one’s life … if one can live it as an otter … or an eagle … or an elephant?'”
If it hadn’t been for Brother Gabriel, Sister Gata and I probably wouldn’t have celebrated anything that night; he even had to request a couple of songs for us to play. In closing, we raised our cups.
“I celebrate change, the only constant.” “I celebrate the stars, the campfires of the sky.” “I celebrate the love of life, the perpetual stream.”
It was almost exactly nine weeks later that Sister Gata and I were meeting by the Great Hall again, instruments in hand. We were thinking this might be our last session by the lake for a while; we’d been having days of cool damp weather. For our celebration this night, we had thought about hope and restoration.
As we started down the path to the deck, we heard a sound behind us and turned to face Brother Gabriel. “You might need this tonight,” he said. He was holding a cowl.