A student of present knowledge, the son of accomplished intellectuals, took pleasure in his academic successes. Despite appearing to his fellows to possess all necessary substance with which to thrive, he was, however, missing a fundamental quality. To him, it felt like an emptiness inside, as though his heart was without a song.
When no modern psychiatry or therapy could bring him peace, he decided to leave the comfort of academia in search of an archaic knowledge. He concluded that a saint might give wings to his soul with right-living and teaching. The young man became a traveling seeker and began his journey to brave the wilderness of mysterious ways.
For some years, the seeker visited numerous teachers to hear a multitude of useful doctrines. But even then, he had not been satisfied. He would have to journey further, traveling beyond his native land and across the seas to distant places.
Still certain he would find perfect teaching and true practice, the seeker, to his success, found sacred sites, home to spiritually rich cultures and wise mystics. He sat with monks on secluded mountaintops, swam with swamis in cleansing rivers, ascended with ascetics to their secret spaces, strolled along with sadhus on the open road, beat drums with the bokor, sang with shamans, prayed with priests, and relaxed with rastas. All the while, nearing the end of a decade-long quest, he finally saw that not one of them—no daoshi, roshi, sufi, lama, rabbi, druid, medium, or soothsayer—could sing the song of his soul.
With a heart of defeat, the seeker resolved to sit with one last teacher who was but a humble hodja. He listened to the hodja’s principles but felt no joy. Confronting his teacher in anger, the seeker said, “Hopeless piety and hollow aphorisms! Not one teaching has brought me joy! In no discipline can I find happiness!”
The seeker became ashamed following this bout of rage. He hung his head, and they sat quietly for some time. When the seeker lifted his eyes, the hodja was looking at him with a compassionate smile. The teacher began again with this story:
“One day, a man’s neighbor came to visit. When he arrived at the man’s home, the neighbor found him on his hands and knees in the garden, looking about the ground.
‘What are you doing there on the ground?’ the neighbor asked.
‘I lost my favorite ring, and I am trying to find it,’ said the man.
‘Your favorite ring? Let me help you.’
Soon a stranger passed by and noticed two men crawling in the dirt, ‘What are you two doing down there?’
‘We are searching for this man’s lost ring.’ the neighbor answered.
‘Is this the place you lost it?’ the stranger asked the man.
‘Not here.’ The man replied to the surprise of their others. ‘I lost the ring inside my house.’
The moment he heard this, the neighbor sat upright, ‘Then why are we looking for it outside?’
‘Oh, it is much too dark inside my house. We would never find it there,’ the man explained. ‘The light is much better out here.’”
Now eyes shimmering, the teacher said, “Thank you for sharing your heart with me today. You are not far from enlightenment.”
The seeker became attentive, “What does this story mean?”
“For you, it means in the casks of achievement and knowledge, there lies no happiness. Only fleeting pleasures. You will not find peace in these external things.”
“What must I do?”
“Stop striving for what is already inside you. Return home and remember where you lost your ring.”
On a train, the last leg of his journey home, by happenstance, the seeker found himself sitting beside his old neighbor. She was an elderly woman and, on this occasion, was returning from a visit to her grandchildren. As she spoke with such depth about her loved ones, it was the pure joy in her eyes that captured his heart. It was all the seeker needed to become enlightened. He was full of absolute peace. There, on that ordinary train car, after years of searching, he had finally found his teacher.
Not wanting to impose upon her so suddenly, the seeker held back his tears and thought he might later try to visit his neighbor to ask for her guidance. Still swept up in the feeling, he exited the train. To his amazement, he happened upon another great teacher standing before him. This time, it was a child captivated by a fluttering butterfly. The seeker soon found a teacher yet again—a vagrant man at the train station that shone a face of boundless contentment. He then began to find teachers everywhere—not only in people but in all precious things—including himself.
Despite all of his time journeying, the student had merely substituted one type of learning for another—academic for spiritual. He had learned that his problem lay not with his teachers, but with how he was looking at them.
"Stop trying to leave and you will arrive.
Stop seeking and you will see.
Stop running away and you will be found." —Lao Tzu
Note: the parable within this story told by the hodja of the man who lost his ring is an adaptation of a Turkish folktale of Nasreddin.