Why sages sit on mountains mostly

AUGUST 27 04

Getting the wording of the ad right was a challenge. Minimum lineage rate in the Gazette was 10 words, phone number counting as one. I think in the end I settled on:

CONCERNED about the future? Consult I Ching oracle. Phone --------

I thought to myself, I'll run it for 10 weeks to start, see what happens. If I just get a bunch of weirdoes I'll put it down to experience. This must have been ten years or more ago. In the absence of any great Emperors to seek an audience with or convenient mountains supporting a hermit community I thought I'd better start somewhere on my chosen path. What does a sage do when a fish out of water in time and space?

In addition to making some use of the I Ching in the world, at the back of my mind was the thought that maybe I could meet a few new interesting people this way too. I'd grown quite isolated. And a few donations wouldn't go amiss, I hoped at least to cover the cost of the ads. I had hardly any money, couldn't afford to go out much, most of the time I spent studying the I Ching or sitting on a cushion thinking, just thinking, or riding my bike to the nearby woods on sunny days and sitting under trees or watching the water birds on the lake.

Surprisingly little has changed, about the only difference is that I'm no longer the 'hidden dragon' I was in those days. That was an interesting change, rather crept up on me in the end. One day you're just some lonely guy in a scruffy flat with big ideas, then with the passage of time you're miraculously transformed into a lonely published author in a scruffy flat whose unique vision of the I Ching reaches far and wide. I don't know what I imagined being a 'flying dragon' might actually consist of.

It took a while to psyche myself up to the prospect of having strangers visit me in my own home. Lots of things I'd have to watch. While it wasn't exactly a counselling session where I would have to have plain walls and no giveaway personal details, on the contrary an esoteric setting was important, but nonetheless, with some of my personal details I'd need to be a little careful.

First thing I noticed just scouting my eyes around my living room was a large Rizla packet with a roach ripped off the flap. That's definitely something I'd have to watch. I took a look at my bookshelves and removed all the books on sex magick, demonology, UFOs, and drugs. I dusted off some books on Chinese jades and Middle Eastern mythology that I'd put in the cupboard under the stairs ready to go to the charity shop and filled a few of the gaps. All the books on the I Ching and Buddhism could stay, the novels showed I had literary tastes they could stay, and the books of Chinese poetry I could leave lying on the floor. Much like now. I like to be able to read a Chinese poem or two without the effort of getting up. Did I say I have no furniture like sofas and armchairs? I've sat on the floor for 20 years.

On the mantelpiece I had a painting of the Buddha I'd done in acrylics a year or two before. Took two solid weeks. I was so absorbed in it at the time I didn't even notice the telltale signs my girlfriend had found another bloke. I was so happy when I finished painting it, she came to have a look at the work she'd seen me labouring on, that was when she broke the news. Samsara juxtaposed with Nirvana there and then in my living room.

But I have drifted off looking at my Buddha painting, still on the mantelpiece, still dominating the room, thinking of all it has been a silent witness to.

The incense-ash bowl was fine as it was, a good six months' worth of scented ash in there, aloes and sandal wood. A quick search through my cassette drawer for the tape of shakahachi flute, I'd put that on when I saw them walking to my door through the net curtains, to create atmosphere.

What to wear? Jeans, shirt? I remembered Derek Walters who did Chinese astrology at psychic fairs always wore a red fez. I cringed at the thought. After much agonising I decided on my ceremonial black martial arts jacket with golden dragons embroidered on it and ropeknot buttons and loops, and black trousers tied at the top with string. Simple black plimsolls. Then I thought, naah, jeans and shirt.

I could get the vacuum cleaner out when the ad appeared, I'd go to the Gazette tomorrow. I spent the rest of the night in candlelight wondering whether to offer them jasmine tea in my black lacquer Japanese teapot with a bamboo handle and characters inscribed on it, pour it into the little cups. Yes, I decided, that's a good idea. By 2am the night was still young, I laid out a sheet of emerald-green silk I had my yarrow stalks rolled up in. I'd use three Chinese coins to consult the I Ching, not the yarrow, that would take too long, they'd be yawning and fidgeting before I'd finished, but I could spread out the green silk to throw the coins onto. Could always use the yarrow if they knew enough to request it, or they had enough inner stillness about them to make it worthwhile.

I poured myself a whisky, rather pleased how it was all coming together. An idea almost manifest. It was only then that it occurred to me to ask the I Ching what it thought:

But if the little fox, after nearly completing the crossing,
Gets his tail in the water,
There is nothing that would further.

At the dawning of a new time, friends foregather in an atmosphere of mutual trust and the time of waiting is passed in conviviality … But if in his exuberance a man gets drunk, he forfeits the favourableness of the situation through his intemperance.

I screwed the cap back on the whisky bottle and went to bed.

At the Gazette in the morning I discovered I couldn't go in 'Therapy', I had to go in 'Personal Services', because I didn't have a certificate.

I got the first phone call before I saw the ad, early on the Saturday morning. Woken by the call, I momentarily forgot about the ad.

'I need help.'

A foreign female.

'I need you tell me future…'

'What do you want to know?' I said, wiping sleep from my eyes, sitting up in bed.

'My brother they call him to Embassy this morning, I want to know will they deport him?'

'There is an infallible way of knowing the future in this case…' I said, rubbing my bleary eyes, '… wait until this afternoon and see what happens.'

'But I want to know now!'

'How can it help you, you would have a few hours wondering whether I was right, you may as well wonder not knowing.'

It was good advice I felt, but when she put the phone down disappointed I wondered whether I could have consulted the I Ching for her there and then. I may well have consulted it myself had I been in her situation. But then I thought: 'Yes, but if it was bad news I could take it, know how to bear it. How could I possibly break bad news to a person I didn't know over the phone, with the risk I might be wrong? If it was to be bad news she would have it soon enough.'

She rang back:

'Is it bad news?'

'I don't know, I haven't consulted the I Ching. But if it is bad news then I may be able to help, call me then.'

'Are you afraid to tell me?'

'Just wait, wait and see, you'll have the answer by this afternoon. I can do nothing to help that wait, save to tell you that all things change, no situation is fixed, and whatever happens has a thread of sense running through it, and if we could but just glimpse it, many of our worries would be quietened down.'

She seemed calmer just before she put the phone down:

'So just wait and see you advise?'

'Wait and see.'

After she had gone, I sat there for some moments shaking my head in disbelief at the silliness of her question. Of course, her real problem was the panic she had worked herself up into, and her question was a mere mask for that. But almost certainly some other fortune-teller would have just given her a yes-or-no answer, presumably convinced they were right. But what then? What point offering potentially false hope or dread on the fall of coins when a completely accurate answer is just hours away in the subsequent unfolding of events? Not knowing for a short while is surely much better.

I went back to sleep.

By night there had been no more calls, I was sitting looking at the ad, I'd been out to get the paper by now, and I was thinking about the girl scared her brother might be deported. The telephone rang at 2 in the morning. The caller, a man, sounded drunk and dodgy.

'Is that I Ching?'

'I Ching, yes, you saw the ad?'

'I'd like to come for a session, where are you?'

I looked at the clock.

'What do you want to know?'

'Is she Chinese?' he said.

'Is who Chinese?'

'The girl.'

I was thinking of the girl from the morning, and yes, that was it, some little detail I'd been trying to put my finger on, she had sounded Chinese, but I didn't take it in at the time.

'The girl?' I said.

'The one who does…'

'Does what?'

'… massage.'

Suddenly it clicked, he'd been reading 'Personal Services' ads and he must have thought it was a Chinese massage parlour.

I laughed.

'You've got the wrong number. I Ching is an oracle, tells the future.'

'Can she tell my future? Put her on.'

'She says you're going to go and have a wank mate and then go to sleep.'

I put the phone down.

First day of fortune-telling for the great unwashed. I took down the whisky bottle and poured myself a drink. Ten weeks. I could always unplug the phone.