There was once an impoverished Chinese guy named Chu who sought to gain wealth and prestige from the royal court. To do this, he decided to find a phoenix, pluck a feather from it, and give it to the emperor.
For the next ten years, he traveled all over the kingdom looking for a phoenix. He ventured through mountains, deserts, and forests; sleeping rough and living off pine needles [meager meals]. He sometimes traveled with learned companions, sometimes alone.
He eventually met a merchant who said, “Come with me, I know where there’s a phoenix. You can have a feather for a hundred bucks [or, ya know, whatever].” They went to a grove outside the marketplace and, there it was, the phoenix. They snuck up on it, grabbed it and plucked out a feather.
Finally, after all these years, he had what he needed to find happiness.
He went to the Capitol and sought audience with the emperor. “Your majesty, I’ve brought you a gift.” He took the feather from a satchel and, with delicate reverence, presented it to the court. “This… this is a feather from the mysterious phoenix. It will bring good luck to his highness and the kingdom.”
Grateful, overjoyed, really, the emperor gave Chu a title, wealth, an estate, a harem, servants and knights. For 20 years, Chu lived a luxurious life with all possible pleasures at his disposal. The emperor put the feather on a necklace and worse it 24/7. He also accumulated a vast fortune during that time and had victory after victory in his mission to unify China.
Then, the tides turned and the emperor started losing battles. Mile by mile, the land he acquired was taken by his adversaries. Desperate, the emperor called upon a wise hermit, seeking counsel or a magical spell.
The filthy hermit shambled into the court, oblivious to the intimidating display of power and wealth around him. The emperor said, “Twenty years ago, Official Chu gave me this phoenix feather. It brought me unassailable health and good luck. But now, my luck and health are both waning. What’s the cause of this? Has the feather lost its power? Have I been cursed by my enemies? Please, help me.”
The hermit coughed and said, “Show me the feather.” The emperor gave the feather to and attendant who handed it to the vagrant sage. He eyed it over, sniffed it, and even placed it on his tongue. Then, dismissively, gave it back to the attendant. “This isn’t a phoenix feather,” he said to the court.
“This isn’t a phoenix feather.”
“Well, what is it then?”
“Pheasant. This feather is from a pheasant.”
“This can’t be,” the emperor responded. “Fetch me a pheasant!” The attendants returned a few minutes later with a well-fed pheasant. The emperor plucked a feather from it and compared it to the one he’d been wearing for two decades: they were almost identical.
The emperor was enraged, he felt that Chu had deceived him. He had Chu arrested and publicly stripped him of his wealth, title, land, knights, servants, women, and clothes. He was spit on and beaten in the center of the Capitol. Chu was thrown into a dungeon. There, he waited to be executed via drowning in pheasant shit.
After a few weeks, enough shit was collected and mixed with water to submerge Chu’s face. Standing in the center of the Capitol, with the shit bucket patiently waiting before him, Chu made one final plea for his life.
“Please, your highness, I didn’t deceive you! I set out on my journey having never seen a phoenix or a pheasant! I only knew about a phoenix’s characteristics according to what others told me! I was swindled by a crafty merchant. I didn’t know! I didn’t know!” He started to weep.
Unimpressed and unforgiving, the emperor gave the order to drown him. “You’re making a mistake,” a voice cut through the crowd. All grew silent and the assembly parted to reveal the disheveled mendicant.
“Sage! Approach!” the emperor commanded. He ambled toward Chu and the shit bucket.
“You’re making a mistake,” he repeated.
“This man did not try to deceive you. He’s just a greedy, run-of-the-mill idiot. While idiocy and gullibility might be unbecoming, they aren’t illegal.”
“I decide what is legal and what isn’t!” the emperor shouted.
“Well, if you make greed and idiocy illegal then you’ll have to execute over half of the population,” he retorted.
“Can you prove to me that this man is a mere simpleton and not conniving?”
“Chu,” the vagabond said, “How many steps are there between Xiao and Feng [Two towns]?”
“150,000 steps,” Chu replied.
“Do you know this for a fact?”
“Have you counted them yourself?”
“Then how do you know?”
“Well, someone told me.”
“If a person with a short stride and another with a long stride start at the same spot and both make the trip from Xiao to Feng and the person with the long stride counts 150,000 steps and the person with the short stride counts 300,000 steps, are their numbers different because Feng is farther away for one than the other?”
“Then one of them must be wrong, yes? Who’s right, then? The person with the long stride, or the person with the short one?” Chu stood fumbling for an answer. “You see? This man is an idiot.” A chuckle swept through the crowd.
“Silence!” the emperor bellowed. He sat there pondering for what, to Chu, seemed like an eternity. “Very well,” he acquiesced, “I hereby grant Former-Official Chu a pardon. But, in lieu of execution, he is to be exiled from my kingdom for the rest of his life and his name will be erased from all imperial records. Sage, I request your company in my courtroom this afternoon. Dismissed!”
A few hours later, the wandering hermit shambled into the royal court. “Sage, I’m making a royal request of you. If you grant it, I will be forever in your debt. Tell me, can you procure a phoenix feather?”
“I can,” the hermit confidently replied. A whisper ran through the courtroom. The emperor held up his hand, issuing silence.
“This is excellent news. When can you bring me one?”
“I don’t need to bring you one, it’s right over there,” he pointed toward the pheasant feather haphazardly discarded on a table.
“But… you told me that that’s a pheasant feather?!”
“So it is,” the sage replied. Then he turned and left.
There’s a lot to gleam from this fable, a lot to unpack.
It shows how all materially derived satisfaction is impermanent and how desiring material satisfaction causes suffering. Chu was dissatisfied with his poverty and lowly status, so he endured even more suffering and hardship than he’d ever have known in his humble life in order to acquire riches and a title.
His success was founded on a delusion: that the pheasant feather was a phoenix feather. And all that we gain from a delusion is impermanent, so he eventually lost everything he thought he owned.
Not only that, but his exile puts him in a worse position than the impoverished one he started from 30 years ago.
It shows how seeking Truth without finely-tuned discernment and direct experience causes problems. All the ancient scriptures and testimonies from teachers just serve to inspire us—they aren’t Absolute, and they won’t be the insights that we stumble on ourselves. If your insights perfectly mirror someone else’s, then your insights are probably artificial and contrived by your subconscious conditioning.
You have to do this yourself, you can’t rely on anyone else to do it for you. And the insights you stumble on, well, you can’t teach those to others either—you can only hope to use them to inspire others.
If you think you can teach another, if you think that your truths are their truths, then you become the swindling merchant in this story who represents how some gurus can exploit spiritual seekers’ naivete for their own personal gains.
It shows how groundless beliefs are sometimes propped up by coincidence. After attaining the “phoenix feather,” the emperor won battle after battle and attributed it to his useless charm. When the tables turned and he started to lose, first he blamed the charm. Then he blamed Chu and chose to avoid reflecting on the fact that his victories and failures had nothing to do with anything supernatural.
The mendicant showed how perception and secondhand knowledge come to influence our judgments when he asked Chu about the distance between Xiao and Feng. The distance between them isn’t subjective and arbitrary, but the measurements are. This applies to all the labels, categories and rationalizations we employ in everyday life as well.
Lastly, and maybe the most important point, is that it shows what enlightenment is: being enlightened to what ignorance and delusion are.
Enlightenment is enlightenment to avijja, to ignorance and the part it plays in Dependent Origination. It’s a mistake, and a later addition, to think that enlightenment means having some secret knowledge into an Absolute or transcendent realm that’s separate from day-to-day life.
Suchness, or the sublime, isn’t a thing, it has no essence of its own—nothing does. That was the original Truth of Buddhism but it was eventually overshadowed when essentialism crept in when Buddhism entered China.
Virtually every incarnation of post-Indian Buddhism is a form of Advaita Vedanta with a different cosmology and vocabulary. The Chinese refused to give up their belief in essence and function despite resistance from adept Buddhist reformers. Brahman Buddhism eventually came to dominate all of East Asia and also all East Asian lineages in the Western world as well.
Indian Mahayana has very little resemblance to the schools it inspired in China, Vietnam, Korea, and Tibet all of which, to some degree or another, use Buddhist terms like Mind, Consciousness, Buddha-Nature, Suchness, Dharmakaya, Dhamadhatu etc. as stand-ins for God.
This is perfectly fine, but it wasn’t the intent behind the Buddhadhamma. I love Indian Yogacara because it was pretty much the last Indian Mahayana school, the last branch of Buddhism that stuck with the initial intent of selflessness, naturelessness, and essencelessness .
Awakening isn’t snapping out of a dream, it’s becoming aware of the full scope of the dream and seeing it for what it is. Thereby, the wise are no longer tangled up by it or fooled into mistaking it for something more.
This is an aspect of the Perfect Nature spoken of by Vasubandhu and the Absolute spoken of by Nagarjuna. But perfect nature and absolute are just words, they don’t refer to some isolated, changeless, thing-unto-itself.
Being non-conceptually, flawlessly aware of “Mind-only” or “Projection-only” is the only thing that isn’t “Mind-only.” It overturns the Mind-only complex we all have so that day-to-day life is experienced as Suchness, which isn’t an essence, nature, or characteristic, but a mode or manner of knowing that itself is without names, labels, and discriminations but also includes them.
It’s to be unconditioned, free of the clinging skandhas, the eight consciousnesses (discriminations) and the 12 links of dependent origination. Free by seeing that they are, and have always been, only mind and that, really, there is no independent, static, enduring or graspable thing called mind at all.