Brother Compassion stood in the courtyard of the most central and holy of the temple buildings and fretted with his robes. He pulled at a loose thread on one of his sleeves, managing only to unravel it further. He tucked it out of sight and tried to ignore it. He tried to focus his mind on the eternal spirit of the founder but it was like whispering into a storm. He paced back and forth in front of the door, trying not to think about the test and what would happen if he failed.
The temple was built upon a mountain. In its very centre was a modest, windowless stone building about which the other buildings clustered like excited old women around a newborn baby. This was the most sacred part of the temple: the House of Truth, where only the Masters were allowed to enter. It was said to be the location where God first talked to the Founder. Every morning the sun poured down the mountain like honey, coating the tall pines, the tip of the drum tower, then the top floor of the novice dormitory, before finally reaching the roof of the House, at which point a voice would boom from it, echoing through the valleys: the ringing, many-tonal voice of the Founder (he who was inhabited by God, and became one with him). When the voice spoke, the monks stopped what they were doing, looked up and listened. It began: “Be kind. Be forgiving. Be honest…”.
For ten years Brother Compassion had been getting closer to the House by travelling further from it. He had started out sweeping in the outer temple buildings as a novice, then sitting in the school learning the lessons of the founder as a disciple, then helping in the village temples around the mountain: distributing food, fixing roofs, babysitting for sick parents, receiving the dead. Sometimes when he climbed the steps back up to the temple after a day of helping a village doctor it felt like ascending to a different world, a perfect pearl floating precariously above a sea of dust. Now, he was to be considered for Masterhood. It was unclear what the test would be, or even if there was a test at all. After entering, it was days before a monk re-emerged as a Master-in-training, with new robes, a new name and a different look in their eyes. No longer part of the dust. Some didn’t emerge. Failures? Banished? Sent to another temple, or forced to wander the mountains as itinerant preachers? Brother Caution said they trained you to move things with your mind when you became a master. Brother Curiosity said you learned twelve secret songs, each of which would control listeners to do your bidding. Sister Consistency said they taught you to make a special drink that allowed you to live forever, but if there was such a drink they would have given it to the people in the villages, so that must be wrong – Brother Compassion’s brain spun full of branching, undisciplined tendrils of thought. Would he fail initiation if his mind was too unordered?
The door to the inner temple opened and a white-haired head poked out.
“Hello?” it said.
Brother Compassion bowed back. He had never seen this master before. The old man wore a faint smile that shifted subtly but never left his face, a butterfly wing trembling in the breeze.
“Would you like to come in?” said the man.
Inside was a small square room with two chairs and a mass of curved brass pipes. The pipes forked and rejoined and spiralled back on themselves before disappearing through a hole in the wall – as though someone had been given the parts to twenty horns and tried to reassemble them into a single instrument. The old man was pouring hot water into a mug from a steaming cotton-wrapped pot. “Sit down.” He pushed the tea into Brother Compassion’s trembling hands.
Brother Compassion sat across from the man. They blew at their bitter tea in silence. The man’s smile flickered at him. When Brother Compassion’s mug was empty, the old man poured him another. Soon, Brother Compassion could stand the silence no longer. Surely curiosity was a virtue, there was a Brother Curiosity in his dormitory.
“Is there to be a test?” he asked.
“Yes, I suppose there is.” said the old monk. The silence settled back over them like petals.
“Should I recite from the lessons?” Brother Compassion asked finally.
“No. If you have made it this far, it is because the masters judge you ready to meet me.”
Brother Compassion bowed his head “I am honoured by their confidence.”
Brother Compassion was unsure what he was meant to be doing but was certain he was doing it badly. He searched for something more to say. “What are those tubes for?” he asked.
“Each morning, I speak into this tube, and my voice is made loud and ringing and many-toned. It sings out over the valley and all the monks believe they are hearing the word of God.”
Brother Compassion moved between many emotions over the following ten minutes. Confusion, terror, anger, despair. The old man said nothing until the young man stopped crying.
“Then the founder’s voice is not real? Why…why would you? Honesty is third amongst the virtues–” said Brother Compassion.
“A moment ago you were crying that the virtues were lost, useless, that I had crushed them to dust before you – yet still you judge me by them. So perhaps they are not lost quite yet. But don’t worry, you are free to leave. If you do not wish this to continue, you may go and tell the other disciples the truth, tell the people, tell the world –”
“I will. I won’t allow this lie to continue any longer. It undermines everything we teach.” said Brother Compassion, wiping tears and snot from his face with the sleeve of his robes.
The old man smiled encouragingly. “Very well, then go, and bring it to an end.”
The young monk hesitated. “So easily?”
“Yes, so easily. If you wish.”
Brother Compassion hesitated again.
The old man said “Of course, if you have any questions for me, you are welcome to ask those first…”
“Was the voice ever real?”
“When the founder was alive.”
“Then the founder was real?”
“Of course, yes. He founded our temple.”
“And he lived in a hut in these mountains, and meditated for ten years, ten months, ten weeks and ten days, and God came down and inhabited his body and told him the lessons and the songs?”
“He lived in a small house not far from here, and meditated for three years, on and off. I suppose you could say that God inhabited him, in a way. He wrote down the lessons and the songs during that period, the ones you are familiar with.”
Brother Compassion took a deep and careful breath. “So his fusion with God, that was real?”
“It is real, in a way, perhaps not in the way you imagine.”
“Did God speak to the Founder?”
“In a way.”
“In what way!? You’re not answering my questions at all.”
“I guess you could say God emerged from the mind of the founder.”
Brother Compassion’s head fell into his hands. His mind reeled at the blasphemy. “This is a test, you are testing my faith by telling me lies.”
The old monk shook his head. “This is not that sort of test.”
“Then why teach us these half-truths, for centuries?”
“Ah, the big question. There are many parts to the answer. One part is that the truth is more complicated and harder to explain. Songs and stories are memorable, they resist corruption over long distances. The songs you learn are sung a thousand leagues away across the sea with the same words, teaching the same things. He put himself in the stories as an example to be followed, because he knew that this would be easier for the people of the villages to understand.”
“So it’s all just fiction?”
The old man was silent again while he thought. “Perhaps it is like when someone comes to the temple with an illness, an illness we do not recognise. They say a demon is inhabiting them. They are shivering, shouting, flailing – and the monk gives them a pill of ash and bitter herbs – a harmless but probably useless pill. Why do they do that?”
“To comfort them, to give them hope?”
“And have you seen it before, that after taking the pill, the symptoms subside? Have you seen people fully cured?”
“Yes, I’ve seen this.”
“Then was the pill real? Or just a fiction?” the old monk’s smile twinkled.
“So you’re saying that it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not?”
“I’m saying that it’s beneficial to believe it to be true, wherever or not it is true”
Tears welled up in the young monk’s eyes, and for a second the calm smile on the old monk’s face broke, and he looked like he was about to get up and comfort the young disciple, but instead he asked: “Had you never wondered if some of the stories might not be entirely literal before now?”
“I had, but the masters seemed convinced, and I trust their judgement. The voice was always there, every morning, as proof. And the miraculous healing of Brother Awareness last winter. And I had felt the Founder’s presence, many times, in prayer.”
“As have I.”
“I thought since the least likely story seemed true, that the Founder still spoke to us, that the rest must be true.”
Brother Compassion asked many more questions, and the old monk answered with riddles and metaphors.
“Do the Masters know?” asked Brother Compassion.
“Then they don’t believe? They were all lying?”
“All were given the same choice as you. This is the first of the unwritten rules that were passed down to me, master to master from the first disciple of the founder, who received them whispered in her ear from the founder himself on his deathbed – each must be given a true choice to bring the voice to an end. And yet, they believe. As do I. Look at the fields below the temple, full of ripe corn that feeds the people of the villages. The Founder did this. He does live on”
“The monks did this, I worked in those fields all spring.”
“Then look at the temples around you, and the roads that lead from the mountain, and the shrines on the road, and the temples in the cities that they lead to. The Founder did this.”
“Those were built by the followers of the Founder, he didn’t do it himself. He’s dead, you said so yourself.” It was hard for him to say out loud.
“Then look to the peace that covers the land, the money that the temple receives and the food it gives to the poor, see the kindness of the villagers who took in a young orphan and raised him until he was old enough to join the temple –”
Brother Compassion interrupted him. “People are good, that was not God’s doing.”
“People are neither good nor bad, they are like water, they take on the shape that their environment gives them. Is water good? Is a flood good? Is a mountain spring good?”
“Maybe the Founder’s ideas made some of these things happen, but that doesn’t make him a God, nor does it show the existence of God. Anyway, you just told me that the Founder invented God as a way to justify his teachings.”
“Not invented. Discovered, perhaps? Facilitated? Catalysed?” The old monk thought for a while. “When you talk, your words are produced by your mind, and movements in your muscles cause your tongue to wag and words to be expelled from your mouth, and because of this I say ‘Ah! He is alive, he thinks!’ – and yet if I were to cut open your head, and take out the brain and muscles inside, and search through them, would I find intelligence there? Would I find words, or thoughts?”
“God is the same. If you look at one aspect, one monk, one building, one song, you do not find god – but if you step back and unfocus your eyes, and see the whole picture, see all the buildings and the roads and the writings and the people and the infinitely complicated links between them, something like intelligence begins to appear. If you step back far enough, a figure emerges, the figure of the Founder-as-God, undying, eternal, straddling the world, victorious.”
Brother Compassion thought about this for a while, and the tears returned. “I can’t, I can’t accept it. I understand what you say but I can’t believe it, not like I used to believe.”
“You will believe again, in time.”
“Why couldn’t you hide this from me? I was content!”
“That is our burden, we carry it for the people.”
“Just tell nobody, let the secret become lost.”
“Someone needs to know, someone needs to guide the temple with clear eyes, someone needs to be the voice.”
“Then just tell the whole truth like you told it to me, perhaps you needed the lie, once, but no longer.”
“Didn’t you wish I had not told you? If the people were as wise as you, surely they would not want to be told, either?”
Brother Compassion shook his head. “Whatever you say, people have died for this lie. People were hung for saying that the Founder was a God. Their blood is on our hands.”
“Yes, it is. Their sacrifice was great, and thanks to them many more were saved. They broke the cycle of hate and revenge and started one of love and kindness – one that we must protect. Do you know how hard it is to get people to do something today that will only benefit society in the future? They won’t even do it to benefit themselves next month. The promise and threat of eternal life for all and the Founder’s voice as proof: this is the only way that our society works at all. Do you not realise what we have achieved? How incredible it is? The scale of it!?” For a second the calm on the old monk’s face slipped, and Brother Compassion glimpsed the depth of passion behind.
The young monk looked away and said, quietly “And what would happen to the people of the villages if I told the truth? Would they not continue to live as they do now? Loving, compassionate. I am sure they would.”
“I cannot know for sure, but I will tell you what I believe. For a generation, little would change, but the next generation? They would just find something else to believe in. Men are like animals, they are born caring only for themselves and their kin. No society can exist without some idea to hold them together beyond that. Bigger ideas sustain bigger societies. Perhaps the next idea they find will be good, perhaps evil, but it certainly will not be one that was designed for the benefit of all by a loving and compassionate Founder. That is what I believe!”
“So it’s our lie or another lie?”
“Our bitter pill, or dust and decay.”
The two men sank back into silence. This time it was the old monk who spoke first. “Look outside, it is almost time. The sun will rise soon. Maybe you should be the one to be the voice of the Founder today. Or maybe you will tell a different truth through the tube, one about a room where an old man pretends to be a God who does not exist.”
Brother Compassion didn’t reply, he was staring at the floor deep in thought. He did not see the concerned look flicker across the older monk’s face or the tension in his eyes when he asked: “Have you considered the name you will choose if you stay?”
“I was going to name myself Master Sincerity.” said the young monk.
“A fine name.”
“…may I ask what your name is, master?”
“It is Sacrifice.”
Outside, the temple drums began to sound. The monks stopped what they were doing to watch sunshine pour over the temple. They waited with hungry eyes. The drums rose in a crescendo then stopped all at once. There was a moment of expectant silence. And the young monk put his mouth to the tube, and said –
“That was close.” said Grand-Master Sacrifice as he took the vial of poison from where it was hidden in his sleeve. He had come near to dripping it into the young man’s tea this time. He tried to relax his body, his robes were heavy with cold sweat. Brother Compassion hadn’t been ready to make the right choice until the last second. Grand-Master Obligation and Grand-Master Melioration emerged from behind the hidden wall-panel where they had been watching the test.
“He is promising, he has the logical mind necessary for elevation to grand-master.” said one.
“He is too emotional, too young, you guided his questions too much, he would not have survived the test had it been me in your place today.” said the other.
“Perhaps, but he recovered quickly, he only needed half a day to see the wisdom of the Founder’s plan.”
“He will harden with age, as we did.”
The Grand-Masters nodded with solemn looks on their faces.
“I worry for the next generation.”
“Who will replace us?”
“Fewer and fewer of the monks survive the first test. They don’t see that the greater truth is more important than the small surface fictions.”
“What must we do?”
“As we always have done. The secret must be protected, for the good of all.”
“Yes. At any cost.”