The Last Unenlightened Man

Hear a reading of this story.

As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,

Until then, may I too remain,
To dispel the miseries of the world.

“I know what you’re trying to do,” the man in the shabby charcoal suit responded bitterly when Joe offered a banal observation about the half-and-half being almost out. “Think you’re pretty cute, don’t you? Blue scrubs. Doctor, medicine, nurse. Adorable. You think I don’t get it? I may be mired in error, but I’m not fucking stupid. You’re trying to enlighten me. All of you. You precious snowflakes. You buddhas, crystal-clear and free of all karmic obscurations, you masters of the secret knowledge of eternal bliss. You’re trying to drag me into Nirvana kicking and screaming and I am telling you right now … I want it to stop.”

They were in a coffee shop, standing side-by-side at the milk and sugar station, which was what had precipitated Joe’s mention of the half-and-half. The man completed his bizarre monologue by seizing a fistful of raw sugar packets, tearing them open all at once, and dumping their contents into his white cup. He did not look again at Joe.

Joe, who did indeed work as a trauma nurse at a nearby emergency room, had dealt with enough individuals undergoing mental health crises to find the man’s outburst surprising, but not particularly threatening or alarming. Garden variety paranoia. Hallucinations, maybe. There were no knives involved, and the only potential weapons within reach were wooden coffee stirrers. Joe’s immediate urge to take his coffee and walk away quickly was unsurprising. What was surprising, though, was that the urge was immediately overwhelmed by another urge, the urge to say:

“Wait, why wouldn’t you want to be enlightened?”

It was a question that just popped out of his mouth, a question wholly uninformed by any understanding of any of the various religions or philosophies in which enlightenment played a part. The pigeonhole in Joe’s brain that contained the concept “enlightenment” contained just two other items: that dusty old if you see the Buddha in the road, kill him thing (what was that, a koan? A riddle? An actual instruction? Whatever it was, Joe rarely examined it because he found it so uncomfortably inscrutable) and New Yorker cartoons. Specifically, the variety of New Yorker cartoons where ancient bearded yogis in saffron robes sat on top of snowy mountains and tormented exhausted supplicants with witty, urbane, New Yorker-ish quips. Thus, for Joe, enlightenment was either an enervating enigma or an unbearably twee cartoon, exactly like heaven or hell, like good or evil.

Joe’s question, however, merely annoyed the man further. Giving Joe a look like he was the crazy one, the man in the charcoal suit snarled and threw down his wooden stirrer. It missed the round garbage hole and made a faint wet-sounding slap on the streaked granite. He snapped a lid on his coffee and walked away quickly.

Joe finished stirring the last of the half-and-half into his coffee. The sound of “Lady of Spain” being played on an accordion drifted in from the street outside. The man, who had slammed his cup down on a small round table, sat glaring out the window at passersby, presumably as upset with them as he was at Joe.

Joe had already conditioned his mind to think no more of the encounter. He did need to get back to work. His hand was on the bar to push the door open. The notes of “Lady of Spain” grew louder. But then, he stopped. It was just too ridiculous. He had come in to get a cup of coffee to calm himself down. Just a half-hour before he’d watched a college kid die on a crash cart after being slammed off his bike by a driver who looked left before making a right turn. Joe had watched the kid just die, expire, stop living. All things that were and would be for that young person came to an end, in that time and place, a half-hour ago, on a morning where someone was playing “Lady of Spain” and coffee was being sold and some crazy man was accusing people of trying to enlighten him. And yet that morning, surely the young man had brushed his teeth, and thought about homework, and packed his book bag, and worried about grades.

Joe saw people die all the time. Usually it did not bother him. And actually, today, it wasn’t the kid’s death that bothered him, not really. What bothered him was that he couldn’t say why it didn’t bother him. If the violent, stupid, meaningless cutting short of a promising young life wasn’t what was bothering him, what could it possibly be? That he’d forgotten to bring his coffee card for a punch? Could that be it? He patted his pocket. It was still empty.

The fact was that Joe, at that particular moment, felt as far away from enlightenment–whatever the crazy man in the shabby suit meant by the word–as anyone could possibly feel. So instead of leaving, he walked over to the man’s table, and stood for a long time in silence. The man did not look up.

“What makes you think I’m trying to enlighten you?” Joe asked. “I mean, what makes you think I could enlighten anybody?”

“Leave me alone.” There was a desperate whine in the man’s voice. “Why can’t you leave me alone?”

“I’m sorry,” Joe said, “but you started this. You accused me of something that you apparently feel is pretty horrible and I demand that you explain yourself. Because as far as I know, enlightenment isn’t horrible. It’s supposed to be pure bliss, right? Not that I would know if it’s blissful or not, because I’m not enlightened.”

“Yes you are,” the man said wearily, in the tone of someone who knows a practical joke is being played on him and all the jokers have pushed the joke to a tedious extreme. He looked around the coffee shop. “Everyone is. Everyone except me. I’m the last one. The last man left in maya, the last man subject to the dukka of rebirth. All sentient beings have achieved supreme realizations, and are generating bodhicitta on my behalf, praying that I finally achieve buddahood.”

“All right, so what’s wrong with that, exactly?” Joe said. “What can you possibly have against all creatures existing in a state of bliss?”

“Because when there’s no one left to become enlightened, what happens?” The man leaned forward. “After that, I see only two options. After the last unenlightened man is enlightened, after all sentient beings have come to clearly perceive the essence of reality as it exists beyond the tarnished veil of karma and consequence, the world of illusion ceases to exist. Just stands to reason.”

“Which means bliss,” Joe pressed, as if somehow gaining that point was very important.

“All right, sure. Bliss for all eternity,” the man allowed with expansive sarcasm, before adding, “which is to say death. Stagnation. Extinction. Oblivion.” He paused to take a slow serious sip of his coffee. “Or then there’s option two. Maybe not death. Maybe rebirth. Maybe, somehow, everything restarts. The universe reboots. We all go back to level one. All the beings in the world who were enlightened, their enlightenment burns away in some kind of big bang metaphysical conflagration. The wheel turns again. And then, each and every sentient being has to battle their way through the muck of samsara all over again. Suffer through all those millions of rebirths, through all those lives where you’re born only to get tortured and raped and humiliated and your head bashed in by marauding soldiers. Do you know how much agonizing pain and suffering a sentient being has to survive in order to finally achieve nirvana?” He paused to draw a deep quavering breath. “Oh well, of course you know. Sure you know.”

“I don’t know,” Joe said softly, but the man didn’t seem to hear him.

“It’s physics! You don’t think that there’s any ending to any of this, do you? You can’t imagine that after you achieve enlightenment, that’s it? It can’t be. It can’t possibly be. No matter what, we’ll all end up on the wheel again. So better the wheel I know.”

He leaned forward, and suddenly, his eyes were pleading.

“And isn’t it better this way? That there is one man left unenlightened, so that all the buddhas of creation have something to do? Isn’t it better that I continue to suffer through craving and aversion and unfavorable rebirth than trillions of sentient beings be returned to the wheel of samsara? Why can’t you see it? Why won’t you?”

Joe could not answer. The pleading look on the man’s face hardened back into bitterness. He sank back into his chair, twisting his coffee cup a precise half-turn.

“That’s why I continue to create as much bad karma as I possibly can. You, of all people, should know how much bad karma is generated by insulting the buddhas and bodhisattvas who are working with such loving diligence on one’s behalf. You stinking pile of horse-manure, you verminous mass of pig-vomit, you reborn son of a diseased whore.” The man smiled to himself, as if pleased. “Remember those, they’ll come in handy later. Anyway, that’s 10,000 lifetimes right there. I will never clear my obscurations. Never in a million lifetimes, a hundred million lifetimes! Hell-realm beings have tried to rend my stubbornness out of me. Beautiful angelic devas have tried to love it out of me. But I won’t budge. I won’t budge!”

The last words were delivered at full volume, and punctuated with a violent gesture of resistance. Around them, the coffee shop fell quiet. Everyone was looking at them. Their eyes, Joe noted, did seem to be full of tender compassion. He’d never noticed that before.

“Can someone be enlightened without knowing it?” Joe asked. The man snorted.

“Oh please, enough,” he said. “You’re trying my patience.”

“No, honestly,” Joe said. “I don’t think I am. What makes you so sure that everyone is enlightened?”

The man sighed wearily, leaned back in his chair. “It’s a matter of odds. If we all have an infinite existence-stream ahead of us, that means we must all have an infinite existence-stream behind us. QED. And in that amount of time, anyone who wanted to be enlightened would become enlightened. Not could … not should would. There is mathematically zero chance that someone who wants to be enlightened has not already become so. The only person who could fail to become enlightened is someone who has actively attempted to avoid that condition. Since I don’t want to be–and indeed, I have very well-thought-out and considered reasons for not wanting to be–I am sure I am not.”

“All right, but how can you be sure you’re the only one who’s come to that conclusion?” Joe pointed out. “Maybe there are other people who don’t want to be enlightened.”

“Who wouldn’t want to be enlightened?” The man slammed down his cup and glared at Joe. “Eternal calm and peace and bliss! Buddhahood is a sweet gig. But it can’t be for everyone. If it is for everyone, then it can’t be for anyone.”

“And you’re the only one who can possibly have figured this out?”

“I am much smarter than most people,” the man sniffed. “Besides, you didn’t figure it out, did you? And you’re the only one I’m ever having this conversation with.”

Indeed, it did seem as if they were going in circles, and Joe did have the feeling they’d gone in circles like this before. But he was unwilling to let it go.

“But what if people somehow refuse enlightenment just because they don’t understand it? I mean, because they don’t even understand that it’s an option, that it’s something they could possibly have?” Joe looked out the window to the busker on the sidewalk who was playing the accordion. He wasn’t a very good accordion player, but he was always outside the coffee shop, and always playing “Lady of Spain” over again and again. It seemed the only song he knew. It amused the tourists. “Take that fellow, for instance–”

“Enlightened.” The man in the charcoal suit said, without even looking up. He seemed to be growing bored, and this made Joe feel desperate.

“Hold on!” Joe said. “Give me a chance, why don’t you? My point is, he stands out there every day in the rain and the cold playing that accordion. Always the same song. He doesn’t make much money. He suffers. Why would he keep doing that if he was actually enlightened? Why would anyone keep doing anything? Why would kids on bikes keep getting hit by cars? Why would people keep dying?”

“Dying and enlightenment have nothing to do with each other,” the man said frostily.

Joe closed his mouth. He considered the accordion player, trying to figure out some other argument he could present using the accordion player as an example. Joe felt a special affinity for the accordion player. He himself had studied the accordion in his youth, and in fact, “Lady of Spain” was one of the only songs he knew how to play. He had even had made up a special flourish to go at the end of it that made it extra jaunty. The accordion player was one of the reasons Joe liked to come to this coffee shop. That, and the punch card. Joe patted his pocket. Still empty.

Then, something occurred to Joe in a flash. He leaned forward.

“But wait! If you’re refusing enlightenment–which is something I think you really want, despite what you say–in order to help others, then you’re certainly more enlightened than anyone! In fact, you’re probably the only truly enlightened one–“

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” the man muttered. “You’ve tried that before. The double-fake-out, ‘if you think you’re not enlightened you must be the really enlightened one’ bullshit. Don’t embarrass yourself. You buddhas are supposed to be smarter than that.”

Joe clenched his teeth. “Listen, you’re really starting to piss me off. Could I feel this pissed off at you if I were enlightened? How about that?”

The man shrugged again. It was clear that he really was getting bored now. “You tell me,” he said. “You’re the wish-giving tree and the cow of plenty for the world.”

“All I’m asking you to consider,” Joe said, drawing a deep breath and attempting to access whatever inner peace this man seemed to think he possessed, “is that maybe you’re not the last unenlightened man. Maybe there are two of us. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there are. And you know what?” Joe set his chin resolutely. “I’m going to stay behind with you. Because it’s not fair that you should be the only one.”

The words had a profound effect on the man. The bitterness and boredom drained from his face, replaced with sudden, unfeigned gratitude. His eyes glistened with slight moisture; he reached up and dabbed away a tear.

“That’s … that’s so kind,” he said softly. “So … altruistic.” He sniffed, and then his voice hardened once more. “Almost buddha-like, one might even say.”

“Goddamn it, enough!” Joe roared, and this time it was him the coffee shop eyes turned to. But Joe didn’t care. “Stop trying to make me enlightened! I am not an enlightened being! I am not a buddha, free of obscurations and the curse of rebirth! I am not! I am not, and I won’t be!”

“You’re not, eh?”

“I’m not!”

“Prove it.”

This pulled Joe up short. But instead of answering, he shot back:

“Prove to me you’re not.”

The man peered at Joe. He nodded.

“All right,” he said softly. “I will. There was once a buddha in a coffee shop. He spoke with a man who said he was unenlightened.”

Joe waited expectantly. The man took a long drink from his cup, draining it. Then he set it down. He released a long, satisfied sigh, then punctuated his next words with a tap of his cup:

“The end.”

Joe surged to his feet, feeling his pocket, which was still empty. He was furious. “What’s the proof in that?” But only after the man had shrugged, and risen, and walked to the door did the question that Joe should have asked occur to him. But by that time, the man in charcoal suit had walked out the door.  

Joe watched him step into the road.

The accordion player finished the last notes of “Lady of Spain” with a flourish. Then Joe realized that it was his flourish, the jaunty one he’d made up, and he realized that it was his fingers playing the keys, and the accordion player was him. Oh well, why not? They were all him anyway, everyone inside the coffee shop with the compassionate eyes, and everyone outside and in the road and driving the car that made the right turn and riding the bike.

The man in the charcoal suit applauded the flourish.

“You’ve really improved,” he said.

Joe felt his pocket. He found it wasn’t empty. He pulled out a knife.

“You stinking pile of horse-manure, you verminous mass of pig-vomit, you reborn son of a diseased whore,” Joe said. Then he stabbed the man in the charcoal suit.

“That would be ten million lifetimes,” the man groaned as he slumped to his knees, the fabric his suit jacket becoming sodden black. “Except I’m not a buddha. Could a buddha convince someone to remain unenlightened?”

“Who but a buddha could be so convincing?” Joe demanded wildly.

“Who but a buddha could be so convinced?” the man rejoined weakly, and then fell silent, laying in the road, bleeding.

It was as inscrutable as a koan, as prim and self-congratulatory as a New Yorker doodle. The universe was beginning to come apart, bleeding from infinite sheared arteries all at once. Joe felt certain that he should try to stop the bleeding, except he also now felt equally certain that he shouldn’t.

And so he placed his bloody fingers over the keys again, and began playing “Lady of Spain” one more time, and waited for it all to happen again, hoping that this time–this next time–he would somehow remember to ask the one question he always forgot to ask.

Which man was which?

2 Responses to FICTION: “The Last Unenlightened Man”

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