The second truth is that suffering is the product of nothing more than desire. Man clings hopelessly to the shadows. He becomes excited over dreams, he places himself in the middle of a false self, and he creates an imaginary world around himself. When his soul abandons him, it shall depart with the burning desire to drink again.
~ 1 ~
It was a typical evening in the city of London. Sixty degrees outside, and a curtain of humidity and rain allowed scarcely a glimpse of the building across the street.
James Lorton’s gaze, focused on nothing, travelled over the large dark windows in his office, over which fat raindrops traced rivulets through the steam. Behind him a typewriter lay forgotten on a large table of fine wood. It was accompanied by dozens of pages teeming with hasty writing, sharp characters of half-formed shorthand, legible only to their creator. On this table and another smaller one which sat at an angle to it, erudite books waited patiently, ready to impart the wisdom of saintly men they perpetuated. Hundreds of books on spirituality, religion, economics, law and miscellaneous subjects filled the shelves that lined the room, peppered with small statues of gods and oriental visionaries.
Sir James sighed, his gaze lost among the drops of rain that fell silently. He was drowning inside, the victim of an existential boredom that no wise phrase could cure. After all, he knew them all by heart, and, as a result of the intensity of his meditations on them, they had lost all their magic and power.
Lorton had not felt proud of himself for a very, very long time. He had done not one single noteworthy thing in his life. He had become just another cog in the global economic machine and his only mission was the increase of capital. He dedicated his existence to it. Only to that. Hour after hour. Day after day. Of what was there to feel proud?
His image was reflected in the dark glass. The thin silhouette, the countenance of slightly sunken cheeks and eye sockets and the somewhat prominent profile. From his description, one would say that he was not at all handsome, however his charm lay in his beautiful eyes and his secure and resolved expression, and these attributes were enough for him to be considered one of the most attractive men anyone had met. His forty five years had left him with the evidence of thousands of smiles and happy evenings, of a dissolute youth burned by the sun and rehydrated with wine, but all of this served only to draw one’s fascinated attention to those grey eyes, almond shaped and lively. One of his broad and uneven eyebrows, profoundly split, gave evidence of a fight he had in the years during which he still felt free, when his life was an adventure and not a succession of identical routines. He was so bored, in fact, that giving a lecture to a university audience had become an acceptable hobby. Travel to Aberdeen, meet new people … It would mean a change. Fleeting and insignificant.
The corners of his lips twisted in a scowl. It was not even worth the trouble to write something new. Why had he determined it would be improper to repeat the same lecture he had given at the Sorbonne? Abandoning the unpleasant view of the outdoors, he turned towards the warmth of his office. He looked with displeasure at the books and notes scattered over the tables. A mess of papers that he would now have to collect. He grumbled. He would definitely recycle the one from the Sorbonne.
But a sigh escaped him. “God, the one time I work for free …”
The ringing of the telephone interrupted the beginning of a series of reflections that would not have served to elevate his mood. It was an internal call, from his secretary. He looked at his wristwatch and saw that it was after five. Undoubtedly, Martha was calling to remind him of his appointment.
“Yes, Martha?” he answered. His voice was very serious, secure and trusting. It produced a surprising impression the first time one heard it come from such a slight figure, but it quickly became familiar and unforgettable, and one realized that a man like him could not have another kind of voice. Like his face, it was exceedingly expressive, and he knew how to modulate and tune it well as a result of his youthful misadventures with a university theater group.
“Sir James, it is 5:15. Remember that you have an appointment with Mr. Waller at the restaurant at 6:30.”
“Yes, I had not forgotten. Thank you, Martha.”
How could he forget it? Robert Waller was not easily forgotten. He had maintained commercial relationships with the man for years, though lately he had avoided direct contact with him, and had communicated with him only through intermediaries. Nevertheless, this time Waller had refused to speak with anyone other than Lorton himself, and, by sending him intriguing messages about some extraordinary enterprise, had managed to convince him that they should dine together in private that evening.
Lorton grumbled again. To cap off the day he had to endure that ill-tempered, eccentric Waller. Why had he accepted?
He endeavored to see the positive side: Waller was the most intelligent, astute businessman he had ever met and his business ventures with him had always born fabulous fruit; additionally, there was Waller’s passion for Buddhism, the common link that in the past had almost succeeded in establishing a certain bond between them.
At one time, Waller’s interest in him had even become flattering. The man clearly admired Lorton as the great expert in oriental spirituality the world recognized him to be, but also recognized him for his culture and education.
Sir James was descended from an ancient British family, distantly related to the Crown and owner of numerous properties in Great Britain. It included notable doctors, prestigious lawyers and military men. His father had served as ambassador to New Delhi for nine years and young James had grown up and received his education there between the ages of six and fifteen. India and everything about her had fascinated him, she was his true home and she had lovingly steeped him in her culture and knowledge. At an early age, he read Pantchatantra, or the five books, the most famous collection of classic Indian literature; the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism’s sacred book; the Jatakas or the book of births that narrate more than five hundred stories about the lives of Buddha; the tales contained in two long epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; and the lives of the masters of the Sikh religion. He understood what a karma yogi or spiritual guide meant to the people.
This learning was not all lost upon his return to London, on the contrary, it grew with his study of Hindu mysticism and its principles, especially the so called satyagraha or search for the truth as the path of rectitude, and it was strengthened through dozens of returns to beloved India.
But in those days, Lorton did not feel that his spirit was sufficiently elevated to know how to apply these holy teachings to his benefit. Had he been free, free even from himself, he would have been meditating on the summit of a mountain, with no more possessions than the blanket covering him. But for someone incapable of imagining himself separated from his wealth, what rite could possibly be practiced without hypocrisy? Why even attempt to find solace in rules he knew he could not follow? He had distanced himself from all religion, it was true, and although he tried to excuse himself by pretending to be a victim of his circumstances, forced at too young an age to be the heir to an empire, he recognized that he was a puppet to inertia and apathy.
He went down to the garage while he made these depressing considerations, but the crisis was already forgotten before he climbed into his splendid metallic blue Mercedes. A water pipe, close to his parking lot, had been close to bursting, and the dust from the construction, mixed with the drops of rain which had been worsening when he arrived, had muddied the bodywork. As he left the garage, the raindrops fell with a fury on the car and the windows, and he had to turn the windshield wipers to full speed. He immediately found himself immersed in the usual traffic jam, and his thoughts returned to the intriguing enterprise which would be proposed. He hoped that so much secretiveness was warranted. Waller had never before deceived anyone when it came to business. He pressed the little button on the steering wheel and the vehicle was flooded with a soft melody from Mozart. What would he eat? Sole à la Meunière? Beef Wellington? Perhaps lobster salad …
He managed to arrive a bit early. The parking attendant greeted him effusively; his visit guaranteed at least a twenty pound tip. He crossed the entrance to the restaurant and at once the head waiter approached to welcome him. He glanced toward their usual table as he released his raincoat and umbrella into the custody of the cloakroom, and he saw that Waller was already there watching him, signs of impatience showing in his sullen expression.
The sight of that bitter countenance produced the customary effect in Sir James: a strong revulsion that made the thought of sharing a table with him insufferable, but which he would adequately counteract with the ambitious spirit of a businessman.
Waller stood up as soon as he approached the table and offered Lorton his hand, piercing him with a dark and anxious look. “I feared that something might prevent your coming, Sir James,” he said with an undisguised mix of relief and excitement.
His face had lit up, making him appear almost agreeable, but something strange struck Sir James as he looked at him. Something that the darkness prevented him from precisely identifying in that moment.
“Few things could have obliged me to defer for a fourth time the opportunity to see you again, Mr. Waller,” he answered, with the affected and distant manners to which, in his eyes, he knew his title obligated him. At times it seemed that Waller had arrived from some past era. With him, Lorton could not be himself; he had to position himself at the same level as his illustrious ancestors. But the worst part of spending time with him was enduring his antiquated rhetoric.
Robert Waller watched him fixedly with that steely look and sullen expression which no good will on his part could have erased. Sir James watched him from the corner of his eye as he took his seat, while his vision slowly acclimated to the semi-darkness of the place.
“I see you are in magnificent health,” commented Mr. Waller. “The color in your face, the vitality with which you took off your raincoat and walked over …” He twisted his mouth, disfiguring his expression without succeeding in turning it into the smile he envisioned in his mind, and added, “How I envy you, my friend!”
Though they had known each other for more than ten years, that was the first time Waller had surprised him with such a preamble to the conversation, which was ordinarily strictly commercial. In addition to his inconvenient habit of shooting directly to the heart of the matter before he had it well before him, Waller had always distinguished himself by his supreme lack of interest in social conventions, and Sir James knew that his health was as unimportant as that of the waiter who was just then approaching to greet them. And while the waiter busied himself with taking Waller’s order, Sir James, who had overcome his initial shock, observed him closely, searching for some polite comment he could make. It was then that he realized, with surprise, what had caught his attention when he first saw Waller, and that was that he was showing visible signs of premature and exaggerated aging. He had lost a large quantity of hair, and what he still had was limp and grey, though the last time he had seen him, a bit less than a year before, it had still been thick and black. A multitude of deep wrinkles furrowed his pale, gaunt visage, as if he had been exposed for days and days to the drying desert sun.
When his eyes met Waller’s, Sir James realized that his expression must betray the astonishment that he felt and his gaze fled from the dark look, falling instead on bony hands. He escaped once more from that disquieting sight and looked him in the eyes again. There was a disturbing intensity in them, a certain perverse irony and unbreakable resolve. The sinuous line of his thin lips was clearly altered in the strange, disagreeable smile so characteristic of him. Lorton felt supremely uncomfortable.
“What will you have, Sir James?”
He had scarcely been conscious that Waller had been ordering while he was studying him. “Bring me the vegetable consommé and … What was that fish you recommended?” he asked, not without a certain nervousness.
“Hake cheeks, Sir James. They are excellent today.”
“Very well, hake cheeks then.”
“Will you permit me to choose the wine, Sir James?” asked Waller.
“Of course, Mr. Waller.” As the owner of vineyards and a large winery in California, Waller was a great wine lover and connoisseur, to whom it was well worth entrusting such an order.
While Waller reviewed the wine list, Sir James used all available means to prevent his gaze falling on any area of that decrepit anatomy. It was true that Waller was not the person he loved most in the world, but it was not possible to remain indifferent after seeing him in such a state. He felt as much pity as repugnance. As soon as the waiter left, he searched desperately for something to say, but nothing came to him except, “And so, Mr. Waller, what business brings us together this time?”
For an instant, Waller folded his hands under his chin and smiled in a way Lorton found exasperating, but then he laid them on the edge of the table with his fingers laced and, with no expression, replied, “I have six months to live, Sir James.”
James looked at him, astonished, subtly moved. Waller was the only person he knew who was capable of giving that sort of news with such dry and distant coldness, and without the slightest concern for the reaction it would produce in the other person. With anyone else, Lorton would have attempted to immediately offer a warm reaction, but false conventions were not necessary with Waller. Sir James was quite simply speechless and did not attempt to hide it. He detested decadence and death. They triggered an insufferable impotence in him, to the point that he felt unable to endure the sight of old age in those he loved. An extraordinary sensitivity hid beneath the hard man’s facade, a combination which he had found useful in his relationships when he had, by chance, allowed it to surface.
The magnate decided to bring an end to the dramatic silence and continued speaking. “Of course, fear not, my purpose is not to trouble you with the cause of my death, uncommon as it is, and whose explanation would therefore waste precious time which we should employ better. So allow me to clarify my motive in soliciting this interview directly.
“Sir James, I have never been a sociable man, or even a very agreeable one. In fact, I do not now have, nor have I ever had, a single friend. Nor have I needed one. Until now. Because now that this moment has arrived, the most important of my life, the moment of my death, I urgently need someone whom I can trust, someone who can take charge of my interests while I am unable to do so.
“As you know, I have not had an easy life. I was not born to a noble or bourgeois family. My mother was single and poorer than a church mouse. Everything I have has cost me sweat upon sweat. I have placed every stone in my ‘empire’ with my own hands, until they were peeled and raw, until I collapsed from exhaustion. Did you know I began working when I was five? I shall not bore you with the interminable list of jobs, often denigrating, that I was obliged to accept for many years of my life. I worked hard, very hard, until I succeeded in accumulating enough capital so that it could reproduce itself and make me what I am today. I had no childhood, I am ignorant of the pleasures of youth, and I was an embittered and morally ancient man before I turned thirty. I have been continuously exploited and humiliated by life until one day she tired of her little jokes and sat down to plot an infinitely larger and more painful derision. Now, when it has been scarcely a few years that I have been able to rest in my own home with the absolute conviction that I will be able to satisfy each and every one of my needs and desires, whatever they may be, today and tomorrow and the next day, now, Sir James, destiny has hatched an even crueler trick. I shall lose it all. Everything I have worked for over a lifetime of suffering will be snatched from me. Is that fair, Sir James? Do you believe it to be fair?”
Upset and hesitant, Sir James answered in a scarcely audible voice, “No, no it is not.”
Waller’s face was now embittered and clouded. “The problem is that within six months I will have to begin again. From scratch again!” His eyes opened, full of panic, and his voice changed as he uttered these words. Then, after moving his face as close to his neighbor’s as possible, he added, almost in a whisper, “And with the life I have lived, Sir James, starting over terrifies me. You understand, do you not? You know to what I am referring. That, among other reasons, is why I have chosen you.”
“In truth,” murmured Sir James, “I suppose you are alluding to the possibility of reincarnation. I would imagine.”
“Exactly. What else could it be? Are you not one of the world’s greatest experts on oriental religions?”
Sir James was beginning to lose himself in an indescribable state of astonishment and perplexity. “Well, I cannot deny that …, I suppose one could say that …, yes,” he stammered.
“Do not be modest, Sir James. You are imbued with the spirit of India; you lived there for years and you have been unable to keep yourself from returning countless times. You have given lectures on Buddhism and Hindu philosophy in the world’s foremost universities. To what better person could I turn?”
“Turn to for what? What is it that you want from me?”
“I am going to die and I do not have even one child to whom I might leave my fortune. Do you know to whom my inheritance would legally go if I were to die intestate? To the son of a distant cousin whom I have never seen in my life. The fortune that I built with blood, sweat and tears. I and no other! Why should I have to leave it to someone else? It is mine by right!” he exclaimed, forcing himself to restrain his tone of voice. “All mine! No one ever gave me a penny, so why must I? Does it seem fair to you that that person should enjoy with no effort what I shall have to struggle to earn once more at the same time that he squanders it? That, be it person or institution, someone else should freely use my money while I have perhaps been reborn and may again be forced to beg and work myself to death or starve on the street? Why must it be that way? Why can I myself not be the one who enjoys what is mine, who inherits what belongs to me?” He looked at Lorton with a nearly crazed expression, and only the fact that they were in a public place, scarcely a yard from the waiter, forced him to maintain control of himself.
What could Sir James say? For him, Waller was an undoubtedly ill man traumatized by the thought of his unexpected and imminent death, before which he found himself defenseless as he had never been before any of life’s other horrors. Waller, the born and undefeated conqueror of all the cruelties of existence, could not endure the thought of waiting passively for death without putting up a fight.
“Nor do you have any heirs, Sir James,” he continued, after recovering his composure. “Forgive me, but I found it necessary to investigate certain details of your life.” Lorton rose, visibly angry, and scowled in indignation. “Please do not be angry. I beg your forgiveness. When I have finished explaining myself, you will understand my motives, but rest assured that I neither sought nor found anything that could embarrass you and, in any case, I would never have used it against you, even if I had found something. Such a purpose never motivated me.
“In addition to the fact that you have no heirs, I have verified other details, even more important to me, such as the fact that your fortune is double my own, which once again makes you the perfect candidate.”
“The perfect candidate for what?”
“I have at most six months to live, Sir James, while you, according to your medical records … Yes, yes … I understand your indignation, forgive me once again, accessing them was vital … You, as I said, will live many years brimming with health. I am happy to see that you follow a healthy diet and do not smoke. That would be terrible for your heart, with the strain to which it is submitted. Therefore, I consider you to be the appropriate person to care for my assets while I am absent. That is what I have come to ask you, Sir James. I beg you to assent to serve as my executor.”
“Your executor?” he asked, astonished. “Do you not believe it would be better to choose a trustworthy notary?”
“In this matter, there is no one I can trust, Sir James,” he interrupted, “except you, I hope. Anyone else would immediately take me for a lunatic, but your learning places you on a different intellectual and spiritual plane. A higher one …”
Sir James remained silent, evaluating the implication of those words. How far would this man’s madness go? “I am not certain I understand you,” he declared.
“Oh, of course you do, but I will happily explain it with the number of words you desire. This is the situation: in six months, I will be dead, and from that instant, from the moment of my death, in an undetermined place and a time I cannot specify–perhaps a minute later, perhaps some years–I will be reborn in a mortal body, or if you prefer the more common Western phrase, though less specific for the Buddhist, I will be reincarnated. The fundamental mission of my estate’s executor will consist of bestowing my estate on the person in whom I have been reborn. To myself, in short.”
Lorton laughed heartily. “How on earth did you come up with such nonsense? Listen to me a moment, Waller,” he requested, seeing no way to dissuade him from his foolishness. “Do you think it so easy? Do you believe that others would not have tried it already if it were so simple? Even if you do happen to be reborn or reincarnated …”
“Is that not an article of faith for you?” he interrupted in a loud, angry voice. “You believe in reincarnation, do you not? You believe in it. You preach it.”
“No, that is not true. I do not preach it. I simply present certain facts.”
“Facts in which you believe,” he nearly shouted, bringing his reddened face as close as he could to Sir James and leaning over the table. “Conclusive facts. Like those you presented in the last course you gave at Oxford.”
“Nothing is conclusive in the field of metaphysics, Mr. Waller.”
“I have also read your works. All of them. In them you express your conviction, between the lines perhaps, but you express it nonetheless. Come now, Sir James, answer me with just one word: when you die, you and no other, do you believe you will return to life in another mortal body?”
Lorton hesitated giving the answer which came so readily to his lips, while Waller’s sharp gaze pierced him.
“Will you be reincarnated, Sir James?” he insisted.
Sir James inhaled and then exhaled falteringly. “That is what I believe, yes,” he finally murmured. Waller looked at him with a triumphant expression, an astute intensity in his eyes. “But it is an outrage to believe that any of us may return to a past life,” added Lorton. “You propose defying universal laws, attempting to evade the destiny generated by your karma. Wealth, longevity, beauty, health and wisdom exist not by chance but by karma. What you are attempting is unnatural.”
“Karma is not the equivalent of destiny or predetermination, but if it were, mine is not very good I assure you, and I am far from achieving the awakening. My next life will not be better than this one unless you consent to help me.”
“Additionally, what will indicate to the person you name executor that you have been born? A star in the sky? Let us suppose that, in the best of scenarios, you are born only a few miles from that person. Let us even suppose that he has news of your birth. How will he know for a scientific fact, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are you? Shall it be like the search for a new Buddha? Is that what you had imagined, that you will choose the correct items from among those presented and that will suffice?”
“You speak to me as one would try to dissuade a child incapable of some great deed,” said Waller, with absolute calm. “Do not underestimate me, Sir James. If I have come to you it is because I already have a very well defined method to settle such problems. One which I have even experienced.”
With a slightly mocking expression of incredulity, only vaguely interested, Sir James insisted, “And what exactly do you mean by experienced?”
Waller’s wrinkled visage contracted and emitted a brief sardonic guffaw, transforming it momentarily into a horrific mask. “I thought that might be of interest to you,” he whispered, leaning his body over the table and stretching his neck to come closer to Lorton. “It is astonishing that one as learned as you has not had access to the knowledge which now works in my favor. However, you should know that I am not the first Westerner to find it. Others enjoyed it before me.”
With that said, he maintained a dramatic silence for a long time, his eyes piercing Lorton’s, waiting for his curiosity to mount, as he knew it surely must. Sir James could scarcely bear the frightening view of his physiology, Waller’s breath rising just a few inches from his own face.
“Are you by chance a mime?” he exploded in a fit of nervous curiosity combined with an intense desire to flee. “Would you like me to toss you some coins to encourage you to continue your story?”
Waller laughed again. Then he returned to his original position and, abandoning the tone of initiation which he had used during his revelation, continued in a secure voice, “Let us forget the how for the moment and suppose that I have already succeeded in convincing you that I know how to find myself and, once I have been reincarnated, how to demonstrate to my executor, with no manner of doubt, that I am me. Perhaps you are still wondering why I have chosen you with absolute conviction. After all, there are millions of devout Buddhists. But there are many arguments in your favor. When I began to think about the person I should choose, I saw you clearly from the first moment. I said to myself, ‘If only I could find someone as interested as I am in knowing whether I can truly accomplish such a thing because, after his own death, he would want to return to his previous life!’ At that very moment, your image came into my mind like an inspiration. I thought and thought, and the more I thought, the more perfect you seemed to me. Any other candidate would present a multitude of problems difficult to solve.
“It needed to be a person for whom my fortune would not be a bonbon so sweet as to turn him traitor as soon as I die, something which would be exceedingly easy to do; he would need only to find an appropriate accomplice to name as my heir and with whom he would divide my money. Also, it may happen that my very distant cousin’s son could appeal my ‘strange’ testament and my last will could be nullified by virtue of the madness which devastated me in my final days, corroborated by my executor, and thanks to a tacit and mutually beneficial agreement between the two of them. You are, in addition to being one of the richest people I know, undoubtedly one of the most morally upright. Naturally, my vast estate could be enough to corrupt even the most honorable of gentlemen, in spite of already possessing more than double the amount he would receive. You know that as well as I. Therefore, the person I would choose must have something more which would guarantee as much as possible that he would be hard pressed to fall into temptation. This once more brought me to you as the best candidate. The perfect person, my perfect executor would be someone who has studied the subject, who has been involved in it from childhood, and who has an insatiable desire to know, with a millionaire’s legacy waiting for him in his next life. You, Sir James.”
Lorton kept his gaze locked on him, mute with shock. “Look, Waller,” he finally managed to articulate, “I consider it to be truly impossible for you or anyone else to succeed in such a venture. It is the most ridiculous idea I have heard in my life and …, and …, even if it were possible, I repeat that it would go against all laws both human and divine, it would be something …, absolutely unnatural …, an atrocity.”
“Keep your absurd ethical considerations, fit for a young healthy man with dozens of years before the day of his death,” requested Waller calmly, and added, “Simply answer me: will you accept my request?”
“Of course not,” answered Lorton forcefully. “It is ridiculous!”
“Logically, I expected an initial no. It is the instinctive reaction. Think, however, that you are acting against your principles, revealing yourself opposed to all your most intimate beliefs for the sake of false theories you inherited; in short, you are behaving irrationally.”
“Listen, Waller, I believe you should stop tormenting yourself,” he urged compassionately. “The cycle must compensate for itself, undoubtedly it balances itself. That is to say, if your present life has been as bad as you say, the process will have to level itself out in the next one. I am convinced of it. If it were not so, everything would happen arbitrarily and randomly.”
“In that case, Sir James Lorton, son of Lord Anthony Lorton and Lady Margaret Windsor, Doctor Honoris Causa at five universities from the world over and brilliant businessman, you should be thinking about your own future.”