After some time teaching in a village, a woman known to many as a Great Master decided to journey away.
The local villagers begged her to stay because during her time there, the village’s fortunes had dramatically improved. But the master knew her heart and her calling. So, she gathered a few things, exchanged the lovely garments given to her by the locals for traveling clothes, and set off in a new direction.
For some reason, she felt drawn to the Sea of Kurbus, and after some days of travel, she arrived in a fishing town by the sea. The town sat at the very end of a peninsula jutting out into the sea, and it lived under an almost perpetual cloud bank, fog, and on-and-off drizzle.
A wet, shaggy dog watched her as she walked through the town square. She saw the dog’s forlorn gaze as it offered neither a growl nor whimper of acknowledgement.
She experienced similar gazes from the towns folk. The people spoke in muted conversations. Hardly a laugh rung through the gray atmosphere. Even at night when people filed into the taverns, there was barely a chuckle. Drinkers simply stared at their drinks and sighed heavily.
The master wanted to understand the nature of the situation, and as she asked around, she learned that the town was struggling to get enough fish to eat and trade with other towns. She decided to learn to fish and signed on with one crew to head out into the Sea of Kurbus the next day.
As they left the docks, the master felt the swells and drops of the sea. She watched how everyone clung to the boat, but still there was no way around feeling the intensity of the motion. She could also see how used to it everyone was. They endured it unquestioningly.
Once they got out far enough, they found a pocket of sunlight and a spot where the sea had calmed. Everyone stopped and celebrated. They took out games and brought out drinks. They basked in the momentary sunlight.
The master marveled at this as she could clearly see ominous dark clouds on the horizon. She spoke to the captain.
“Would it not be wise to fish now while there is light?”
“Why waste a few moments of sun? We’ve been living under such gloom for so long. We deserve this.”
“But can you not see the storm coming in the distance?”
The captain ignored the warning and joined the other fishermen in their revels.
The master peered over the edge of the boat and saw large schools of fish swimming. It would be ever so effortless to drop a net and pull them out. But the fishermen took no notice.
The sunlight soon passed. They returned to grumbling about life and holding onto the boat as the swells of the sea began to grow again. Lightning was now visible. Thunder rumbled distantly.
Again the master commented to the captain, “Should we not fish now before the storm comes?”
“We’ll get to it,” the captain muttered.
But by the time they dropped their nets, the rain had come. The Sea of Kurbus roiled. The fish disappeared. They barely caught anything. Heavy rained soaked them all, and they were tossed about by the wind and sea. The storm became so bad that they could not return home safely, so they waited shivering and wet below deck.
The master shivered with them. She felt the misery they lived in, but her heart and mind remained clear. She listened to them grumble about the storm and their ill-fortune.
“This is how it always is for us,” one of them said.
“This is our luck,” grumbled another.
The master then asked the group, “Would it have not been wiser to fish before the storm came?”
They all objected.
“What do you know about fishing? You’re brand new to this village.”
“Don’t act like you know something you don’t know,” said another.
“Who are you anyway? Do you think you can run our lives?” objected yet another.
The master said nothing.
After the night passed, they arrived at the dock. Some of the villagers noticed their minimal catch and commented that the same had happened to other fishing crews. The fishermen with the master looked sharply at her as if to say, “See. This happens to everyone.”
The master understood.
She gathered her things and left the village by the Sea of Kurbus.
Firstly, one of the keys to understanding this allegory is to understand what “Kurbus” means. Kurbus is an Estonian word for “sadness.” The master has come to a town where everyone is lost in a sea of sadness.
We can also expand the idea of sadness to depression, despair, and general misery. Hopefully the imagery used in this allegory brought those feelings forward.
The master clearly sees the town is suffering, so where does she go, straight into the problem–the Sea of Sadness. There she can experience and witness the problem. I allude to the power of sadness when I write about “the intensity of the motion” of the seas–the intensity of the emotion of sadness.
What is the cause of sadness? Right now, part of it is the lack of fish. But let us expand the idea of fish to the lack of proper nourishment. The nourishment can be food, love, proper activity, or anything that truly supports a human being in the long-term.
But when a temporary pleasure comes in the image of calmer seas and sunlight, that immediate gratification is too much for most people like the fishermen to resist. They dive into it to the detriment of their long-term nourishment. They forget about the bigger issues, which of course return as seen in the metaphor of the next storm. In reality, the next “storm” would actually be caused by the neglect of people.
In human life, there are often times when we know a problem is coming, but we ignore it. This is what the fishermen do. A person may hear rattling in their car engine, but they do nothing until it breaks down, i.e. becomes the next storm/problem.
The captain is no better. His leadership is no leadership at all, and this is a common issue among leaders in society. They don’t really understand reality or care about the future; they are just as lost in instant gratification as everyone else.
Thus, the fishermen’s actions create their outcome.
I amplify the needlessness of their suffering by writing about how the master sees schools of fish during that sunny time. But when times are good, people assume that they’ll always be good. I also use the word “effortless” because oftentimes those of us who are free of the ego look like we do things so easily. But really, we are simply interacting with the reality before us, not ignoring the opportunities and challenges in front of us.
Then times change through how society acts or other forces of life. The next storm arrives. Instead of seeing their error, the fishermen complain and sink deeper into their sadness–this is conveyed with the image of being cold and wet.
The master is interested in the real world and understands how the human world works. She warns them about the storm. But here we see how attached human beings are to their patterns and to their suffering. They don’t want to admit their error or to change. The resistance to looking at oneself produces foreseeable results–more suffering. The repeating nature of the suffering makes it seem inevitable, which is the point the fishermen think they’re making to the master at the end of the allegory.
During the whole journey, the master is not free of the pain of human life and society because that is not how spiritual freedom works. She feels the swells of sadness. She gets to shiver and be cold with the others. However, the reference to her mind and heart being clear is talking about how she is not suffering with them. The fishermen are in pain and suffering.
Overall, there isn’t much space for her to teach. She offered observations and questions, but all were totally rejected. Upon arriving back at shore, she sees that all the other townspeople are locked into their illusions of their suffering too. So she leaves.
Failures on the Spiritual Path
I offer this story in counterpoint to my other stories with the great master because sometimes teachers, masters, great masters, avatars, or whatever label we want to put on them get elevated to some kind of force of nature. People think that they’ll change things by themselves. But this path is not about forcing anything. Everyone IS free. To force a change on someone would be to try to take away freedom, which cannot be done. It offers a new kind of imprisonment, and the master knows this.
The spiritual teaching game can fall into this trap of trying to “elevate” and “create change” in others rather than to illuminate the truth and help people to realize it for themselves.
The master is NOT a spiritual teacher even though teaching may happen. The nature of a master is that they are not attached to a spiritual teaching role, and the master of this story is NOT engaged in the spiritual teaching game, although she can take on the role of teacher if she so chooses.
We simply can’t know if she went to the Sea of Kurbus to teach. She may not know why she went. All she does is ask some questions and make observations. Maybe she simply wanted to see what the experience of such sadness was. She is a free. She can choose her experiences whereas most people who are not free would not venture anywhere near such a place. Because of her ability to choose, her leaving should not be seen as a failure in teaching or the failure to teach the people there. She simply made a different choice.
The allegory can be seen in yet another light of how being a human being means that we may be part of these communal experiences (sea) of sadness (kurbus). This is something that happens. But we can be clear like the master and not suffer the seas of sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions that people get lost in.
Finally, she doesn’t argue with them. It is clear that they are committed to their suffering. She could argue. She has that choice, but she also respects the people’s unconscious choice to suffer. This is often difficult for many people to fully grasp. But people choose to suffer all the time. Until people are tired enough of that choice to choose differently, nothing can be done.
This story is a continuation of other the stories of the Great Master. You can read more of her back story here:
Both the above allegories have two parts and a post just for an interpretation.
Here are couple of other posts that you may also find helpful.