There is a great Center of Learning far away in a country whose name cannot be pronounced. It is a simple place made of simple materials, but it provides comfortable shelter for those who study there.
However, not all that the Center holds is plain, for it possesses a beautiful set of bookends made out of the finest jade. They are a light gold in color: made of the finest mutton fat jade, and carved into intricate village scenes. The detail in the carving is so clear that looking at them, you would expect that the people and the sheep and the birds depicted would take breath from one moment to the next. When the lights in the room are on, the jade glows as if it has its own internal illumination.
The bookends were a gift given by a grateful student five hundred years ago, and rumor had it they were carved at least five hundred years before that. They held a place of honor in the Center Library, sitting on a shelf made of crystal and brass. All in all, this shelf and the bookends stood out greatly amidst all the wooden shelves and the books with their slightly dusty and muted but still colorful bindings. Though the elders eschewed emotions such as pride, they did ensure that all important visitors to the Center were shown into the Library at least once, so they could behold the wonder of the jade bookends.
One day, one of the Neophytes was in the Library studying, sitting at a table quite close to the crystal shelf. From the corner of her eye, she spotted the First Master enter the room and with resolute determination, approach the shelf and pull the bookend on the right slightly to the front and then turn it slightly inwards. When finished, the bookend was no longer faced in the same direction as its mate.
Curious, and taught that one should question actions that seem incomprehensible, the Neophyte approached him, asking, “First Master, I noticed that you pulled one of the jade bookends out and around so it’s no longer aligned with its mate. May I ask you the purpose of this action?”
The First Master, still young and robust and somewhat famous throughout the Center for having a charismatic personality and fiery spirt, laughed and clapped the Neophyte on the shoulder.
“I pull the jade bookend out every day at this time, young learner, in order to celebrate the spirit of chaos”.
He opened his arms wide and slowly turned in a circle, as if to encompass all within his grasp, his rich woolen robes making faint sweeping sounds on the stone floor as he moved.
“It is from chaos that we learn, and it is from chaos that we seek new directions and find new paths. When you enter a forest that hasn’t been tamed, do you not see the disarray of the trees and the plants? Doesn’t it make you yearn to explore its depths? Without chaos, we wouldn’t have mystery, and there would be little new to explore because all would be the same as all else.”
“Look you, now, at the bookends”, he said, pointing back at the shelf. “Do they not now stand out by the very nature of their discontinuity? Doesn’t your eye now see that which was lost in its day by day sameness? Doesn’t this act of chaos provide fresh insight, and a new perspective?”
The Neophyte looked and found that First Master was right: the bookends did stand out more; catching and holding eyes long since used to their beauty. And she marveled at how the light, coming from new directions, showed nuances in the carving the Neophyte had not seen before. It was almost like looking at them the first time, and experiencing that first jolt of delight at their beauty.
The Neophyte thanked the First Master most sincerely for his wisdom, and returned to her seat to contemplate the bookends and the lessons they taught.
As she was gazing at them, Second Master entered the room, and she also walked up to the shelf. But where First Master pulled the jade bookends out of alignment, Second Master carefully put the bookends back into their original positions, pushed hard up against the books, and facing rigidly forward. They were as precise as soldiers on a battlefield, or pearls in a finely matched necklace.
As Second Master polished the bookends with the ends of her sleeve, the Neophyte, puzzled anew because this action contradicted First Master’s, hurried over to her side.
“Second Master,” she asked. “Why did you just carefully align the jade bookends? After all, doesn’t the fact that the bookends weren’t in the same position, add a bit of mystery? Doesn’t their previous state of disarray make you curious as to how they got that way? Isn’t some of the bookends’ beauty lost when they are rigidly aligned?”
Second Master gave the Neophyte a gentle smile, and the Neophyte basked in the warmth of her regard.
“Every day at this time, I come to the Library and straighten the bookends to their proper position; to restore harmony to both the shelf and the room. After all, it is from harmony that we grow and enrich ourselves. ”
She gestured to the window that overlooked the kitchen garden. “When you see a carefully tended garden with flowers, or fruit, or the good green vegetables we love, do you not see that the hand of order is necessary if we are survive long enough to achieve true enlightenment?”
“Look you, young daughter, at the shelf. Doesn’t it now reflect the inner calmness we seek in order to better know ourselves? Don’t the bookends now blend with the shelf and the books and become something more by being part of an ordered whole? And aren’t the bookshelves more secure in their proper positions?”
The Neophyte did look and could see the wisdom of Second Master’s philosophy. When the bookends were returned to their original order, they balanced beautifully with the books and the shelf, and it was harmonious. In addition, she could see the benefits of using the bookends properly, because they did now look much more secure.
She thanked Second Master most profoundly, and returned to her seat. But she could not return to her studies because she was sorely confused.
She could agree with First Master about the beauty resulting from the disarray caused by moving the bookends out of alignment. She could see the strengths of chaos, because it made the familiar less so, and made you want to explore, and discover and above all, learn.
However, the Neophyte also agreed with the Second Master, about the need for order. Without that order, she could see now that the jade bookends were precarious in their position and could have–horrors!– fallen off the shelf and been damaged. Without harmony and order, there is a risk of destruction.
But how to reconcile these two philosophies was beyond the Neophytes limited learning, and her confusion increased the more she thought about the paradox. It was with relief that she saw the Grand Master enter the room. If anyone could find the path between these two conflicting views, it was the most ancient and revered of the Center’s scholars.
The Grand Master walked slowly, and used a cane to steady steps grown uneven with extreme age. It was said by some in the Center that the Grand Master had been there as long as the jade bookends, and while the bookends remained, so would the Grand Master.
The Neophyte approached the ancient person with diffidence, bowing low before taking the Master’s side as they moved slowly across the room, matching the speed of her steps in deference to the age of the other.
“Grand Master, I beg your pardon for intruding, but I’m perplexed by conflicting philosophies and need your guidance.”
“Ask on, child”, the Grand Master answered, the sound soft with a hint of humor along with the age in the voice.
“Well, First Master said that it is from chaos that we grow; that we need chaos to see the beauty of that which becomes too familiar. Without chaos, there is no need to explore and without exploration, we do not learn.”
The Grand Master replied, “First Master is very wise for his age, and a credit to this Center. He is right. We do need chaos, for without chaos there would be no need to reach beyond ourselves, to search out new paths, or find new discoveries. All knowledge has at its root, a small kernel of chaos.”
The Neophyte acknowledge the words, but frowned, more confused than ever. “But Grand Master, Second Master said that we must seek order among the chaos; for it is from order that we achieve the harmony with which to enrich ourselves. Without order, we would wonder about acting without purpose, perhaps even destructively so.”
The Grand Master continued walking, occasionally thumping the end of the walking stick on the ground, the sound echoing slightly in the huge room.
“The Second Master is rich with knowledge and her spiritual and mental growth over time has been a delight to behold. Her words to you demonstrate this, because we do need order to discover harmony, and it is from harmony that we become stronger, better people. We cannot reach beyond ourselves, while standing in the midst of shifting sands.”
By this time they, Neophyte was frustrated, as well as confused and, speaking rapidly and even a bit loudly, she exclaimed, “But Grand Master, how can we embrace both chaos and order?”
Thrusting an agitated finger at the bookends on the bookshelf, which they had drawn near, the Neophyte said, “First Master moves the jade bookends out of alignment to introduce chaos, while Second Master moves them back into alignment to introduce order. But the bookends can’t be both chaotic and ordered!”
As the Neophyte was speaking, the Grand Master was pulling a book down from the shelf, replacing it with one pulled from a deep pocket.
“Jade bookends?” the Master asked.