The Secret of the Sky
The Secret of the Sky
|a man in his early 30s—bearded, disheveled, dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt, gray sweat pants, and (when standing) sandals.
a man of any age but one who seems worn out by life; he is otherwise well-kempt and neat in appearance, dressed institutionally in a clinical jacket, white dress shirt, dark slacks, and dark tie.
an enigmatic person whose hooded robes reflect a respectful blending of many beliefs—Tibetan, Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish Orthodox, etc. She could be of any age, but her lithe movement suggests youth and tireless energy.
SETTING: A small, ancient prison cell. On the walls are Tibetan graffiti and vandalized caricature of Mao Tse-tung. The cell’s sparse furnishings include a side bunk, a folding chair, and a slim wooden table, upon which sits a water pitcher. A small window with bars provides a minimal view of the morning sky.
The Prisoner lies on the side bunk, covered with layers of worn and torn blankets. The Jailer enters, carrying a clipboard with several pages of forms.
JAILER: Are you awake? (a pause) I asked you a question—answer me.
PRISONER: If I’m asleep, how can I answer you?
JAILER: I knew you were awake. You weren’t snoring.
PRISONER: Then—why ask a question if you know the answer?
JAILER: That’s the best kind of question to ask, one where the answer—the right answer is already known. Then the truthfulness of the subject can be gauged and quantified. Is that why you didn’t answer me? Because you knew that I knew the answer.
PRISONER: I don’t snore.
JAILER: (positioning the chair and sitting) How do you know you don’t snore?
PRISONER: (raising up and sitting on the edge of the bunk) Where am I?
JAILER: A Buddhist retreat nestled in the Himalayas, near Lhasa. Dreprung Monastery. A Buddhist monastery. Buddhist. Do you have any thoughts, any opinions about that?
PRISONER: How did I get here? Who are you?
JAILER: I’d prefer that you answer my questions, and when I say prefer, I really mean that you’re required to answer.
PRISONER: Who am I?
JAILER: Just so we’re clear—I am not here to answer your questions.
PRISONER: Then neither will I answer yours.
JAILER: (astonished) Good! Very good! Do you realize that you just quoted scripture? Well, not an exact quote but close enough. That’s very encouraging. You wouldn’t happen to recall chapter and verse, would you—for my notes. (a pause) I can look it up. You’ve probably never even read the Bible, specifically the New Testament, have you? (a pause) Look, we’re getting off to a bad start, and it’s probably my fault.
PRISONER: Then answer my questions.
JAILER: The truth is, I could answer your questions, but you wouldn’t remember the answers anyway. Tomorrow morning you’d wake up with a blank slate all over again, as if it were your first day on planet earth. We’ve been here, at this monastery, for over a month now.
PRISONER: I’m hungry.
JAILER: (rises) Hungry! Of course you’re hungry. (pulls a hand bell from a pocket, rings it) I’ll have something brought to us. (A Monk enters. The Jailer whispers into the Monk’s ear. The Monk bows and hurriedly exits.) Forgive me. I should’ve known you’d be hungry and had something ready for you. The truth is, you’ve not eaten the whole time you’ve been here and I was beginning to worry. (sitting) So, while we’re waiting, what do you say we resume our chat?
PRISONER: Why am I here?
JAILER: Why are you here—that’s a very good question. Philosophical in nature. Profound in its simplicity. Why are any of us here, really? What is our purpose? What is the meaning of life?
PRISONER: I wasn’t posing a rhetorical question.
JAILER: (disappointed) Oh. No, I suppose you weren’t. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you why you’re here, any more than I can tell you why I’m here.
PRISONER: Can’t—or won’t?
JAILER: Is there a difference?
PRISONER: You know the answer to that.
JAILER: Listen—many of the answers you’re seeking are right here, in my questionnaire, between the lines, so to speak. There are only a hundred questions, but in the last 40 days we’ve managed to answer only (consults his clipboard)—two.
JAILER: Only two. Truth is, I’m afraid of being terminated at this point. And by terminated, I don’t mean fired. I mean terminated, put to death, executed—executed by any means they execute people in a Tibetan monastery. They won’t burn me at the stake. There are hardly any trees here in the Himalayas, and wood is scarce. Only rocks, snow, and sky—as far as the eye can see.
PRISONER: Buddhists are actively passive.
JAILER: Actively passive (scribbling notes)—I like that.
PRISONER: Being pacifists, it’s doubtful they would execute you.
JAILER: You would think so. But religious thought and religious practice are two different things. You should know that—better than most, you should know that.
PRISONER: Buddhism is not really a religion. It is, in of itself, a practice, a dedication.
JAILER: Interesting. (resumes writing) What is your opinion of Buddhism?
PRISONER: I just gave it.
JAILER: I see. Interesting. Next question—what languages do you speak?
JAILER: I’ve already recorded several of them. English obviously, since English is what we’re speaking right now. Yesterday it was German. And Latin. Last week was Greek and Hebrew. When you first arrived, all you spoke was Aramaic—which is why we’ve gotten such a late start on this questionnaire. I speak several languages, but, alas, Aramaic is not one of them.
PRISONER: I’m not aware of any languages.
JAILER: ¿Habla Español?
JAILER: Parles-tu francais?
JAILER: You’re not aware of any languages
JAILER: You’re not cognizant of the fact that we’ve been speaking several languages—English, Spanish, and French—just this morning.
PRISONER: No. And why should I?
JAILER: By my tally—my very incomplete tally—you’re able to speak over three dozen languages fluently and fluidly. In fact, not only is your Greek fluent, it is how shall I say—rather eclectic.
PRISONER: As you say—
JAILER: I’m guessing that you speak dozens more. Perhaps hundreds. Three days ago, Wednesday—Tuesday morning, I walked into your cell to find you conversing with one of the Dreprung monks. In Tibetan.
JAILER: What were you two talking about?
PRISONER: I don’t remember.
JAILER: That’s rather convenient.
PRISONER: If you walked in on us, you tell me—what were we talking about?
JAILER: (angrily, loudly) I don’t speak Tibetan! (The Monk re-enters, this time carrying a tray, the contents of which are covered by a linen cloth. The Monk sets the tray next to the Prisoner’s bed, at his feet. The Monk bows and exits.) Ah, breakfast—just in time.
PRISONER: Is that the monk?
JAILER: Hmm—what’s that?
PRISONER: The monk you saw me speaking to—is that him?
JAILER: You really don’t remember?
PRISONER: That’s him, though isn’t it?
JAILER: One and the same.
PRISONER: Then why don’t you ask him what he and I were discussing.
JAILER: I tried, but …
PRISONER: But what?
JAILER: I don’t want to talk about it. The interrogation didn’t go well, I’m afraid. And now that monk has taken a vow of silence.
PRISONER: A vow of silence—soon after speaking to me?
JAILER: Soon after the interrogation. (a pause) It’s a waste of our time discussing it. Go ahead, eat. (The Jailer removes the linen covering from the tray.)
PRISONER: Those are rocks.
JAILER: That’s about all we have here at Drepung. Rocks, snow and sky—as far as the eye can see. That and the occasional yak.
PRISONER: But no yacks out of the silent monk. (The Prisoner bows his head.)
JAILER: Oh, you do have a sense of humor! There’s actually quite a bit of speculation about that. I always assumed you did, but—are you praying? (The Prisoner raises his head, takes one of the rocks from the tray and bites into it, revealing it to be something other than rock.) Oh my God! You did it! You did it! (begins scribbling fervently ) Do you realize how long I’ve been trying to get you to do that? How many times? (very deliberately writes, while verbalizing) “Stones into bread”
PRISONER: Man does not live by bread alone. This is cake.
PRISONER: Breakfast cake. Cream filled.
JAILER: Give me one of those. I’ve been eating nothing but yak and wheat paste for weeks now. (The Jailer picks one up, lets it drop.) It’s just a rock.
PRISONER: Cakes into stone.
JAILER: You did that, too.
PRISONER: Or maybe you did.
JAILER: (ringing the bell wildly) Apparently you have not grasped the seriousness of our situation.
PRISONER: I wasn’t even aware that we had a situation.
(The Monk rushes in, again. The Jailer grabs the Monk by both shoulders, turning the Monk forcibly so that both of them are facing the Prisoner.)
JAILER: (pushing the Monk toward the Prisoner) Show him! Open your mouth and show him!
(The Monk slowly removes her hood. Slowly she kneels before the Prisoner, opening her mouth so that he can see.)
PRISONER: (to the Jailer) What have you done? Who has removed this woman’s tongue?
JAILER: Well, I suppose in a way—by way of extension—you did.
PRISONER: I did no such thing.
JAILER: You spoke to her! When she wouldn’t tell us what you said, we had no choice.
PRISONER: So you removed her tongue?
JAILER: We cleansed her because she was a woman of unclean lips, who dwelled in the midst of a people of unclean lips. So her tongue was burned away with live coals, taken with tongs from off the altar. Who knew what she knew—what she might have said to others.
PRISONER: What could I have said to her that could possibly warrant removing her tongue?
JAILER: There’s no way of knowing, but knowledge is power. She’s lucky she wasn’t blinded.
PRISONER: (to the Monk) I’m so sorry that this happened to you.
JAILER: What did you say to her?
PRISONER: I told you, I don’t remember.
JAILER: No, not then. Just now—what did you say to her just now? In Tibetan.
PRISONER: In Tibetan? I spoke to her just as I’m speaking to you now.
JAILER: Except you spoke to her in Tibetan, conveniently a language I do not understand.
PRISONER: (to the Monk) Am I speaking to you in Tibetan?
(The Monk nods yes, rises to her feet.)
JAILER: In English! Speak only English!
PRISONER: I am speaking English! (to the Monk) I am speaking English, aren’t I?
(The Monk shakes her head no.)
JAILER: (to the Monk) Out, get out now. I want you out! (The Monk rushes out of the cell.) If I have to shove hot pokers into her ears to stop her from hearing your voice, I’ll do it. What secrets did you impart to her?
PRISONER: N—nothing. I told her I was sorry for what you had done to her.
JAILER: For what I had done—how dare you! Who do you think— (wags finger toward the Prisoner) You told her to forgive me, that I knew not what I did.
PRISONER: Not at all. The fact that you don’t know what you’re doing is obvious. Why state the obvious. And it’s God’s forgiveness you need.
JAILER: What I need is for you to answer my questions. I’ve hardly received an answer from you.
PRISONER: And I’ve received nothing from you.
JAILER: Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? I’ve housed you, given you a place to lay your head.
PRISONER: You’ve imprisoned me.
JAILER: Whether you know it or not, you owe your very existence to me.
JAILER: I am the whole reason you exist at all.
PRISONER: That’s crazy.
JAILER: It’s the truth.
PRISONER: You’re insane.
JAILER: Whether you like it or not, you are utterly, completely, and absolutely dependent on me.
PRISONER: Utterly, completely, absolutely.
PRISONER: That’s redundant. All those words mean the same thing.
JAILER: I do that sometimes, when I feel I have a very important point to make.
PRISONER: And your point being …
JAILER: Like it or not, right now you need me.
PRISONER: I need you?
JAILER: Well—yes, you do. Which is why it’s important that we all just get along.
PRISONER: Get along? I’m not going around burning out people’s tongues.
JAILER: One tongue. A necessary safety precaution. You know what they say—loose tongues sink boats.
PRISONER: I’m not sure that’s what they say.
JAILER: Besides, she doesn’t seem to mind. She goes about her day as if nothing has happened. What difference does it make?
PRISONER: What if someone burned out your tongue?
JAILER: My tongue? Is that a threat? Threaten all you want, to your heart’s content—I’m not worried. You wouldn’t hurt a flea. It’s not in your nature.
PRISONER: You seem to know a lot about me.
JAILER: Oh, I do. Quite a bit.
PRISONER: But yet you’re the one with all the questions.
JAILER: Not all the questions. You seem to have more than your fair share. Not that it matters. My questions are the only ones that matter. (consults clipboard while taking pen in hand) Let’s get back to them, shall we?
JAILER: Now where were we? Including your succinctly evasive answers on Buddhism, and the question on languages, which I think you’ve answered empirically—concerning the number of languages you speak, I’m just writing “several.” No, “seemingly unlimited.” Including two questions that were answered at earlier sessions, we now have completed a grand total of—four. Four questions. Out of a hundred. In nearly 40 days. I am so going to be terminated.
JAILER: Ended. Executed. Put to death. While I’m not worried about someone searing my tongue, I would not be paranoid in becoming increasingly aware that my demise may be imminent, perhaps inevitable.
PRISONER: Who would put you to death?
JAILER: Oh, there are forces beyond you and me, lurking about. Unseen things of which you are not aware.
PRISONER: Perhaps you’ll only be exiled.
JAILER: Exiled? No, no—I appreciate your trying to comfort me. But no, unlike you and our little monk friend, I cannot be exiled. For me there is only one conclusion. Death.
PRISONER: Sorry to hear that.
JAILER: Thank you. But perhaps I’m worrying over nothing. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how they could do it. There’s no electricity here, so death by electrocution is not an option.
PRISONER: And hardly any wood.
JAILER: Right. So I can’t be burned at the stake.
PRISONER: Or crucified.
JAILER: Heaven forbid.
PRISONER: Only rock, snow, and sky—as far as the eye can see.
JAILER: Rock, snow, and sky.
PRISONER: Have you considered that you might be thrown down the mountainside?
PRISONER: Hurled off the roof of the monastery—tossed from its highest precipice.
JAILER: You don’t think …
PRISONER: Or you could be stoned to death. There seem to be plenty of rocks around. (The Jailer picks up bell and begins ringing it wildly. The Monk promptly enters.)
JAILER: (handing the Monk the breakfast tray) I want these rocks removed. And while you’re at it, collect every loose stone within a three-mile radius of Dreprung Monastery. Search every crack and crevice up and down the mountainside and then search again. Every rock. I want them all gone.
(The Monk exits, carrying breakfast tray.)
PRISONER: After what you’ve done to her, do you really want her to be in possession of all those rocks?
(The Jailer rings bell wildly. The Monk re-enters, still carrying breakfast tray.)
JAILER: (removing the rocks from the tray) I’ll just keep those, thank you very much. And belay that last order. In fact, you are forbidden to lift a single stone. That’s all. Go. You’re dismissed. (The Monk exits) You may have extended, if not saved, my life. That’s very wise of you.
PRISONER: Wise? What’s it to me?
JAILER: I’m beginning to think that you really do not understand our situation. If I die, that’s it for you. And for her, too. It’ll be the end of the three of us.
PRISONER: I don’t believe you.
JAILER: That hardly matters. It is what it is, and you need me.
PRISONER: You’re insane.
JAILER: But then, who wants to live forever—right? Life is often tedious, same thing day in and day out. And hard, too! I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But even as hard as life is, I sometimes worry that death is even harder. Talk about tedious! Death really is the same thing day in and day out! A darkness so complete and so deep that no morning shall ever come, no breaking light to shatter its bleakness. An existence—if you can even call it an existence—without further purpose and devoid of meaning. Is that what you want for me?
PRISONER: No, of course not.
JAILER: Then help me with this questionnaire. (The Monk enters, carrying a towel and footpan.) What is this? Hey, you there, stop that! (The Monk, ignoring the Jailer, continues preparing a foot bath for the Prisoner, filling the footpan with water from the pitcher on the table.)
PRISONER: Leave her alone.
JAILER: She’s not here to serve you.
PRISONER: Let her be. You dismissed her—remember?
JAILER: I dismissed her from the room. We have my—our questionnaire to attend to.
PRISONER: Let her be, and I’ll answer your questions.
JAILER: Something tells me I’m going to regret this. (a pause) You’ll answer my questions.
PRISONER: That’s what I said. (The bath now complete, the Monk begins washing the feet of the Prisoner.) Agreed?
JAILER: Agreed. (shuffling through his papers) Let’s see—let’s find a good one. Ok, what is (a pause) the meaning of life?
PRISONER: The meaning of life (hearty laughter)—are you serious?
JAILER: What’s so funny?
PRISONER: You are serious, aren’t you? I mean, it’s all a bit cliché isn’t it—bringing us here, to this mountain, to ask me the meaning of life.
JAILER: You said you would answer my questions.
PRISONER: Yes, I did. And I’m a man of my word.
JAILER: Then what is the meaning of life?
PRISONER: To tell you the truth—and you’ll know I’m not lying when I tell you this—there is no meaning.
JAILER: What? How can you say that?
PRISONER: Perhaps a parable will help.
JAILER: A parable. You want to tell me a parable.
PRISONER: I think it will help you understand. A parable (pulling out a remote) in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.
JAILER: (impatient) Is it a long parable?
PRISONER: The sooner I begin, the sooner you’ll have your answer.
JAILER: Ok, fine—go ahead.
(The Prisoner claps twice, and the lights go out, except a single, soft spotlight on the Prisoner. As the Prisoner speaks, the appropriate slides are projected onto the wall(s) of the cell.)
PRISONER: Once there lived a man (slide 1), and that man lived in turmoil because of conflict between his inner selves. He was divided—Body, Soul, and Spirit—and he could find no unity among them. (slide 2) The Body, also known as the flesh, warred with the Spirit; because the flesh could not possess that of the Spirit, the flesh could only covet without understanding. So the flesh sought to imprison the Spirit. (slide 3) The Soul herself was divided between the Body and the Spirit. She loved them both, you see. She served the Body unquestioningly and gave the flesh life, but she also sought to minister to the Spirit, for it was in the Spirit that the Soul found her calling, for the Soul and the Spirit communicated in a language only they shared. (slide 4) This enraged the Body, and, jealous of what the Spirit and Soul might have shared, the Body sought to inflict aid harm upon the Soul—for that was the rebellious nature of the flesh. But in the Spirit, in her ministering to the Spirit, the Soul found healing.
(The Monk abruptly stops bathing the Prisoner’s feet. Wide-eyed, the Monk stares up at the Prisoner.)
JAILER: Does this fairy tale have a point?
PRISONER: Only this—this conflict is one that the Body cannot win. (slide 5) In imprisoning the Spirit, the Body only imprisons himself. In harming the Soul, only the flesh carries the scars. (slide 6) And as disease takes its toll, the Body ages and eventually dies, and the Spirit and Soul live forever. And in the end, as time runs out in the prison that he’s created, the Body comes to realize one terrible truth (slide 7) of the three of them—Body, Soul, Spirit—only the Body remains trapped. Unbeknown to the Body, the Spirit and Soul were there voluntarily.
(The Monk proceeds drying the Prisoner’s feet. She slips sandals onto his feet when finished, and remains kneeling.)
JAILER: Now I know why they call them parables. (claps twice, lights come up) Parable rhymes with terrible, and that was terrible. I cannot believe you just wasted my time with—
PRISONER: Perhaps you didn’t understand.
JAILER: I understood what you were saying, but it wasn’t even a parable. A parable is supposed to be a—a short tale that tells a simple truth, a truth that has a deeper universal meaning. That was just a slide show.
PRISONER: (rising) Consider this. Maybe this monastery is the parable, a parable of which you, she, and I are part, and my presentation was the explanation you’re seeking.
PRISONER: Maybe, of the three of us, only she and I are here voluntarily and are truly free to go anytime we wish.
PRISONER: Maybe, of the two of us, it is you who is being examined and tested.
JAILER: Well that’s just crazy. I have the clipboard.
MONK: (to Jailer, rising) Maybe you should just shut up and listen for a change. You might learn something.
JAILER: (rising) Wha—what did you say?
MONK: (surprised) I can speak!
JAILER: Not again!
MONK: (excited, to the Prisoner) I can speak! I can speak! I can speak!
JAILER: In English! Speak in English, dammit!
(Lights down. End of Act I.)