Sansaku: Finding the Touchstone
In Stevenson’s fable, the younger son goes home with the father and the elder son rides out to find the true touchstone of truth. They take two very different paths.
If I were to be blunt, the king counsels his younger son to fake it well and play his cards right. Essentially, he bluffs the priest king into believing a piece of plain mirror is the touchstone. He buys the “seeming” and gives his daughter to the younger son. It’s all about appearances and flattering oneself.
The elder son wanders, and everywhere he goes people say they have the truth. He asks them for the touchstone, and they are more than willing to give it to him. He ends up with a wallet full of them. It’s the one thing all people are willing to give.
After many long years, he comes at last to the ocean and the hut of an old man. It’s different this time, and when he asks for the touchstone, is given what appears to be a plain pebble. He’s disappointed and wanders on.
When he finally looks in the bag of stones, he sees. In the light of the pebble, all of the other stones are still quite beautiful, but only the pebble is bright. And after turning it on the world, he turns it on himself.
That’s the moment when he kneels down and prays.
It’s a bit of a shocker, what happens next. He returns to the priest king’s temple, and finds his younger brother has claimed the prize. He married the daughter and there are children at the door.
When he looks at his younger brother’s touchstone, the mirror of seeming, he sees an old man who has spent his life searching. And he realizes how much he has sacrificed. It grieves him badly, but then he pulls out the pebble and turns it on his brother and bride.
Stevenson isn’t gentle. “His brother’s soul was shrunk into the smallness of a pea, and his heart was a bag of little fears like scorpions, and love was dead in his bosom.” And when he turns it on the maid, “She was but a mask of a woman, and withinsides she was quite dead, and smiled like a clock ticks.”
The elder brother, now seeing this, is finally set free. “He will go forth to wander the world with the pebble in his pocket.”
I usually looked for touchstones in books. I might not have a single stone, but in the spirit of de Nerval, who said, “No religion? I have at least eighteen of them.” That’s how I feel.
At some point, I stumbled on Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I immediately sensed the presence of Lee and discovered it contained three of the stories Lisa had memorized, including “The Touchstone.” I felt like I had found the source.
It’s in a chapter titled “Non-Attachment, Part III.” At the end of it, Blyth repeats the story: “When he turned the light of the pebble on himself, he kneeled down, what else could he do? He prayed.”