While gazing at the night sky, a Zen master began contemplating the possibility of Zen on other planets. Would creatures that developed far from Earth contain within themselves the possibility of enlightenment? Or, would their minds function in such a way as to make enlightenment impossible?
The master decided to find out and built a great ladder that stretched all the way to the heavens with its top resting on Jupiter’s ring.
On his day of ascension, many students and masters from far and wide gathered at the base of the ladder to see him off. On his back, he wore a simple pack with some rice balls, an extra robe and a flint for lighting fires. He climbed one rung and then the other, working his way, hand over hand, into the sky. Every few rungs, he would look back down at the crowd as if to reassure them that all was going well. After many hours of climbing, he disappeared into a cloud bank.
Months passed. The ladder remained standing in the master’s garden. Every so often, a student would sit at its base to meditate and, secretly, hope they would be the first to greet the master on his return.
But, his return seemed unlikely.
Years went by. The ladder became weathered. Its rungs began to rot in the elements. Its rails began to splinter in the heat. One day, a student came by the garden and the bottom few meters had crumbled away. Now, the ladder seemed to hang from the sky, a forlorn reminder of the master’s seemingly hopeless venture.
Decades passed. Many of the people in the village forgot about the master and his folly. The ladder had, by this time, worn away so much that it was impossible to make out above the clouds.
And then, one day, as a group of laborers sat enjoying their drinks at the local inn, the door swung open and the master entered. Looking as young as the day he left, he signaled the innkeeper to bring him a cup of wine and a bowl of rice.
Most of the people in the inn went about their business, not realizing who he was, but one wizened old man in the back stood up and worked his way over to the master’s table.
“Master?” he said in a thin papery voice, “Is that you? I was your student many years ago. I helped you build the ladder. I watched you ascend into the heavens. I waited at the base for you to return. I championed your cause throughout the village. I wept at the thought of your death. I despaired at the years I spent on your dream. I succumbed to the bottle. And now, you are back. You look as if you never left. You have your youth and vitality. Your eyes are clear. Your back is strong. Please tell me you have brought new enlightenment from the stars. Please tell me that the years have not been a waste.”
The master leaned down to the old student. His eyes twinkled. He whispered into his ear, “There in a Neptunian Battle Squadron heading towards Earth. They have been scoping out this miserable mud-ball for centuries. The Emperor Nar’ag’Itl finally succumbed to sendrasit poisoning and his son, the right venerable Emperor Nar’ag’iml, is using his death as a flimsy excuse to wreak havoc across this galactic quadrant. Everything you thought you knew about life is a lie. Reality is warped and this planet and all of its inhabitants are about to be pulled into a nightmare of such mind-bending proportions that your greatest hope is to succumb to insanity before the full reality of the horror that is life settles into your tiny simian cranium.”
The master then paid and left.
Four days later, the nightmare began …