The Three Boxes of Enlightenment: A Story

“So, you tell me you’ve achieved enlightenment!  Congratulations!”

The little, old man smiled at me in a strange way.

“Now that you’ve arrived at this new status, there’s something very special I have to show you.  Very few people have ever seen it.”

With that, the funny little man turned and began walking back to his house, beckoning me to follow him.  He led me down the stairs to a dusty old basement, lined with shelves holding a variety of oddly shaped items.

“Here they are!” he exclaimed with satisfaction.  “My three boxes of enlightenment.”

He reached up to a high shelf and, one by one, took three sealed wooden boxes down and put them on a table next to me.

“Here, open it up!”  He pushed one of the boxes toward me.

I picked up the lacquered box, barely able to see its colors through the dust on top.  I saw it had a latch, which I opened.  The lid creaked up on a hinge.  I peered inside.  Strange, indeed!  All I could see in the box was a dirty little piece of black string.  As I looked more closely, I realized I was looking at a used candle wick.

“Isn’t it beautiful!  Isn’t that extraordinary!” the little old man cried out gleefully in his strange accent.  “This is the beauty of the candle’s flame.  One evening, there I was, watching the flame flickering in the breeze, dancing to the invisible music of the air currents, sucking up the wax and turning it into warmth, brightness and life.  It was so beautiful, I wanted to capture it forever.  So, I took my scissors, cut the flame off the candle, and put it in my box.  And here it still is, after all these years, my beautiful candle flame.”

I looked again, but all I could see was a dingy little remnant of blackened thread.  Before I could ask him what on earth he was talking about, he had jumped up and started pushing over to me another of his boxes.

“Now, this next box is really something special!  Open it!  Open it!”  He could hardly contain his excitement.

As I picked up this new box, wiping the cobwebs away, I noticed it was heavier than the last.  It seemed to have something liquid swishing inside.  With a little consternation, I carefully unlocked the lid.  I opened it up and saw that it was full of water.  I gingerly put my nose towards it.  A smell of mildew from the sides of the box wafted up at me.  It was too dark to see below the surface of the water, but it didn’t seem like it contained anything else.  Just a liter or so of slimy, smelly water.  What was so special about this water? I wondered to myself.

“Isn’t that the most dramatic thing you’ve ever seen!”  The strange old man could barely contain himself.  He jumped off his stool and came over to where I was sitting.  He peered into the recesses of the watery box.

“I still remember the beauty of that moment like it was this morning!” He continued breathlessly.  “I was walking on this mountain path, and came across a hidden waterfall.  The water was crashing down!  I could hardly hear myself for the sound of its roar.  As the water hit the rocks, it foamed and fulminated, throwing up spray, whirling around like a wild animal.  It was breathtaking!  I can still taste the freshness of the stream, its cold sensation, as if it had just melted from the snow minutes earlier.  So I took my little box and captured some of the water.  I’ve kept it down here ever since!  Isn’t it sensational!”

I was wondering how I could politely point out to my odd host that, in fact,  all I saw was some stagnant water slowly becoming a health hazard, when he stretched up and grabbed the final box.

“And here,” he said to me, beaming, “here is my final glory.  This one, I guarantee you, you will never forget!”

By this time, almost panic stricken, I took a deep breath and accepted his gift of the final box.  This one was really sealed.  I had to go around the edges, untwisting some little metal strips, before I could free up the lid.  What was I going to find inside?  I carefully opened up the lid and, holding my breath, looked in.  Nothing.  There was absolutely nothing inside.

“Can you believe it!” the funny little man was getting so excited his arms were starting to swing by his side.  “This is my crowning achievement!  Sunlight!  Transcendent, glorious, life-giving sunlight.  There I was, one beautiful summer’s afternoon, feeling the warm glow of sunshine on my skin, and I knew this moment was to be treasured for all time.  So, I got my most special box, put it in the sunlight and closed it tight, capturing who knows how many sunbeams.  You must admit, my friend, this is truly momentous!”

My heart was sinking as the old man led me back outside.

“Now, my friend,” he said to me as we were making our farewells.  “Next time you arrive at a moment of enlightenment, you could just let yourself feel it, experience the moment, be one with the harmony of the sensations going through you, embrace it and share it quietly with those around you in the form of grace and love.  But, I’d much prefer if you could think about it for me, give it a name, put a frame around, box it up and bring it to me.  Then I can add it to my three boxes of enlightenment.”

With that the strange man shook my hand heartily, gave a formal bow and turned to walk back into his house.

“But wait!” I ran after him and grabbed him by his sleeve before he disappeared through his front door.  I plucked up my courage.

“Your boxes don’t have enlightenment in them!” I blurted out.  “They’re nothing but remnants of those moments.  When you took your scissors and cut the candle wick, you extinguished the flame.  When you caught the water and locked it in a box, you turned the fresh stream into stagnant poison.  And when you closed the lid on the sunlight, you didn’t catch the sunbeams – you just shut them out.”

I thought I’d insulted the old man.  But instead, his face broke out in a smile.  A calmer smile than before.  He suddenly looked both wiser and kinder as his eyes embraced me.

“And that’s exactly what you do, my young friend, when you tell me or anyone else about your moment of enlightenment.”  His voice was soft and gentle.  “That’s exactly what you do the moment you start thinking to yourself ‘I’m enlightened.’  There may be moments in your life when the waves of your body’s sensations and the waves within your mind achieve a perfect harmony, when your reality and that of the external world is synchronized, when time becomes eternal.  Let those moments be.  Don’t try to put a box of thought around them, don’t lock them in with words, and close them off with your concepts.  Just let them be.  And if you let them be, they will melt into your being and express themselves in love and kindness.  But as soon as you try to encapsulate them with a sentence, you will extinguish the flame, and all you will be left with is the burned candle wick, and the empty words: ‘I’ve achieved enlightenment.’”

And when I finally left the old man, and closed his gate behind me, I thanked him from the deepest part of my being, because his three closed boxes of enlightenment had opened up the boxes in my heart that I didn’t even know were there.



  1. Dion said,

    February 24, 2010 at 7:58 am

    A simple story that all should hear as well as heed.

  2. Middle Way said,

    June 28, 2010 at 11:35 am

    “Becoming enlightened” and “Achieving enlightenment” are quite different states. If (part of) enlightenment is the realization of a non-dualistic world and the interconnectedness of everything, then one cannot “achieve enlightenment”, but can only “become more enlightened”. There is no I to become enlightened.

    The story presents an interesting question about the role of time and memory in enlightenment, as the present is where reality exists. Are the three boxes an analogy for the categorization (accommodation) which our minds subconsciously performs, and the differing ways that the old and young man “see” reality?

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