A Chinese emperor called all the painters in his empire. It was one of the greatest empires in the world. He himself was in deep love with painting and he asked the painters, “I want to declare one of you the master painter of my empire. You are going to be my guests and you have to paint. I will come to see your paintings and whichever painting proves to be the best, that painter will become part of my royal court and the master painter of the whole empire – with many rewards.”
Thousands of painters participated in this competition. One old painter said to the king, “It will take at least three years for me to complete the painting, and I have a few conditions. While I am making the painting, nobody should enter into my house. I don’t want anybody to see the incomplete painting. When the painting is complete, I will invite you.”
The king said, “Three years? That is too much.”
The painter said, “Then I must get out of the competition. Three years is nothing because you don’t know what I am going to paint.”
Reluctantly the emperor agreed. All the other painters finished their work: somebody in one week, somebody in two weeks…at the most four weeks. But the king was not satisfied. He was waiting for the old man. Without seeing his painting he could not declare his judgment.
After three years the old man came and asked the emperor, “Now the painting is complete. You are welcome.” He was painting in the king’s palace itself. He had been given a beautiful place that was guarded twenty-four hours a day so that nobody should enter for three years. Let the painter do his work unhindered, uninterfered with.
The emperor was waiting for three years. It is a long time and he was old and afraid that perhaps death may come before then. But fortunately he was still alive. With great wonder in his heart he entered the palace where the painter had done his work. He had painted on a whole wall of the palace, a beautiful forest with a small river flowing, and a small footpath going into the deep forest and disappearing into the mountains that he had painted.
The king could not believe his eyes. It was almost miraculous, magical. He was in awe. After a long silence he asked the painter only one question: “I am very much interested in this little footpath that goes around the forest, is sometimes seen around the mountains and then disappears. Where does it go?”
The painter said, “There is no other way to know unless you walk on it.” And the king completely forgot that it was only a painting. He was so overwhelmed by the beauty that he took the painter’s hand in his hand and they both walked on the path and disappeared into the mountains.
They have not yet returned.
This is the way of the mystic. He disappears into existence not to return.