Daniel works at his desk. He balances accounts. He looks for discrepancies. He reads the records of the dreams of the people of Babylon, and searches them for meaning. It is the hope of his masters that he may discover corruption and incompetence within Babylon’s bureaucracy by correlating the records and the dreams.
He is not surprised when the seraph enters his room.
“I dreamed,” Daniel says, “that the people of Judea fled from a lion, and were met by a bear. The bear was bitten by a serpent, and the bear and the serpent tore one another apart. Then I flew away and was suddenly naked.”
“That is the kind of thing that happens in dreams,” says the seraph.
“The lion was Nabonidus,” says Daniel. “The bear is Belshazzar, who rules in Babylon now that the monster is gone.”
The seraph is a creature of beauty. It is tall. Its skin is strange. Its wings are great and terrible. Its eyes are jeweled.
“I had hoped,” says Daniel, “that he would be a better King. The people of Judea have suffered under the monster for too long; and we are not the only ones.”
“The Lord has not rendered His judgment,” says the seraph.
“Then,” says Daniel, “I ask that the Lord be merciful, and redeem this man. Move his heart, and have him release us from captivity. I have seen into his soul, and there is hope for him.”
“He is no more than any other man,” says the seraph, “and like any other man, he must make his own chances for redemption.”
It is 539 years before the common era.
It is the night before the Feast of Belshazzar.
The Bo Tree
Siddhartha has wandered for six years and several months. He is tired, and he has not found his answer. So he sits beneath a bo tree, and he says,
I will not leave this spot,
Until I find supreme enlightenment—
Until I can make answer
To the suffering of the world.
The wings of Maya beat against him, and she whispers on the wind:
Do you not wish to know your wife again?
To indulge in sensual pleasures with her?
And hold your son, your wonderful son,
And raise him in the duties of the house?
Have you forgotten all the pleasures
That found you in your palaces of gold?
Siddhartha’s smile is clean enough to break her heart.
Should such knick-knacks tempt me? Siddhartha asks.
Belshazzar slouches on Babylon’s throne.
“It falls to me, now,” he says.
He is dressed in the regalia of a King. He did not know what else to do with it when his father Nabonidus cast it aside.
“I must assume the burden of their dharmas. I must conquer the world. I must break the chains that hold Mylitta’s gods. I must devour everything that is.”
“It is fortunate,” he says, “that I am a man who can bear contradictions.”
He snaps his fingers. Mana, an incubus like a giant stick-bug, answers Belshazzar’s call. He is wearing a minister’s robes.
“Release the gods from their bindings,” Belshazzar commands. “And tell them: ‘Go. Make horrid revel, or strike down the armies of Kuras, or help the people of Babylon, or hide under the beds and fear the dawn; do as you like. Serve your nature. Go free.'”
“They will not want to leave you, sire,” oozes the incubus.
“Tell them that their long pain is answered,” says Belshazzar. “Tell them that Nabonidus is gone. That Mylitta is gone. Tell them I have won. Tell them that it is time.”
“And of the people of Babylon?”
“Tell them to make celebration,” Belshazzar says. “Tell them that tomorrow I shall hold a feast, and they shall see the wonders of my kind.”
“They will be afraid,” says the incubus. “There will be fiends that burrow in their skin and move their hands like puppets. There will be angels preaching unimaginable hopes. There will be ghosts of the things they cannot let go of. There will be cruel claws under the bed, and black wings in the sky, and purple light in the depths of the city. If you do not lead them with a strong hand, fear and doubt will break their minds.”
“It is not for me to judge them,” says Belshazzar. “I would go mad. The power I have in Nabonidus’ army—I would go mad! Should I choose whom the gods shall make puppets, and whom they shall exalt? Should I command the hungering beasts, ‘Eat those who stray from the traditional morality, but leave the rest alone?’ When someone sees an eye in the darkness, shall they say, ‘Ah, Belshazzar wishes to know what it is I do?'”
Belshazzar shakes his head.
“I am alone,” he says. “I am an orphan. I am naked in the face of the world. Let them be the same. Let them face the infinity of gods and sort out their own judgments from among them.”
“Such wisdom,” says the incubus. “Truly, you shall be the King of all the world.”
Belshazzar smiles thinly.
“You too are free,” he says. “I need no praising god.”
The Bo Tree
As the feast of Belshazzar approaches, Siddhartha sits beneath the bo tree and thinks on life. Maya’s wings are beating, and she says to him:
If you continue this meditation
It will bring you your death.
Over the horizon, he can see them come. They are swift. They are terrible. They are an army of horror, summoned from the world to answer Maya’s need. And Maya names them as they come:
Look, this is Sakkaya-ditthi,
Raksha and enemy of the gods, but still she comes,
Twisting wind, white light in a hurricane,
Mumbling the truths of power.
Look, this is Vicikiccha,
A world-breaking fiend, like a panther, like a snake,
Crawling on two legs towards you
Dragging his tail behind him
Burning you with his eyes.
Look, this is Silabbataparamasa,
Dark sorceress clad in writhing rituals,
Hidden in a cloak of night,
Practicing the magic of your end.
Look, here are my daughters, child:
Tanha, whom you must love;
Arati, whom you must hate,
Raga, whom you must lust for.
Here is Arupa-raga, a distancing god,
Here is Mana, raksha, clad in robes
Here is Uddhacca, born of the monster’s need
Here is Avijja, demon, your undoing.
Look, Siddhartha, as they come,
Boiling over the horizon.
They shall be your death.
And Siddhartha looks at them, and he sees the laws of their natures, and he says, I shall die, mother, but not in such a fashion as this.
The celebration rages through Babylon. It is punctuated by screams and cries of ecstasy. And Daniel stands before Belshazzar, and says, “My people cannot be here, Belshazzar. Living under your rule will destroy us. It is time to let Judea go.”
Belshazzar rises from his throne. He is drunk. His eyes are cold.
“Where was your God when I needed him?”
Daniel shakes his head. “That isn’t relevant.”
Belshazzar’s nostrils flare. He is not a bad man in all ways, but he is not a very good drunk.
“I find your people wanting,” he says. “I will devour you. I will break your faith and prove your Lord is meaningless and in so doing I shall unmake everything your people are.”
Daniel lowers his head. He walks away.
Belshazzar turns to a servant.
“Fetch forth the ceremonial vessels taken from the temple at Jerusalem,” Belshazzar commands. “I shall defile them here, at the feast of Belshazzar, and then there shall be no people of Judea, no tribe of Abraham, no servants of Daniel’s almighty God, but henceforth only emptiness.”
And so he drinks, but as he drinks, the seraph enters the room; and there is no one whose eyes follow the seraph but Belshazzar himself.
The seraph’s hand is red.
“Mene,” writes the seraph on the wall, in letters of crimson and black. “Mene. Tekel. Peres.”
The Bo Tree
Siddhartha is unmoved.
The army of Maya has cast itself against him, and it has broken. Stone, and ice, and knives have rained from the heavens upon him, and even the devas opened their umbrellas to shield them from so terrible a rain—but Siddhartha is unmoved.
Flaming rocks fall upon him, and in Maya’s eyes Siddhartha sees the bite of an unmeasurable pain, and he bows his head, but he does not leave, and he does not die, and he does not break.
Finally, Maya is exhausted, finally there is nothing left in her, finally she is curled upon the ground and saying:
Why have you left me alive, my son,
To know my helplessness?
It is later that night, and Belshazzar has devoured the alcohol from his blood and now there is only a headache.
“Daniel,” he says, “what does it mean, this writing on the wall?”
“‘You have been measured and found wanting.‘”
Belshazzar laughs. He cannot stop laughing. He shouts, into the air of Babylon, “It’s so! It’s so! I will judge myself so!”
The Bo Tree
Siddhartha holds out his hand to the treasure wheel, and says,
You weep, mother, because I will be a Buddha.
Yet only the Buddha can end your tears.
Listen. This is enlightenment:
Suffering is unnecessary.
To make it unnecessary—
That is the nature of the Buddha.
That is my dharma.
There is no room in all the natures of the world for the truth he has just named; and in that moment, the purpose of the world is emptiness, and the treasure wheel is hollow. And in Babylon, Belshazzar’s teeth cut and tear at his own flesh, and the devouring god devours himself, and into him like a rushing river pour all the natures of the world.
539 years before the common era, the world is delivered from sorrow.