Chao Chou went to a hermit’s hut and asked, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” The hermit lifted up his fist. Chao said, “The water is too shallow for a ship to anchor.”

He then went to another hermit’s hut, and asked, “Anybody in? Anybody in?” The hermit lifted up his fist. Chao said, “Freely you give, freely you take away. Freely you give life, freely you take it away,” and he made a profound bow.

~ The Gateless Barrier, Case 11

We meet madmen, we meet holy men. The crazy one frightens us, perhaps, and the saintly one deeply moves us. The koan above is usually seen as a master’s test of two monks. But perhaps Chao is the one being tested. Afterall, it was Chao who in the first meeting appeared a bit unstable, and Chao who in the second encounter was deeply reverential. The monks? They both saw through him, from the beginning. Adding praise or blame, for them, was not really necessary.

About two months ago, while traveling with my family outside of Fez, Morocco on a day tour, we stopped at the small Berber village of Bhalil, where we were to see how locals lived in caves cut into the hillside. We got out in the small square, near the spring-fed fountain, where a dozen women dressed in black were doing their daily laundry. They appeared annoyed by the tourists watching them, so we walked a few yards onto the main road. Just then, a young man in his 30s came rapidly striding toward us, screaming in English: “Where are you from?! Where are you from?!” His face was flushed red, like he had been drinking, with veins popping out of his forehead. The man brandished a length of pipe and went to pick up a large rock, as if to smash us with it. Our driver got to his side, calmed him down, and we left. The police soon came, took the man away, and provided us with a walking escort for the rest of the day.

Several days later, on the drive to Marrakech, we came to an ancient, mud-walled village called Ait-ben Haddou, for a millennium an ethnic-Jewish (though practicing Muslim) community. Over the last two decades, the village has been the backdrop for over 20 Hollywood films, including The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Gladiator (2000). Only four families live there now, though it has a small mosque. With our day guide, we were crossing the river, and met a man and his son who were crossing from the other shore. The guide stopped to chat for a few minutes. I looked at the man, who had no features that distinguished him from the other villagers walking by. Even so, I could palpably feel a gentleness and deep quiet within him. To me, it seemed to come from prayer. After a few moments, we continued on, and I asked our guide if that man was an Imam. Looking greatly surprised at how I might know, the guide said that indeed he was. He was the holy man of the village.

One village’s madman, and another village’s saint. We met them and saw through them both, one foundering on the rocks and the other freely giving and taking away. But let me ask you, which one do we praise, and which one do we blame?