One day, a man who was on a journey of spiritual growth heard of a wise man who lived at the top of the mountain.
He set out to climb that mountain, to learn from the wise man. After hours of climbing, he sat down upon a stone to rest his feet, and as he did so, he noticed a sweet fragrance in the air. When he looked down, he saw a patch of tiny flowers nestled in the moss beside the stone.
Just then he heard footsteps on the path behind him, and a woman walked up, moving quickly and carefully watching the path at her feet. As she came near, he spoke to her, "Good morning! Come, join me and rest for a while! There is a--"
But she said, impatiently, "I don't have time. I must get to the top of this mountain and speak to the wise man!" And she continued along the path.
Before long, he resumed his walk, and the path became steeper. Some hours later, tired again, he found a comfortable space to rest. A cry in the air made him turn to look, and he watched as a hawk soared effortlessly overhead and disappeared behind the mountain.
He moved on, and eventually he came to a spring-fed pool of water that lay beside the path. There was a stone bench beside the pool, and a cup atop it. He sat down upon the bench and filled the cup from the pool. The water was icy cold, and tasted clean and refreshing. As he sat on the bench, listening to the trickle of the water and the whisper of the wind, he heard footsteps on the path above him, and he saw that it was the same woman as before, coming back down the path, moving quickly and carefully watching the path at her feet. "Hello, again!" he said to her, "Would you like a drink?" He held out the cup.
"No, thank you, I have my own," and she pulled a bottle out of her pack and took a drink.
"Did you speak to the wise man?" he asked her, "What did he tell you?"
She rolled her eyes in frustration, and checked her watch distractedly. "Nothing I didn't already know. He's a fraud; you might as well not waste your time. Anyway, I need to be going." And she set off down the path as he sat beside the pool.
Once the sound of her footsteps had faded, he returned the cup to its spot on the bench, and continued on the path. Before long, he reached the top of the mountain, and found that the entire summit was a well-tended garden. In the middle of the garden was a pair of stone benches like the one at the pool, and on one of the benches sat a very old man.
The traveler stood for a moment, looking at the old man, and the old man sat serenely, looking back at the traveler. Eventually, the traveler went to the open bench and sat down, saying, "Are you the wise man I have heard tales about?"
"That is as may be," said the old one, "there are those who think me wise, and those who think me foolish. But I am the only man who lives on this mountain, and if that is who you seek, then that is who you have found."
"I was told by many people," said the traveler, "that you are a wise man, and that I should seek to learn from you."
The old man did not speak for some time, and then said, "Tell me of your journey up the mountain."
So the traveler spoke about finding the stone beside the path, and about the patch of moss with the tiny fragrant flowers. "Ah," said the old man, "I have sat upon that very stone myself, and smelled those flowers. They are a sacred herb, that can heal many illnesses of the soul." The old man spoke for a long time, and described the history, uses, and names of the herb. Once he was done, he said, "Tell me more of your journey."
So the traveler told him of the hawk that had cried as it flew overhead. "Yes," said the old man, "I have seen that hawk for many years," and he went on to describe the bird and its mate, and the place that it nested and the manner of its life. Then he said, "Tell me more of your journey."
So the traveler told him of the pool and the spring, and the bench and the cup, and the sound of the water and the wind and the flavor of the water. And the old man nodded and said, "I put that bench there, so that I could sit beside that pool and listen to the spring without making these old bones ache. The water in that pool is said by some to be magical, and to keep the body healthy."
"Is it?" asked the traveler.
"I do not know," said the old man, "but I have drunk of it every day for years, and I have never in that time become ill."
They spoke together for a long time, and when it was approaching time for him to leave, the traveler said, "Elder, I have a question. As I came up the mountain, I was passed by a young woman, once as she came seeking you, and once again as she left."
The old man nodded, saying, "She did not find what she was looking for."
"Why," said the traveler, "did you tell me all about the herbs and the hawk and the spring? And why did you not tell her?"
"When the woman came here, I asked her, as I asked you, to describe her journey. She told me of how she'd prepared, and how much effort she had put into the climb, and how quickly she had made the journey. She told me of a foolish man she'd seen wasting the day sitting on a rock when he could have been here that much sooner. She did not see the moss, or the flowers. She did not hear the cry of the hawk or see him riding the sky-trail. She did not see my bench or my cup, or drink of the spring and listen to the air and the water as they played together. All she knew was the path, and not the places her path had taken her. Not the things her path had shown her."
"So then why did you teach me so much?"
"Did I teach you? I gave you information that you did not have, certainly, but it was you who noticed the things along the path that were worth paying attention to. All the things I have told you are things you could have learned yourself, if only you had known where to look. It is the ability to find the things along the path that is important, not the path itself. And not the old man you find at the end of it."
Eventually the traveler left the mountaintop garden, and made his way down the path. Once down the mountain, he went into the inn in the village on the plain. There, to his surprise, he found the woman he'd met upon the path.
She asked him, "Did you speak to the old fool?" she asked him, "What did he tell you?"
The traveler thought for a moment about the flowers and the hawk and the pool.
Then he smiled and said, "Nothing I didn't already know."