By his own account, Syalenar was the heir of a large estate in the highlands of Krwŋ— one which had been ruined by deforestation, drought, and plague. Once a thriving millet farm, it was now worthless land, covered with weeds; the soil was too hard for other crops. Even if anything grew, trade routes and customers had evaporated.
He would have been born around 1770; his birth name was Pyelnyet. He speaks of his parents’ grandiose plans to return to their estate, suggesting that he wasn’t born there, but in one of the small remaining settlements along the rivers. The family mostly maintained itself by small-scale fishing and farming, though it clung to a small bit of gold; this Pyelnyet’s father entirely wasted in trips to visit the remaining authorities in hopes that they would repair the irrigation works that had once watered his estate.
There was certainly no money or energy for such projects, nor would irrigation alone restore fertility; but both Pyelnyet’s father and the supposed authorities were caught in post-catastrophic denial— the illusion that Krwŋ still existed and just needed to be kicked into gear. Watching his father, Pyelnyet developed a deep sense of the futility of such dwelling in the past.
We don’t know everything he did in his adult life, but in general he made use of his literacy. He did some teaching; he dispensed medical or technological advice; he read and interpreted old contracts and laws. Above all he wrote letters for people, a career that gave him much insight into people’s basic needs and wild aspirations.
The nature of his work made him a traveler: there was only so much reading and writing people needed in any one location. He wandered up and down the former empire of Krwŋ, and spent much time in its great cities, now falling into ruin. He became focussed on one overriding question: What had gone wrong?
Sometime in the early 1820s he retired. He lived in Pursut, once a great metropolis, now an apocalpytic but strangely peaceful array of crumbling buildings half hidden by weeds. He gleaned abandoned fields for grain and caught an occasional dog or rabbit for meat. He now called himself Syalenar ‘not-having’.
In legend he was entirely alone, but it’s clear from later accounts that he was not— the ruined city was along the Suntso, near the Uytainese border, and attracted traders and scavengers, and sometimes families or whole clans would stay for a time in the abandoned buildings. Still, there was no permanent population and he had plenty of time for thought.
His preoccupations were hyem, inner peace in the face of adversity, and sur, social harmony. That is, how does one live in a time of social destruction? And why did that destruction occur?
After ten years, he felt that he had answers, and he began explaining them to whoever would listen. At first these were random visitors, but soon enough he had disciples, notably Mwenkrau, a grizzled trader who had once been a student of his; Purthel, an energetic young poet from the nearest Uytainese city, Khurhan; and Myarfai, a young woman who took care of most of the sage’s physical needs.
Mwenkrau took charge of organizing the disciples, while Purthel wrote down the master’s words. The movement became known as Hyemsur. Official reception was chilly— he was blisteringly skeptical of authority, not excepting that of imperial Uytai— and he was widely considered an anarchist or lunatic. At the same time the authorities realized that they would only look foolish venturing into a ruined city to arrest an old man for talking.
He refused to leave Pursut, or even to have his accommodations improved beyond a certain point— he refused the offer of a bed or an oil lamp, for instance, and didn’t want the holes in the roof plugged. The sound of rain on the floor helped him sleep, he said.
He died in 1847.
- Outline of Hyemsur doctrine and practice