There is a tradition in the ancient Vedas going back to over 1000B.C. that a great river, the Sarasvati, which rises in the Himalayas, flows a long way underground. Recent prospecting for oil suggests that this supposedly mythological river flows under the Thar, and thus could make the desert bloom. Beneath the human mind, even when it seems most barren, there is a spiritual Sarasvati, which can make the desert blossom into inspiration and energy. To bring this stream to the surface of daily life is a main purpose of yoga.
To make a desert bloom. This piece is not meant as entertainment; it is for people who are in the desert. A great Zen master was approached by two men and a woman who wanted to do some Zen, and he asked them: “Why do you come?” One of them replied: “Well, I was rich and then my business collapsed and I was in jail for a bit. My reputation has gone, I am hated and despised by everybody, and so I have come here.” The teacher turned to the next man and asked him why he was here, and he said: “I was very fond of my wife, but she died and I don’t know how I can stand the grief, so I have come here.” And the teacher turned to the woman, who was a brilliant scholar of Buddhism, and she said “Well I have studied the theories very well, but I thought I would like to do some of the actual practise, so I have come here.”
The teacher considered, and accepted the first man, whose life had been smashed to pieces; yes, he could do something in Zen. The second man, who had suffered this terrible bereavement; yes he could do something in Zen. And the third one, the brilliant scholar who knew all the theory of Buddhism; the one you would think could do something in Zen, was accepted too, but privately the teacher said: “She won’t do anything in Zen,” and she didn’t.
The teachings are meant for people in distress, in difficulty, or in despair – for those in a desert. They are not meant for people who are comfortably off and want to be entertained, and they are not meant for people who are great scholars and want to learn a bit more about being in a desert.
If you have ever been in a desert you will know that occasionally, in this mass of sand, you see a tree, and you think: how does it survive? There is hardly any rainfall here, how can it live? Well its roots can go down between thirty and fifty feet, and they find water under the desert. This water is not on the surface, for there is nothing there, but the tree I s roots travel deep, and it survives. But it is only one tree, and there is not another for miles. When we look back over our own lives, or observe the lives of other people, we see mostly suffering; even the moments of triumph and great success are suffering. If you are very successful, you will be hated by those who fail, and if you fail, you will be despised and ignored. But sometimes there are moments when we think back, and recall a peace that was not dependent on anything outside. Perhaps it was some walk in the country when we sat on a stone and had no worries in our mind. Suddenly there was peace and a feeling of something beyond.
In one of his poems, Tagore refers to these states and says that he never realised when they came and went before he was back again in the excitements, frustrations and fights of everyday life. But when he looks back he can see that there were moments of peace and transcendence that had no explanation, which did not depend on anything external. Now, when he looks back on them he can see the signet ring of the Lord imprinted on those moments; he realises that was when the Lord visited him. He did not recognise them at the time; he only knew that there was a peace, but now when he looks back he can see these moments clearly.
In the spiritual traditions, we are told that these are just hints. They are hints like the tree in the desert; there is water below the desert of life IS disappointments and frustrations. Now sometimes those moments can come they can be brought about if we are sensitive enough. If you went, in the old days anyway, and possibly still, to a traditional Japanese hotel, one evening a maid would come to your room and ask: “Do you want to see the moon rise?” See the moon rise. There was a little balcony in the hotel, and on that balcony at a particular time when the maids called you, you sat there in silence, and beyond the hill you looked up and the moon would come. People didn’t talk or fidget, asking, “Is it coming now?’ They sat and waited. There is a poem:
“It’s just coming.
The great harvest moon”.
And the people sat, and then would see the moon come rising, and would have peace without words, for it is too big for words. There are some cultures which understand how to create these moments of peace, and that is one of them, but these things are still dependent on external circumstances, and we have to find something beyond dependence on circumstance.
As previously mentioned, there is a great desert in Pakistan called the Thar desert, and traditionally there are three great rivers which take their source in the Himalayas; the one we call the Ganges, and one we call the Yamuma. There is also another which we don’t see, the Sarasvati, meaning “swift flowing”, and the ancient tradition from the Vedas is that the Sarasvati travels underground. Some hydrologists in the Thar have been using a system whereby a helicopter flies over a given area. There is an elaborate technical explanation, but briefly: a transmitter sends out radio signals and that produces a current in an aerial, which is received by a radio. It is similar to broadcasting; the transmitter sends out radio waves that strike the ground and set up induced currents. This sets up electric magnetisation that can be sensed by very sensitive instruments carried in floats towed by the helicopter. With this technique they can find out whether there is water below the surface of the desert.
Recently, hydrologists from Germany and Pakistan surveyed a very large area, and they found a huge fresh water aquifer, between thirty and one hundred metres deep, and several kilometres in length. All that fresh water!
They could tell it’s fresh because fresh water’s resistance is different to that of, say, lime water. It is now known that there is a vast body of water that could make the desert bloom. The German hydrologist said: “There is enough water here to supply a great city like Hamburg, with 1.5 million inhabitants, all their water needs for over a century.” Now they are drilling for it, at considerable labour and expense, for it is much more valuable than oil.
The spiritual discipline tells us that beneath the desert of our lives there is a living water, a living stream – perhaps like this enormous fresh water aquifer under the Thar desert. The mysterious Sarasvati I s reputation as a river that travelled underground from the Himalayas was thought to be pure myth, but perhaps it has some basis in truth after all. These analogies can be a useful stimulus, though of course they are not exact in every point. But if we do spiritual study in one tradition over a defined area, not just here and there, and we do it with attention, then we can begin to pick up these very fine signals from somewhere deep within ourselves. Below the surface desert of our lives, there is a living stream which can make the desert bloom.
© Trevor Leggett