Many people searching for some reality above the ordinary experience of the world tend to think of things of the spirit as a sort of package deal. One may practise Buddhist meditation as a means of attaining spiritual insight and independence, but then one is in duty bound, as it were, also to believe in palmistry (Western and Eastern, though the principles are entirely different), astrology, geomancy, and so on. Apart from the fact that the Buddha himself forbade such practices, there are many disadvantages in the attitude of ‘It’s all true, and more.’
The Chinese saying is, that wherever the people gather, there the pickpockets too will come, and this is true of spiritual things. Oddities of thought are built up into fantastic systems, skilfully peddled to credulous people who end up bitterly disappointed. A man in one of the great cities of the East, who had a reputation as a sort of magician, used to begin an interview by asking the client to bare the right forearm and lay it on the table. Then he used to place on it a little tripod made of cardboard with a sort of horizontal windmill on top, which could freely revolve. He told the client to sit quite still. There was no possible source of power within the little machine, every detail of which was clearly visible, but quite soon the top would begin to revolve. The magician used to scrutinize the movement for a minute or so, and then proceed with the interview. He never explained it, but the clients were duly impressed. One of them, a European woman with a deep interest in Buddhism, once described it to a friend who was an engineer. From her account, he constructed a similar toy, and showed her that the currents of warm air, rising from the body-heat of the arm, would be sufficient to make the little windmill rotate. She was terribly upset at having been tricked, as she felt, and gave up not only her visits to the magician, but her interest in Buddhism as well. She had thought of it all as a package deal; she had believed everything, and now found she could believe nothing.
There is a folk tale which illustrates the point amusingly but profoundly. It comes from Jammu in northern India. In the troubled times which followed the collapse of the Mogul Empire, rich people buried jewels in the ground, hoping to come back later to retrieve them. Sometimes they were never able to do so and the secret died with them. In a Jammu village, a husband and wife, digging in their garden one afternoon, unearthed a large ruby. To declare their find would have meant that the village bully would simply have come and taken it from them; their only chance was to wait till the husband made his usual monthly trip into the city, where he had a relative who was a jeweller. Then he might hope for a fair price for it. But unfortunately their little five-year-old son had seen the ruby dug out, and they knew he would be bound to tell everyone. What could they do? They could not tie his tongue, or keep him indoors for the next month.
It is not easy to think of a solution, and in a spiritual tradition the teacher will sometimes break off this kind of story, telling the pupils to think out something for the parents to do. When they have wrestled with it for quite a time, they are able to appreciate the conclusion of the story, and apply it to their own lives. Readers who are interested might try laying this book aside, and pondering what they would have done in place of the parents.
What the mother did was, to keep the little boy in the house that evening. After he had gone to bed she went next door and borrowed the oven to make some cakes with some very special honey which she had been keeping for a long time for a future treat. Just before dawn she got up quietly and scattered some of these cakes on the roof, and others in the garden. Then she woke her son and said, ‘This is a lucky day – it’s been raining cakes on our house. Get up quickly and help me pick them up before the birds get them.’ By the light of the pale dawn moon, the two of them gathered up the cakes into bags; they had some of them at breakfast. Then she let her son go out.
Sure enough, when he was with some of his friends in another part of the village, he blurted out, ‘We dug up a big shiny red stone in the garden yesterday.’ The bully’s wife happened to be there, and she pricked up her ears and listened carefully. ‘Yes,’ he went on, ‘and that’s nothing. It rained cakes on us too in the night; I got up with mummy this morning and helped her pick them up. I bet you’ve never had cakes rain on your house.’ As the children discussed this, some believing and others doubting, the listener relaxed, laughing. The merely rare event was now associated for her with the impossible, and she dismissed the whole thing. She could not believe in the cakes, quite rightly, and because they were associated in her mind with the ruby, she did not believe in that either.
© Trevor Leggett