In one of Barrie’s plays, there is a shipwreck, and for the first night the old Earl is separated from the others. When they meet up the next day, he complains how cold he has been, and his daughter says: “But Daddy, why didn’t you make a fire by rubbing two sticks together?” He replied irritably: “Have you ever tried to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together?” She says no more. She had read and believed, like so many others, that Indians and Polynesians and perhaps Boy Scouts could make a fire by friction, but this belief would hold only so long as no weight was put on it.
In the same way, exalting texts can be read and believed, but only so long as there is no risk of having to depend on them. Teachers have called this ‘paper belief’; some rate it even thinner than paper, because not all the paper text is believed in the first place.
Still, speakers, readers and thinkers can get drunk on words. Phrases like “It’s unthinkable”, and then, unimaginable, indescribable, immortal, infinite, or “the peace that passeth understanding” of the New Testament, awaken some equally undefined response of awe and wonder. There is a feeling of exaltation, but it changes, like other feelings. It is soon undermined by Mephilstopheles-in-the-mind, who argues reasonably enough: “If it is unthinkable, if it passes understanding, then how can you possibly know that it exists at all? And how can something indescribable be a goal for human endeavour? The words might as well be in a remote foreign language, or simply nonsense syllables.” At the time of uttering they seemed assured, but that was like the over-confident assertions of drunkenness. As soberness returns, they become thinner and thinner. To prevent, or at least lessen, that effect, a tacit understanding arises not to inquire into it, or even speak about it. It is known that there is something wrong, but it is thought best that the fact should be ignored.
In the same way, Western painting from the 15th to the end of the 19th century was supposed to be based on laws of perspective which in fact apply only to a one-eyed observer, such as the later camera. Practising artists knew there was something wrong. They had to alter the strict foreshortenings which the principles required, and which look so ridiculous when we see them in the photographs taken by a novice. Again, when a finger is held up in the foreground, it is painted as shutting out part of the background. What actually happens is that a two-eyed viewer sees two transparent fingers, and has a complete view of the background. These shortcomings were concealed by using bluff phrases like ‘the eye of the artist’. The abstraction hides the fact that the artist, and the viewer, normally have two eyes. (A photograph of a scene often gives a misleading impression of the space, a fact well known to makers of advertising brochures.)
The Chinese artists in general accepted the limitations. They did not try for a ‘realistic’ representation, though they thought a painted scene should be recognizable.
The holy texts cannot give accurate descriptions of Absolute Transcendence, the Unthinkable, the Indescribable. But that is not their function. Their purpose is to concentrate attention, and then direct it past shallow levels of illusion, deeper and deeper, towards its own essence. Finally it transcends itself, to become what is provisionally called Light, which is really the Indescribable Transcendence. The surviving body-mind can give no better words than those of the holy texts: mere hints. They have motivating power because though fragmentary, they arouse a fragmentary echo in the Light already obscurely felt in the seeker who hears them. The echoes, repeated again and again in various ways, become a stirring, and the yogic process begins.
However, for a time one may be satisfied with echoes, or even think that they are what is sought. Such experts in the holy texts may be satisfied themselves, and satisfy others, with quotations. They are like a helpful foreigner in a city, who when asked the way, pulls out a map and consults it before giving directions. The fact that he needs to read from a map shows that he does not know the route he is being asked about. It also means that the information will probably be accurate, within the limitations of a map. Someone who really knows the route may give some similar directions, but there will be important things which a map cannot show. For instance, he may say:
“You will know you are going right when there is a big splash of mimosa across the left-hand wall”. One who does not know the city, but is totally dependent on a map, might not understand this at all. He could suppose Mimosa is some wealthy foreigner who has a swimming-pool in which he splashes about, beyond the wall.
The text-knowers are often very accurate in what they quote, but it is all theoretical. They have no living experience of the route or of the goal. They are called Knowers-of-the-Words. Their knowledge is paper-thin.
Genuine students of the texts do perform a service if they help to bring the life-giving truth before others. But as a modem teacher remarked, we have to be careful not to drift into thinking that word-knowledge is the same as experience. The word-expert may say: “It is true that I am limited to words. But so are the holy texts themselves. Yet their words are but the tip of an ice-berg; they are only a hint of what lies hidden beneath.” It is true. But there must be an actual ice-berg, not a little man swimming about holding a spike of ice on a stick above his head and shouting: “Watch out for my iceberg.”
previous teaching points
C 1998 Trevor Leggett