Reason in the service of the ego

Sometimes a new idea can change the whole landscape of endeavour, so that everything appears in quite a different light. This applies to most fields of human activity. But in the case of spiritual endeavours, it has some special overtones.

Take the case of doing certain jobs for the spiritual group, for example. Naturally, everyone would like to choose the job that they are good at. Someone good at adding would like to do the accounts, and someone good at gardening would like to help in the garden. But as the Christian saying has it: A cross selected is no true cross.

To do what one can do well where others can see it, is an assertion of personality, and it has not much value as a discipline, though the community may get some benefit from it. Even that benefit, however, is usually offset by the unconscious arrogance of the expert, perpetually putting others right, or taking things off their hands to do them better.

Reason-in-the-service-of-the-ego, or Mephi- stopheles, argues that it must be best to offer one’s service in a field where one can make a really significant contribution. But while there is the feeling ‘I am making a really significant contribution’, training has not begun.

If all goes well, however, some students at least will begin to undertake things which they cannot do well, either at a suggestion from another person, or because they perceive a need—the accountant helps in the garden, perhaps enthusiastically cleaning the stones by scrubbing off moss that has been carefully cultivated for years, and appearing wantonly destructive; the gardener helps with the petty cash and gets the totals wrong, appearing . . . well, after all, where is the money going? Training has begun. Not easy. But, then, no one ever said it would be.

The service is undertaken in a spirit of offering. For a time it may bring a sort of self-sacrificing joy, but usually it becomes a consciously performed act of dedication to an unpleasant or, at least, a boring task. The performers see their time out, and then quit with a feeling of: Well done, thou good and faithful servant!

But, if all still goes well, the day comes when the landscape changes. To give a concrete example: The cushions of two sorts were kept in a large cupboard in one corner of a training hall. There were meetings of different kinds with different arrangements of the cushions. So, shortly before a meeting, they were all brought out and arranged in four big piles against one of the walls. Then the arrangers could easily take them and lay them out. To make these preliminary piles was the job of one fairly new member of the sangha (community). It was also his job to put them away afterwards.

One day, when a meeting had just ended, he was told by a senior that there was to be another meeting of a different and unusual kind in half an hour. He stood irresolute. As the senior looked at him, he said, ‘There’s no real point in putting them in piles just for ten minutes, is there? It will be just as easy for people to rearrange them from where they are; probably a lot of them will stay put.’

Have we something else to do?’ asked the other.

Well, could you tell me something about what came up in the sermon the other day, about the Buddha who lives for a thousand years and the other Buddha who lives for only one day?’

Yes, certainly,’ said the senior, ‘and there’s also a Buddha who lives for only ten minutes,’ and he began to pick up the cushions and stack them into the usual piles. The two worked together in silence, and in ten minutes the cushions were in their piles perfectly aligned against the wall in the bare hall. They stood back and looked at them, and the senior remarked, ‘He lives only ten minutes, but now his life has had its meaning.’ Then the other assistants came in and began to take them down to rearrange them.

The moment of looking at the cushions seemed to stand out in the mind of the junior—the cushions, brilliantly clear, as if they had been in a shaft of sunlight. After that he did not feel impatient with small chores, or think, ‘Is it really worth doing?’ He felt each time: The Buddha lives only so long… Now his life has been fulfilled. He felt the Buddha in himself. And then, gradually, it went off. He could sometimes revive it by recalling that first moment, but slowly it disappeared as a living inspiration.

This kind of thing very often happens, and people on a spiritual path become familiar with it. Sometimes they get vaguely resentful, and even embittered. When they feel a stir of spiritual life in them, Mephistopheles whispers: Remember how many times this has happened before, and remember how it all went off afterwards. Like a little drug, isn’t it? You feel better for a bit, but then it goes off and there’s a reaction, and life is even greyer than before. There are those who, under the pressure of these insinuations, give up making serious efforts.

In the same way, a spiritual incident, or a text perhaps, can be a great inspiration for a time, but if it remains only an idea, the effect wears off. After that, to keep running it over in the mind is like a good-luck charm without living effect. The ideas are not useless; they can be a great help, and, for many, an absolute necessity in waking up inner inspiration and energy. But to rely on these fixed things as a substitute for inner life will always lead to disappointment. They are pools, even lakes, whereas what is wanted is a bubbling spring.

Help, No Help from the Old Zen Master

© Trevor Leggett

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