The Way of the Merchant in Yoga and Zen

The Way of the Merchant

Be your concern with action alone, never with results.
Let not the fruit of action be your motive, nor yet be attached to inaction.
Steady in yoga do your actions, casting off attachment;
Be the same in success and failure. Evenness of mind is yoga. (Gita II. 47. 48)

In some countries of the East, the merchant was not highly regarded. He was thought to be dominated by selfish profit, and lacking in the inner strength of the warriors and the calm of the priestly class.

A young warrior got to know a merchant in his city; something about this man’s character attracted him. Once he went to sympathize after the merchant had suffered a big loss, but he found him not at all disturbed, and another time when he knew that a minister had made important purchases from the merchant, the latter did not mention the matter at all.

One day when they were walking together, they saw a fire and helped to rescue the family, the merchant showing a calm daring which impressed the warrior. He said afterwards:

‘You will excuse my saying this, but it was rather unexpected to see you calmly taking such risks; I had thought that came from the way of the warriors alone.’

‘Oh,’ replied his friend, ‘merchants have a way of their own.’

‘I suppose you pray to Ganesha to protect you? All you merchants worship the Lord of Prosperity.’

‘I do worship Ganesha, but I never ask for anything. To pray for things is all right for little merchants who are not yet on our way; however much he may own, if he prays for things, he is only a little merchant. If I prayed for something, I should always be anxiously wondering whether my prayer would be answered or not. That would disturb my heart, and no one with a disturbed heart can be a great merchant.’

‘Please tell me about your way,’ asked the warrior.

The merchant looked serious and said, ‘Words are no use in explaining the way. But I can show you. A little further on there is a shop where the owner is ignorant but cunning. When a great man dies suddenly, he immediately goes to the house and makes an attractive offer for small things in the dead man’s effects; often the relatives think them of no value, and in the confusion he may get a good bargain. But as he himself does not know the value of the things either, he waits till a prospective buyer comes in, and then takes his cue from how much interest the customer shows.

‘When he sees me coming, he will be on the alert, because he knows I am well informed in such things. He has a little box which is really valuable because it is one of a set with a long history, which has got dispersed; he bought it cheap from an old widow who knew nothing about it. I have the others, and this one would complete the set.

‘Of course I could send an agent to buy it, but a great merchant never does anything like that. He goes himself, without any tricks.’

When they got to the shop, the merchant looked around a little, and then inquired, ‘How much for this box?’ The proprietor looked narrowly at him, and named a high price.

‘What!’ smiled the merchant. ‘For that little box?’

‘It might be one of a set . . . perhaps?’

‘I am not buying a set. I should not pay more than a quarter of what you’re asking; even that would probably be much more than you paid for it. Well, I have no concern with it – keep it,’ and he walked away down the street with his friend.

As they rounded the corner, talking cheerfully of other things, the shop-owner came running after them. ‘I have always had a respect for you, and I have decided to let you have it at a quarter of my price, as you wanted. But I hope you will remember this gesture of friendship/ The merchant paid without comment, and took the box.

Afterwards the warrior said, ‘But you told me a great merchant never used tricks. That was a trick, nothing more than a trick/

‘Do you think so? Let us see whether it was or not. Is there anything in any shop which you have had your eye on ?’

‘Yes – there is an old sword in a shop near here; it must have belonged to one of the noble Rajput families, because the hilt is very small. We pride ourselves on our small hands; our enemies may take the weapons from our dead bodies, but they cannot use them. I should like that sword, but I doubt whether I could afford it/

‘Well, you can try the trick then. I will leave you; come in and and see me afterwards/

When they met again, the warrior was looking down.

‘It didn’t work,’ he said. ‘I did exactly what you did; I told him I wouldn’t pay more than a quarter what he asked, and that I had no concern with it. I am sure he does not know the real value of it, but he didn’t come after me. I kept hoping he would, but he didn’t. It would have been wonderful to have that sword in my family; it’s one of the old ones.’

‘Then you are still concerned with it, aren’t you? I told you words are no good in the way. Now sit here, and give up that sword. Give it up completely.’

They sat in silence for a time, and then the warrior said quietly, ‘I can’t. Tell me how to do it.’

The merchant replied. ‘For the sake of honour you would be willing to give up your life in the way of the warrior. But this is the way of the merchant. Every day I sit before the image of Ganesha, and I meditate that all around me, my shop and my goods and my house and my warehouses, everything I have has caught fire and is burning away. Even my body catches fire. The whole world catches fire, and burns and burns till everything is ashes.

‘Then there is only Ganesha and I, I and Ganesha, Ganesha and I, in the whole world. Perhaps there is something still further, but it can’t be spoken.’

One day a friend said to the young warrior, ‘Why do you go around with that merchant ? You are a warrior, and he is a merchant; honest, I admit, but still just a merchant after all.’

‘He certainly acts like one,’ was the reply, ‘but I don’t know that he is just a merchant. It seems to me sometimes that it is not really a merchant there at all, but Ganesha playing at being a merchant.’

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