Patrick LevyHomeSâdhus ExcerptsExcerptsTales of Wisdom
Give them knowledge
‘A religion has less to fear in its critics than from within itself, especially when it has lost what it wanted to hide,’ - Aryadeva.
In the U.S., the Dalai Lama had been invited to address a gathering of American Jews. At the end of his lecture, someone asked him this question:
‘How can we prevent our children from converting to Buddhism?’
The Dalai Lama replied:
‘If you have knowledge, you must give it to them. If you don’t have it, then you can’t prevent them from going to look for it.’
There are many religions and within each one there are numerous different sects. Some religions arose from religions which already existed and their relevance is sometimes referred to in the new one. Jesus, the founding figure of Christianity, was a Jew. Buddha was a Hindu… ‘Had Allah willed, He could have made you one congregation. But He thus puts you to the test through the revelations He has given each of you.’ 1
‘Men draw the boundaries of their fields using barriers and markers,’ taught Ramakrishna, ‘but no one can limit the vast and indivisible sky extending over our heads, around us which includes us all.
A man who has not received enlightenment says, in his ignorance, that his religion is the best and the only true one. But when his heart has been enlightened by true knowledge, he realizes that what we understand about God is only what God himself makes us understand, and that beyond all the quarrels and creeds of the sects, there is but only one absolute Being-Knowledge-Bliss.
Just as one can get to the roof of a house using a ladder, a bamboo, a staircase, a rope, or various other means, ways and paths to reach God are many. Every religion shows us a path to reach him. All religions lead to God, but the paths are not God.
The Scriptures indicate a direction. Once you know the way, put down the holy books and try to reach the goal. 2
That's what Serapion, one of the Desert Fathers, did. He sold his Gospel book and gave the money to the hungry, saying:
‘I sold the book which instructed me to distribute all my belongings to the poor.’ 3
If God is as powerful as they say he is, he certainly has no need of anyone to fight for him. Those who still believe that waging war for God is a sign of heroism would do better to defeat their desires with the same ardour. Serenity sometimes requires more courage than the fiercest of battles… 4
A Sufi man had fought naked, in ninety wars without any protection, hoping to find death in the service of God. He had received severe beatings, spear, sword and arrow wounds, but none of his injuries had ever been life threatening.
‘Having been deprived of the joy of martyrdom,’ he said, ‘alone in a cave, I withdrew from the world. One day, I heard the sound of drums: soldiers were going to war. I felt an intense excitement throughout my entire being: ‘Get up, now is the time to fight. Fulfil your wish to become a martyr in a war.’
But my soul replied:
‘What is the reason for hiding behind this ruse O devious ego? You want to die in battle because the thing you most fear is the efforts of asceticism and the throes of austerity!’
‘O my soul, here, no one knows of the ordeals and defeats that you put me through,’ said my ego. ‘If I could die in combat, then at least everyone would see who I am and would admire me.’
‘Poor ego!’ replied my soul. ‘Not only do you live in hypocrisy and slander, but you want to die in them.’
Then this Sufi vowed never to leave his cave:
‘What other victory would I seek but victory over my own desires, including trying to change the world or convert it? Trying to change myself is the only true battle. And it does no harm to anyone.’5
‘The only holy war is the war against oneself, nobody else,’ said Sheikh Assam echoing the Buddha: ‘Even though one may conquer a thousand men in the battlefield a thousand times, the one, who conquers himself is the noblest victor. 6
The Four Noble Truths
Does God exist? Does he not exist? It doesn’t matter! The Buddha’s response was that it is important is to overcome every kind of suffering and to know what they consist of. This, perhaps, is wisdom.
In his first sermon Buddha announced four correct, just, pure, unalterable, noble truths. The truth of dukkha, the cause of dukkha, the cessation of dukkha and the path leading to the cessation of dukkha. What is dukkha? Suffering and misery of suffering, misfortune, pain, dissatisfaction.
For several years before his enlightenment, Shakyamuni, who later became the Buddha, lived with five ascetics, and practiced severe austerities and mortifications with them. One day, he understood that these practices would lead him nowhere and he gave them up. His five, disgruntled companions subsequently abandoned him.
Sometime later, Shakyamuni reached enlightenment by other methods. He found his former companions in the Deer Park near Varanasi and explained his Middle Way: neither exaggerated asceticism nor self-indulgence. It was a path of moderation between the extremes of self-mortification and gratifying one's every desire and leading a slack life. ‘In this very one-fathom-long body, along with its perceptions and thoughts, do I proclaim the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path leading to the cessation of the world’, he said. ‘I expect nothing from God, for liberation is within oneself.’ He based his doctrine on four principles known as The Four Noble Truths.
‘Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not getting what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
The origin of suffering is this craving which leads to the renewal of existence and becoming. It is accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence and craving for non-existence.
This is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the complete extinction and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.’
The Path leading to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.’
Right view means to grasp the impermanent and imperfect nature of worldly objects and ideas.
Right intention means being mentally in agreement with right view.
Right speech means to tell the truth, to speak in a friendly, warm, and gentle manner and only to talk when necessary.
Right action means to act kindly and compassionately, to be honest, to respect the belongings of others, and to maintain sexual relationships which do not harm others. So it also means to abstain from harming or killing sentient beings, to abstain from taking what is not given.
Right livelihood means that one should earn one's living in a way that does not harm other beings: dealing in weapons, dealing in living beings, working in meat production and butchery, and selling intoxicants and poisons.
Right effort means turning energy that fuels desire, envy, aggression, and violence into self-discipline, honesty, benevolence, and kindness.
Right mindfulness is the mental ability to see and to understand things as they really are, with clear consciousness.
Right concentration, refers to the development of a mental strength described as one-pointedness of mind, meaning a state where all mental faculties are unified and directed onto one particular object.7
‘Everything which has the nature of appearance, also has the nature of cessation,’ is what the Buddha teaches. So it is in desire that we find ways to overcome desires. The attachment contains the root of detachment. The world and ourselves are united in this connection which is found within ourselves. Therefore transformation begins within ourselves.
The Self is neither divided nor whole, neither active nor inactive, neither slender nor gross, for it is without attributes;
It is neither visible nor invisible, neither perceptible nor imperceptible, neither shining nor dark, neither small nor large, because it has no form;
It is neither empty nor full, neither with nor without possessions, neither with nor without form, for it is the void.
It does not feel joy and is not enlightened either; it is neither one nor many, neither free nor bound. That’s what the Self is.
Just like the fruit is in flower, the flower in the bud, the bud in the branch, the branch in the tree, the tree in the seed and the seed in the fruit, in the same way ‘I am” is everywhere, and there is nothing outside of the universal Self.
Flame and fire are one; the lotus petals are joined to the flower, and the fruit and the branch are the tree itself, in the same way the entire universe is the Self.
Moisture is in water, space in the sky, sweetness in sugar: between them, there is no real separation.
When this vision of the unity is awakened, one finds the vessel of divine wealth on which one can cross the ocean of life. Then, wherever one looks, he only sees the divine and enters infinite bliss.
The Self neither takes nor leaves the body. Even if it exists in the body, the body does not alter it.
It doesn’t act, nor does it cause action. It doesn’t even produce the slightest fortuitous event. It is eternally the same. Thus, it is dependent on neither more nor less.
Just like sparks of fire, all created forms are rooted in the One.
When the clay pot is broken and its pieces are thrown away, the air it contained mixes with the surrounding air everywhere.
Similarly, when the perception ‘I am this body’ dies with the body, if a man remembers his true nature, he reaches unity and nothing else. He immediately becomes one with the Self.
When the wind of concern with the body ceases to blow, O warrior! the individual soul attains union with the divine just like waves merge into the ocean.
Although you still remain in your body, you are dependent no more on its birth titles and attributes.
Just like the waves of the ocean, the sun’s rays, the atoms of the earth, and the limbs of the body, the body sensations arise in the mind.
Like a fish in the waters of earthly existence, you have to experience pleasure and pain, nevertheless disregard them both through being established in your true nature.
As the seed is separated from husks, as the river Ganges, having run its course, joins with the ocean and leaves behind its turbulent flow
Similarly, O conqueror of the ultimate wealth, pleasures and pains are equally accepted as the conditions of bodily life by the one who has begun to dwell in the Self.
Just like the largest wave is no different from the ocean, there is not any difference between you and the universal Self.
Just as gold is one with the ornament fashioned from it, and a ray is emitted by light, yet the ray is also the light itself, so you should realize that you are in me.
Don’t consider yourself different from the Self. You are part of self like an atom of dust is part of the earth.
When one’s outlook is illuminated by the experience of oneness, we call this devotion.
There is but only one thread woven throughout a fabric, in the same way acknowledge only the Self in the entire universe.
Just as the water falls effortlessly, let it be your nature to give equal respect to all creatures.
As the fruit laden branch naturally bends down towards the ground, bow before all creatures.
Without being concerned with one’s own greatness, the conqueror of ultimate truth does not distinguish between what has value and what does not. Putting everything neatly together, he bows down with delight to everything. 8
Yudhishtira the wise
Yudhishtira is one of the heroes from the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic that tells the story of Gods and men from the very beginning. He was the son of Yama, the first man, lord of virtue and ruler of the kingdom of death. Calm, balanced in his judgments, incorruptible, Yudhishtira is considered to be the fairest and the wisest of men.
One day, Dharma, the father of mankind, appeared before him in the guise of an elf and questioned him:
‘What is swifter than the Wind?’
‘Mind is swifter than the wind’
‘What is more prolific than grass?’
‘There are more thoughts arising in the mind of a man than grass in the fields.’
‘What is true asceticism?’
‘Controlling the mind.’
‘What is the highest refuge of virtue?’
‘What is the safest protection from fame?’
‘Kindness is the safest protection from fame.’
‘What is the safest shelter for thoughts?’
‘And for happiness, what is the safe haven?’
‘What is patience?’
‘Taming senses and desires leads to patience.’
‘Of all the shelters, which is the highest?’
‘What, if renounced, makes one kind and agreeable?’
‘Pride, if renounced, makes one become kind and agreeable.’
‘What is pride?’
‘Pride is believing you are the one who plays out your life.’
‘What is the essential nature of forgiveness?’
‘Forgiveness consists in enduring hostility.’
‘How can one avoid the shame?’
‘By renouncing unworthy acts.’
‘Tell me what enemy is invisible?’
‘What disease is most difficult to treat?’
‘What is the cause of sorrow?’
‘What is the breeding ground of suffering?’
‘What is wickedness?’
‘Seeing evil rather than good.’
‘What is compassion?’
‘Wishing happiness for all beings.’
‘What is charity?’
‘Protecting all creatures.’
‘Which man can be considered dishonest?’
‘He who has no pity is dishonest.’
‘Who is the most fortunate man?’
‘The most fortunate man has risen above pleasure and frustration, happiness and sorrow, past and future.’
‘What is the best of all kinds of happiness?’
‘What is the best of all qualities worthy of being praised?’
‘What is laziness?’
‘Not performing one’s duties is laziness.’
‘What is duty?’
‘Doing what you have to do to your best ability without expecting a particular outcome, an impervious outlook that is equal in success and in failure. In action, it is acting without attachment to the object or the act, leaving things in their virgin state and their anonymity.’
‘What is the highest of all duties?’
‘To abstain from harming anyone is the first of all duties.’
‘What, if you renounce it, brings you no regrets?’
‘If hope is renounced, one doesn’t regret it.’
‘What is tranquillity?’
‘Control over emotions.’
‘How does one control emotions?’
‘By abstaining from judging, remaining steadfast in the vision of unity within duality. Then, pleasure and displeasure, hot and cold, pride and humility are the two sides of the same coin.’
‘What is simplicity?’
‘Equanimity is perfectly simple. It is seeing gold, earth and stone in the same light. It is to look upon a saint, a dog and someone who eats dogs in the same way.’
‘What is the most precious kind of renouncement?’
‘The renunciation of desire, because desire is that which accords preciousness to things.’
‘What is the essential nature of desire?’
‘Desires originate in ideas, and ideas are born in the mind. When the mind is controlled, the senses are controlled. One can resolutely remain in oneself.’
‘What is true cleanliness?’
‘When taking a bath, it is also washing the mind clean of all impurities.’
‘What is the cause of suffering?’
‘What is illusion?’
‘Forms and desires weave appearances. Knowledge of the real is beyond these.’
‘What is real in this world?’
‘Neither this nor that. Beyond space and time. Beyond form. Only the formless is everlasting.’
‘What, if we neglect it, leads to error?’
‘Forgetting that everything is one being only.’
‘What is the most valuable possession?’
‘What is true knowledge?’
‘Awareness that has awareness as an object.’
‘What gives rise to knowledge?’
‘Stillness. Awareness is the sacrifice and awareness is the offering. Awareness is the one to whom all this happens. The fire of knowledge reduces everything to ashes. Immortality is found in the remnants of sacrifice.’
‘In action what remains motionless?’
‘Action in the body, non-action in the mind.’
‘What is the best religion?’
‘The best religion leads men to free themselves from fear.’
‘What is the Way?’
‘Those who are good show the Way.’
‘What is the right Way?’
‘The sacred texts all differ from each other. There is not even one rishi whose opinion can be accepted as infallible. Concerning religion and duty, truth is hidden in solitude and silence. This is the place where, along with the Greats, we can meditate on the Way.’ 9
It’s important not to always try to understand and fully express the meaning of things in order to appreciate the inexpressible. Koans are good examples of this practice.
‘You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of one hand clapping?’
According to Buddhism, man is reality itself, in its wholeness and completeness. So then, how can one exist as only a part of it? The absurdity of this situation is reflected one way or another in koans.
A koan is a form of questioning that opens the mind, giving it an opportunity to go beyond the need for a centre or coherence using questioning or doubt. They contain a sense of dilemma. In this way, a koan is a master. One can meditate on a koan for an entire life time.
A koan is a knot, and to untie it we have to question it relentlessly. Working on a koan is not an intellectual endeavour. It is neither a formulation of truth nor a teaching. It demands the involvement of our entire being. Therefore to work on a koan is to work on oneself, to engross oneself in it until it becomes part of oneself, until it reflects our situation perfectly, ‘awakening the mind without showing it anything’. This is why the untying of a koan opens you up to an initial awakening, like a spark in a completely dark room. It awakens you to oneness, to emptiness, to the limitless void…10
‘Empty-handed, I carry a spade. While walking, I ride on the water buffalo. I cross the bridge and there, the water does not flow, the bridge is sinking. At the top of Mount Fuji a cloud is cooking rice.’
Isan and Karin, two of Master Hyakujo’s disciples, wanted to be entrusted with the mission of traveling to a place upon a beautiful mountain, south of a lake, to build a temple there. Which of the two would the master choose?
‘You must decide according to the rules of Zen. You must test us with koans. The first to solve it will be chosen’, said Karin.
Master Hyakujo placed a jobin (the bottle of water that monks carry) in front of his disciples and said:
‘My dear disciples, you should not call this bottle a jobin. What will you call it, how else can it be described?’
(Dear reader, now try to find your own answer before reading the end of the story.)
Karin, Master Hyakujo’s first disciple, replied:
‘Master, I can call it a wooden sandal.’
Isan rose, took the jobin and poured its contents with a smile.
Master Hyakujo also smiled. 11
Killing-Blade and Life-Giving Sword
"Look back, look out: if we meet, kill immediately! If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. If you meet your ancestor, kill your ancestor! If you come across a disciple of the Buddha, kill the disciple of Buddha. If you meet your father and mother, kill father and mother! If you meet your parents, kill your parents! Only then you will find deliverance. Only then will you avoid the shackles of existence, and will you be free…"
In the time of the Tang Dynasty, a famous priest called Nansen lived on Mount Chuan.
One day Nansen saw monks from the Eastern and Western halls quarrelling over a kitten that came to the temple. Both groups wanted to keep the animal to pamper it.
Nansen held up the cat and said:
‘If you can give an answer, you will save the cat. If not, I will kill it.
No one could answer and Nansen cut the cat in two.
That evening, Joshu, Nansen’s first disciple, returned to the monastery. Nansen told him of the incident and asked his opinion.
Joshu took off his sandal, placed it on his head and walked out.
‘If you had been there today, you would have saved the cat,’ Nansen remarked.
‘Zen,’ it is said, ‘makes absolute reality through erasing appearance; and the power of true seeing lies in the knowledge that our mind has neither form nor appearance.’
The cute kitten probably represents beauty, or perhaps affection or attachment, or even better, the ego that must be cut… in other words appearances or mental constructions. Master Nansen embodies incisive and penetrating knowledge, and Joshu’s character is certainly the expression of a wisdom that reaches beyond teaching and knowledge.
What could the monks have answered? They could have said three things which are true. The first: ‘We are all stupid’. The second: ‘The cat will be killed,’ would have saved it. The third: ‘Let the kitten be taken to the other hall’. Dogen Zenji suggested they could have said: ‘The master knows how to cut a cat in half, but does he know how to cut in one piece?’ By putting his sandal on his head, Joshu said more, he showed the formlessness of mind and the absurdity of any situation. 12
All, visible and invisible, that exists in Him, with Him, apart from Him, is not other than He, for the other itself is He, said Ibn ‘Arabi. 13 And therefore the one who seeks God is God himself; God is himself the seeker, and for that reason he is the one who is lost and bewildered is as well, replied the bewildered one.
Two hermits, one wise and one mad, lived not far apart in the forest. One day, the mad one paid a visit to the wise one.
‘Who are you?’ asked the wise to the mad.
‘I am you,’ declared the mad man. ‘And you, who are you?’
‘What I know is that I don’t know,’ the wise replied. ‘I'm here to try and find out.’
‘Well, me neither, I don’t know who I am,’ said the mad one logically. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m seeking God.’
‘So am I’ replied the mad one. ‘How do you do it?’
‘I believe the world is not real. I observe this belief.’
‘As for me, I see the madness of the world. It probably amounts to the same thing since I'm crazy.’
‘Although you do not seem to be aware of it you appear to be quite wise. So how did this all happen? How did we end up here looking for God?’ asked the wise to the mad.
And the mad told him the following story:
In the beginning, God created the world, and then he conceived and formed all sorts of living beings. Then he declared that everything he had done was fine and beautiful, and he was very pleased. But when he tried to return from whence he came from, God realized he could no longer find the way back to heaven. He was lost and bewildered. And he also noticed that his might was rapidly declining.
He took the form of a sparrow, and asked a swallow:
‘What is the way to God?’
‘Fly and you'll be in heaven!’ she answered gliding along through the sky.
But the sky above the ground was not God’s abode.
He took the form of a mole and questioned a worm in the same way.
‘God is in the earth. Dig and you'll see him,’ the worm told him, swallowing a mouthful of earth.
But the earth under the ground was not the abode of God either.
He plunged into the water and met a small goldfish:
‘Do you know who you are and where you come from?’ God asked him.
‘I don’t know who I am or where I come from,’ replied the fish. ‘But I believe that God created me and that he is everywhere just like the water that I swim in and that I breathe.
‘If God is everywhere, how can you find him?’
‘This too I don’t know. But when I spin round and round, I feel that God is very close to me.’
This fish is a fool, thought God, or maybe he is mad…
‘You don’t know who you are and where you come from, and yet you believe that God created you! If he made you so ignorant, he must be just the same. Do you think that God believes in God?’ God said bursting out laughing.
He left the fish, returned on dry land and took the form of a snake. He met a huge elephant.
‘I am God,’ declared the elephant.
God looked at this creature and thought: if this is God, who am I?
The elephant then added gravely:
‘I am God, just like you, lost in life, unable to find the way back to where I was before.
‘Do you think there is a way? Can something or someone help us?’
‘I'm not sure, but I carry on searching.’
So God realized that everything he had created was like him, lost in the world and in life. He left the elephant, and wandered on earth. One day, he met a large, old turtle who lived like a hermit on the seashore. God told her his story; he confessed that he had created this world and now could not find the way back to himself.
‘How can I find the path to God?’ asked God.
‘To find out that path I have renounced the world,’ the turtle replied, already drawing in her neck into her shell.
Having heard these words, God knew he too had to renounce the world if he wanted to find himself. But deep in himself, he discovered that he did not want to renounce the world…
‘Is there no other way?’ he asked the turtle.
So the turtle slowly peaked her nose out of her shell to say:
‘You are the causeless Being and the cause of being. So try to find some purpose for being.’
God then took some earth and formed it into the shape that men call ‘a man.’ He then breathed himself into it. He hasn’t given up seeking a way to heaven. And he is still looking for one.
Is it wise to praise the Creator and to glorify him and his name when all around we see the misery and the hardships of living in his Creation? If ever we met with God, face to face, what would we tell him?
Before he died, the Baal Shem Tov promised his disciples that immediately upon arriving in heaven, he would do everything he could and use all his influence and authority to ensure that the Messiah would be sent to Earth. (The coming of the Messiah on Earth signifies the end of the world and consequently the end of suffering). The very same day, the Baal Shem Tov did actually meet with the Messiah. However the event provoked so much joy in him that he forgot his promise. So the Messiah did not come.
When the Great Maguid had finally reached his dying day he assured everyone that he would be immune to such ecstasy: ‘I won’t ask to see the Messiah, but I shall pester everyone except him in order to make him come down to the world.’ However he made this promise at the beginning of the nineteenth Georgia","serif and the Messiah still has not come.
As for Rabbi Rostrovitch, he didn’t promise anything of the sort. He was lying on his bed, dying, when, all of a sudden, gathering what little strength he had left, he stood up, called his disciples and announced to them in a final outburst:
‘When I’ll appear before God, after my death, I will not let him ask me for an explanation of what I did and did not do. He’ll be the one on trial, and I’ll be the judge.
I’ll tell him: “How can you dare to judge me, I who never asked to be born and am but a tiny creature, while you, who created me and has so much might, have left mankind in misery? What have you been doing for thousands of years? Have you taken a look at the world lately? I've carried the heavy burden of life, and you, were you watching if ever I was about to stumble and fall?”
I’ll also tell him: “You have put hell in books and lust in our hearts. What wonder is it then that we are seduced and tempted? We need your mercy before death, not after it.”
And I’ll add: “Since you dwell in all things, remember that you are also in sin, and most certainly in the sinner.”
I won’t let up in any way and if he invites me to enter the gates of paradise, to silence me, I won’t walk in until all men since the beginning of time are allowed in before me.
My Sons,’ he finally told his disciples, ‘stop praising or beseeching God. Harass him with your reprimands. That's what he and humanity most need.’ 14
The Dog and the Cats
Maybe God is not what we think he is. Repeating praises to the Lord until you get out of breath in order to obtain favours is only rehashing our own wishes. To convey this a sage told the following story:
One day a wise dog happened to pass by a crowd of cats. As they were all very busy, and since none of them were paying any attention to him, he drew closer.
A large, serious and solemn looking cat, was talking to them in a loud, clear voice: ‘Brothers, pray, and when you have prayed, pray again, and you can be sure it will be raining rats.’
The dog heard this and laughed to himself. As he sauntered off, he muttered to himself: ‘You blind, insane cats, don’t you know that it’s been written and I myself and my ancestors before me, we’ve all learnt that through prayer, faith and supplication, it won’t be raining rats, but bones!’ 15
In 1985, during the ceremony in commemoration of the Holocaust, at the Paris synagogue, the Grand Rabbi Goldman gave a sermon inspired by the resurgence of revisionism.16 He addressed God directly:
‘Not only did you let your sons be murdered in the Nazi’s death camps, but you also let it be said that it didn’t even happen! It's as if you were abandoning them a second time... Grant us grace for those who died to pay tribute to your unity, do it for yourself if you don’t do it for us, do it for yourself, and give glory to your name.’ 17
The Jews have a long tradition of remonstrating God, because they have a sort of contract with him: an Alliance.
Jacob, the Patriarch, is known to have wrestled with man and with God, and he is said to have prevailed. Since then, some men refuse to bow down before God and his decrees. The Baal Shem Tov, his disciples and their successors were amongst them. They addressed God without obsequiousness and even with some boldness because, according to this tradition, you can freely tell God anything you want, as long as it is in favour of mankind. Uncalled for humility does not honour God.
When misfortune fell upon the country, Rabbi Leib called out to God: ‘If you think you’ll get your people back to you with pain, I, Leib, son of Rachel, swear that you will not succeed. Save your children with joy, grant them deliverance.’
Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Kotzk used to say: ‘It is written that God saw everything he did and found that it was good. Well I don’t.’
As for Rabbi Houne of Kolochitz, he admitted: ‘I'm not afraid of anything or anyone, not even an angel, not even God. But the lamentations of a beggar give me the shivers.’
One day, while famine was ravaging the country, the grandfather of Shpole called together a court of ten doctors of the Talmudic law to put God on trial. Thus they rendered their verdict: ‘Since a father must feed his children, God is ordered to stop this famine.’ When the righteous decides, God must obey.
Regarding Rabbi Levi-Yitzhak of Bertitchev, he went as far as judging and threatening God. He continually reminded God that he too needed to be forgiven: ‘There is not a single man before whom God is not guilty.’
‘It’s in the nature of things that every man pities himself. But now it is time to have pity on God’, believed Rabbi Asher of Salouline. 18
“As for me, Shahid, I ran away only to tell you that God is crying in my arms.” A Gazhal from India.
Prayers are sometimes just like testimonies of knowledge, or love songs…
Since the day when I met my Lord there has been no end to the sport of our love.
I shut not my eyes, I close not my ears, I do not mortify my body;
I see with eyes open, and smile, and behold His beauty is everywhere:
I utter His name, and whatever I do, it becomes His worship.
The rising and the setting are one to me; all contradictions are solved.
Wherever I go, I move round Him,
All I achieve is His service:
When I lie down, I lie prostrate at His feet,
He is the only adorable one to me: I have none other.
My tongue has left off impure words; it sings His glory day and night:
Whether I rise or sit down, I can never forget Him; for the rhythm of His music beats in my ears.
Kabir says: ‘My heart is frenzied, and I disclose in my soul what is hidden. I am immersed in that one great bliss which transcends all pleasure and pain.’
There is nothing but water in the holy bathing places; and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words; lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience; and he knows very well that all other things are untrue. 19
The Atheist and the Devotee
The atheist explained: ‘Jesus said: “Truly I say to you: whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it you.” That’s not true. We all know that it’s not true. Actually, this rarely works. So rarely that when it does happen we call it a miracle!
One just has to look around with a little clarity to have some certainty that there is no reason to trust in God. The world is full of misery. Although God is supposed to do everything, he cannot do better and for many it’s quite far from enough.’
‘When I pray,’ replied the devotee, ‘I say: “May I be filled with an overflowing love for all creatures; may I be allowed to share all sentient beings’ sufferings; may generosity bind me to all those who wander; Bhagwan, O Bhagwan, grant that I may be so!”’ 20
What kind of religion?
Whoever wants to convert others to his faith first has to present them with reasons to believe. These often consist of fears, anxieties, fascinations and dark imaginings.
A sage never shares his faith, only his experience.
A priest was heard preaching to a nonbeliever:
‘You must work for your salvation, adopt the true religion, obey the laws of God, pray the way it has been taught, love thy neighbour and practice charity just as the Scriptures have taught us, and you must believe in eternal life after death. Otherwise, come Judgment Day, you will have bitter regrets.’
The nonbeliever replied:
‘I’ll never be able to emulate the courage and asceticism of the saints, and I’ll never have the wisdom of the wise men I respect. If you’re referring to your own faith, I have no desire in sharing it, for, anyone who might otherwise be drawn towards God will inevitably lose interest in him by seeing you. Your faith is nothing but a string of threats and obligations. It's as if you are calling for people to find love in the desert, discover kindness in fear, seek happiness under duress, confuse life with death, mistake wisdom for faith and obedience, and finally consider God to be an investment…’ 21
One day, during an interfaith conference which brought together delegates from five major faiths, a person in the audience asked this question:
‘Why do Jews celebrate on Saturday, Christians on Sunday and Muslims on Friday?’
The rabbi replied:
‘Jews celebrate on Saturday, because they believe that God created the world in six days, the seventh day, the first Saturday of Creation, he ceased to create it and intervened no more with creative acts. God left the world to mankind. Jews celebrate this gift.’
The priest said:
‘Christians believe Jesus-Christ to be the son of God who came to save people from sins. That's why they celebrate on Sunday, the eighth day of Creation, the first day of a new time, the Good News era.’
The imam quoted his Scriptures:
“‘When God decided something it was determined by him, and having determined it, he inscribed it in the Book, and it is in accordance with this Book that he created all beings and governs their life’. For Muslims, the world is still in the duration of the sixth day of Creation, because God has not withdrawn from the world and continues to govern it. Everything that happens manifests his desire and his almighty will. That’s why we celebrate on Friday, the day God created Man on earth.’
In turn, the lama spoke:
‘We don’t know if a God created the world, if this world was created in six days, and if it is better to celebrate on Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We know that this world contains suffering. The question is how can we free ourselves from it? We believe that we must be equally and simultaneously detached and attentive to every day, every hour, every minute, because we celebrate life in a human body of which every moment offers an opportunity to understand suffering and be liberated from it.’
The Swami meditated for a moment and then whispered:
‘If God created the world, isn’t everything in this world and beyond holy? But is there a real world? Or is this world but a dream, an illusion, a mirage? We celebrate the Moon, the Sun and the Earth, we worship husband, wife and child, we glorify eating food and fasting, we honour God the Creator, the God who preserves and the destroyer God, life and death, we extol the virtues of wisdom, devotion, knowledge, love and charity... We bless and sanctify everything, everyday in every moment.’
Then the moderator closed the session saying:
‘Sharing our questions is easier than sharing our answers, for our answers are different, but our questions are the same.’ 22
Who has seen God?
Those who claim that God exists have not seen him. They have not met anyone who has seen him or even someone who knows someone who has seen him…
‘Tell me, Vâssettha,’ the Buddha asked his disciple, ‘has any one Brahmin among all of the Brahmins versed in the Vedas ever seen God personally, face to face?’
‘No, venerable Gotama, there are none.’
‘Now tell me Vâssettha, has any one teacher of the Brahmins among all the teachers of the Brahmins versed in the Vedas ever seen God personally, face to face?’
‘No, there is none, venerable Gotama.’
‘Tell me again Vassettha, did the Rishis of the Brahmins versed in the Vedas, or the authors of the Vedas or of the incantations in which the old forms of words are sung, ever say: "We know who God is. We know where he came from and where he is going.’
‘No, they never said such a thing, venerable Gotama.’
‘Yet, the Brahmins who are proclaiming: ‘Here is the direct path, the path of salvation, the one leading to the state of union with God’, are in fact saying: ‘We are demonstrating the path of union with someone of whom we know nothing, whom we have not seen’. If we look at the facts, aren’t the Brahmins’ words foolish?’
‘Yes, definitely, venerable Gotama.’
‘Suppose, Vâsettha, that a man says: “I am waiting for the most beautiful girl in this country and I wish to marry her.” One might ask him: “Do you know her caste, her family name? Do you know what village she lives in? Is she tall or short, black, brown, or golden?” Questioned in this way, he replies that he doesn’t know. Wouldn’t anyone then say to him: “Well, you’re waiting for a girl that you don’t know!” Therefore, is it possible for the Brahmins to show the path of union with someone they know nothing of and have not seen?’
‘Certainly not, venerable Gotama.’
‘Suppose, Vâsettha, that a man should come hither to the bank of the river wishing to cross, to reach the other side. Imagine then that the man standing on the bank invokes the river bank on the other side saying, “Come here, O other side! Come to this side!” Do you suppose, Vâsettha, that because of the invocations, prayers, wishes and praises of this man, the other river bank actually comes to his side?’
‘Certainly not, venerable Gotama.’
‘Similarly, Vâsettha, is it possible that the Brahmins, because of their invocations, prayers, wishes and praises, are able to unite with God?’ 23
‘Who knows, who could proclaim for sure from whom this creation was born and from whence it came? Gods were born after the creation of our world. But who knows where the world comes from? Whoever it is that watches over this world from the highest heavens can only know. Or maybe he does not.’ Rig Veda 24
What can you do?
A couple of sparrows were nesting above the door of my room, in a hole for an air vent. I was delighted. The sparrows flew in and out of their nest all day long, chattering and fluttering. It made my heart rejoice. One morning, I woke up and to my surprise, caught a cat devouring the two fledglings of the brood which had left the nest for the first time that day. Upon seeing me the cat made off. However one of the fledglings was dead, half eaten, and the other was wounded with a broken wing. I did my best to take care of it. The little sparrow kept on trying to fly off. But to no avail. The exhausting effort was killing it. So I bound it up and placed it in a nest I had made out of old crumpled newspapers, and I left it in a closet with some food nearby. The next day, I discovered that ants had eaten the fledgling alive. All that was left were feathers.
‘When you see a fly in a spider's web, what should you do? Leave it alone to be eaten or free it and deprive the spider of its feast?’ Swami Vicharava once asked. He then responded to his own question: ‘Don’t interfere. But take a vow to consume only milk and fruits and avoid becoming a predator yourself.’
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! (Apostle Paul, Romans 7:19)
In the days when the universe was created Kali, the dreadful demon, asked Parikshit, the King of the Earth, where his place on Earth was to be.
‘There is no place for you on earth,’ Parikshit replied.
But Kali begged him:
‘Don’t be so cruel. You are justice and mercy, have mercy on me. I need a shelter.’
So Parikshit offered him bars, brothels, gaming rooms and slaughterhouses. Kali bowed and thanked him but still begged for other places he could inhabit. Parikshit gave him lies, pride, passion, ignorance and hostility. Kali bowed but insisted, ‘Isn’t there some prestigious place for me in this world?’ ‘Dwell in gold! Gold ruins men,’ the King of the Earth finally conceded.
The Robber of Speech
One day, Pranesh, an honourable thief belonging to the honourable caste of thieves, met Kundapura, an honourable merchant belonging to the honourable caste of merchants. They conversed about the merits of their respective professions:
‘Stealing for a living seems very risky to me’ said Kundapur-the-merchant. ‘Inevitably, one day someone will catch you, and your victims will demand revenge and justice!’
‘Stealing is more than a job, it’s an art,’ replied Pranesh-the-thief, nobly. ‘Since the beginning of time, initiations in the art of stealing have been passed down in our family from father to son: the art of stealing without being seen, the art of stealing without having to flee, the art of slipping away, if necessary, from perilous situations, and the art of stealing without ever having to lie.’
‘What! you steal but you won’t lie!’ Kundapura-the-merchant exclaimed. ‘That beats everything. In business, we do the opposite. We never steal anything of course, but as for exaggerating on the merits of a product, as for giving slender rice instead of long rice, lying about the quality of lentils, fiddling with the scales, or selling gold plated metal and sometimes even copper for pure gold... well, you know you have to make a living!’
‘If that’s so,’ Pranesh-the-thief replied angrily, ‘you're more than a thief, more than a bandit, more than a crook... you're a cheat! When I steal something, I take what I take but no more than that. Whereas when you lie, you steal speech, and stealing that, you take, destroy and annihilate the whole universe.’
And he quoted the scriptures:
‘“All things are determined by speech. Speech is the root of everything, everything proceeds from it. The one who is dishonest with respect to speech, is dishonest in everything.”’ 25
Satan was a saint
One day, Allah made plans to create a man on earth. He informed his angels, but they responded by disparaging his intentions:
‘You are about to create someone who will sow scandal and shed blood whereas we glorify Your praise and proclaim Your holiness!’
‘I know what you don’t know,’ Allah told them.
Once he had created the first man, Allah commanded his angels to prostrate before this man. Everyone obeyed this order except Satan, who refused, saying:
‘I am not the kind to bow before a man.’
‘What stops you from prostrating when I order you to? Allah asked him.
Satan knew that God is One, that He has no equal, and that no one should prostrate himself before anybody else but Him… even when ordered by Him.
‘I am much better than a man,’ Satan answered. ‘You created me from fire and him from clay. You will not find any gratitude either in him or the majority of his descendants.’
So, Allah banished him:
‘You cannot stay here with such pride. Get out of my sight! You are now among the lesser beings.’
Upon hearing this condemnation, Satan said:
‘Even if I am cursed in both worlds, the fire of love burning in me won’t lose its ardour. I’ll never bow before any other than Allah himself, even if it means being damned for eternity. But because you demean me, I’ll rule over the descendants of the one you honour more than me. I’ll be watching out for them, I’ll walk before and behind them, I’ll be to their right and to their left.’
Since that time, Satan is deemed to be responsible for the downfall of humanity and to be the cause of evil and sin.
But, let us remember for now that it was because of his love for Allah that Satan refused to honour a man, and that, to prove his loyalty, he refused to concede. His love and devotion were perfect and unmitigated, and even his sentence of eternal banishment did not make him waiver. Who can boast of such devotion? Even the greatest saints grow dim in comparison. 26
Do it for no reward
Renouncing all attachment to the fruits of his action, ever satisfied, without seeking support or protection, depending on nothing, and even though he is engaged in action, he does absolutely nothing, the Bhagavad Gita teaches.
A temple was being built in the Buddhist Centre... Disciples, visitors and friends were invited to lend a hand in its construction: ‘A temple lasts one thousand years. Those who help building it will acquire merits and positive karma for one thousand years!’ the Rinpoche promised the crowd of helpers who were delighted to believe they were ensuring themselves happiness in future lives in return for some hard physical work, without having to do any real work on themselves, or making any deep spiritual transformation.
A disciple who was a bit wiser than the others went and saw the Rinpoche privately, and he told him:
‘Helping out in the construction of the temple is certainly a positive effort and sometimes it’s even fun, but doing it for “merit” or some benefit in a future life, isn’t that a little petty?
One who accomplishes a good deed for a salary, out of interest for an immediate profit or a future reward, gives his act the value he expects from it. However an act accomplished without expectations of payment or reward becomes priceless and has an infinite value. You should invite everyone to participate in the construction of the temple for nothing, no rewards, no future positive karma, because for nothing, the act becomes a true gift and contains unlimited merit! The greater good is one for which you expect nothing, because it doesn’t bind the one who receives it, and it frees the one who does it.’
The master agreed:
‘Some do it for money, others do it for merit, others for pride, and others out of friendship. Everyone does what he can… But doing it for nothing is better, of course.’ And he added with some hypocrisy: ‘Don’t tell the others. To get to the summit of a mountain there are many paths.’
In Tibetan Buddhism a practice begins and ends with a dedication:
‘May the virtuous activity produced by the practice of giving and other perfections produce enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.’
‘By the virtue that I created in performing this action, may I establish all beings without exception beyond suffering. I dedicate all merits to the attainment of enlightenment.’
The wish for enlightenment is not for oneself but for all beings, so it continues to be an unselfish wish which means that wish can become a seed of freedom, and thus a cause of enlightenment.
When you give change to a beggar, don’t ask yourself whether or not he deserves it, if he will use it “well” or not. Who knows who is good or bad? Be like God who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Wu Ho, a poor and hungry man, saw that the monks of the nearby monastery were receiving alms. Not only did laymen give generously to those wearing the robes of the religious order, but they also showed them respect and even reverence. But to Wu Ho, they gave nothing.
The monks often handed out some of their food to the poor, but the poor were many and Wu Ho only rarely received anything.
One day, Wu Ho put on a monk’s robe and therefore received his share of offerings and consideration. He continued this until one day he really decided to become a monk. He asked for ordination and became an ardent devotee. He was a disciple of Yuan Ki Tzu.
One winter morning, Wu Ho and his master, Yuan Ki Tzu, were walking along a road under the cold rain. They came across a beggar and gave him all the food they had. They saw another beggar and offered him all the money they had. They met a man shivering with cold and gave him their blankets.
As they arrived in a village they went knocking on doors to beg for alms.
‘Master, why do we give everything we own if afterwards we must go and beg,’ Wu Ho asked?
‘We are monks,’ Yuan Ki Tzu replied, ‘and we have taken a vow to live on alms only. We act according to our commitment when we beg. We have also taken the vow not to own anything. So, we also act according to our commitment when we give away whatever we receive.’
Wu Ho understood there and then the meaning of the vows he had taken and he said:
‘That's right, master. Lay people choose whom they offer their good deeds to. They give more generously to monks, so in turn we distribute what they give us.’
He bowed to his master, and then added:
‘All we own is our vows. They are our real masters.’
Love does not choose. God dwells in everyone. Feeding others without choosing to whom we offer our help is the same as serving God, said Ramakrishna.
A missionary was in Africa to preach the gospel, teach about good and evil and his knowledge of God. His job was to take care of the children; he taught them the catechism and was also their gym teacher.
One morning, bringing a box of chocolates with him to school he prompted his pupils to make a running race. He said to the children:
‘Look at that tree over there. When I count to three, you must run as fast as you can. The first to get to the tree will be the winner and will win this box of chocolates.’
He counted to three to give the starting signal. Then the kids, instinctively, without saying anything to each other, took hold of each other’s hands and ran together arriving at the tree at the same time.
What do these kids understand that we don’t? What were they told from infancy that made them refuse to compete if there are winners and losers? They saw themselves to be responsible for each other’s happiness. Can we follow them and do the same? Are we able to hold each other’s hand and ensure that there are no losers in this world? 27
Where am I?
It is told that Tupala was a great king who was devoted to his subjects, generous towards the Brahmins, gentle with children, respectful of wise men and wisdom and who followed the rules of good governance.
One hunting night, leaving his retinue far behind, he ventured far and deep into the forest and lost his way.
At dawn, he arrived in front of a hut where an untouchable was cleaning out the carcass of a bull. As he was surprised to find himself there, the King was about to ask where he was and in which province and hamlet he had arrived, when he caught sight of a dazzlingly beautiful young girl. She was simple and smiling, the very embodiment of grace. And of course he fell in love with her.
At the speed of an arrow piercing through space, he forgot about the hunting, his kingdom and government. He was treated with familiarity as if he had been long awaited. He married the girl, and with her came the tannery, the livestock and the forest, the adobe house which had to be patched up after rain, the herd of buffaloes that need taking to the pasture in the morning and bringing back at night, the harvests and monsoon seasons, rough clothes and rope beds... He embraced the worship of the forest Gods and joined with the villagers in prayer. He experienced the peace that follows a hard day’s work, and suffered the anxieties of waiting for rain.
His wife gave him a son, then a second one, and then a third. He lived through seasons of happiness and years of misfortune. Sickness took away his eldest son, then his father-in-law, whom he replaced as a tanner. Then came a year of scarcity after a year of drought, and another there was a great flood, which swept away the cattle. During one monsoon, his beloved wife drowned in the lake. Years had passed, and yet more followed.
One evening, exhausted, he fell asleep in the grasslands and dreamed a strange dream that he was a just and good king, governing his kingdom. One hunting night, he lost his way in the forest, arrived in front of a hut, saw a stunningly beautiful girl, forgot his palace and married her, became a tanner after the death of his father-in-law, lost his eldest son to sickness, then his cattle in a flood, and then his wife drowned in a lake…
One day, his Prime Minister appeared there, in his courtyard, and threw himself at his feet.
‘Majesty, we have been searching for you unceasingly all this time; we have scoured the entire kingdom, from North to South and even the outer provinces to the smallest hamlets; we have covered and searched this vast jungle without rest! Thank God we have finally found you!’
As the king was returning to his capital, escorted by his guards and his Prime Minister, he woke up, astounded to find himself in his palace bed.
It had been a dream.
It had all been nothing but a dream, but this dream had had the taste, colour, texture and charm of reality. During this sleep, the king felt perfectly awake, exactly as he was now.
At this moment who was he? A king in his palace, the tanner in the dream or the sleeping tanner now dreaming that he is a king? Or perhaps even someone else, sleeping somewhere in a distant universe about which he had forgotten everything, and who was dreaming that he was dreaming that he was dreaming... And what of the small house in the forest, and the untouchable, his wonderful wife, the buffalo herd, the rough bed, and his sons, the sickness and the drowning? Were these last years merely a few hours in one night? And is life just a moment of dreaming in eternity? Are we but characters in the dream of a sleeping man? When can one know what is true? When does one wake up? Is truth just a word to be found in the humdrum of confusion or is it the continual and indivisible flow of thoughts and dreams?
In the morning, he left his palace in a palanquin carried by four strong Brahmins. One of them, uncaring and unconcerned, carried it so roughly, bumping here and stumbling there, that the king could bear no more of it and leapt out to scold him:
‘Who are you? And why are you so clumsy?’
‘My King, I am tall and fat and rather ugly and I am a Brahmin, but tell me, who am I really? And you, who are you? What can you be called? Are you your body? Are you your birth? And why are you a king? Where does this palanquin come from, do you know? Which kind of wood is it made of? Was the tree already a palanquin in the forest? And was the cotton flower already this robe that you are wearing? The air is everywhere, and yet when one blows a little of it in a flute, as it passes through the holes it produces a “la”, a “so” or a “re” and finally a melody. In just the same way there is neither a ‘me’ nor a ‘you’, but only one existence in the endless flow of life.’
Having heard this, the king felt the power of truth in his heart, beating faster and harder, and was instantaneously freed from birth and the belief in an existence.
The instant of a flash of lightening is all it takes to awaken to truth. Then, all we have to do is go there, where there is neither identity nor the possibility of losing it, neither existing nor the memory of existence, neither birth nor the fatality of death, as if one is endlessly awakening from having passed out and incessantly asking oneself: where am I? 28
Life may be nothing but a dream, but who is doing the dreaming?
One night, Zhuangzi dreamt that he was a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, satisfied with life and doing as he pleased, not knowing he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, surprised to be Zhuangzi.
At that point he questioned whether he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly now dreaming himself to be Zhuangzi. 29
Whether Zhuangzi is dreaming that he is a butterfly or a butterfly is dreaming he is Zhuangzi, do we not find wisdom in simply knowing we are dreaming?
A Handful of Rice
A widow hurried to meet the Buddha with her only child, lying dead in her arms. With this loss, she had lost her reason to live.
‘Bring him back to life,’ she begged the Awakened one.
But the Buddha never performed this sort of miracle. Instead he said to the widow:
‘Go to the village and bring me back a handful of rice from a house where no one ever died.’
The woman went knocking on doors, visiting every house in the village. ‘We can give you rice, but my father died here last year...’ ‘Our son was struck by illness and he died three months ago...’ ‘Many members of my family died in this house during the year of the drought…’ were the replies she received.
She went everywhere, but nowhere did she find a house where no one had ever died. Night soon fell.
Wandering alone, empty-handed, on the dirt roads she thought to herself: ‘Death took my husband and then my only child; one day it will take me as well. What happened to my son is not such an unusual tragedy.’ She understood: ‘Death is part of life; it comes to everyone.’
She buried her child, returned to the Buddha and became his disciple. 30
Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum used to write his dreams down. This one was found in his notebooks:
‘I went to the heaven of the Tannaim, the great doctors of the law. There, I saw one doctor seated, wearing a fur cap, meditating on the treaty of the First Door. There was nothing else. This greatly astonished me:
“Impossible, this can’t be heaven!” I exclaimed.
But the angels told me:
“You think that the Tannaim are in heaven? It’s not so. It's heaven which is found in the Tannaim.”’ 31
“The Chekhina, the Divine Presence, dwells over the head of those who study the Torah (Bible), it is said, because studying the Torah and rejoicing in it is equivalent to practicing all the commandments at once. So, Heaven, the reward of the saintly, is unlikely to be a place they go to after death, but a way in which they perceive, live and act in the world.
Where the movement? Where the rest?
Towards which shore will you cross, Ô my heart?
There is no road on that shore,
Neither a raft nor any ferryman,
Neither earth nor heavens, nor time.
You will find nothing in this emptiness.
In the evening at the yeshiva, Rabbi Naphtali studied and commented on the Bible with a few disciples. One of them was obsessed with a particular verse from the Scriptures: “Before me no God was formed and there will be none after me.” (Isaiah 43:10) This disciple often returned to the same question:
‘How can there be a before and an after for God who has no beginning or end?’
One day, the Rabbi decided to give him an answer:
‘God is a creator. Without a Creation and without a creature, there is no creator. If God ever stops creating, he ceases to be. “Before me no God was ever formed,” the prophet Isaiah said. This means that God only exists with you. It would be in vain to try to conceive of the existence of God if there were no humans.
“And there will be none after me,” means: an after me does not exist. It would also be in vain to tell impossible stories and make false promises about an after me that does not exist.’ 32
The ultimate maze is life itself. When one finds death, is this finally an exit?
The Hindu and Buddhist traditions include a belief in the rebirth of the self. In the twentieth Georgia","serif, this belief has spread into the Christian world through the teachings of Tibetan lamas and Hindu gurus coming to the West.
The Christian perspective of death is characterised by its negation. It asserts that death does not exist since the soul finds salvation in life after death - the real eternal life - in resurrection to another world: a desirable heaven, or an unimaginable hell of suffering or non-existence. The soul is personal and so too is salvation.
Westerners who have a Christian background are individualists who believe in their permanence; they have received the rebirth hypothesis as a new form of salvation, and they often take it as a new way to deny death. They call it reincarnation, instead of rebirth. ‘I shall not really die, I'm just going to change body!’ they think and are pacified by this. They contemplate their coming back to life as a consolation for having to die.
A Hindu or a Buddhist doesn’t hope to sur-vive death, they try not to under-die life. They wish to escape the cycle of births and really die.
This doctrine is taught in different ways, each aimed at a larger level of awareness. Here, in a guru - disciple dialogue, are three ways of considering the issue.
‘Lama, sentient beings are born and die. Is it true that we come back to life after we die?’
‘What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. If sentient beings disappear completely, what was the purpose of their life? And if they are reborn after death, do they ever really die? Do they ever find rest? Will we go to a paradise, in another world, will we return to this world or will we just become nothing?’
‘Why are you concerned about what happens after life? Are you free of all worldly ties?’
‘No, Lama,’ the disciple replied humbly.
‘Then see in your attachments what is binding you to yourself. And strive to free yourself from them.’
‘But what about death?’ the disciple insisted.
‘If we die still attached to life, we will return in life. If we reach liberation during life time, we will be freed from the cycle of rebirth. We reap as we sow.’
A few months passed. One day the disciple asked the same question again. His beloved Lama replied:
‘Life consists of three characteristics, anitya impermanence, dukkha, suffering and anatma, no-self, no soul, no intrinsic and eternal identity.
Everything is made of different components. We call a cart the assembly of a wooden platform with wheels, shafts, nails, etc. And each of these parts is itself made, shaped or formed from something else. Therefore the name we give something is a convention, but the reality of that thing is dependent, conditional, impermanent, related to circumstances, and exists only in the domain of names and forms. The same is also true for living beings. An Individual or self is the name we give to the gathered forces and elements that constitute a living being.
So how could something that exists only due to the forces and elements that make it up continue existing after the dispersion of these forces and elements?’
‘Is there not a mind or a soul, or something that survives death?’
‘Since there is no self, how can you imagine a mind or a soul of the self?’
‘Yet, we conceive the idea of a self and we grasp on to it.’
‘Yes and we can also free ourselves from it. “What appears in the mind and disappears in the mind is nothing but the mind itself,” Patanjali taught. Give up any hope of a result.
Anatma means that there is no self, no self identity and no eternal self, and therefore no transmigration of a “self”, or any future liberation of a “self”. You can only get liberation in the moment, a moment at a time. Stop even desiring liberation, because that’s what is preventing you from finding it.’
The disciple realized that his Lama did not always answer the same way to the same question. He asked his master again a few months later. This time, his Lama replied:
‘A life is created. It produces the belief in the existence of a self. We can break free of this self simply by ceasing to cling to this belief.’
‘But what happens after death?’ the disciple persisted.
‘Each life can be compared to a drop of consciousness’ the Lama said. ‘At the time of death that drop goes back to the ocean of the impersonal consciousness (Alayavijnana) and dissolves in it. Therefore it brings to it the experience of its life. Later, when a drop from this ocean becomes a new life, is it the same drop or another one?’
‘It's the same… and it’s is not the same…’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because it was mixed with the others.’
‘Exactly. It is the same and yet not the same, because the new drop is made up of something from all the others. There is no direct passage from one life to another, no individual rebirth. The drop and the ocean is an image to help us understand that life is born in a context that all previous lives have prepared.’
‘But you said that we reap what we sow.’
‘All sentient beings are born from this ocean from which we arise as well. The same will be in all the other lives as well. Thus we will reap what we have sown, and what has been sown by all the others as well.’
Jesus was a Jew, just as Buddha was a Hindu. They both had roots in pre-existing religions, and they both have become the founding figure of a new one. Jesus introduced life after death into Judaism which spoke of none. Buddha subtracted a personal soul, an atma or a self, from the Hindu religion of his birth. However many schools of Buddhism reintroduced it.
The Dalai Lama explains: ‘The idea of reincarnation is integrated into the philosophical framework of Buddhism. It’s a kinetic energy (motive force) which is a result of the previous life. It isn’t a teaching of the Buddha. The Buddha's contribution is to show that there is no soul or self which transmigrates.
But a person having reached a high degree of spiritual evolution is assumed to be able to direct, at the time of his death, this flow of energy in a particular direction, giving birth to a tulku (an emanation of a particular lama)’
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1. Koran 5: 48.
2. The Gospel of Sri Râmakrishna, Swami Nikkhilananda ; Râmakrishna-Vivekananda Center; New-York; 1942.
3. Quotation by Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert.
4. Adapted from Shi Bhagavan Aryadeva, The Words of the Guru, Lotus/Chou, 1980.
5. Adapted from Rumi : In the Arms of the Beloved, translation John Star, The Putnam Publishing Group,1997.
6. Cheikh Assam in Patrick. Levy, Dieu croit-il en Dieu ?, Albin Michel/Question de, 1993. Then Buddha, Dhammapada, 103.
7. Dhamma-Cakkappavattana-Sutta; The Four Noble Truths. And Anguttara-nikâya.
8. Jnaneshvari, from chapters 9, 13 et 14.
9. Adapted from Mahabharata, Yaksha-prasna, with added verses from the Bhagavad Gîtâ.
10. Adapted from an article by Albert Low, le Troisième Millénaire, No 38.
11. Two Zen Classics : Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Weatherhill, 1977.
12. Two Zen Classics : Mumonkan and Hekiganroku, Weatherhill, 1977. "Nansen cuts a cat"; Fourteenth case. The three true things… are Jacques Laffitte’s answers.
13 What the Seeker Needs, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi.
14. Quotations from Rabbi Lieb, Rabbi Israël of Rijin, the Maguid of Mezeritch; in Harry Rabinovicz, Hassidism : The Movement and its Masters ; Jason Aronson Inc. ; 1988. Jerome Mintz, Legends of the Hassidim ; University of Chicago Press, 1974. Martin Buber, Les récits hassidiques, édition du Rocher, 1963.
15. Gibran, The Madman, Alfred Knopf, 1949.
16. Revisionism is the denial of the genocide (mass murder) of the European Jews perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War.
17. « Give us grace… » Psalm 115: 1
18. Quotation of rabbi Leib, rabbi Menahem-Mendel, rabbi Houne, the grand-father of Shpole, rabbi Lévi-Yitzhak and of rabbi Acher; in Jerome Mintz, Legends of the Hassidim; University of ChicagoPress, 1974. Harry Rabinovicz, Hassidism : The Movement and its Masters, Jason Aronson Inc., 1988. Victor Malka, Ainsi parlait le hassidisme, Cerf, 1990. Martin Buber, Les récits hassidiques, édition du Rocher, 1963.
19 Poems of Kabir, I 79 and I 76; translated by Rabindranath Tagore; Macmillan Pocket Tagore Edition, India.
20 Gospel, John 16:23
21. Adapted very liberally from a Sufi story of which variants can be found in Farid-ud-Dun'Attar; in Djalâl al-Dîn Rûmî, The Essential Rumi, translation by Colman Barks, John Meyne, 1997 ; and in Indries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes, Vicking Penguin ; 1972.
22. The imam quote : Kuran 22: 10
23.Tevijja-Sûtra, sermon of the Bouddha.
24. Rig Veda 10 :129.
25. The Law of Manou IV : 256.
26. Kuran 7: 1O-17; 17: 62. From an idea by Farid-ud-din Attar.
27. An anecdote told by Raymon Panikkar.
28 Two stories of the Hindu mythology, liberally adapted from Vasista Ramayana and Bhagavatham.
30. A Buddhist wisdom tale.
31. Jerome Mintz, Legends of the Hassidim ; University of Chicago Press, 1974. Harry Rabinovicz, Hassidism : The Movement and its Masters ; Jason Aronson Inc. ; 1988.
32. On an idea of Rabbi Naphtali liberally adapted from a Hassidic tale. The quote is Isaiah 43:10. A yeshiva is an institute of learning where students study sacred texts.