Sunday, December 30, 2007

A World of Wisdom

A disciple of the Sufi master Bauhaudin Naqshband once asked him why he never interpreted the stories he told. Naqshband responded, “How would you like it if the fruit vendor from whom you bought fruit ate the fruit and left you only the skin?”

A story, like a piece of fruit, is a unique experience for each person. And, while many may agree that the taste of an apple is of a certain quality, a certain sweetness, who is to say that one person’s pleasure in the fruit is identical to another’s? Or, perhaps, we could compare a story to a many-faceted jewel through which light refracts in myriad ways. Each moment of experience of the wonder of refracted light is unique. So it is with stories, each telling is unique; the experience of each listener is unique. Each story represents a vast wealth of meaning that is in constant motion as we tell to each other, listen, remember and reflect. Indeed, often our remembrance is varied, emphasizing one element over another, leaving out a critical element that the story needs to work. But somehow we piece it back together again – we make up for the missing pieces with the gift of our imagination – so infinitely variable.

The stories I share on this blog are tales that i have found (or, as i often feel, have found me) that persist in my mind and heart. They speak to me over and over again of things that i am always coming to understand better, more deeply, more slowly. I am always prepared for boredom to set in as i tell a story for the Nth time only to be surprised again and again at the seemingly unending abundance of meaning to be had. One of my delights in learning and researching stories is finding stories that are similar yet different and that come from different cultures of the world as with the following two stories. The first is a “joke” that I learned while growing up in Quebec. The second is a tale from Bengal that I found in Folktakes from India: a selection of oral tales from twenty-two languages selected and edited by A.K. Ramanujan (Pantheon 1991).

Once there was a flood in which a faithful man was trapped in his house. He went to the second storey where he looked out the window and saw a canoe approach. “Get in, get in,” the canoeists said. “We’ll save you.” But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The canoe paddled away. The floodwaters rose and the man had to flee to the third floor. He looked out the window and saw a motorboat approach. “We’ve come to rescue you,” the boaters said. But the man waved them away, saying, “I put my faith in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The boaters left and the floodwaters rose faster. The man climbed onto the roof of his house when along came a helicopter that lowered a ladder. But the man waved them away yelling, “My faith is in the Lord. He will not let me come to harm.” The waters rose and the man drowned. In heaven he demanded an audience with the Lord. Standing before the Lord he asked, “Why did you let me die? My faith was strong and yet you let me die.”

“I don’t understand it,” said the Lord. “I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”

God in Everything
Once there was a guru giving a lecture to his disciples about God. His teaching on this day was about the presence of the divine in everything. “God is in the trees, the stones, the river, the animals and in you,” he said. One disciple was very moved by this lecture and was pondering the teaching as he walked towards a nearby village. On the edge of the village he looked up to see a commotion down the street. Soon he saw that it was an elephant that had gotten out of control and was smashing its way down the street. The driver was madly flailing as he struggled to keep his balance on the elephant’s back. The disciple could see the damage the elephant was causing, people almost trampled, carts overturned, shop fronts reduced to rubble. But the disciple thought of the new teaching he had just received. And he considered that if God was in everything then God must be in that elephant as well as within himself. He resolved to stand in the elephant’s way and practice his new learning believing that his awareness of the presence of God would protect him and the elephant. He stood his ground as the elephant galloped towards him. The elephant was suddenly right in front of the disciple. The elephant wrapped his trunk around the disciple, picked him up and smashed him against one wall and then another. It dragged him in the street and left him bloodied and bruised in the dust. A short while later the guru came by and was startled to see his disciple injured in the street. “What has happened?” he asked. The disciple explained: “Master, I was reflecting on your teaching this morning when I saw the mad elephant. I resolved to deepen my belief in the presence to God in everything, including in the elephant. I believed that God would protect me.” “I see,” said the guru. “It is indeed true that God was in the elephant. But God was also in the driver of the elephant who was yelling at you to get out of the way.”

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