The Blue Cloth
Sometimes in a spiritual group a dispute develops over practically nothing. Although it is so trivial, people feel strongly about it. No one seems to know the cause of what is happening, or what to do.
When the teacher first founded the group they were poor, and had only a cheap brown cloth over the altar on which was the form of the god. They worshipped with prayers and mantras for the first half of the meeting, and then, when the minds were to some extent pacified, they meditated on the Upanishadic text: ‘O holy divinity, I am what thou art, and thou, O holy divinity, art what I am.’
The teacher had once mentioned that to see or meditate on the colour blue has a calming effect on the mind, and added that blue was the best colour for an altar cloth. This remark was taken down, but nothing was done at the time because they were so poor. Then it was forgotten.
Many years later, a new member reading over the old records came across it. He bought a blue silk cloth, and had it beautifully embroidered with the mantra of the divinity. He presented it to the man whose responsibility was the altar cloth, who accepted it without comment and put it away. But an old brown cloth continued to be used.
The new member tried to accept this, but after a few weeks he went to the head disciple, told him what had happened, and said,
T can’t worship, I can’t concentrate on the prayers, I can’t keep my mind on the mantra, I can’t meditate. All the time I’m thinking of that altar cloth and saying to myself, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong.’ So the chief disciple went to the altar-cloth man and said,
‘Now you have to accept this. He can’t focus his mind because this little thing has become a great thing to him.’
‘But this is against our whole tradition. We’ve always had a brown cloth. The teacher may perhaps have said something about a blue cloth, just in passing, but very likely it was taken down incorrectly. We’ve always had a brown cloth. If we give way on this point, there will be pressure to change another one too, and in the end nothing of the tradition will remain.’
‘Now we’ve both been here a long time, haven’t we? And we know what our teacher thinks of rituals – just a little to help calm the mind, but no reliance on them. And this which is happening is disturbing his mind; he hasn’t enough experience to learn from it. Please accept this business as it has happened, and put the blue cloth on the altar each time.’
Now the splendid embroidered blue cloth was on the altar each time the group met. It was much admired. After a few more weeks, the new member again asked for an interview with the head disciple, who said, ‘What is it now? You have what you want.’
‘Yes,’ was the bewildered reply. ‘But I still can’t worship, I can’t concentrate on the prayers, I can’t keep my mind on the mantra, I can’t meditate. All the time I’m seeing that altar cloth and thinking to myself, it’s right, it’s right, it’s right.’
‘Ah,’ said the chief disciple. ‘It’s good that you’re aware of what’s happening. Well now. We’ll put the old cloth back until it’s worn out, and then in the natural way we’ll replace it, with the blue one. Perhaps we’ve both learnt from this. We have learnt about the blue cloth – that’s something valuable that had got overlooked somehow. And you, perhaps you’ve learnt something too? It’s easy to fall into worshipping an altar cloth.’