Making The Desert Bloom
The great Thar desert lies in what is now Pakistan and is almost completely barren. There is a tradition in the ancient Vedas going back to over 1000B.C. that a great river, the Sarasvati, which rises in the Himalayas, flows a long way underground. Recent prospecting for oil suggests that this supposedly mythological river flows under the Thar, and thus could make the desert bloom. Beneath the human mind, even when it seems most barren, there is a spiritual Sarasvati, which can make the desert blossom into inspiration and energy. To bring this stream to the surface of daily life is a main purpose of yoga.
To make a desert bloom. This piece is not meant as entertainment; it is for people who are in the desert. A great Zen master was approached by two men and a woman who wanted to do some Zen, and he asked them: ‘Why do you come?’ One of them replied: ‘Well, I was rich and then my business collapsed and I was in jail for a bit. My reputation has gone, I am hated and despised by everybody, and so I have come here.’ The teacher turned to the next man and asked him why he was here, and he said: ‘I was very fond of my wife, but she died and I don’t know how I can stand the grief, so I have come here.’ And the teacher turned to the woman, who was a brilliant scholar of Buddhism, and she said ‘Well I have studied the theories very well, but I thought I would like to do some of the actual practise, so I have come here.’
The teacher considered, and accepted the first man, whose life had been smashed to pieces; yes, he could do something in Zen. The second man, who had suffered this terrible bereavement; yes he could do something in Zen. And the third one, the brilliant scholar who knew all the theory of Buddhism; the one you would think could do something in Zen, was accepted too, but privately the teacher said: ‘She won’t do anything in Zen,’ and she didn’t.
The teachings are meant for people in distress, in difficulty, or in despair – for those in a desert. They are not meant for people who are comfortably off and want to be entertained, and they are not meant for people who are great scholars and want to learn a bit more about being in a desert.
If you have ever been in a desert you will know that occasionally, in this mass of sand, you see a tree, and you think: how does it survive? There is hardly any rainfall here, how can it live? Well its roots can go down between thirty and fifty feet, and they find water under the desert. This water is not on the surface, for there is nothing there, but the tree’s roots travel deep, and it survives. But it is only one tree, and there is not another for miles. When we look back over our own lives, or observe the lives of other people, we see mostly suffering; even the moments of triumph and great success are suffering. If you are very successful, you will be hated by those who fail, and if you fail, you will be despised and ignored. But sometimes there are moments when we think back, and recall a peace that was not dependent on anything outside. Perhaps it was some walk in the country when we sat on a stone and had no worries in our mind. Suddenly there was peace and a feeling of something beyond.
In one of his poems, Tagore refers to these states and says that he never realised when they came and went before he was back again in the excitements, frustrations and fights of everyday life. But when he looks back he can see that there were moments of peace and transcendence that had no explanation, which did not depend on anything external. Now, when he looks back on them he can see the signet ring of the Lord imprinted on those moments; he realises that was when the Lord visited him. He did not recognise them at the time; he only knew that there was a peace, but now when he looks back he can see these moments clearly.
In the spiritual traditions, we are told that these are just hints. They are hints like the tree in the desert; there is water below the desert of life’s disappointments and frustrations. Now sometimes those moments can come – they can be brought about if we are sensitive enough. If you went, in the old days anyway, and possibly still, to a traditional Japanese hotel, one evening a maid would come to your room and ask: ‘Do you want to see the moon rise?’ See the moon rise. There was a little balcony in the hotel, and on that balcony at a particular time when the maids called you, you sat there in silence, and beyond the hill you looked up and the moon would come. People didn’t talk or fidget, asking, ‘Is it coming now?’ They sat and waited. There is a poem: ‘It’s just coming. That’s all. The great harvest moon’. And the people sat, and then would see the moon come rising, and would have peace without words, for it is too big for words. There are some cultures which understand how to create these moments of peace, and that is one of them, but these things are still dependent on external circumstances, and we have to find something beyond dependence on circumstance.
As previously mentioned, there is a great desert in Pakistan called the Thar desert, and traditionally there are three great rivers which take their source in the Himalayas; the one we call the Ganges, and one we call the Yamuma. There is also another which we don’t see, the Sarasvati, meaning ‘swift flowing’, and the ancient tradition from the Vedas is that the Sarasvati travels underground. Some hydrologists in the Thar have been using a system whereby a helicopter flies over a given area. There is an elaborate technical explanation, but briefly: a transmitter sends out radio signals and that produces a current in an aerial, which is received by a radio. It is similar to broadcasting; the transmitter sends out radio waves that strike the ground and set up induced currents. This sets up electric magnetisation that can be sensed by very sensitive instruments carried in floats towed by the helicopter. With this technique they can find out whether there is water below the surface of the desert.
Recently, hydrologists from Germany and Pakistan surveyed a very large area, and they found a huge fresh water aquifer, between thirty and one hundred metres deep, and several kilometres in length. All that fresh water! They could tell it’s fresh because fresh water’s resistance is different to that of, say, lime water. It is now known that there is a vast body of water that could make the desert bloom. The German hydrologist said: ‘There is enough water here to supply a great city like Hamburg, with 1.5 million inhabitants, all their water needs for over a century.’ Now they are drilling for it, at considerable labour and expense, for it is much more valuable than oil.
The spiritual discipline tells us that beneath the desert of our lives there is a living water, a living stream – perhaps like this enormous fresh water aquifer under the Thar desert. The mysterious Sarasvati’s reputation as a river that travelled underground from the Himalayas was thought to be pure myth, but perhaps it has some basis in truth after all. These analogies can be a useful stimulus, though of course they are not exact in every point. But if we do spiritual study in one tradition over a defined area, not just here and there, and we do it with attention, then we can begin to pick up these very fine signals from somewhere deep within ourselves. Below the surface desert of our lives, there is a living stream which can make the desert bloom.
I just want to say something about study. You have to be convinced, otherwise you will never do the special practises which can sensitise you to the existence of those hidden streams. Unless you are fairly convinced that they exist, you will never have the patience to keep on with the practises. For this reason you must study, not in vast detail, with a lot of names and dates, but study the subject in one main tradition so that you have a grasp of it.
I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the century, my mother, who was of a rich family, married my father who was a poor man. It was a love match. She told me that she had been brought up in this rich family like a doll. The girls were taught to be entertaining and to have graces and so on, but they could not earn their own living, and she rebelled against her strong-minded mother, saying: ‘I will leave home.’ Well there were only two ways a girl could earn a living then: nursing (typing as a profession was not yet available), and the other was something I don’t want to mention, so she chose nursing. She completed the nursing training, although she never practised, and by the time the training was complete, her mother had recognised the same strong will in the daughter as she had in herself, and she was welcomed back into the home. Later on in her life I looked after her for her last twenty years, and she became diabetic, but because she had been a nurse she followed the instructions exactly. The first year she was diagnosed, we had to weigh everything, even a slice of bread. We had to take tests every morning, and inject the exact amount of insulin. But the diabetic diet is a very healthy one; alcohol, smoking and sweet things are controlled, so, although she was diabetic and had to have these injections, her general health improved – she was very vigorous up to the age of 82-83. Some of her friends were also diabetic, but they could not manage to follow the rules; they knew they should, but they thought: ‘Oh, just one sweet thing, it doesn’t matter.’
I can remember one of them, a brilliant historian, who had a corner cupboard in one room, and she would get up quietly while the others were talking and just open the door a tiny little bit and take out a chocolate. She thought it didn’t count – if nobody saw it, it didn’t count. Well, she and others, who did not follow the rules, died, but my mother and one or two others did not. You have to do enough study to convince yourself to follow the discipline, and that varies with different people. Some people need more study than others, but it is essential. If you have diabetes you must read all the points on diabetes: don’t smoke, watch your feet, be very careful of your eyes, and so on (a small cut on the foot for a diabetic can be disastrous). You have to read enough to become convinced.
In the same way, if you take up a spiritual discipline in order to bring living streams into the desert of your life, you have to study one tradition. You respect other traditions, but you train in just one. As you can understand, the figures which the helicopter scientists bring back mean nothing to the ordinary person, and if they were presented to us, they wouldn’t persuade us to spend money drilling in the desert. It would be just a lot of figures that had to be explained very carefully. It is the same with spiritual study. The analysis of the mind can be very exact, but not everyone can follow it, so, for some things, we should go to a reliable source and be prepared to take some things on faith; not blind faith, but experimental faith. You have faith enough to enable you to go on making experiments, and when you get little confirmations it will seem reasonable to you. If you go on still further you will get bigger confirmations.
Here is an example of this. A businessman made a lot of money suddenly, bought a new house, and wanted to show it off to all his friends. His sister had been abroad, and she had married while she was away. Her return with her new husband was the perfect opportunity for a party, and the businessman invited about fifty people. One of them was a young mathematician, and the host, who was very contemptuous of mathematics, said: ‘Fiddling about with figures, a waste of time.’ The mathematician tried to assert that mathematics could be helpful in practical life, but the host said: ‘Not the sort of things you study. Why are prime numbers often in pairs eleven and thirteen, seventeen and nineteen? What good is that? It is useless!’ The mathematician, too embarrassed to argue, said nothing.
Then the sister introduced her husband, who was an astronomer, and it turned out that he had been in the East and was interested in astrology. The host, contemptuously, said: ‘You people just live on superstitions, there are never any scientific tests, nothing definite at all.’ And the astronomer said: ‘Well how can there be? I can make predictions but you have to wait to see if they’re true. Then, when something happens and I say I predicted it, then you will doubt that I ever did. But there can be occasions where there is a definite test.’ And the host said: ‘And I suppose that this is not one of those occasions, is it?’ ‘As a matter of fact it is,’ replied the astronomer. ‘People who are born on the same birthday have a sort of resonance. It does not mean they have the same character exactly, but there is a resonance between them. Now I have had some training in astrology and, as a matter of fact, there are about, how many, fifty of us here now? There are three hundred and sixty five days in a year, so it is not very likely that two of them are born on the same date, is it?’ And the host said ‘Now fifty into three hundred and fifty – about a one in seven chance.’ The astronomer/astrologer looked around him and said: ‘Well, as you are keen on definite tests, I’ll make a prediction. I can feel a resonance here. There are two people here who have been born on the same date. Now you know I have just come from abroad and I don’t know anyone here except for my wife, your sister.’ The host was delighted, saying: ‘Yes, let’s have a test, and when you fail it, no doubt you’ll have some excuse won’t you?’
So the people lined up and passed between 2 chairs in the middle of the room, calling out their birthdays. When about half had gone through, someone said: ‘October 10th,’ and somebody in the crowd behind, who had not been through, said: ‘I’m October 10th.’ There was silence until the host said: ‘Well that is just a fluke, it can happen.’ But the astronomer replied: ‘It can’t be a fluke – I predicted it, didn’t I?’ The businessman said: ‘It was a fluke that you predicted a fluke.’ The astronomer looked at his host and said: ‘Remember what you said about finding some excuse?’ And the host was silent.
Afterwards the shy mathematician went up to the astronomer and said: ‘It is about ninety seven per cent on isn’t it?’ The astronomer said: ‘You’re a mathematician too are you? I know this is not astrology, but what can I say when I am talking to fools? We have studied astrology seriously, as a science, and while it has had some failures, it has also had some successes, but some people just won’t listen. However, quite a few people in this room will listen now.’
The mathematical proof does seem incredible. There are fifty people, there are three hundred and sixty five days of the year, but it is something like 32 – 1, or 97%, that two of them will be born on the same date. Most of us couldn’t follow the complex mathematical probabilities argument even if the mathematician explained it to us, but some people were convinced by the astrologer when he says he sensed a resonance and he was right. So I would just like to say that we don’t have to plunge deeply into scholastic and academic study, but we must have a general idea of the tradition that we are going to follow in order to bore into the desert to find the water that flows. So what I have been talking about is really to illustrate that if we look and study, and we begin to look in our lives for those moments of peace which come for no reason at all, we will begin to get hints that there is something deep beneath the desert which can make it bloom. But to know this, even though it can be comforting, doesn’t solve our problem – we are still in the desert. We need to find some definite practise that we can do and that is going to take some time. I will now explain one of the meditation practises that I received from my teacher.
These are practises that Dr Shastri recommended; they are well proven and reliable, and the book that they come out of is ‘Meditation Theory and Practise’, which was written by Dr Shastri. One can be showered with different practises or presentations, but if one does one thing properly, then there is a chance for a response to come – an invitation to make the practises go further. But unless we start to do something there can’t be any response, there is no rapport. Lay down a particular time for meditation; he recommends first thing in the morning, when the mind is calm, though it might mean getting up a bit earlier to find the peace. Have a corner where you have a cushion, light a candle, have a picture of something that you revere, then read a text, a holy text. It might be the bible or the Bhagavad Gita, just a few verses, to bring the mind in to tune with something greater than we normally perceive as our daily lot. There is something there; we try to bore through, but all that we seem to be getting is a lot of gravel. But with these sort of practises, particularly the meditation practise which will come later on, there is an affirmation.
Focus the mind on the navel, take a deep breath in relaxation and as you breathe in imagine you are drawing the breath up from the navel so you end the breath by thinking of the space between the eyebrows. We can take eleven breaths, and obviously we don’t breathe through the navel, but we can imagine that as we breathe in, we are drawing the breath up as though one is drawing milk from a straw, not straining, just breathing gently and comfortably. So you draw the breath in up the body, draw in the breath up from the navel, and when the lungs are fairly full, the column of light stops between the eyebrows. Then you finish the visualisation and breathe out normally, and then you bring in the next breath. (The practise, in fact, moves the stream of vital energy in the body, but this cannot normally be felt by a beginner, so a visualisation is made, as if the breath were coming in at the navel. The breath is associated, in a subtle way, with the vital energy, called prana.)
Now the meditation. It is not something which is imagination, though it starts off, and we have to support it as imagination; there is, in fact, a light within us, and that is what are we looking for in the meditation: ‘In me there is a light that lights the whole world’. How can we tell what it represents? How can we tell what we are looking for? It is radiating peace and understanding. It is not something arbitrary, it is something that one actually finds, but only when one has done the boring and the drilling, we have to go down into ourselves to find it.
So the desert begins to bloom with those little reflections of inspiration that can arise in our daily life, the life that can seem like a desert at times. Something begins to stir and resonate, and we suddenly find we are released from habitual trains of thoughts: ‘I always do it this way, I have to do it this way, it has got to be so’. You become freer, there is opportunity for new ways of looking that come into the mind, there is freedom and ability. Then the text for meditation: ‘In me there is a light which lights the whole world, it is radiating now peace and understanding.’ We have been talking about light – the light within the body. The Gita (XIII, 17) says: ‘Light even of light, said to be beyond darkness. Knowledge, the object of knowledge, it is planted in the heart of everyone’. And in chapter 15, verse 12: ‘The light which resides in the sun illuminates the whole world, that which is in the moon and in the fire, that light known to be mine’. It is an affirmation, a statement. To start with we have to hold by imagination; we have to take it on the trust of people like Dr Shastri and other sages who have experienced it in their own lives. But what Dr Shastri recommended was that we repeat it to ourselves internally three times, then if one has forgotten it, repeat it another three times. The point is to hold the mind on the flavour of that text. Then you are holding on to an image of a light that is within you, and is now actually radiating peace and understanding.
There are many days, particularly on a Monday morning, when one does not feel one is radiating peace and understanding, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The teachers of old, in their autobiographies, describe the sufferings they have gone through, and unless they had that inner sparkle, that inner fire, then they wouldn’t have been able to carry on. This is an affirmation of truth, and we have the chance to follow what Dr Shastri and many other teachers of truth offered. Try a session now, for 15 minutes:
‘Om. In me there is a light which lights the whole world, it is now radiating peace and understanding. Om. In me there is a light which lights the whole world; it is radiating now peace and understanding. Om.’
Finally, sit in the calm which these practises will bring and give your friendliness and forgiveness to all, to those people you feel you have hurt, and those who have hurt you. In those final moments of the meditation practise, just offer a sense of forgiveness to them.
Though one has to practise on a definite line, we revere all the great traditions and schools; my teacher often used to refer to the great Moslem mystic, Rumi, and this is a little poem on the subject. You will see that the presentation is slightly different, but you will see the light, the water and the living stream which is below the desert. It is presented in the terms of Islamic mysticism.
A certain man was crying ‘Allah!’ all night until his lips grew sweet in praise of him. The devil said ‘Oh garrulous man, what is all this ‘Allah!’ Not a single response is coming from the throne. How long will you go on crying ‘Allah!’ with grim face?’ The man became broken hearted and lay down and slept. In a dream he saw the prophet Elijah in a garden, who said to him: ‘Hark! You have held back at praising God, why do you repent at having called on him?’ The man replied: ‘No ‘Here Am I’ is coming in response, hence I fear I have been turned away from the Door.’ Elijah said; ‘Nay. God saith that ‘Allah!’ of thine is my ‘Here Am I’, and that ardour, grief and supplication of thine are my messenger to thee – thy fear and love are the noose to catch my favour. Beneath every ‘Allah!’ of thine is many a ‘Here Am I’ from Me.’
We pray and we revere externally, but in the yoga and spiritual training we are taught that the Lord is not only outside, he is stirring within us, and that stirring is the spiritual quest. It is wrong to think: Oh, spiritual practise is just when ones circumstances are favourable and when one has the time and energy and facilities. No, as it is pointed out at the very beginning, it is when everything has collapsed, when we are disappointed, when our lives have been shattered, then is the time we can no longer depend on external things, they have collapsed and betrayed us. We can easily turn one-pointedly within, and in our turning not just revere what is outside, but find that stirring within us.
Q. You made mention at the beginning of your lecture about the Zen part of it. I am not very much acquainted with Zen but know enough to be mystified by it. You tell me there is a current within each of us – this appears to be an absurd statement – a statement which has no gospel or meaning. In Zen, I understand that the pupil is given a similar text, which has no meaning, like: ‘The sound of one hand’, and apparently the pupil goes away and cogitates on this, and at a given point later on seemingly some sort of realisation is actually achieved. Can you tell me about the mechanics – the nuts and bolts – of this?
A. Well that is not the subject of the lecture.
Q. No, but it does fall on to it.
A. These riddles are found in all the traditions. For instance, the story we have just had: ‘Beneath every ‘Allah!’ of thine is many a ‘Here Am I’ from me’. Now that is something which seems to be absurd. The devil said: ‘There is no ‘Here Am I’ coming in response, how long will you go on crying ‘Allah!’ with grim face?’ and Elijah said: ‘No. Beneath that ‘Allah!’ Beneath that Oh Lord! Beneath that there is a ‘Here Am I’. Now that would be the particular koan to find that ‘Here Am I’ in himself, in the very cry ‘Oh Lord!’ to find the ‘Here Am I’. Thank you for your question.
Q. In meditation, it says here, draw in the imaginary line from top of the forehead down to the navel. Does one have to leave it there or can one draw it back again to the top?
A. I am sure there are a wide variety of different practises but this is the form Dr. Shastri gave to us.
Q. So we leave it there?
Q. What is the substance of this great reservoir of water that you mentioned?
A. Well this is an analogy, a living stream.
Q. It stands for something that I wish to know. Is it possible for you to expand this?
A. It is said it is beyond words is it not? But it reflects itself in inspiration, and one of the points in yoga is that inspiration does not depend on the physical vehicle, it comes through the physical vehicle, and it is limited to some extent by the physical vehicle. One of the things we ought to know in this civilisation is that very old people, or very uneducated people, can nevertheless have inspiration. Some say that people are passed it at 55. Verdi wrote his greatest tragic opera when he was 71, and he composed the incredibly youthful ‘Falstaff’ when he was 80. Goethe, whose verses in the opening part of Part Two of ‘Faust’ are said to be the finest in European literature, didn’t finish that until he was 82. Hokusai was just a poster artist when he took up meditation in his late fifties, and when he was 68 he made perhaps one of the most famous pictures in the world, ‘The Wave’. Hokusai went on painting successfully until his 80s. Titian’s greatest masterpiece is ‘Lucretia and Tarquin’, but he was 85 and there was no deterioration of technique. Now you might say all these were exceptional people, but we only quote these exceptional people because they are documented. I can say I knew a wonderful old lady when I was young, fairly successful and arrogant, but I had no peace until I knew her, but if I tell you that you could say how do we know it is true. But the cases of Verdi and Hokusai are well documented and thus we can quote them. There is this living stream which is not dependent on the living surface, and it can be brought partially to the surface by a practise. We can speak of its effects but, as you say, to specify what it is it is something beyond the mind.
Q. Do these ideas occur in The Bible?
A. We should read the letter to the Colossians by Paul about the great Jesus, the great Christ. A Zen master has commented that many Christians often think too much of the small Christ, they don’t think enough of the great Christ. If we read Paul’s letter to the Colossians (I,17), it says: ‘For Jesus all this was created. The whole universe has been created through Him and for Him. And He exists before everything, and all things are held together in Him.’
Q. About the meditation. When you do this meditation, is it important that you do it on your own?
A. Once again it depends on the tradition. In the Zen tradition they sit together, but in the yoga tradition it is traditional to sit on ones own. If you have a partner who is also keen on meditation, then it is all right to do it together, but generally there are less distractions if one practises alone.
(Based on a 1999 lecture by Trevor Leggett)
© 1999 Trevor Leggett