(24 November 1990)
These are the third and fourth parts of the Upanishad, and they’re in the form of a story about the gods. The gods are rather like the Greek gods, they are very human. In fact, they are us, they are humans in symbolic form. Brahman the majestic – this is the name which is provisionally given to the Absolute, to God in the Upanishads. Brahman won a victory for the gods. We think, “Well, what is Brahman doing in this world of humanity?” Brahman won a victory for the gods and the gods thought, “This victory indeed we have won. We have succeeded.” They couldn’t see Brahman. They thought as we think mostly in this world, “When I’ve brought something off, I’ve done it. The success is mine.”
Brahman knew this thought of theirs and appeared in a mysterious form, an indescribable form, something wonderful and mysterious in the Himalayan mountains. Something appeared which couldn’t be ascertained. Indra, the king of the gods says to the god of fire, “Go and find out what that mysterious thing is.” The god of fire runs and he stands before that mystery. The mystery says, “What are you?” He says, “I am the god of fire,” and it says, “What power is there in you?” He says, “I can burn anything.” Then Brahman puts a straw in front of him, a straw appears in front of the god of fire. The voice says, “Burn this,” and he can’t.
So he returns to Indra the king of the gods and says, “I couldn’t find out what it was.” Then Indra sends Vayu, the god of the wind. He says, “Vayu, go and find out what it is,” and he goes. He says, “What are you?” “I am the god of the wind.” “What power is in you?” “I can carry anything away.” He puts a straw, a straw appears in front of him. “Carry this away.” He blows with all his power, but he can’t move the straw. He comes back to Indra, “I couldn’t find out what it was.”
Now there’s a parallel account in a martial arts story from Japan where there is this mysterious being like a bird with some human characteristics. It appears and it terrifies the countryside. It doesn’t do any particular damage but everyone’s terrified of it. They employ a great warrior and say, “Kill this thing, it’s frightening us.” He goes and he sees this strange bird animal. He shoots arrows at it. The arrows fly through the air; but they just stick, they don’t pierce, they just stick to it. Then he runs at it with a lance; but the lance doesn’t pierce it, it slides off and just sticks to the side. Then he draws his sword and tries to cut it, but the sword sticks to it.
He’s an expert in the methods of attack and defence, so he tries those and his hands and his feet stick to the bird. Then this terrifying head turns down says, “Do you surrender now?” He says, “No.” Then the bird monster changes into the god of the martial arts and praises him and gives him a secret. This doesn’t happen until he goes himself.
When we investigate something unknown, we want to know about it. We shoot arrows of opinions at it from a safe distance. One reads books about it or you hear about it or you think about it from an armchair. At a safe distance, you shoot these arrows. You hope to pierce it and get its dead body back. The lions used to eat the Christians, but now the Christians shoot the lions and put the lions’ heads on their walls as trophies. A safe distance and then shoot, but this doesn’t work. We try with the arrows, we try with the lances, try with the sword, we try with verbal tricks, none of them work. Then finally, there’s only ourselves left. Then it says, “Now will you run away? Surrender and I’ll let you go.” If then they say ‘no’, then the mystery is revealed.
Well, in the same way in the upanishadic story, Indra, the king of the gods, he sends fire. Fire, one of the chief gods, is powerless even to burn a straw in front of this mysterious being. He comes back, “I couldn’t find out.” Indra had hoped that he would find out and perhaps bring it back. Then wind goes and he couldn’t find out. Then Indra goes himself. The meaning is that these Upanishads will not yield their secrets unless we go ourselves. While we think about them, hear about them, talk about them, ponder, draw pictures of them, they will not yield their secrets. Only when we ourselves go, when we try them in our very selves, will they yield a secret.
Indra himself goes and then the mystery disappears and there is Uma, the daughter of the Himalaya, she’s a goddess, standing there. Her wisdom is depicted. Prajñā, wisdom, is a feminine word in Sanskrit. The deity of wisdom is often depicted as a woman all over the far East, and so this is a woman who stands there. Indra says, “Well, what is happening? What has happened?” She says, “This has happened because you took the victory to yourselves, but that victory was given to you by Brahman.”
We think, “Well, what has all this got to do with us?” Now, unless these things relate to our everyday experience – not special times of exaltation, not going to some wonderful service in a wonderful cathedral or at a special time of peace in the countryside or in the Swiss Alps or something – unless it enters into our daily lives, then it’s no real secret. It’s not a real upanishad which we have. It must enter into the daily experiences, the everyday experiences of our lives. Not simply as a thought or as a memory, but as a living experience and force.
The first point is that there is something illusory about our ordinary lives. We tend to feel that the world after all is real and there’s no denying that. Then what is beyond, it may be real, or it may not be real. We hope it’s real, and quite a good chance it is. A lot of people have said so, but at other times, you think, “Well, I don’t know.” How do we know? Mephistopheles is rather good at this. Faust is in meditation and he gets a glimpse of the Self, Goethe depicts it very vividly in wonderful language. My teacher said that this is one of the highest revelations of mystic experience in the West. He sits in meditation, and he finds the Spirit, the majestic Spirit of the universe. Then he goes into the cave and he finds that same Spirit in his own self. Then Mephistopheles comes along. He says, “You’re sitting there. It’s very exalting, isn’t it, sitting in that cave? You’re puffing yourself up as if you are God almighty and you feel like that, no doubt. But at the end of it all, you’re just what you were before. Like an old toad blowing himself up, like a frog, and then at the end of it, you’ve only got to come down again. Pathetic isn’t it?” There’s a voice and, unless the experiments are done, there’ll always be this alternation between faith, disbelief, ridicule, and feeling, “Oh well, let’s be a bit practical about things.”
Now, Brahman gained a victory for the gods and the gods claimed that victory and thought it was for themselves. It was they themselves who had got it. There’s something illusory about our lives. The first thing to realize in the upanishads is that the world is a show put on. The Lord creates the universe as a sort of projection – an illusory projection, as we create a dream, like a conscious dream. Then he himself enters into it, as we enter into our dreams. He enjoys it as we create a play and we create a world of the play and we enjoy it, it creates beauty. Even terrifying plays like King Lear, we go to see it and we enjoy it. Although we are affected by the pity and the terror and the tragedy of it, but this has been put on, and we know that this has been put on. But if we’re children and we no longer realize it or know it, then we can become frightened and terrified, and then we suffer intensely from it. There’s something illusory about our conviction of the absolute reality of the world. Even though we may in theory accept that this is a divine projection, in actual practice, we find it very difficult to live that way.
There was a living example of this. In Japan during the war, to save rice, they didn’t husk it. It was brown rice and that is much better for you. When you husk it so that it becomes pure white rice which looks very beautiful, a lot of the nourishment has gone. The health of the nation was surprisingly good during the rationing when they all got brown rice. Then after the war, as soon as they could afford it, they went back to white rice. Now everybody knew and the newspapers did campaign after campaign to get people to eat brown rice which is much more healthy, but the Japanese housewives said, “No it’s dirty. It looks dirty. We want this gleaming white rice as we’ve always had it,” and still they have white rice. Although known to be less good for you, in fact, it’s injurious to stick to white rice; but still, they do it.
There’s an illusion. Although it’s known to be an illusion, it can still affect one’s conduct quite powerfully. What the Upanishad tells us is that we are affected by an illusion, and we think that the sequences of the world are absolutely real and that to some extent, we control them. We are meant to act in the world, but if we think that we control the world by our actions, then we are subject to illusion. If we think that we can shuffle the cards somehow so that we shall be always happy and prosperous and well-liked, healthy, then we are suffering from an illusion.
We can improve things, but not very much, because the play of this world is that we shall grow old, we shall die, and then we shall be reborn again. If we go against this and try to hang on, then we shall suffer intensely. We hold onto things. We think, “Oh, this is forever. This is for 10 years even.” We’re holding on. Instead of that, we should regard the world as like music. You don’t want a chord to go on forever, you want the music to change; and if it changes in an orderly way, then it creates beauty for us. We are asked to try to see the world as a projection of the divine consciousness.
Now we’re given a choice. A divine consciousness enters us too and it creates a sort of whirlpool. This is a whirlpool of egoism and it attracts detritus, what they call rubbish, and it’s whirling round and round and round and round. I can’t give that up, although it’s time to give it up. It’s time to change but instead of that, I’m holding on, and this will lead to suffering. Now when we’re no longer holding on, there will be a relative freedom. If we’re not holding on at all, seeing the divine purpose, becoming one with divine purpose, then there’s no suffering.
There’s suffering which is no suffering. How can that be? You get it in the case of mountaineers. Sometimes on the difficult climbs, it’s agony. They’re in agony but they’ve deliberately chosen those routes. They choose the most difficult route. Why do they do it? They enjoy it, but how can they be enjoying it, suffering the pain that they do suffer? They’re enjoying it. If you see a sprinter sprinting all out, sometimes he collapses at the end of the race, he’s fighting for breath. He’s in physical agony, but all he’s waiting for is when he can get up and race again. He’s in pain but it’s not a real pain.
How can that be? It’s not a real pain because it’s voluntary. He’s taken it on himself as part of this sport and this risk, and he tries and he succeeds or he fails but either way, he’s enjoying himself. We say, “Can you live life like that?” Yes, some people are able to live life like that. The purpose of the yoga is to enable us, while we’re in life, to live in accordance with inner lines. By going into meditation, they will appear before us – what we are to create in the external world and in the internal world, and the energy to create it, and this will have the effect. It’s a little breath from the Absolute, from God into this world.
Now, I give one example – it’s from Japan which I knew. A great master of calligraphy who practiced Zen retired and he went to a country village. He was famous and people came to visit him sometimes. He took an interest in the education of the village children and there was one boy who was rather bright. The teacher said to the old grandmother, “When the time comes, he should go on to university. He’s doing very well.” The boy had no father or mother (they both died) and he was brought up by his grandmother, who made great sacrifices. She did little odd jobs, cleaning and so on around the village and people knew of the sacrifices she was making and the hard time she was having.
Anyway, she brought up the boy. He did well and then the time came for him to go to university but she didn’t have any money. The teacher said to her, “Well, I know the president of one of the most important universities in Tokyo in the capital and if the boy wants to go, I’ll give an introduction – the president runs a scholarship fund for boys who have no money at all. I think he would take him on for the three years for him to graduate.” The old grandma said, “Of course, I’d be very lonely, but still for the boy’s sake, I’ll agree to that.” The boy was very keen, of course, to go.
When the time came, the master said, “Now, I’ll give you the letter of introduction to the president from me, and the train tickets and you can go up with the boy and see the president.” She sat down and then she thought, “Now he’s going to write the letter, this famous master of calligraphy. Now I’m going to see something.” She waited for him to mix the ink and take up the brush, but instead of that, he picked up an old blunt pencil stub. He just took a little knife, and he made just a couple of cuts. Then he scribbled a note which she couldn’t read – it was the most difficult handwriting. He didn’t sign it or seal it, even though in the far East, without a seal, the thing is simply not authentic at all.
He put that in an envelope and then he addressed it carefully to the president of the university. He said, “Go give him that.” She felt terribly embarrassed. She thought, “It’s an absolute scribble and no seal on it. There’s no identification. How can I give him that?” She was too embarrassed to say anything. She took it and took the tickets, and they went out to the president, and she gave the letter to the president’s secretary who took it in. He saw them immediately. As they were going in, he was looking at this scribble, and he said, “Oh, wonderful. Who else could have done it?” He said, “He’s using a blunt pencil, but he’s got such control that he can imitate the light and heavy strokes of a brush. It’s a masterpiece. I’m going to keep this.” He said, “Of course, I’ll take the boy on”, and so on.
She came back alone to the village. She expected that she wasn’t very much liked in the village because she was such a complainer. She thought, “Well, I’ll have to put up with this.” Surprisingly, people started calling on her and they used to bring little gifts and presents. One day, one of them said to her, “Do you know why people like me come to see you? You used to complain rather a lot and it got a bit tiring, but now you never complain at all. In fact, you hardly ever talk. When we come here and then we go away again, we find we’ve got a sort of courage to face life. We’ve got a sort of inner joy. We don’t know where it comes from. I’m only telling you this because I want to ask, what made the change in you?”
The old lady told her the story of the pencil stub. She said, “I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. He had those brushes there and I know some of them are very rare. They’re supposed to be camel hair from some place in China. But he used that old pencil stub. Then the president said it was a masterpiece.” She said, “I couldn’t get it. Why did he do it? I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was always thinking, the pencil stub, the pencil stub.” She said, “I woke up one morning and it suddenly came to me, I’m the pencil stub. My life is a worn-out stub, but with just two little cuts, cutting away my selfishness, the Buddha can use it to write a masterpiece.” She said, “Since then, I’ve felt a strength holding me and the calmness within.” This was an example. Things have to come into our daily lives. She penetrated to that by constant meditation on this pencil stub riddle, which had been given by the master.
In the yoga, there are two steps for this, and we’re asked to practise them – to practise meditation, but outside the meditation, to practise in our daily lives. The most favourable times for practice are when we’ve got some boring chore to do or some long and tedious undertaking. These are special times to practice yoga. There are two stages. The example that they very often give is of polishing the floor because a lot of the floors in the Far East are of wood. They polish them until they’re like mirrors in the temples and they’re not allowed (perhaps they do now, but they weren’t allowed) to use furniture polish. It was all done by elbow grease and some of them shine. In some of the big temples, there’s something like half a mile of corridors. They’re all polished by the faithful who come. It’s one of their spiritual practices.
When you see somebody who’s not used to polishing, they get very tired quickly. One of them asked an experienced man, “You are old and I’m young, but you don’t seem to get tired, and I get tired.” The old boy said to him, “What are you thinking of when you’re polishing?” He said, “I’m thinking that I’ve got this strip to do here, then when I’ve finished this one, there’ll be another one and another one. Then when I’ve done three, there’ll be the horizontal one going the other way. Then I’m finished for the day.” The old boy said, “I don’t say it’s bad, but while you think like that, you’ll get tired.”
So he said, “Well, how should I think?” and the master said, “When you are polishing one place, you’re just thinking of this. You’re not thinking of how much more you’ve got to do, you’re not thinking of how much you’ve done. You’re not thinking, ‘I wish to God I was in a Kyoto bar now.’ You’re not thinking, ‘Will people have noticed what I’ve done?’ You’re not thinking, ‘Oh God, am I working hard?’ You’re just looking at your hand moving with the cloth over this area. You’re not thinking anything outside that. When it begins to shine, you move on to the next one. That way you won’t get tired.”
The man said, “Why not?” He said “You see, you’ve got thousands of thoughts in your mind. That’s why you get tired. It’s not the physical movement. It’s the thousands of conflicting thoughts. The row you had yesterday – what you could have said. ‘Oh, it would’ve been good but never mind, perhaps I’ll say it when I meet them again.’ All those things, that’s what tires you. Not this calm movement.”
This is the first stage. It takes quite some time when we are doing these tedious things – when we are copy typing, when we are adding up endless thoughts of figures, when we’re waiting for a bus. But this is when to practise – especially with physical movement. Sometimes the monks polish with both hands. Here, we polish with only one hand, but there they polish with both hands. It’s this favourable use of the whole body, instead of just the one side of the body. This is the first step to be able to do the action without thinking of the past, without thinking of the future, without thinking of any of these irrelevant things. Simply to do it.
When this begins to achieve something like some skill in it, there’ll come a time when the hand begins to move by itself. When there’s a laying down of, ‘I do this, I’m polishing this’, then the hand will begin to move by itself. We think, “No. If I stop polishing, the hand will stop.” No. If I make the decision, “Now I’ll stop polishing”, then, yes, the hand will stop. But if, when polishing, he lays down the egoistic feeling, “I’m polishing,” simply lays it down, the hand will go on. It’ll move on and as the wood begins to shine, there’s a shining in the heart. The true nature of the wood is beginning to shine through. The dirt is removed, and the true nature of the heart is beginning to shine through.
Acting without ‘I act’. This is the next stage and it takes quite a time, but it can happen suddenly and briefly, and then it’ll pass. Now, when this happens, the movements change. Well, the very keen ones used to practise this in judo contests, which is quite a difficult thing to do, because you’re doing something perhaps on the face or something like that. But it can be practised, and very occasionally, the body will begin to move by itself. When this happens, it doesn’t produce the familiar favourite tricks, which the ordinary judo man has. When this happens, the whole thing comes alive, and the people will sometimes undertake something that they would never have done in the ordinary way, that’s not familiar to them at all.
Well, it can happen and it passes – but when it has happened once, there’s a glimpse – ‘I act’, and then, ‘It acts, I do not act’. It can happen after long practice of discarding the unnecessary thoughts – still, ‘I act’, but discarding the unnecessary thoughts. Then there’s a transfer. It’s got a technical name, but there’s a transfer. Then life begins to follow the cosmic impulse, because there’s no blockage from the egoism, “I’m doing this.” The gods thought the victory (and this means polishing the wood) was theirs – “I’ve done it”. But in the true way, the victory is given by Brahman and in the true way, when the gods realize this, they’ll become like channels through which the wind of Brahman, the divine wind of purpose will shine.
Well, this is just a brief outline. There are opportunities for this, especially, for instance, when something we expect, we’ve been looking forward to, is suddenly taken away. Now, this is a very favourable time. We say, “No, this is a damnable time. All the work I’ve done for that and now it’s not going to come off.” My teacher often used this: “Create an empty vacuum within and that vacuum will be filled by the divine.” One teacher used this and his pupil returned and said, “Well, what did you mean master, create a vacuum within? What did you mean?” The master put him off and then he asked again, and he put him off. He asked again, and the master then finally said, “Well, if you are so keen, you’ll have to prepare yourself.” He had to fast for a few days and do some purifications for several days and then come to the main hall of the temple at dawn. He did all this and he turned up at dawn and he saw the master there in full robes. They’re very impressive, these robes, with a great staff in the dead silence of the hall. He came in and he made his reverences.
Then the master crashed the staff on the ground said, “Now, listen, this is a very rare opportunity for which you’ve prepared yourself.” He said, “Yes, master.” The silence went on and he thought, “What’s happening? Why doesn’t he tell me?” He thought, “Oh, I just have to wait.” Then he gave up waiting and he just stood there, and the master stood. Then he found inside himself something which doesn’t need to speak, which doesn’t need to move, which doesn’t need to breathe – a sort of emptiness. The master said, “The interview is finished, go away.”
Sometime afterwards, he found that came again – a sort of emptiness began to spread, and his life began to become bright. The teacher said to him, “Now you were fully concentrated on what you were going to hear, and then it didn’t come. You’d prepared yourself. This was the whole world and you prepared yourself and then it didn’t come. Then there was an emptiness within. That was the vacuum within, and you were able to enter into that and not think, “Well, what the devil am I doing here?”
He said, “Now, remember in life, when something we’ve concentrated on, which has been the whole world, is taken away, now is the time. If you think, “Oh, disappointment. Oh, tragedy. Oh, why do things always turn out like that?” The opportunity is wasted – but you have a chance. There is the whole world and now that world has been taken away. Now there’s an emptiness and in that emptiness, you can have a glimpse of infinity.
Well, one of the examples given in the Indian classics, in Patañjali – in India and, of course, many other places, gardens are in terraces on the hillside. You get the soil and the things growing in it, and then there’s this little bank, and then another circle around another bank. When they irrigate it, they flood the top terrace and when it’s saturated, they make a little gap in the bank and fill the next one; and then another little gap to fill the next one, and so on – and this is used as an example.
It says the yogi, by creating an emptiness, makes an opening through which the divine grace will flow. It says the peasant can carry the water down from the top terrace in a bucket, put a bucket full on the next terrace and go up top again and fill another bucket. It says that’s what we do when we try to do individual pieces of good. It’s not wrong, but if we can make an emptiness in ourselves, it creates a channel through which divine grace can come to a large number.
Those are the sort of examples that are given. One of the things that the teachers repeatedly emphasize is that the capacity to do these things is in everybody, and from yogic point of view, the value of everybody is the same. We can think, “That’s not what life is like” – but if you open your eyes, you can see this. At a sports club, I can remember a girl who didn’t care much for the sports, but she liked sportsmen – and so she was a member of the club. She was, by her own account, an absolute fool. She said never did any good at anything at school. She said, “I just can’t take it in. It’s no good.” A German athlete, rather a good one, came over to live in Britain for several years, at least. She fell in love with him. Near the sports club (I relate this because it was a personal experience which impressed me) there was a tiny little cafe where the people would sometimes go before it opened. I remember being in there and I saw her in a corner. She had a thick German grammar and was learning German, a thing that had been absolutely impossible for her at school. She was learning with a smile on her face – she knew he was going to correct it. She did in fact learn German. And another case I knew was a woman who fell in love with a Japanese. Well, that is a beast of a language, but she did it.
These things are, in a sense, beyond our ordinary mental access. No amount of threats or bribes could have got her to do German, but that did. Because her whole personality was in it, she did succeed in mastering it. Our teacher told us, he said, “Keep your eyes open, read history, look around and you will see these things in actual practice. Don’t think people are dull or people are stupid or incapable. They simply haven’t shown themselves.” They think they can’t show themselves. While they think they can’t, they won’t.
Well, afterwards, when Indra finds it was Brahman that gave them a victory, he opened himself to the wind of God which came through. And then he was able to be a true king of the gods, an actual God, instead of simply a self-seeking manipulator as many of the Indras were. It’s a title, but some of them are far from edifying.
We’re told the first exercise in everyday life is meditation, and then in everyday life, – especially when waiting or doing something boring or repetitive, where not much thought is required – to pair away the thoughts, give up the thoughts, “This is coming, that’s gone. I’m going to do this, what will happen?” Then simply to do the thing. Finally, when it gets going well, one’s familiar with it, we try to drop the action, “I am doing this.” Not to think, “I’m going to stop”, but to drop the action. If you think, “I’m going to stop”, it’s like stopping the car, but the engine is still running. In this case, it’s to stop the car and shut off the engine and get out.
Well, these are some of the little hints which were promised, and they were only hints. If you look at the program, they were only to be hints but some of them have been useful to me, so I’ve passed them on to you from the teacher.