In a thick grove some way outside the town was a small temple, looked after by a widowed retired businessman, who was a devotee of the divinity of the shrine. It was traditionally said, and widely believed, that anyone who came on foot to worship there, with a pure heart, every day for forty days, would receive blessings. Few undertook the forty days, but many people made occasional visits, and some of them experienced great relief from anxieties after the visit. They used to make a small donation according to their means to the temple each time they visited.
The temple keeper spent a good deal of his time washing it spotlessly clean, and polishing the surfaces to get them to shine. This was no easy matter, owing to the nature of the stone. He felt that the work he did was not appreciated by the worshippers who came and went; they saw him working, of course, but none of them realized how much he did.
He happened to notice that some birds had nested in a tree near the entrance to the path through the grove; when a visitor approached, these birds would call out to each other. One day when the birds suddenly became particularly noisy, he guessed that a group was coming, and immediately set to work energetically. As they came up they saw him furiously scouring the stone at the side of the temple (not near the door—he thought that would be too obvious). The little group of six performed their worship and left. It was part of the ritual to keep silent till they had got out of the grove, but he knew that then they would probably burst out into conversation. He ran along a little side-path and hid, so that he could overhear what was said.
Sure enough, one remarked, “Did you see that fellow working at the side wall? Terrific, wasn’t it! He couldn’t have known we were coming, either.”
“He must have,” retorted another contemptuously, “and it was all an act. He must have known we were coming somehow. How could he possibly keep that pace up? He was doing it too hard to be genuine, I’m afraid. Ham acting, not working, that was.”
The devotee heard all his hopes punctured: he knew the story would go round. He felt a sense of futility, and began to do less work on the temple. But the inner bitterness did not lessen. Ham acting, ham acting, ham acting. Lazy swine, he thought, what do any of them do? Sometimes he would see the pointlessness of his circling thoughts, and almost overcome them, but then the suppressed fury would blaze up again.
In desperation he spent a whole night in self-examination, praying for light. Enlightenment comes with the dawn, he had heard somewhere. As dawn came, he realized, not merely intellectually but in his heart, that he had been cleaning the temple not as a service for the god, but for the good opinion of worshippers. He was able to work again, but quietly now, with his mind centred on service to heaven, without thought of men. After forty days he noticed a calm spreading outward from his heart throughout his body and movements. As he grew older, his body worked more slowly, but the peace grew deeper and deeper.
One day as he was polishing in the sunlight, a voice behind him said, “Sir.” He turned and saw a group of young people looking at him with interest and respect. The man who had spoken, whom he had seen a few times at the temple, continued, “My cousin from a long way off came on a visit, and I brought him here. He is master of a stonemason’s business, and told me that this stone is very difficult to polish. When he heard that it is only a single man who looks after the whole temple, he told us that it is a great work of service that has been done here. We had not realized it; we thought the stone shone naturally. With your permission, I and my friends would like to help you, under your direction.”
A couple of helpers dropped away in time, but the others remained, and new ones joined. After a year, one of them said to the old man, “Sir, I have noticed that your movements are smooth, and you do not seem to get tired. Would you tell me something about this? We get tired, though we are young.”
“Why,” he said, “I have been doing this for a long time. No doubt I am used to it.”
“Surely that is not all, is it, sir?”
The old man looked into the sincere face in front of him, and said slowly, “My work has changed. At first I used to think of the Maurya stone near where I once lived. It is beautifully polished, and has kept its sheen for over two thousand years. I thought I would polish the temple like that; it would be a wonderful achievement and everyone would admire it. I was worshipping myself as I worked. Then I began to hanker after some appreciation.”
He told him the story of the visiting group, and the sarcastic remark about ham acting. “I had been worshipping the opinions of others. But then I began to be able to work simply to serve the Lord who is enshrined here.”
“How do you see our work, sir?”
“What are you thinking of as you work?”
The man pondered. “Well, when I am polishing one bit, I suppose I am thinking that I should get this really shining, and then move on to the next bit, and I have a vague idea of how many days it will take to finish the whole wall. And that will be my offering to the Lord.”
“While you think like that you will get tired. I do not say it is bad, but you will get tired.”
“Then how do you do it, sir?”
“I polish the bit that is in front of me, without thinking of anything else. As I polish it, I am polishing my heart. And then … I realize that the Lord is polishing my heart. And then … I realize that the Lord is polishing the wall.”
He stopped. There was a silence. “And is there anything else, sir?”
In a very low voice, the old man whispered, “Sometimes I think I see the Lord reflected dimly in the polished wall.