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Commentaries on Living Series 3

Commentaries on Living Series III Chapter 21 'The Vanity of Knowledge'

THERE WERE FOUR who were chanting, and it was pure sound. They were quiet, elderly men, uninterested in worldly things, but not by way of renunciation; they were simply not drawn to the world. Wearing old but clean clothes, and with solemn faces, they would hardly have been noticed if they had passed you on the street. But the moment they began to chant, their faces were transformed and became radiant, ageless, and they created, with the sound of the words and the powerful intonation, that extraordinary atmosphere of a very ancient language. They were the words, the sound and the meaning. The sound of the words had great depth. It was not the depth of a stringed instrument, or of a drum, but the depth of a human voice alive to the significance of words made holy by time and usage. The chant was in the language that has been polished and made perfect, and its sound filled the big room, and penetrated the walls, the garden, the mind and the heart. It wasn't the sound of a singer on the stage, but there was the silence that exists between two movements of sound. You felt your body being uncontrollably shaken by the sound of the words, which was in the marrow of your bones; you sat completely still, and it held you in its movement; it was living, dancing, vibrant, and your mind was of it. It wasn't a sound that lulled you to sleep, but one that shook and almost hurt you. It was the depth and the beauty of pure tone, untouched by applause, by fame, and by the world; it was the tone from which all sound, all music comes.

A boy of three or so was sitting up in front without moving his back straight, his eyes closed; he wasn't asleep. After an hour he quickly got up and went away, without any awkward shyness. He was equal to all, for the sound of the words was in his heart.

You never got tired during those two hours; you didn't want to move, and the world, with all its noise, didn't exist. presently the chanting stopped, and the sound came to an end; but it went on inside you, and it would go on for many a day. The four bowed and saluted, and became once more the men of every day. They said they had practised that form of chanting for over ten years, and it had called for great patience and a dedicated life. It was a dying art, for there was hardly anyone nowadays willing to devote his life to that kind of chanting; there was no money in it, no fame, and who wanted to enter that kind of world? They were delighted, they said, to chant before people who really appreciated their effort. Then they went their way, poor and lost in a world of noise, cruelty and greed. But the river had listened, and was silent.

He was a well-known scholar, and had come with some of his friends and a disciple or two. He had a large head, and his small eyes peered through thick glasses. He knew Sanskrit as others know their own languages and spoke it as easily; and he also knew Greek and English. He was as familiar with the major oriental philosophies, including their various branches, as you are with addition and subtraction, and he had studied western philosophers as well, both the ancient and the modem. Rigorous in his self-discipline, he had days of silence and fasting, and had practised, he said, various forms of meditation. For all this, he was quite a youngish man, probably in his late forties, simply attired and eager. His friends and disciples sat around him and waited with that devout expectancy which precludes any questioning. They were all of that world of scholars who possess encyclopedic knowledge, have visions and psychic experiences, and are certain of their own understanding. They took no part in the conversation, but listened, or rather heard what was going on. Later they would ardently discuss it among themselves, but now they must maintain a reverential silence in the presence of higher authority. There was a period of silence, and presently he began. There was no arrogance or pride of knowledge about him.

"I have come as an inquirer, not to flaunt what I know. What do I know beyond what I have read and experienced? To learn is a great virtue, but to be content with what one knows is stupid. I have not come in the spirit of argumentation, though argument is necessary when doubt arises. I have come to seek, and not to refute. As I said, I have for many years practised meditation, not only the Hindu and Buddhist forms of it, but western types as well. I am saying this so that you may know to what extent I have sought to find that which transcends the mind."

Can a mind which practises a system ever discover that which is beyond the mind? Is a mind which is held within the framework of its own discipline capable of search? Must there not be freedom to discover? "Surely, to seek and to observe there must be a certain discipline; there must be the regular practice of some method if one is to find, and to understand that which one finds."

Sir, we all seek a way out of our misery and trials; but search comes to an end when a method is adopted by means of which we hope to put an end to sorrow. Only in the understanding of sorrow is there an ending of it, and not in the practice of a method.

"But how can there be an ending of sorrow if the mind is not well-controlled, one-pointed and purposive? Do you mean to say that discipline is unnecessary for understanding?"

Does one understand when, through discipline, through various practices, one's mind is shaped by desire? Must not the mind be free for understanding to take place?

"Freedom, surely, comes at the end of the journey; at the beginning, one is a slave to desire and the things of desire. To free oneself from attachment to the pleasures of the senses, there must be discipline, the practice of various sadhanas; otherwise the mind yields to desire and is caught in its net. Unless the groundwork of righteousness is well laid, the house will tumble."

Freedom is at the beginning, and not at the end. The understanding of greed, of the whole content of it - its nature, its implications, and its effects both pleasurable and painful - must be at the beginning. Then there is no need for the mind to build a wall to discipline itself against greed. When the totality of that which in enviably leads to misery and confusion is perceived, discipline against it has no meaning. If he who now spends much time and energy in the practice of a discipline, with all its conflicts, were to give the same thought and attention to the understanding of the total significance of sorrow, there would be a complete ending of sorrow. But we are caught in the tradition of resistance, discipline, and so there is no understanding of the ways of sorrow.

"I am listening, but I do not understand."

Can there be listening as long as the mind clings to conclusions based on its assumptions and experiences? Surely, one listens only when the mind is not translating what it hears in terms of what it knows. Knowledge prevents listening. One may know a great deal; but to listen to something which may be totally different from what one knows, one must put aside one's knowledge. Isn't that so, sir?

"Then how can one tell whether what's being said is true or false?" The true and the false are not based on opinion or judgment, however wise and old. To perceive the true in the false, and the false in what is said to be true, and to see the truth as truth, demands a mind that is not held in its own conditioning. How can one see whether a statement is true or false, if one's mind is prejudiced, caught in the framework of its own or another's conclusions and experiences? For such a mind, what is important is to be aware of its own limitations.

"How is a mind that's enmeshed in the net of its own making to disentangle itself?"

Does this question reflect the search for a new method, or is it put to discover for oneself the whole significance of seeking and practising a method? After all, when one practises a method a discipline, the intention is to achieve a result, to gain certain qualities, and so on. Instead of worldly things, one hopes to gain so-called spiritual things; but gain is the purpose in both cases. There is no difference, except in words, between the man who meditates and practises a discipline in order to attain the other shore, and the man who works hard to fulfil his worldly ambition. Both are ambitious, both are greedy, both are concerned with themselves.

"That being the fact, sir, how are envy, ambition, greed, and so on, to be put aside?"

Again, if it may be pointed out, the `how', the method that will seemingly bring about freedom, only puts an end to one's inquiry into the problem, and arrests the understanding of it. To grasp fully the significance of the problem, one has to consider the whole question of effort. A petty mind making an effort not to be petty remains petty; a greedy mind disciplining itself to be generous is still greedy. Effort to be or not to be something is the continuance of the self. This effort may identify itself with the Atman, the soul, the indwelling God, and so on, but the core of it is still greed, ambition, which is the self, with all its conscious and unconscious attributes.

"You are maintaining, then, that all effort to achieve an end, worldly or spiritual, is essentially the same, in that selfishness is the basis of it. Such effort only sustains the ego."

That is so, isn't it? The mind that practises virtue ceases to be virtuous. Humility cannot be cultivated; when it is, it is no longer humility.

"That is clear and to the point. Now, since you cannot be advocating indolence, what is the nature of true effort?" When we are aware of the full significance of effort, with all its implications, is there then any effort at all of which we are conscious?

"You have pointed out that any becoming, positive or negative, is the perpetuation of this `me', which is the result of identification with desire and the objects of desire. When once this fact is understood, you are asking, is there then any effort as we know it now? I can perceive the possibility of a state of being in which all such effort has ceased."

Merely to perceive the possibility of that state is not to understand the total meaning of effort in everyday existence. As long as there's an observer who is trying to change, or to gain, or to put aside that which he observes, there must be effort; for after all, effort is the conflict between what is and what should be, the ideal. When this fact is understood, not merely verbally or intellectually, but deeply, then the mind has entered that state of being in which all effort, as we know it, is not.

"To experience that state is the ardent desire of every seeker, including myself."

It cannot be sought; it comes uninvited. The desire for it drives the mind to gather knowledge and practise discipline as a means of gaining it - which is again to conform to a pattern in order to be successful. Knowledge is an impediment to the experiencing of that state.

"How can knowledge be an impediment?" he asked in rather a shocked voice.

The problem of knowledge is complex, is it not? Knowledge is a movement of the past. To know is to assert that which has been. He who asserts that he knows ceases to understand reality. After all, sir, what is it that we know?

"I know certain scientific and ethical facts. Without such knowledge, the civilized world would revert to savagery - and you are obviously not advocating that. Apart from these facts, what do I know? I know there is the infinitely compassionate, the Supreme."

That's not a fact, it is a psychological assumption on the part of a mind that has been conditioned to believe in the existence of the Supreme. One who has been conditioned differently will maintain that the Supreme is not. Both are bound by tradition, by knowledge, and so neither will discover the reality of it. Again, what is it that we know? We know only what we have read or experienced, what we have been taught by the ancient teachers and the modern gurus and interpreters.

"Again I am forced to agree with you. We are the product of the past in conjunction with the present. The present is shaped by the past."

And the future is a modified continuity of the present. But this is not a matter of agreement, sir. Either one sees the fact, or one does not. When the fact is seen by both of us, agreement is unnecessary. Agreement exists only where there are opinions.

"You are saying, sir, that we know only what we have been taught; that we are merely the repetition of what has been; that our experiences, visions and aspirations are the responses of our conditioning, and nothing more. But is this entirely so? Is the Atman of our own making? Can it be a mere projection of our own desires and hopes? It is not an invention, but a necessity."

That which is necessary is soon fashioned by the mind, and the mind is then taught to accept what it has fashioned. The minds of a whole people can be trained to accept a given belief, or its contrary, and both are the outcome of necessity, of hope, of fear, of the desire for comfort or power.

"By your very reasoning, you are forcing me to see certain facts, not the least of which is my own state of confusion. But there still remains the question, what is a mind to do that is caught in its own entangling net?"

Let it just be choicelessly aware of the fact that it is confused; for any action born of that confusion can only lead to further confusion. Sir, must not the mind die to all knowledge if it is to discover the reality of the Supreme?

"That is a very hard thing you are asking. Can I die to everything I have learnt, read, experienced? I really don't know."

But is it not necessary for the mind - spontaneously, without any motive or compulsion - to die to the past? A mind that is the result of time, a mind that has read, studied, that has meditated upon what it has been taught, and is in itself a continuance of the past - how can such a mind experience reality, the timeless, the ever-new? How can it ever fathom the unknown? Surely, to know, to be certain, is the way of vanity, arrogance. As long as one knows, there is no dying, there is only continuity; and what has continuity can never be in that state of creation which is the timeless. When the past ceases to contaminate, reality is. There is then no need to seek it out.

With one part of itself the mind knows that there is no permanency, no corner in which it can rest; but with another part, it is ever disciplining itself, seeking openly or surreptitiously to establish an abode of certainty, of permanence, a relationship beyond dispute. So there is an endless contradiction, a struggle to be and yet not to be and we spend our days in conflict and sorrow, prisoners within the walls of our own minds. The walls can be broken down, but knowledge and technique are not the instruments of that freedom.

Commentaries on Living Series 3

Commentaries on Living Series III Chapter 21 'The Vanity of Knowledge'

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