I want to tell you one more story that I always liked. It comes from
the great Indian classic, the Mahabharata. It illustrates a very important
quality, the healing grace of compassion. It is of a benevolent uncle
who turns up in a village and finds his nephews and nieces and their friends
playing in a thatched hut with toys and make-do twig-and-rag dolls. "Why
play with these?" he asks. "Outside is the Kalpataru, the wish-fulfilling
tree. Stand under it and wish. It will give you everything you want."
The children don't believe him. They are smart enough to know that the
world isn't like that, so they just smile knowingly. But, as soon as the
uncle leaves, they rush out to the tree and start wishing. They want sweets
and soon they get sweets... and the stomach aches that follow. They want
toys and soon they get all the toys they wished for... and the squabbles
and boredom that follows. This is very disturbing to them. Something seems
to be wrong. Why is there always this unpleasant extra that tags along
with whatever they wish for? The pattern is always the same: first there
is pleasure and gratification, then there is pain and misery; and then
they run back to the tree to wish for something new, in order to get some
distraction and relief from the unpleasantness.
What they haven't realized is that the wish-fulfilling tree is the vast,
enormously responsive, but totally unsentimental world. It gives you exactly
what you want, and with it its built-in opposite. It is not steady; it
is constantly changing. The tragedy of the world is not that you don't
get what you want, it is that you do get exactly what you ask for, along
with its built-in opposite. Wish it, think it, ask for it and you have
it... and then you've had it!
The children grow up but they are still trapped and clamoring under the
wish-fulfilling tree. Instead of sweets and toys they now crave for money,
power, fame and family, and they get what they ask for, and the same bitter
after-taste of disillusionment and disappointment. The tree just keeps
on granting all favors, but always with frustrations attached. Still,
they go on wishing and experiencing alternate bouts of pleasure and agony.
They feel trapped because they have forgotten how to free themselves from
the tree. They do not realize that all that is required is the simple
willingness to just walk away. It is like a monkey who has stuck his hand
in a jar filled with peanuts and now cannot get his hand back out because
it is filled with peanuts and his hand has become bigger than the opening.
He feels trapped although he need only let go of the peanuts to free himself.
And so, these foolish ones grow old and increasingly miserable and end
up stretched out under the tree, awaiting their end. The cynics among
them lament that the world has gone sour because they've allowed themselves
to get trapped under this damned tree. "Next time", they think
to themselves, "we'll live our lives and get what we want far away
from any tree like this." But, they are fools. They have learned
nothing. Their desire and sense of lack will put them back under the tree.
The clever ones among them lament that they have just been making the
wrong wishes. "Next time we'll surely pick the right wishes and not
get ourselves into such a bad fix", they think. But, they are still
greater fools. They have also learned nothing. But there are even greater
fools among them who say to themselves, "There isn't going to be
any next time. I'm tired of this stupid game and this stupid world. I'm
just going to die and get myself out of here." The obliging tree
quickly grants their desire. They die and soon thereafter they get the
built-in opposite of their death-wish. They are reborn, and under the
same tree, for, in this world, there really is no other place to be.
This story would be the ultimate tragedy if it weren't for one more boy,
a cripple who also made his way out to the tree after the uncle left,
hobbling slowly on his crutches. But he was quickly pushed aside by his
eager friends. So he crawled back to the hut and gazed at the marvelous
tree from his window, waiting for his friends to finish and make room
for him to stand under the tree and make his lame-boy wishes. What he
saw from the window shocked him.
Here was a tragic scene being enacted in front of him. He saw his companions
grabbing for sweets and toys of all sorts without letup, from the time
they were young until they were old, and getting stomach aches and boredom
and anguish without ever realizing the cause of their suffering. Finally,
he saw them lying old and decrepit under the tree, dissipated and suffering
and wishing death and getting it and being reborn into the same cycle
all over again. The spectacle of this cosmic tragi-comedy so baffled him
and impressed him, that he just kept looking wonder-struck. A gush of
compassion welled in his heart for the victims of this endless karmic
play, and in that overwhelming feeling of empathy and loving-kindness,
he completely forgot to wish his own wish, although he had been waiting
for so long and wanting it so much.
Overwhelmed as he was with compassion, he forgot everything else, and
in that moment of spontaneous caring and concern he stood outside the
influence of the world's ambivalence. With his unplanned act of non-attachment,
he had separated the wish-fulfilling tree from its roots, growing in desire.
He had committed the spontaneous good deed, the gratuitous act of concerned
compassion, and since such an unplanned act is free of all desire for
personal reward, he became free of the influence of the wish-fulfilling
tree. Marveling at the complex and dreadful fabric of the universe he
forgot to wish.
He had not done the planned good act which makes you suffer the punish-ment
of returning to get your reward of good karma, nor had he done the planned
bad act, which makes you suffer the punishment of hell. Nor had he done
the absurd act, wanting to cop out of the system from within the system.
It is absurd because it is impossible. He had simply forgotten his unreal
self... he didn't remember to forget, he merely forgot, having become
completely indifferent to his own wants. He stood in the healing shadow
of his compassion, and through that gracious act he became transformed.
He was freed from the pale of the tree. He became the serene man, the
dharmic man, the right candidate for enlightenment, untouched by the varieties
of pleasure and pain the world so copiously provides.