The Blessed One thought,
“I have taught the Truth,
But simple as it is, the people can not understand it.
Therefore I will tell them stories.”
I have written many times that it seems to me that the essential truths of Mankind are largely taught through the medium of parables and metaphors. This seems true in almost every culture. In Western literature of course many of our so-called fairy tales have embedded in them deeper meanings. Most are familiar also with Aesop’s Fables, and Arabian Nights which are stories with lessons and hidden meanings. Then there are the parables associated with various religious traditions, such as the parables of Jesus and the Sufi stories about Nasruddin. All these have underlying tuition and themes that are instructive to us. Indeed Jesus is purported to have said “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Matt. 13:35)
[As an aside, the Jesuit Anthony De Mello (whose marvellous little book “Awareness” I have frequently referred to in previous essays) was an inveterate collector of such stories and published many volumes of them. They are a delight to read and I can recommend them to you.]
Most of these stories are part of long oral traditions. Before the advent of printing, the accumulated wisdom of societies was passed on this way. Many say for example that the Koran is much more compelling in its oral form rather than its written form.
Stanford University’s Robert Ornstein (psychologist, researcher and writer) writes:
“The aim, of course, in esoteric tradition is to receive unfamiliar information. Teaching stories purposely contain certain especially chosen patterns of events.”
He maintains that the repeated hearing of the story allows these patterns to be reinforced in the mind of the person hearing them. Since many of the events are improbable and unusual, repeated hearing of the story begins to create new constructs and conditions the mind to be more receptive to unusual and sometimes seemingly illogical ideas. One might conjecture that this oral tradition helps establish what Richard Dawkins calls “memes”.
Then there are the allegorical writings in more modern times of authors such as Jonathan Swift, Cervantes, C S Lewis and H G Wells. They created improbable, metaphorical devices to uncover truths about the human condition. The genius of their art is that they attract readers who would be repulsed by having to read a moralistic treatise that put these truths directly to the reader.
As I wrote in my previous blog sometimes the truth can’t be approached directly. In seeking to teach in this way we are trying to engage something other than the intellect. If this was not so we could propagate the message by just saying, “Be kind. Beware of Hubris. Don’t let an exaggerated sense of self distort your view of the world. Don’t pin your hopes for happiness on the acquisition of material wealth. ….” Or whatever.
Because exhortations to reform our moral stature are seldom effective, these storytellers use strange tales and improbable stories to inveigle us to reexamine our motives and habits. We might ask how does such a device work?
I would conjecture that this strategy allows us to receive unfamiliar and often confronting information that traditional communication techniques would not allow. We are encouraged to suspend normal belief structures when we read or, perhaps even more importantly, listen to such stories. The stories take the mind along unfamiliar and non-linear paths. It is then not necessary to “understand” the stories in the usual intellectual and rational mode.
Perhaps it would be useful to look at an example of such a parable. The following is narrated in Idries Shah’s book, “The Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin.”
“A man saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. ‘What have you lost, Mulla?’he asked.
‘My key,’ said the Mulla.
So the man went down on his knees too and they both looked for it.
After a time the other man asked, ‘Where exactly did you drop it?’
‘In my own house.’
‘Then why are you looking here?’
‘There is more light here than in my own house.’”
In this parable we might ask, “What is this key that Nasruddin is seeking?” Well we can be sure it is not a physical key. It is the key to understanding. And where does the Mulla look? Outside in the light. He is looking for a physical understanding, ‘in the light’ – that is in the light of his conventional thinking. But where is the key really? Well it’s inside his own house – ie inside his own mind, a place more esoteric where he has little knowledge. And this is a typical human response. We try and try to understand our problems through conventional logic, drawing on our established understanding. But many solutions can’t be found this way. We have to venture inside into ‘the dark’. So this is a delightful parable, humourous on the surface but containing deep insights that might be more difficult to relate in a more direct way.
Our education is dominated by the verbal, analytic mode of enquiry. Our reasoning is generally confined to the logical. The parable above, and indeed most parables, are designed to shock us into considering another way of knowing. (See my previous blog essay.) Their function is to open up the other mode of knowledge which complements what most of us believe is the “normal” one.
There is a danger here of course. Those that have mastered the esoteric, can easily pour scorn on the rational. And certainly the rational will scoff at the notion that the esoteric might have found something that logic could not uncover. And in our modern world so enamoured of science the esoterics are at a great disadvantage. They suffer from the fact that they attract fellow travellers of dubious character. They are saddled with the pop psychologists that propagate the notion that repairing human suffering is just a matter of will. They are demeaned by many of the proponents of alternative medicines who advocate treatments that have little evidentiary support. But despite this they still have influence. And one of their tools of influence is the telling of stories.
A parable does not rely on conventional logic. Yet it conveys to us meaning and understanding. Parables often shock us because they run counter to logic. Yet when they transcend our rationality we gasp at the arcane nature of their wisdom. And then, for a little while, when the serial logic of our minds is temporarily suspended, we just “know” the embedded truth.