Form and Substance

I was gently chided last week for relating to my readers a story told by Richard Wilhelm. Drawing on his experiences in China he described how a Rainmaker was brought in to bring relief to an area in severe drought. The rainmaker was purportedly able to affect the weather by bringing his own mind into order. Naturally this was viewed by some of you with more than a little scepticism.

I am not beyond using a little hyperbole when trying to relate philosophical truths and wisdom! I thought all teaching traditions did so! I don’t see any great complaint about stories like Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel or indeed Jesus’s resurrection or Muhammad’s night flight on his winged steed. Except, you might argue, some people actually believe these things. Well, when I use such devices I don’t expect you to believe in their literal truth. But if you choose to do so, I guess that’s your prerogative.

Of course, I wouldn’t have bothered you with these remarks except to set the scene for another parable.

The human ego is debilitating in many ways. Often it drives us to want to promote our status and to be seen in ways that suit our self-aggrandisement rather than as we really are. As a result we often begin to believe that superficial things are important.


Accordingly it is a common problem with adherents to various faith traditions to mistake form with substance. The believers mistakenly assume the words that are used to uncover fundamental truths are in fact the truths. A Buddhist saying captures the problem nicely – “When the sage points to the moon the fool sees the finger!”  Consequently many fundamentalists from various belief systems maintain that the religious writings on which their faiths are founded are literally true. The object of course is to attain the truths and not sanctify the words, which reasonable scholarship will show have been enhanced and reinterpreted many times before their current written form was laid down. As a result the traditional adherents emphasise their knowledge of the words rather than their understanding of the precepts.


Let me illustrate with a little parable from Sufism.


A pious dervish from a traditional and austere school was one day walking by a river. He equated true belief with scholarship and a knowledge of the religious texts many of which he had extensively memorised. He was deep in thought contemplating issues of morality and devotion.


Suddenly his contemplation was interrupted by a loud shout. He could make out a series of words that seemed to be repeated over and over. He quickly realised it was the chanting of another dervish. He stopped to listen and after a time deciphered the words as “U YA HU”. “Fool,” he said to himself dismissively, “he should be intoning ‘YA HU’ – that is the wrong pronunciation.”


The sound seemed to be coming from a wooded island in the middle of the river. He shrugged his shoulders and was about to move on. But then it occurred to him, that as a pious dervish he had the duty to help his fellow dervish and correct his erroneous chant.


He asked a fisherman, cleaning his nets by the river bank, if he could borrow his boat for a little while. Having already cast his nets for the day and in deference to the pious dervish he readily agreed. The pious dervish then rowed the boat to the island. Disembarking, the sound of chanting led him to a clearing in the middle of which was a simple hut. Here the other dervish was sitting on the earthen floor in his robes swaying gently form side to side in time with his chanting.


The pious dervish approached and called out loudly, “Friend stop! Stop! You are doing it wrong.”


The other duly stopped his chanting.


“I am well-read in these matters it is my duty to inform you that the chant has traditionally been intoned as YA HU.”


The man on the ground looked up humbly and then smiled. “Why thank you master. It was indeed kind of you to correct me.”


“Not at all,” said the pious Dervish. “It is my duty to teach others who have not had the benefit of my education”. He turned and walked back to the boat. As he walked he could hear his pupil rehearsing the new phrase. “YA HU, YA HU,” he repeated quietly over to himself.


The pious dervish felt a certain sense of smug satisfaction. After all it had been written that those who were truly enlightened by proper practice could even walk on the waves. He had never seen this himself but nevertheless believed it to be true.


He was half-way back to the shore when the man on the island began his chant again. He stopped rowing because to his dismay the man had reverted to his old chant.


“U YA HU, U YA HU,” came booming across the waves. The pious dervish shook his head in amazement and contemplated human perversity.


He was about to resume rowing when he heard a call. “Brother, stop!”


He turned and in amazement saw the other dervish walking across the water towards him.


“Can you tell me again what the standard repetition of the chant is again? I seem to have forgotten it!”

2 Replies to “Form and Substance”

  1. If only the world could separate the message from the words Ted it would be a much more peaceful place. Anthony de Mello has the solution in one of his little stories….

    Said a traveler to one of the disciples, “I have traveled a great distance to listen to the Master, but I find his words quite ordinary.”
    “Don’t listen to his words. Listen to his message.”
    “How does one do that?”
    “Take hold of a sentence that he says. Shake it well till all the words drop off. What is left will set your heart on fire.”

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