"All Things at All Times Teach"
I ran across this saying years ago--I can't remember where--and it perfectly captured one aspect of my attitude toward the world. It seems to me it was
a line in a Buddhist sutra, but a search of the Internet has turned up nothing.
Nevertheless, my understanding that
this world is permeated by that
world provides a sound rationale for the method by which all things teach.
Let me slow down and say that again: I believe that all things that we
can see in the world are infused by an element of that which we
cannot see. In Buddhist terms, "Samsara is Nirvana": Samsara, this world of change and impermanence, actually is no different from Nirvana, the world of the Absolute, the undifferentiated. In Platonic terms, the "shadows" on the wall of the cave of This world fully participate in the reality of the ideal objects in That world. In Paganism, "As Above, So Below." In Christianity, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within you"--and, in Gnostic terms, in everything around you: As the
Gospel of Thomas says:
I am the light over all.
I am the All...
Split wood, I am there;
Lift a stone, find me there. (Saying 77)
In distinction to the orthodox view that God and the creation is separate,
Thomas asserts the immanence of the Gnostic Christ in all things. (For more on the relationship of the two worlds, see my essay alluded to above,
"Of This and That").
If, then, all that we see is permeated by all that we don't, it stands to reason that we can learn something about the things we
don't see from the things we do.
Let's look at two strikingly similar examples.
The first is the well-known "Flower Sermon" of the Buddha.
Gathering his disciples for another lecture, the Buddha--rather than speaking--merely held up a lotus flower. As he stood there in silence,
most of the disciples were puzzled. Each ventured an explanation of the flower's meaning. But one, Kasyapa, when his turn came,
said...nothing. In some versions of the story he only smiled; in others he laughed out loud. The Buddha gave Kasyapa the flower, and then began to speak for the benefit of the others. When he was finished, he said: "That which can be contained in words I have given to you; that which cannot I have given to Kasyapa." The Ch'an (Zen) tradition looks back to Kasyapa as their founder.
What is it that the Buddha gave Kasyapa? What is the knowledge beyond words? Many think that the key is Emptiness, or Buddha nature, or impermanence. Whatever it is, it is something invisible within the flower.
The second example comes from the words of Jesus (in Matthew 6):
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin: And yet Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like even one of these. If God clothes the grass of the field, which lives today, and tomorrow is burned away, shall he not clothe you even better...? So do not worry, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, how shall we be clothed? ...Because your heavenly Father knows that you need of all these things. So seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be given to you.
One thing I notice in comparing these two stories is how much more prosaic the second story is than the first. "Prosaic" means, first, "Consisting or characteristic of prose." By implication, this means "Matter-of-fact; straightforward." And, perhaps for some, "Lacking in imagination and spirit; dull." At any rate, what Jesus says is straightforward and didactic--"morally instructive." It also teaches us about the nature of God, and that is where the use of a flower by Jesus intersects the use of a flower by the Buddha: both great teachers exhibited a flower as a signpost pointing toward something
Both use the form
There the similarity seems to end. The Buddha's meaning is esoteric, pointing beyond; Jesus' is exoteric at the simplest level. Yet, both illustrate the deep beauty of the opening lines of William Blake's
Auguries of Innocence:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
These grand words lead us to a consideration of one of Joseph Campbell's more penetrating and original insights.
Campbell taught that a culture's body of myths carried out four distinct but related roles. He called these the
mystical, the cosmological, the social, and the
pedagogical (or sometimes psychological) functions of myth.
The mystical function opens the mind to the wonder of things; the
cosmological function orders the known universe and places the individual within it; the
social function provides a structure for society and a basis for its laws or rules of conduct; and the
pedagogical function teaches the individual how to live a fully human life throughout life's various stages. While much more can be said about this, for now it is enough to see that these four functions address the four levels at which we live. Working backward, we live as individuals within our skin; as people playing roles in society; as humans in harmony with (or striving against) nature; and as beings with greater or lesser participation in that "something other" that we cannot see.
Mythology enlightens our roles within these various planes of our lives in a sublimely cultured way. Myths crystallize the accumulated wisdom of a culture. But the title of this essay asserts that
all things--not only the sublime, but even those that seem ridiculously insignificant--have something to teach. Look around you, at the clock on the wall, or the remote control on the coffee table, or the mouse of your computer. What do
A Case in Point
I love to ponder the significance of the "insignificant." Take air conditioning, for example. It's something we all take for granted in most public places and the homes of the middle- and upper-class. But it is in the very things we take for granted that some of the greatest lessons lie. As comfortable as air conditioning may make us, it is also a denial of "the way things are." It creates an artificial environment that insulates and isolates us from the world
as it is. Summer loses much of its sting, as does winter
due to central heating. Bob Cratchit begging Ebenezer Scrooge for a little more coal to heat the office reminds us of how far we have come in a century or so; and it is only a small step back to a fire in a cave. But how elemental a fire is! Or the cooling sensation of a dip in a river. And how paltry, how base our "climate control" seems in comparison.
In many ways, "civilized" life since the Industrial Revolution has been one long gradually-increasing denial of our relationship to the environment. We find more and more ways to insulate ourselves from nature--in violation of the point of Campbell's second function, the cosmological, which is meant to place us
in nature. Walk out of your air-conditioned cocoon into the heat of a summer afternoon. Feel that slap in the face? That's reality calling. On-demand, centralized air conditioning and heat deny us these doses of authentic experience.
If a contemplation of something as mundane as air conditioning can lead to insights on modern humanity's escape from nature, think of the lessons that can be drawn from contemplating banalities like mosquitoes, or the habit of wearing wristwatches, or the use of car horns.
The Stories Around Us
How much more, then, can we learn from narratives, like movies, novels, biographies, or the silliest of TV shows? And what about the other stories that surround us, cultural, natural, and personal? Like the myths whose functions Joseph Campbell delineated, these stories can open us to wonder, or help us understand our places in nature or society. And, ultimately, they help us to come to grips with who we are and our development as human beings.
Of course, we hear (or read or watch) such stories every day, but we seldom see them as significant or important. The beautician's gossip about her client, the colleague's fishing story, the spouse's complaint about her or his day: these are staples of daily life. But what do they
One route to understanding the significance or importance of these stories is to look at the roots of the words
"significant" and "important" themselves. "Significant" is based on the root
sign; something with significance may be said to be a sign of something else, or perhaps one could say it is symbolic in meaning.
"Important," on the other hand, comes from the root "port," meaning
to carry, with the prefix "im-" meaning in. So something which is important carries another thing in with it—again, a trait of symbols, which
"carry in" an additional meaning.
So the stories that we are talking about can
carry in a sign of something beyond their surface meanings, much like parables.
A Question of Interpretation
But do the stories we hear really mean what we
think they mean? That is, does the meaning that we derive from these stories have any relationship to the author's (or teller's) intention?
The answer is simple: it doesn't matter.
The meaning we derive from a story is its meaning to
us, not to the author or teller. This is easier to see in the
visual arts: the impact that a painting has on us is purely subjective, and if we attribute any
"meaning" to the image, it is clearly our own and not the painter's.
Such meaning is almost wholly subjective. But, in fact, in everyday life, our relative
objectivity often allows us to find meanings in stories that the teller is wholly unaware of. Sometimes that's part of the fun, making amateur detectives (or therapists!) of us all.
Put another way: when the story is about the teller, the
teller's very involvement may present her or him from seeing the
true significance of the story; that is the value of finding a
Shifts of meaning can also
take place in the telling and retelling of more formal stories,
such as novels and movies. In L. Frank Baum's book
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, hero Dorothy wore silver slippers, and, although her age was never mentioned,
she was depicted as anywhere from five to twelve years old by the various illustrators of the books.
When the 1939 film classic The
Wizard of Oz came to be made, however, these two facts were changed for technical, not narrative, reasons. The silver shoes showed up poorly in Technicolor, so the decision was made to make them
"ruby." (Original scripts can be found with the word "silver" printed in them, and then crossed out by hand and replaced with
"ruby.") And as for Dorothy's age: then-16-year-old Judy Garland was under contract to MGM, and had the voice and talent to carry the show. So she was strapped into a corset to keep her from looking
too mature (if you get my meaning) and the show went on.
These two facts—that Dorothy appears slightly post-pubertal, and that the shoes are red—have led some to interpret the story as a tale of coming-of-age, into adolescence, with the shoes representing a menstrual talisman. (A slew of interpretations has been gathered at the wonderful
"Turn Me On, Dead
So neither Baum nor the filmmakers intended to
tell a story of pubertal awakening. Nevertheless, the
meaning that we find in the movie is the meaning for us.
If we want to read the story sociologically, or psychologically,
or spiritually, or personally, that is our choice.
This idea is reflected in Jung's method of dream analysis (which
puts the lie to all these "dream dictionaries"). When
a patient told Jung about a dream, the next step was to explore
the meanings of the dream's various elements for the patient.
The idea is that the dreamer (as author) knows more about the
elements of the dream than anyone else does. The psychologist
then leads the patient to broader, more "universal"
meanings of the elements of the dream, drawing on the common
stock of archetypes from the "collective unconscious"
(these are what dream dictionaries purport to contain).
Naturally, a blend of personal and universal meanings will help the dreamer
get the most out of her dream.
Suppose your friend were to tell you his dream,
which contained a dog, and your friend's mother, and some
wine. If you fear dogs, love your mother, and occasionally
drink wine, while your friend loves dogs, fears his mother, and
is a staunch A.A. member, no matter how "universal" these
symbols may be, this dream would have wildly different
significance for you and your friend.
In other words, while universal meanings may
inform the act of interpretation, it is personal meanings that override
Looking again at books, movies, and the stories
of everyday life: What I learn from these stories will differ
from what you learn, depending on what we each need to
learn. A broader understanding of symbolism may help us to
see meanings more clearly, but what is most important is to
develop a way of seeing. Interpretation follows naturally
Now, a word must be said here
for experience without interpretation. Sometimes,
trying to adduce meaning from an experience destroys the very
essence of that experience. If you are enjoying a spectacular
sunset, and the Scientist on your left begins to explain the
physics of the refraction of light and the properties of the
pollutants in the air, this may very well spoil the experience for
you. But the same thing might happen if the True Believer on
your right starts to expound on how that sunset reveals the Glory
of God. Assigning any meaning to such an experience
may detract from the experience itself.
Sometimes, then, the entire
"significance" of an event is the pure experience of
it. This may underlie the famous statement of British
climber George Mallory when asked why he wanted to scale Mt. Everest:
"Because it's there." Some see this as meaning
something like, "This was a challenge, and no challenge should
go unanswered." But might it not also mean that there is
no "why" to such an endeavor, but only a
"what"? We climb not for a reason, but to experience
the "whatness" of the mountain.
And so, sometimes, what is
taught by a flower (as in the Buddha's sermon) or what we can gain
from contemplation of, say, pickpockets, is simply to learn that
they are there, and that they fill a space in interconnection
with all other things.
The stories of Buddha and
Jesus and flowers that we started with show great teachers
deriving lessons from nature. But along the way we have
begun to see that anyone can derive lessons from anything.
This is the importance of the middle part of the statement:
"All things at all times teach," not just in
the old days when the Great Teachers walked the earth, but now
Contents (C) 2006