Paulo Coelho, the author of The Alchemist and twenty-five other books, needs no introduction. His books have sold more than one hundred million copies in 150 countries across the world and have been translated into as many as sixty-seven languages.
I recently read his The Manual of the Warrior of Light. The book begins with the following story:
‘Just off the beach to the west of the village lies an island, and on it is a vast temple with many bells,’ said the woman. The boy noticed that she was dressed strangely and had a veil covering her head. He had never seen her before.
‘Have you ever visited that temple?’ she asked. ‘Go there and tell me what you think of it?’
Seduced by the woman’s beauty, the boy went to the place she had indicated. He sat down on the beach and stared out at the horizon, but he saw only what he always saw: blue sky and ocean. Disappointed, he walked to a nearby fishing village and asked if anyone there knew about an island and a temple.
‘Oh, that was many years ago, when my great-grandparents were alive,’ said an old fisherman. ‘There was an earthquake, and the island was swallowed up by the sea. But although we can no longer see the island, we can still hear the temple bells when the ocean sets them swinging down below.’
The boy went back to the beach and tried to hear the bells. He spent the whole afternoon there, but all he heard was the noise of the waves and the cries of the seagulls.
When night fell, his parents came looking for him. The following morning, he went back to the beach; he could not believe that such a beautiful woman would have lied to him. If she ever returned, he could tell her that, although he had not seen the island, he had heard the temple bells set ringing by the motion of the waves.
Many months passed; the woman did not return and the boy forgot all about her; now he was convinced that he needed to discover the riches and treasures in the submerged temple. If he could hear the bells, he would be able to locate it and salvage the treasure hidden below.
He lost interest in school and even in his friends. He became the butt of all the other children’s jokes. They used to say: ‘He’s not like us. He prefers to sit looking at the sea because he’s afraid of being beaten in our games.’
And they all laughed to see the boy sitting on the shore.
Although he still could not hear the old temple bells ringing, the boy nevertheless learned about other things. He began to realize that he had grown so used to the sound of the waves that he was no longer distracted by them.
Soon after that, he became used to the cries of the seagulls, the buzzing of the bees and the wind blowing amongst the palm trees.
Six months after his first conversation with the woman, the boy could sit there oblivious to all other noises, but he still could not hear the bells from the drowned temple.
Fishermen came and talked to him, insisting that they had heard the bells.
But the boy never did.
Sometime later, however, the fishermen changed their tune: ‘You spend far too much time thinking about the bells beneath the sea. Forget about them and go back to playing with your friends. Perhaps it’s only fishermen who can hear them.’
After almost a year, the boy thought: ‘Perhaps they’re right. I would do better to grow up and become a fisherman and come down to this beach every morning, because I’ve come to love it here.’ And he thought too: ‘Perhaps it’s just another legend and the bells were all shattered during the earthquake and have never rung out since.’
That afternoon, he decided to go back home.
He walked down to the ocean to say goodbye. He looked once more at the natural world around him and because he was no longer concerned about the bells, he could again smile at the beauty of the seagulls’ cries, the roar of the sea and the wind blowing in the palm trees. Far off, he heard the sound of his friends playing and he felt glad to think that he would soon resume his childhood games. The boy was happy and – as only a child can – he felt grateful for being alive. He was sure that he had not wasted his time, for he had learned to contemplate Nature and to respect it.
Then, because he was listening to the sea, the seagulls, the wind in the palm trees and the voices of his friends playing, he also heard the first bell.
And then another.
And another, until, to his great joy, all the bells in the drowned temple were ringing.
It is a beautiful story that tells us many things about spiritual life and about learning to see and hear, and about learning to live.
It is said that the Buddha underwent every spiritual practice known on his day and still he did not reach Buddhahood.
It is not that the Buddha was not sincere in his efforts. He was totally sincere.
He failed to reach the goal because it is not through struggles that you awaken to the Truth. It is when you give up all struggles and relax in the giving up, in the letting go, relax deeply, that you awaken to the Truth.
Struggles never take you to the truth. Relaxation does.
In fact, our struggles are the greatest obstacle to our awakening to the Truth.
The more you struggle, the more your mind becomes strong. And the mind can never awaken to the Truth, however strong it is. As the Upanishads say, the Truth is “yan manasa na manute” – that which the mind cannot contemplate, comprehend. A very beautiful statement in the Upanishads says: yato vacho nivartante, aprapya manasa saha. The Truth is that “from which words return, along with the mind, unattained.”
The only way to comprehend the Truth is through the cessation of the mind. When the mind ceases to be, you awaken to the Truth.
The mind is the obstacle. That is why Patanjali defines yoga as chittavritti nirodha – the cessation of the vrittis in the mind. The vrittis – changing ‘thought waves’ – are the mind. When they cease to be, the mind ceases to be. And you comprehend the Truth, you awaken to the Truth.
And struggles make the mind stronger.
So the way to reach the Truth, hear the temple bells the boy was struggling to hear, is to give up all struggle.
And that is what the boy in Polo Coelho’s story does.
In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, the boy Siddhartha leaves his home in search of the Truth and practices all kinds of sadhanas just as the other Siddhartha – the Buddha – does. Years pass but he does not reach his goal. He meets the Buddha and then moves on, realizing no Buddha can give him his Truth, he has to attain it by himself. And then one day he gives up all the sadhanas he has been practicing so far. And then it happens. He has his first powerful mystic experience. Here is how Hesse describes Siddhartha’s first experience:
“He looked around, as if he was seeing the world for the first time. Beautiful was the world, colourful was the world, strange and mysterious was the world! Here was blue, here was yellow, here was green, the sky and the river flowed, the forest and the mountains were rigid, all of it was beautiful, all of it was mysterious and magical, and in its midst was he, Siddhartha, the awakening one, on the path to himself. All of this, all this yellow and blue, river and forest, entered Siddhartha for the first time through the eyes, was no longer a spell of Mara, was no longer the veil of Maya, was no longer a pointless and coincidental diversity of mere appearances, despicable to the deeply thinking Brahmin, who scorns diversity, who seeks unity. Blue was blue, river was river, and if also in the blue and the river, in Siddhartha, the singular and divine lived hidden, so it was still that very divinity's way and purpose, to be here yellow, here blue, there sky, there forest, and here Siddhartha. The purpose and the essential properties were not somewhere behind the things, they were in them, in everything.”
Siddhartha gives up and it happens.
That is exactly what happens to the boy in Paulo Coelho’s story too. The beautiful young woman he meets, the strange woman with a veil over her head, tells him about the temple and the temple bells on the island. And he starts out on a journey to discover what the woman had told him about.
“Seduced by the woman’s beauty” – says the story. That is beautiful too.
The Tibetans have a name for that woman. In the esoteric writings of Tibet she is called the Red Dakini. Dakini is a Tibetan yogini. The Red Dakini is the one who initiates man into the higher mysteries of life. And she is incredibly beautiful.
The desire for the Truth is the most beautiful thing in the world. It is what makes life beautiful. Minus that, life is plain and monotonous.
The Red Dakini gives you the key to the mysteries of life. And she is so beautiful that her beauty will haunt you day and night. Once touched by her, you never escape her. You surrender to her seductive charms completely, you are infatuated by her hopelessly.
And that is the most beautiful thing to happen in life.
This introduction is something that happens to the rare fortunate individual, say the Upanishads. Something that happens to one in a million individuals.
She chooses the individual and reveals herself to him.
And once you are chosen there is no escaping her.
The boy goes to the place she has indicated. He sits down on the beach and stares out at the horizon, but he sees only what he has always seen: blue sky and ocean.