Transformation - Stories to transform your life
Two travelling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up on
Duke Mu of Chin said to Po Lo: “You are now advanced in years. Is there any member of your family whom I could employ to look for the horses in your stead?” Po Lo replied: “A good horse can be picked
An Indian Brahmin was interested in gaining supernatural powers. Learning that a monk in Tibet could grant him his wishes, he undertook an arduous journey through the Himalayas to meet him. The monk
In ancient times itinerant Zen monks when arriving at a monastery could challenge the monks to a theological contest and would be given food and shelter if they won but would have to move on if they
As the old man walked the beach at dawn, he noticed a youth ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea. Catching up with the young boy, he asked him why he was doing this. The
There was an American professor who had made a lifetime’s study of the Japanese tea ceremony. He was the western expert. He heard there was an old man living in Japan who was a master of the tea
Venkatesh Iyer, university don, was worried. His teenage daughter Madhavi was forever tuned in to the pop cacophony the music market was spewing forth with amazing consistency. Instead of raga
A dervish was walking along a river bank. He was deep in thought, deliberating upon theological issues. Suddenly he heard a shout, someone was repeating the dervish call. “There is no point in
There was this town in the heart of which thrived a red light area. One day the indignant municipal councillors decided to relocate the prostitutes on the outskirts to minimise their corrupting
Once, during the course of his travels, Guru Nanak arrived at a village where the people were a quarrelsome lot. He blessed them and asked them to prosper and live in that village forever. In the
Many years ago a wise peasant lived in China. He had a son who was the gleam in his eyes and a white stallion which was his favourite belonging. One day his horse escaped from his grounds and
How wonderful it is to have two women,” a man raved to one of his friends in a cafe. He waxed eloquent at the wondrous variety, the magnificence of experiencing two blossoms that smell so different.
What do you wish from me?” the master asked. “I wish to be your student and become the finest karateka in the land,” the boy replied. “How long must I study?’ “Ten years at least,” the master
Prince Hui’s cook was cutting up a goat. Every blow of his hand, every heave of his shoulders, every knock of the chopper, was in perfect harmony. “What skill!” the Prince exclaimed. “Sir,” replied
There was a man who wanted to know about the mind, what it really was and whether computers would ever be as intelligent as humans. The man typed the following question into the most powerful contemporary computer (which took a whole floor of a university department): “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?”
The machine rumbled and muttered as it started to analyse its own computational habits. Eventually the machine printed its reply on a piece of paper. The man rushed over in excitement and found these words, neatly typed: “That reminds me of a story…”
Now, the above is a teaching story as well as a meta-story about the nature and importance of teaching stories. It makes you pause and think, indeed to ponder over it for a long time to get the message. Maybe you infer that the computer’s answer, as in many real life dilemmas and situations, cannot be a straight yes or no. At the same time, it teaches you that a story well-told can overcome the yes/no, black/white limitation and communicate the answer or solution in a roundabout way, but it always needs active participation of the reader or listener. The insight thus gained, the truth thus gleaned, is likely to stay with you for a long time. In one fell swoop, this story about the mega-computer also contemporises teaching stories, generally associated with oral traditions of the East.
Once you look you will find teaching stories in most wisdom traditions, including Sufism, Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Hasidic Judaism, the life of Jesus as manifest in the Gospels, and the stories of the desert fathers of early Christianity. Teaching stories are formally used as a tool for spiritual instruction in Sufism. Which means their influence is spread all over Middle East and Central Asia. But they have a particularly long tradition in Afghanistan. Zen stories of more recent vintage are equally powerful. In India, spiritual teachers and swamis always make it a point to include stories in their talks and discourses. Lately motivational speakers and New Age workshop leaders are employing them—because they too are aiming at transforming lives. What is pleasantly surprising, however, is to see more and more psychotherapists including teaching stories in counselling and therapy, and increasing awareness about their function in learning thinking skills and life skills.
Among the people responsible for the popularity of teaching stories in our times are Idries Shah, Robert Ornstein, D.T. Suzuki and Paul Reps. In his authentic books on Sufism, Shah related many teaching stories and went into their use in this mystic tradition. He also published a series of books on Mulla Nasruddin, making the loveable jester a household name. Ornstein looked at the psychological dimension of the teaching story, introducing this literary genre to the academia. Suzuki not only introduced Zen Buddhism to the world but also peppered his books with Zen stories. Reps published a popular collection of short Zen stories in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.
What is a teaching story
Let us first understand what teaching stories are or are not. They are not fables or parables. A fable is a short tale which stars animal characters and carries a moral for the readers—Aesop’s Fables and Panchatantra are prime examples. Parables (there are many in the Bible like that of the Prodigal Son) usually aim to indoctrinate and are open to a simple interpretation. But teaching stories, says famous novelist Doris Lessing, are not didactic. “Their effects on the innermost part of the human mind is direct and certain.” She acknowledges that teaching stories helped her to get a realistic view of her talents.
Neither are teaching stories written only to amuse as folk tales or fairy tales. Rather, they are carefully designed to show effective ways of defining and responding to common life experiences. A story is an especially good means for this kind of communication because it works its way into consciousness in a way that direct instruction cannot do. Such stories are meant to be told and retold, visited and revisited, meditated upon, as they themselves may change shape, revealing themselves variously in different circumstances and at different stages of human development. The very fact of their repetition may reveal layers or slants of meaning that would remain hidden otherwise.
Since teaching stories have been etched in my memory more than any other kind of stories, these are the ones I tell to my 5-year-old son at bedtime. Far from getting bored, he listens intently, comes out with his own simple moral or message after the story is finished, and often laughs heartily, as at the Mulla story of the pregnant pot.
In contemporary India, spiritual gurus and swamis use teaching stories profusely and effectively in their talks and discourses. Ramakrishna Paramhansa is known for telling pithy tales. Osho had people in his staff whose duty it was to scour world literature to keep him supplied with stories, anecdotes and jokes.
At first sight, you may think that gurus tell stories to give welcome relief to the audience from the more serious and weighty topics of God, Self, and Enlightenment, no different from a marketing manager peppering his presentation with a few jokes and anecdotes. But the fact of the matter is that the masters use the stories consciously. They are also not oblivious to the fact that their exhortations for a pure life and one-pointed devotion to God hardly register, or are forgotten on the drive back from the lecture hall. It is the stories that stick in the mind, get into the deep recesses of the psyche and do their work of transformation silently.
Jaya Rao, Vedanta teacher, says: “The story helps the student to remember a principle. He may forget the principle but he will remember the story and through it, return to the principle.” Another reason, she says, teachers use stories is to draw the attention of those who may not be intellectually inclined, say for instance, children. To them the story is entertainment, but its deeper meaning will reveal itself to them at some point.
Jaya Rao acknowledges that she uses a lot of stories in her teachings, some taken from the scriptures and some from contemporary life. “Take the story about Krishna dancing on the head of Kalia Nag and overcoming him, at which point the wives of Kalia pay him homage,” she says. “This story has a deep meaning. The lake that Kalia poisoned stands for the mind and he himself for desires (which poison the mind). However, once we overcome desires, signified by Krishna dancing on Kalia, the objects of desire will come to us, signified by the wives.”
Swami Kriyananda (J. Donald Walters), disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, says: “Stories capture the imagination, and are bound to be remembered for a long time. They also make the point more clearly than abstractions. Besides, usually they are funny.”
Indeed, the element of humour ensures the longevity of the stories, and precipitates deeper understanding and insight. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a 20th century philosopher, had once said that he could teach a philosophy class by telling jokes. According to Idries Shah: “The blow administered by the joke makes possible a transitory condition in which other things can be perceived.” Plato pointed out long time ago: “Serious things cannot be understood without laughable things.” However, if you stop at the humour level only, the deeper meaning may be missed altogether. If you don’t laugh, you’ve missed the point. If you only laugh, you’ve missed your chance for illumination.
Rumi will have the final word about he role and nature of teaching stories in a poem:
A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.
It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!
Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.
A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.
Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.
The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that’s blazing
inside your presence.
Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what’s hidden.
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.
How to read a story
This is a simple Mulla story on the face of it, but read it and then let Robert Ornstein lead you on:
A man was walking home late one night when he saw Mulla Nasruddin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground.
“Mulla, what have you lost?” he asked.
“The key to my house,” Nasruddin said.
“I’ll help you look,” the man said.
Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key.
After some time, the man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?”
Nasruddin waved his arm back toward the darkness. “Over there, in my house.”
The man jumped up. “Then why are you looking for it here?”
“Because there is more light here than inside my house.”
In The Psychology of Consciousness, Ornstein suggests you to ask the following questions:
What are you looking for?
Where are you looking for it?
Are you looking in a place where there’s a lot of light?
Contemplate this question: What is your key? What ideas come up?
Say: “I have lost my key.” How does that question make you feel? What does it mean to you? Where does it take you?
Then say: “My key is in my own house.” Where does that take you and how does it make you feel?
In spiritual and personal growth
The Mulla was a judge and arbitrator in a dispute. First the plaintiff’s advocate gave an eloquent discourse advancing his claims. The Mulla who had been listening intently agreed and said: “That’s right.” Next, it was the defendant’s turn and he was just as erudite. Once more Mulla nodded and said: “That’s right.” Witness to the Mulla’s lack of discrimination, the court clerk ventured: “They can’t both be right.” The Mullah agreed with him too, saying: “That’s right!”
Here we are able to see the paradox clearly. In our conditioning, we see things as either right or wrong, black or white. Linear thinking does not allow us to think laterally or holistically. Our minds wrestle in the dark dens of logic and lose the gist of life.
Mulla the judge has a witness in quantum physics which knows of a realm where particles behave as waves and vice versa. Can we not continue with this line of thinking and venture that maybe theists and atheists are both right, maybe those who believe in a personal God and those believing in an impersonal God are also equally right. A lot of sectarian disputes and ill-will can be put to rest thus.
Mulla’s persona itself seems able to teach something. It is doubtful that he was a historical person, but some accounts place him somewhere in the Middle East in the 13th century. A wise fool, he is a malleable character, fits in any locale, era or lends himself well for any set of personal traits and circumstances you give him. He can be rich, poor, ordained master, smuggler and cheat, and so on.
As for understanding and interpreting Zen stories, it will be good to look at the basic premise of Zen Buddhism:
A special transmission outside the scriptures,
No dependence upon words
Direct pointing to the soul of man
Seeing into one’s nature and attaining Buddhahood.
Naturally then, many Zen stories debunk rituals and rote knowledge, teach the value of here and now, with the teacher often employing some direct method of awakening.
Among Zen’s practical methods of instruction, D.T. Suzuki lists koan riddles, paradox, going beyond the opposities, contradiction and exclamation. They are all devices to trick the mind to jump out of its conditioned way of thinking.
Here is an ‘exclamation’ story:
A high-ranking officer in the T’ang dyasty called Li-ku asked a famous Ch’an master. “A long time ago a man kept a goose in a bottle. It grew larger and larger until it could not get out of the bottle any more. He did not want to break the bottle, nor did he wish to harm the goose. How would you get it out?
After a brief silence the master shouted: “O Officer!”
“Yes,” Li-ku replied.
Stories from life around us are also getting into circulation. This one is said to be based on a real life incident in an American school:
In the beginning of a school session, the principal and a research psychologist called three teachers in for a meeting. They told the three that they had been chosen since they were the best teachers at the school to teach extra gifted students. They were told that the students had been given an IQ test and the cream of the crop were assigned to them. However, in order not to have the parents complain they could not say a single word about the fact that they had the best students to anyone, especially the students.
By the year’s end these ‘gifted’ students got all straight A’s and excelled at most subjects. The teachers had another meeting with the principal and the psychologist and were asked about their charges. They said that they were so brilliant, so attentive, so easy to teach. The teachers were then informed that this had been a test and that the students had been assigned to them randomly and were no different from their students of previous years. To this the teachers replied: “Maybe, but they did so well because we were the best teachers” To this came the reply: “No, you were chosen by lottery too. In fact, we chose you three because you were the average teachers at this school.”
As Henry Ford said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right.”
That was about motivation and positive thinking. This one tells you that persistence and practice always pay:
A skilled magician had a sultan and an enthusiastic audience agog with a display of his art. The sultan exclaimed; “God help me, what a miracle, what a genie!” But his vizier cautioned him: “Your Highness, no master falls from the sky. The magician’s art is the result of his industriousness and his practice.” The vizier’s disagreement spoiled the sultan’s enthusiasm. “You ungrateful man! Can such skill come from practice? Either you have talent or you don’t.” He looked at the vizier contemptuously and shouted: “You have no talent. Off to the dungeons with you. Ponder over my words there. Take one of your kind with you; a calf will be your cell-mate.”
From his first day in the cell, the vizier practised picking up the calf and carrying it up the steps of the dungeon tower. Months went by. The calf grew into a powerful steer; and, with each day of practice, the vizier’s strength grew. One day, the sultan remembered the man in the dungeon and summoned him. On seeing him, he exclaimed: “God help me, what a miracle, what a genie!” The vizier carrying the steer on outstretched arms, answered with the same words as before: “Your highness, no master falls from the sky. In your mercy you gave me this animal. My strength is the result of my industriousness and my practice.”
In psychiatry and counselling
Nossrat Peseschkian, a Persian-born psychiatrist-neurologist living in Germany, has written a book titled Oriental Stories as Tools of Psychotherapy. He gives several examples of how a story holds up a mirror to you. You observe the characters of the story objectively from a safe distance, yet begin to notice some traits in yourself which you may not acknowledge when others point them out directly because of a defence mechanism.
Once a well-known, successful and apparently confident journalist came to Peseschkian. His problem was that he had been married six times. His current wife had also been divorced several times. The problem now was that his wife was suspicious and jealous and never let him off alone. He had left his last wife for this woman because he felt tied down and wanted a more liberal-minded partner. Even earlier he had left his various wives because he felt he had not found the right woman. Peseschkian narrated this story to him:
“A dove was constantly changing her nest. The strong smell that the nests develop over time would become unbearable for her. She complained about this bitterly as she spoke to a wise, old and experienced dove. The latter nodded his head several times and said: “By changing your nest all the time, you don’t change anything. The smell that bothers you does not come from the nests but from you.”
The journalist had a tendency to attribute problems in his marriage to deficiencies in his female partners and to deny his own responsibility in the coflict. When this story was narrated to him, he could identify with the bird and this helped him over time to face the actual situation. Laws of learning
Satinder K. Dhiman, while teaching management at Woodbury University in California, has devised some laws of learning based on stories, anecdotes and quotes from Taoism, Zen and Sufism.
• Begin with unlearning: The story of the Tea Master and the American professor (one of the stories collected in the side bars) illustrates that.
• Need for a paradigm shift
A man who had looted a city was trying to sell an exquisite rug, one of the spoils. “Who will give me 100 pieces of gold for this rug.” He cried throughout the town.
After the sale was completed, a comrade approached the seller, and asked: “Why did you not ask more for that priceless rug.”
“Is there any number higher than 100?” asked the seller.
• Fast is slow: According to Garfield: “If nature wants a pumpkin tree, it takes three months; if it wants an oak tree, a hundred years.”
Read also in the sidebar the story of the one who wanted to be the finest karateka.
• Know less, understand more: Bertrand Russell has commented: “While our age far surpasses previous ages in knowledge, there has been no correlative increase in wisdom.” The well-known story about the illiterate boatman and the pedantic professor who didn’t know how to swim is teaching this lesson.
• Learning by doing
There was once a man who took a correspondence course in muscle-building. When he had finished, he wrote to the firm which supplied it, saying: “I have worked through the lessons. Now please mail me the muscles.”
Robert Ornstein has been professing that the teaching story develops thinking skills and perceptions. These stories are designed to embody—in their characters, plots and imagery—patterns and relationships that nurture a part of the mind that is unreachable in more direct ways, thus increasing our understanding and breadth of vision, in addition to fostering our ability to think critically. He adds: “Psychologists have found that reading teaching stories activates the right side of the brain much more than does reading normal prose. The right side of the brain provides ‘context’, the essential function of putting together the different components of experience. The left side provides the ‘text’, or the pieces themselves.”
He also sees stories as being part of our basic cognitive development from child to adult. He points out that an analysis of stories throughout the world shows that the same story occurs time and again in different cultures, almost like archetypes.
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK) came up some years ago to advance human understanding of the mind toward conscious evolution. Since they work in the field of early education, they have started Hoopoe Books (www.ishkbooks.com), a series of illustrated children’s books featuring multicultural teaching stories from Asia, collected and written by Idries Shah. ISHK’s literacy project has also donated over 100,000 of these titles to the needy.
The tales in Hoopoe titles develop tolerance, non-violent approaches to problem solving, negotiation skills, self-confidence, and awareness of the pitfalls and short-sightedness in our usual ways of thinking and acting.
In Neem the Half-Boy, for example, a young boy must confront a dragon. Instead of the usual slaying, the dragon and Neem learn to understand each other’s positions and so find a mutually satisfying solution to their problems. In The Boy Without a Name, a child learns that though he doesn’t control the circumstances into which he is born, he does have a hand in his own destiny.
Hoopoe titles have been selected for many literacy, early education, and teacher training programmes.
Now, can we predict the future role and importance of the teaching story?
Well, that reminds me of a story...
Subject: Stories to transform - 22 July 2011
This issue of LP has been very precious to me. It was so precious I started circulating the copy. I had to get a second one. Even that has not found its way back to me. These stories have been a great help for my work on Human Rights and counseling women. Thank you so much.
by: Veena Hassan
Subject: Enlightening - 28 November 2008
Very enlightening. Im not much of a literary guru but this helped to clarify some points that I was not fully understanding. Thanks,
by: Jeremy Murray
Subject: Storytelling - 20 February 2008
Extremely enlightening, entertaining, and useful. I loved it, it was just what I was looking for. Thank you.
by: muhammad khalil
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