In the Bible, there’s a story that graphically portrays the calm confidence of the spiritually mature person. Actually, it’s just a part of a much longer story and we can find it in the 2nd Book of Kings ch. 6, vs. 15-17.
“When the servant of the man of God (Elisha) rose early in the morning and went out, behold, a (hostile) army with horses and chariots was round about the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”
“He said, “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
“Then Elisha prayed, and said, “O Lord, I pray Thee, open his eyes that he may see.” So The Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”
This is a wonderfully symbolic passage and illustrates clearly what it means to have, and abide in, spiritual ‘knowing’ or ‘gnosis’. The one who ‘knows’ in this case is Elisha … the master. His young servant doesn’t have the ‘knowing’ or insight that Elisha does, so when he goes out of the house in the morning and sees the beseiging army, he’s naturally alarmed and fearful. This is also the state of the spiritually unconscious person today who is constantly worried and fearful because of perceived threats etc.
In the story, Elisha isn’t at all concerned by his young servant’s frantic report about the surrounding army. He maintains his equanimity because he ‘knows’ something that the young man doesn’t. He knows that the only thing about us that really matters … our true Self, can never be injured or hurt by any ‘outside’ action. He knows that whatever the threat, the balance is always in our favour. Elisha expresses this certain knowledge when he says, “Those that are with us are more than those that are with them.”
He says this without even going out to check the size of the surrounding army … it wouldn’t have mattered how big the army was, the spiritual master always knows that despite appearances, that there’s really only one force that counts and that his true Self has nothing whatever to fear.
Perhaps he remembers the words of Isaiah, “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isa 43.2) Oh yes, the temporal body may be affected by an accident, an illness or ageing, and may even die in the end, but what we really are, the beingness that is inseparable from God, can never be touched by these things.
Elisha’s imperturbability in the face of all alarms reminds us of that calm, subtle, knowing smile given to nearly all statues and paintings representing the enlightened Buddha … that smile is the smile that knows that while the realm of forms (our world) matters, it doesn’t matter absolutely. The only thing that really matters, these symbolic images seem to be telling us, is being awake and seeing the full picture or the whole truth.
Nearly a month after (Fr.) Thomas Merton’s meetings with the Dalai Lama in India, and shortly before he would go to Thailand for the monastic conference which was supposed to be the reason for his journey to Asia, Merton was in Sri Lanka (then, Ceylon).
Along with another priest, he visited the Buddhist shrine at Polonnaruwa, but unlike the other priest who wouldn’t enter the actual shrine complex because of its ‘paganism,’ Merton took off his shoes and walked barefoot towards the enormous statues of the Buddha. What was about to happen to him was a pivotal, dramatic turning point of his life, a mystical moment. Merton’s own words say it best as he relives approaching the Buddhas at Polonnaruwa:
“Then the silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of madhyamika, of sunyata, that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything… Looking at these figures I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious…
“All problems are resolved and everything is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya … everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination. Surely… my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains but I have now seen and have pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise.… a beautiful and holy vision.” (Asian Journal. pp 233 -236)
Returning to our story, Elisha does the only thing that can fully quell his young disciple’s fears … he invokes divine grace on the young man’s behalf and by this means, the servant is given the ability to see or know, what his master sees and knows.
In this case he sees the ‘horses and chariots of fire’ which indicate that they aren’t just another army of the same kind as the besieging force, but a power of another dimension altogether. This is the One power apart from which, there can be no other despite all external appearances to the contrary.
We can’t be sure that the young man saw more than the horses and chariots of fire and grasped the sublime and subtle truth of it’s source and substance, but Elisha certainly knew … and we can know the truth too, as Jesus said, and the consistent knowing or seeing of that truth will make us free indeed!
So here’s a vivid illustration of how seeing or knowing can change us and in changing us … change everything else. It’s a classic example of how seeing is truly freeing … from fear, anxiety and every other form of mind-made suffering … the same suffering that afflicts so many of us today.
~ Pete Sumner