Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
With this issue, I wish to take the opportunity to share a teaching story from the dervishes of Central Asia. This story had a great impact on me when I first read it decades ago, and I have resorted to its message many times in the intervening years.
The story has given different meanings at different times, as seems to be the nature of stories containing real teachings. I cannot say that I fully understand its message even now. More can be said about the different levels of meaning contained in the story, but first I hope you will read it, and with a special degree of attention.
It is stated in a Hadith (quotations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH) that every meaning expressed in the Muslim holy book, the Quran, can be interpreted at seven levels. "The Quran possesses an external appearance and a hidden depth, an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning. This esoteric meaning in turn conceals an esoteric meaning so it goes on for seven esoteric meanings (seven depths of hidden depth)," says the Hadith.
Similarly, those interpreting Jewish scripture, the Torah, say the meaning can be educed at four levels, from the literal to the most hidden, inner meaning. This is echoed in every tradition, and is a mode of addressing both truth-seeking mystics and literal-interpretation fundamentalists. What the religionists call scripture is not distinct from a collection of teaching stories, woven together by a narrative, and laced with symbols.
In my experience, there are three modes of reading a true teaching story. Their reading can be literal—occurring in the realm of bodies and objects; essential—as qualities; or as objective correlative, in which the symbolic interpretation is experienced as an immutable expression of an ideal existing outside of time, and is actually more real than any transitory phenomenon, be the phenomena in the aforementioned realms of objects, or qualities.
Kurt Vonnegut in his classic novel The Sirens of Titan alludes to this realm where meaning exists both as something immutable and also absolutely adaptable—the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. In the words of his character Winston Niles Rumfoord, "In the grand, in the timeless, in the chrono-synclastic infantimbulated way of looking at things, I shall always be here. I shall always be wherever I've been."
Here's the story, called "Prisoner":
A man was once sent to prison for life, for something which he had not done.
When he had behaved in an exemplary way for some months, his jailers began to regard him as a model prisoner.
He was allowed to make his cell a little more comfortable; and his wife sent him a prayer-carpet which she had herself woven.
When several more months had passed, this man said to his guards:
"I am a metalworker, and you are badly paid. If you can get me a few tools and some pieces of tin, I will make small decorative objects, which you can take to the market and sell. We could split the proceeds, to the advantage of both parties."
The guards agreed, and presently the smith was producing finely wrought objects whose sale added to everyone's well-being.
Then, one day, when the jailers went to the cell, the man had gone. They concluded that he must have been a magician.
After many years when the error of the sentence had been discovered and the man was pardoned and out of hiding, the king of that country called him and asked him how he had escaped.
The tinsmith said:
"Real escape is possible only with the correct concurrence of factors. My wife found the locksmith who had made the lock on the door of my cell, and other locks throughout the prison. She embroidered the interior designs of the locks in the rug which she sent me, on the spot where the head is prostrated in prayer. She relied upon me to register this design and to realize that it was the wards of the locks. It was necessary for me to get materials with which to make the keys, and to be able to hammer and work metal in my cell. I had to enlist the greed and need of the guards, so that there would be no suspicion. That is the story of my escape."
Given the limitations of space, I conclude the recitation of this story with a single question: How can the conditions of one's captivity be precisely the means of escaping from prison?