The Wise Old Teacher
The wise, wizened old Teacher sat in the shade of the towering jacaranda tree. His attentive, eager students sat on the fresh green grass and wanted to hear answers to questions over which they, and generations of questioners before them, had puzzled. The Teacher, instead of reciting lectures from his notes, turned the tables and asked his young acolytes to think through the issues with dialogue, argument, and debate.
“What is the purpose of learning?” he asked. An hour of thoughtful, sometimes heated discussion followed. He carefully summed up their ideas by way of conclusion, added some of his own insights, and then left the students to continue their dialogue as they went about meal preparation.
Next day, with the early morning sun filtering through the leaves and blooms, the Teacher took his usual seat and his class clustered around him. He began with a question they had been debating among themselves: “What is the purpose of the various religions in the world”? he asked. The group was enthusiastic about getting into the discussion. Soon there were strong arguments, surprisingly little agreement, and some heated exchanges. Members of the class, with a variety of dogmas, beliefs, and traditions got into noisy, red-faced arguments.
The Teacher raised his hand and quiet once again descended on the class, disturbed only by the sound of buzzing insects. “How is it that the discussion has turned into a defense of a variety of religious dogma, or against all religious beliefs, and declarations of perceived truth”? he asked quietly. “The question I posed was ‘What is the purpose of the various religions in the world?’”.
For the rest of the day, the students thoughtfully examined the issues. The class adjourned for the day, but the students kept on with their provocative questions and discussions through the evening and into the class time the following morning where the Teacher listened attentively, thrilled with the depth and breadth of the flow of arguments.
“What have you concluded?” he asked at the end of the second day.
The students appointed spokespersons to present their summaries.
A woman with long flowing hair rose to her feet. She spoke clearly, with confidence, while the Teacher and students listened carefully.
“Some of us have concluded that religions have emerged in every known culture. Each of these cultures has tried to answer this question, ‘What is the source, the origin, the primal cause of the universe and all of life?’ Every society has found explanations as answers to that question and then has codified those answers into religious beliefs. It has then developed rituals that act out those explanations. Each society has found images and objects, figuratively and literally, that represent that “source”. Each has found names for that source. And each culture has then encouraged a priestly class to emerge that became the official representative of that source. Religion, therefor, explains how everything began and how we came to be”.
A bearded young man then stood.
“A few of us concluded” he stated, “that religions serve the purpose of giving meaning to life. ‘Why are we here’? is the question that all cultures try to answer by structuring a belief system around the ‘Source’ of all being”. He went on, “All societies have an inherent need to express these beliefs in legends and stories that are passed on from generation to generation and find expression in each society teaching its values, principles of living, rules of relationships, and behavioral practices to its children. Religion codifies these beliefs, creates a framework for ethics, laws, and standards of behavior and finds the foundation and purpose for our being in the ultimate ‘source’.
The third student, scholarly and poised, said, “The purpose of religion is to prepare its followers for the afterlife. By nature, humans are afraid of the uncertainties of death. Religion presents certainties amid the unknowable; it reduces the fear that normally surrounds the inevitable. Stories of the glorious life after death reduce the sting, and for some, the terror. Funerial rituals soften the grief of survivors who can picture their loved ones in glorious, eternal light”.
The wise Teacher responded with a parable. “A meditative person, quite unexpectedly, saw a colorful vision. It appeared to him, during his contemplation, as though he was looking through an open window in a dark wall. The mystic caught a brief glimpse of a majestic, brilliant image. When it had passed, the mystic longed to see this inspiring vision again, but it never returned. In the wish to recreate the experience, the mystic designed and built a stained-glass image that represented the vision and fitted it into the widow. The light shone gloriously through the colorful glass. It was stunningly beautiful, and people came from near and far to admire, and be inspired by, the artwork that represented the original miracle. The viewers listened intently to the mystic’s story and to the complex interpretation of the original experience. They became devoted believers and then followers of the revered mystic. A new religion was born”.
In the silence that followed, a young novice rose and said, very timidly, “When I sit in meditative silent reflection, I occasionally have words or ideas, or images come to mind quite unexpectedly. It is a deeply moving and satisfying experience. I am overwhelmed by the mystery of it all but when I try to explain what happens at these moments, the experience is diminished, and its richness is lost. When I use those words or the ideas for further reflection, new insights appear, and I then put these insights into practice in my relationships with acquaintances and with strangers. That is life changing, but it remains a mystery”.