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Sunday, July 2, 2006

"The King and the Corpse"

A Lesson in The Way of Seeing

[When I'm not out meeting adherents of various religions, I'm usually reading. I'll often be sharing snippets of current reading and old favorites here.]

I want to take a brief look at a most amazing story. This is the introductory passage from the story "The King and the Corpse" as exposited by Heinrich Zimmer (see here for a table of contents listing the other stories in this magnificent book). The beginning:

It was remarkable, the way the king became involved in the adventure. For ten years, every day, there had been appearing in his audience chamber, where he sat in state hearing petitions and dispensing justice, a holy man in the robe of a beggar ascetic, who, without a word, would offer him a fruit. And the royal personage would accept the trifling present, passing it along without an afterthought to his treasurer standing behind the throne. Without making any request, the mendicant would then withdraw and vanish into the crowd of petitioners, having betrayed no sign either of disappointment or of impatience.

Then it happened one day, some ten years after the first appearance of the holy man, that a tame monkey, having escaped from the women's apartments in the inner palace, came bounding into the hall and leaped upon the arm of the throne. The mendicant had just presented his gift, and the king playfully handed it over to the monkey. When the animal bit into it, a valuable jewel dropped out and rolled across the floor.

The king's eyes grew wide. He turned with dignity to the treasurer at his shoulder. "What has become of all the others?" he asked. But the treasurer was unable to say. He had been tossing the unimpressive gifts through an upper, trellised window into the treasure house, not even bothering to unlock the door. And so he excused himself and hurried to the vault. Opening it, he made his way to the part beneath the little window. There, on the floor, lay a mass of rotten fruit in various stages of decay, and, amidst this debris of many years, a heap of priceless gems.

The king was pleased, and he bestowed the entire heap upon the treasurer. Of a generous spirit, he was not avid for riches, yet his curiosity was aroused...

Of course it was! And in fulfilling that curiosity, the king was led into a most strange adventure.

But we won't go into that here. (But Wikipedia gives a plot summary for the whole thing.)

Zimmer's interpretation of the piece is masterful, a perfect example of how to "see" a story. Here is my own understanding after reading his terms:

  • The king: The self, the ego, the waking consciousness, the "one on the throne," judging
  • A holy man: A denizen of the "dark side" that comes to us in silence, only to initiate an adventure that brings about radical change
  • A fruit: The world and its goods
  • [The king's] treasurer: The keeper of the mind-store
  • A tame monkey: That unpredictable part of our nature
  • The women's apartments...: The deep feminine side
  • A valuable jewel: Ah! My favorite part! See below...
  • The treasure house: The unconscious, where the treasure is hidden away
  • His curiosity was aroused...: and the adventure begins

So, the "dark side" presents us with hidden treasure, but it's not until our wildness comes into play that we find it. Beautiful. Talk among yourself.

But what I really love is the jewel hidden in the fruit. It rings so many chimes in me. Here's a short list:

  • Om Mani Padme Hum: Sometimes translated "Hail! The Jewel in the Lotus! Hum!" Certainly mani means "jewel" and padme means "lotus." How the two relate is less clear. This page suggests that "Om Mani Padme Hum can not really be translated into a simple phrase or even a few sentences." Nevertheless, I like this translation. It suggests the hidden "thatness" within all of "this." See the story of "You Are That" for more.
  • The highest understanding of the Mahayana: Samsara is Nirvana (discussed in the "This World and That" essays)
  • The well-known words of the Gnostic Christ from the Thomas Gospel (quoted in my "All Things at All Times Teach" essay): "Split wood, I am there; Lift a stone, find me there." The universe is permeated with the Christ.
  • Zimmer's own expression of this: "We accept indifferently the fruit of our existence and discover nothing particularly noteworthy about it." Then, later: "Our fate bursts open in just this way, at a mere playful touch, at some little trick of chance, and reveals to our astonished eye its internal store..."

Of course, this is all pretty "far out there." In a more practical sense, we can think of the jewel in the fruit as indicative of all the "specialness" inherent in the everyday.

Try this: Get an apple. Look at it. No, really look at it. Cut into it and smell it. Now bite into it. Listen to the crunch. Close your eyes and savor the taste. Let this apple be a full experience. It's so much more than "just" a piece of fruit!

Now realize that everything around you is more than you usually take it for. This puts your feet on the path to mindfulness.

Find the Jewel within!

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The same opening passage treated here is also discussed in the context of Jungian dream analysis in Anne Baring's wonderful article "Myths, Fairy Tales and Dreams," part of a longer work called "'The Sleeping Beauty, the Prince and the Dragon': An Exploration of the Soul."

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