Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Psychology of Service: The Wishing Tree


Just one more of these and then I'm back to writing shorter posts I promise.

To wrap up my ideas, for now at least, on why we serve other people I have a parable for you to read. The important part of the story is last third of it, concerning the crippled boy, but I've included all of it in order to give the proper context and to allow better understanding.

There are elements to the whole story that I like, and parts that I don't quite agree with. To be certain it deals with more topics than just service. However the overarching meaning, the larger take away message of service and love is what I really like from this message and what I hope you take away as well.

This was a speech given by Purushottam Lal at Brigham Young University. I heard it for the first time from my History of Psychology Professor, Dr. Reber. It really made me think a lot and I hope it touches you in the same way it did me.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the Wishing Tree:

“So there was another parable I had been told to explain this problem that faced us all the time, and this was a parable of the wish-fulfilling tree. That is magnificent. In fact, I will have to end with that because I’ll have nothing more to say.
“An uncle goes to the city and he comes back to his village where his nephews and nieces are playing with toys and sticks and stones and pieces of string—simple, trivial, ordinary things—and he tells them, “Look, you fools, this is no way to play. Don’t you know that there’s a wish-fulfilling tree right outside your cottage? All you have to do is go to the tree and stand there under the tree and start wishing and the tree will give you exactly what you want. All you have to do is go there and ask for it.”
“And these children are very smart like all kids nowadays and know that’s not true because, after all, you don’t get what you want. You have to work very hard to get what you want. And even if you work hard, someone else is working harder and he gets it first. And besides, some others have connections. They really get it first. So they don’t believe him and he goes away.

“As soon as he goes away, guess what they do? They rush to the tree and start wishing. (This is a tree whose roots are in the sky and whose fruits are in earth. It’s the tree in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 15.) And they start wishing. And of course we know what kids wish for: sweets, candy. And you know what kids get—stomachaches. (What did you think they would get?) The trouble is that the tree will give you exactly what you want and with it, its opposite. Guaranteed. Nothing in this world comes single; everything comes with its built-in opposite. (Don’t ask me why; I didn’t make the world. I’m just suffering as much as anyone else, believe me.)
“And so what else do they want? They want toys. And what do they get? Boredom. And they want bigger toys. They get bigger boredom. Bigger and better toys. Bigger and better boredom. Mattel toys. Swell boredom. There’s no getting out of that. The tree will give you exactly what you want, guaranteed, with its built-in opposite. Don’t forget that. That’s part of the game.
“So the kids grow older. They’re suffering and they don’t know what’s happening. Now they’re called what I was in 1947—a young adult. (How nice. Fancy phrases. Overgrown kids.) They stand under the tree. (There’s nowhere else to stand. That’s where we all are. Where will you go? The tree is everywhere.) And now, of course, they don’t want kid stuff, not toys and sweets. They want other things—the four fruits that hang from the tree: sex, fame, money, and power. These are the four fruits; there’s nothing else available. Nothing else. (If there is, please let me know, because as a Hindu that’s what I was told.) All you have to do is reach out, grab them, and you’ve got them. Reach out, grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it—because the tree will give you the opposite too. Guaranteed. The tragedy of life is not that you don’t get what you want. The tragedy of life is that you get exactly what you want—and with it, its opposite. You dream it, you wish it, you think it, you do it, you grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it—because the tree will give you the opposite too. Guaranteed. That’s the real tragedy of life—that you discover too late the curse of getting exactly what you want. You dream it, you wish it, you think it, you do it, you grab it, you’ve got it—and you’ve had it. There’s no getting out of this. And here I was, looking for a job, and I was being told this parable. So the kids suffer and they agonize. They don’t know why they agonize.
“Now they grow old. That’s all you can do under the tree. Now there’s another fancy name for them. Senior citizens. They’re under the tree waiting to be carried to the funeral pyre where they’ll be burned to the proper Hindu crisp. And now they are terribly worried. There’s not much time left. They huddle in groups and one group says, “Oh, it’s a hell of a world.” Fools, they’ve learned nothing from life. And there’s a second group which says, “You know, we have the answer. We made the wrong wishes. This time we’ll go and make the right wish.” Bigger fools. They’ve learned nothing at all. And there’s a third group which huddles and says, “If that’s the way the world is, I want to die. What’s the use living?” “All right,” says the tree. “You want to die? Take it.” And with death comes its opposite, rebirth. Oh my goodness, there’s no escape. Or is there?
“Yes, there is, because the parable doesn’t end here. Parables don’t end like that. There’s the drop of honey and the lota of water. And there is a lame boy, a cripple, who also ran to the tree with his companions, but he was pushed aside. He fell down and he couldn’t get up easily; so when he got up, he found his friends under the tree wishing away. He crawled back into the hut and he waited. He said, “I’ll wait. There’ll be some time under the tree when it will be vacant. I’ll go then and make my wish.” (Now I don’t know what cripples want. Whatever they want is what he would wish for.) So he waited, looking out of the window. He saw his companions under the tree. Young children asking for sweets and getting stomachaches and suffering. He saw them asking for toys and getting boredom and suffering. He saw them as young adults grabbing sex, fame, money, and power. He saw them suffering, he saw them getting the opposite, he saw them agonizing and not knowing why they were agonizing, and he saw them dividing into three groups, one group saying, “It’s a hell of a world,” another group saying, “We made the wrong wishes,” and a third group saying, “I want to die,” but getting reborn. And in one dazzling, illuminating spectacle he saw this whole thing and stood there, marveling at the spectacle of the universe—these are the words now, very carefully used when the story is told again and again by village storytellers, by mothers, by others, whoever tells it, “marveling at the spectacle of the universe”—at the cosmic swindle of life, at the divine comedy (well, tragicomedy). There was a gush of compassion in his heart for his companions under the tree. And in that gush of compassion, he forgot to wish. He forgot to wish and the tree couldn’t touch him. He was free. (And it wasn’t the British who gave us that freedom. That was a freedom I learned from my mother.) The tree couldn’t touch him.
“He had not done the good act, which is very easy to do: you must make up your mind to be good, and what you’ll get is heaven, and heaven is a punishment for good deeds because the Hindu heaven is temporary and you’re born again. He had not done the bad act, which is also very easy to do: just be selfish all the time, and you’ll get hell and then you’re born again—it’s a temporary hell. He had not done the absurd act. (We don’t even think of it; we leave it to the French. They are very expert in that kind of thing. The Hindu mind is not so subtle.) He had done what is known as the pure act. The act—well, I won’t define it. That act cuts through karma, cuts through maya, cuts through the tree at the root, and gets what? If freedom could be had by just punching a few buttons—if you knew the coordinates of freedom—would it be freedom anymore? He’s free, let’s put it that way.
“And of course, the question always is, “But how is it possible? What kind of thing is this pure act that you talk about, this nonwishing gush-of-compassion act?” And inevitably the storyteller says, “Don’t ask me. Ask any mother why she puts the baby on the dry side of the bed at night and puts herself on the wet side, joyfully. Is it because she wants the baby to look after her twenty years later? Could be a very calculated act. Is it because it’s instinctive? Could be. Let’s ask a psychologist. Is it because she’s irrational? Could be. Is it because she gets a Freudian kick out of it? Could be. Ask her and she’ll say, ‘Would you mind not wasting my time? You go to college and find out. Meanwhile, let me look after the baby, please.’ She just does it. And the others try to find out what’s going on.”
A rupee note
“That’s one way the storyteller explains it. The other explanation he gives is to ask the people, “Does any one of you have a rupee note?” (A rupee note is hardly ten cents.) Everyone has it and they produce it. He says, “Now you can do four things with it. One, you give it to charity, you do good to someone, you put your name to it—you do for yourself, too—you’ll get heaven. Serves you right—you’ll be born again. You can take the rupee note and spend it all on yourself, act as if you live in a vacuum and no one else exists in the world, you’ll get hell. Serves you right—you’ll be born again, and given another chance to do better. You can do the absurd act. (The French have found that out.) You can take the rupee note, tear it into little bits, and put it into the trash can. It’s your life; you’re free any time to take it. Or you can do the pure act, too. You can take the rupee note and give it in charity and, like the mother who puts the baby on the dry side of the bed and puts herself on the wet side at night joyfully, like the boy who stood there marveling at the cosmic spectacle of the universe, you, in a gush of compassion, give it; and though you want to add your name to it, you, in that gush of compassion, forget to add your name to it and by doing so you have done the pure act.
“Ah, but don’t remember to forget or the tree will get you.
And that’s all the literature of belief that I know.”



(Purushottam Lal, “The Hindu Experience: An Examination of Folklore and Sacred Texts,” in Literature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 89–108.)

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