Musings of a Spectator

By Jules van Bergen
A village square and some people,
A fountain and a seat,
Nothing more is needed,
For heaven and earth to meet.

That it all happens in the "humble and unavoidable reality of everyday life" is illustrated by the following events, which I experienced one September morning in a small mountain village in southeast Switzerland.

I was sitting beneath the radiant sun in the square in front of the tiny railway station, which is no larger than a quarter of a football field, waiting for a train that was not due for half an hour. The scenery was like something out of a fairy tale: a fantastic play of light and shadow could be seen on the mountain before me, while snow-capped peaks to the right gave depth to this masterly stage set. Around me there was a handful of people from all corners of the world, brought together by karma for a brief encounter -- a smidgen of humanity which allowed the attentive spectator a gentle, fleeting glimpse of the joys and sorrows of some twenty of his contemporaries in kali yuga.

Some of them, apparently in the prime of life -- I had met them briefly at breakfast in the hotel -- were fully fitted out to conquer a mountain summit. One, with a stick in one hand, his other arm paralyzed, and dragging his right leg, was talking to an acquaintance, and I kept hearing the word "therapy . . . therapy . . . therapy . . ." He certainly needed it and clearly believed in it -- and why not!

Some men and women, more advanced in age and clearly crazy about the mountains, displayed the firm determination to continue their mountain trek until the very last step. The watchword was "persevere" -- as long as you can, even if your legs are unwilling, your back bent double, or whatever your impediment might be. Beside the gently murmuring fountain, we were all participating together in the drama staged by the executive powers of the Great Law. Yet everyone was busy playing his own role, the culmination of all that had gone before in his endless past.

But of everything that was to be seen and heard, what struck me most was the very young mother walking to and fro a few yards in front of me. She did not have a baby buggy -- that prehistoric piece of equipment of which I still have keen memories from long ago when my children were young. No, the modern westerner has rediscovered the wisdom of the kangaroo. The newborn child is now suspended in straps on the outside of the stomach. Accustomed to its mother's rocking movements, it can continue to sleep in peace, while remaining lovely and warm, and well protected.

The charming mother was playing her role with full conviction, and had no idea that she was being carefully observed. For her sole spectator she was motherly love personified. All her attention, all the intensity of her feelings, was focused on the offspring of her womb, whose little head was deliciously close to her own face. She carefully straightened its bonnet, tenderly touched its cheek with a finger -- you have to do something with such a heavenly miracle!

The soul of this miracle is still in a distant world beyond the horizon, but what does it matter if you can touch and pamper its shadow as you wish? A little kiss on the tiny face -- how wonderful! Then another one, and after two steps another and yet another. The only other thing that can satisfy the woman-and-child in this world is the chocolate bar she holds in her hand; she keeps taking a bite in between kissing the baby, who continues to sleep quietly. Is this not the prototype of the love that calls us back to these regions, the irresistible desire for this feeling?

On an irrepressible impulse, she places on the little head a long, long kiss -- which seems to last forever. The two of them become one again, just as they were until recently, before the baby took the big step to independence. Now its little head begins to shake to and fro uncomfortably, its crooked mouth opens slightly, and its eyes squint and blink a little; after all, you still have everything to learn in your new body. In this way, your mother's impassioned love makes you aware of the earth globe, but it's not exactly fun -- what a strange world, and it's so bright here!

These thoughts passed rapidly through the mind of the spectator, who has already gained quite a lot of practical experience in this sublunary existence -- something that the baby still has before it. The spectator has experienced and contemplated all sorts of states of consciousness and read what the sacred books have to say about what happens before your eyes begin to blink again in the earthly light. All his experience and study are more than sufficient for him to realize his complete ignorance, yet just enough for him to understand that the purpose and task of humanity is precisely to solve the puzzle of life and death. Yes, it can be solved, that is a definite possibility, rooted in our being no doubt, since otherwise what are we doing here as nature's individual research stations? It is the call of the mystic Mother who entices her children to the lower worlds in order to sow and reap, after which she calls them home again, laden with the fruit of their efforts. She makes us hunger for knowledge of the highest type -- imperishable knowledge, which can be acquired only with care and pure motives, by living it. This resounds like an echo through the being of those who want to seize the opportunity and take their lives seriously.

Whether we call it life or death, that which binds together all the changing states from one moment to the next continues to exist; it represents all the changes from the past and is the driving force of all potential changes in the future. How many bardo states has the little one just had? Has it seen the clear light, the five shimmering colors with the five peaceful deities, and the five dreadful devatas brought forth by the mind? However real the previous world may seem, it is still only a dream, and in it you cannot make any karma, make any real decisions, or give direction to your destiny. That is why such a state cannot satisfy us in the long run, for we want to continue, and this is only possible if we are complete -- with a body and everything else. Only then can our will operate again; we can work out our karma, and gradually bring our life into harmony with the wave-beat of the cosmos. For in our body dwells the holy spirit, through it flows the ocean, in it burns the fire of the stars and live the butterflies of feeling and the shoots of consciousness.

Since we were apparently not ready, we did not pass via the clear light into nirvana -- which, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, is a possibility. The baby, you, and I missed the boat, and there was no alternative but to gather up our skandhas again and descend for the umpteenth time to the place where, by using the resources of our own mind, heart, and will, we can take control of the game again.

If everything goes well, in less than a hundred years this delicate, young human being will turn into a frail, wrinkled man or woman who longs for the great change and the peace that passes all understanding. There it will reap the fruit of what it has thought and done in this life. It will enter the sphere, and make the choices, that it has prepared for itself here.

These were not, of course, the thoughts of that blissfully happy mother; they are the fleeting visitors to the mind of the accidental spectator who, as far as his memory can reach, cannot resist looking attentively at everything that life conjures up for him. For he has discovered that every incident, however trivial, is not only interesting, but that all these things together are precisely what life is made of. The sacred books and the sages are right when they tell us that it is our experiences in life, and thinking about them, which enable us to live an authentic life and discover its secrets. No one else can experience it for us, or be born, live, or die for us. Higher powers have given us the task of sorting things out ourselves; we have a unique opportunity and must make the most of it. We shall succeed only if we accept both the bitter and the sweet things in life, and let them penetrate to our bones. Only then will it give up its secrets.

Only the things that we have genuinely experienced, of which we have felt the joy and the pain, are our teachers. Those we have passed by timidly, listlessly, or apathetically have no significance, and our memory does not hold them; they disappear from our consciousness for good when we leave this theater, and are not taken into account in our next role.

The train arrived, the people got in, and the curtain fell.

Everyone follows the path that their self-made destiny has in store for them. Our paths differ, for we all have our own dharma, but we follow them together, in the same world, on the way to the same goal.

(From Sunrise magazine, June/July 2000; copyright © 2000 Theosophical University Press)

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