Teaching-Stories

It’s hard to imagine growing up in a world without stories. From the beginning of time, stories have filled a universal need for context and meaning. All cultures have their stories, many with universal themes, plots and imagery. Stories are fundamental to the psychological development of children. They help us shape our understanding of the world and make meaningful connections with each other. Stories give us a sense of shared history and destiny and help us see our common foibles and predicaments. They help us all confront our fears and formulate our hopes and aspirations.

The Sufis have been using carefully constructed stories for teaching purposes for thousands of years. Though on the surface these often appear to be little more than entertaining fairytales or folktales, they enshrine — in their characters, plots, and imagery — patterns and relationships that nurture a part of the mind not reachable in more conventional ways, thus increasing our understanding, flexibility, and breadth of vision.

Teaching Stories by Idries Shah

For the complete works of Idries Shah visit www.idriesshahfoundation.org

Before his death in 1996, Idries Shah was established as the foremost authority on contemporary Sufi teaching and its relevance to the world today. He published more than thirty titles, each one receiving praise and acknowledgment from reviewers, writers, poets, scientists, and people from all walks of life.

In the mid-1970s Idries Shah joined the ISHK faculty for symposia held in New York and California. The following are downloadable audio editions of his lectures, given in San Francisco.

An Advanced Psychology of the East

Learning from Stories

Overcoming Assumptions That Inhibit Spiritual Development

On the Nature of Sufi Knowledge

Bringing this literary form into the mainstream of contemporary education and culture has been an important focus of ISHK’s work.

The Teaching Story: Observations of the Folklore of our “Modern” Thought

By Idries Shah
Photo of Idries Shah

The audio version of this text is read by David Wade.

There is no nation, no community, without its stories. Children are brought up on fairy tales, cults and religions depend upon them for moral instruction: they are used for entertainment and for training. They are usually catalogued as myths, as humorous tales, as semi-historical fact, and so on, in accordance with what people believe to be their origin and function.

But what a story can be used for is often what it was originally intended to be used for. The fables of all nations provide a really remarkable example of this, because, if you can understand them at a technical level, they provide the most striking evidence of the persistence of a consistent teaching, preserved sometimes through mere repetition, yet handed down and prized simply because they give a stimulus to the imagination or entertainment for the people at large.

There are very few people nowadays who are able to make the necessary use of stories. Those who know about the higher level of being represented by stories can learn something from them, but very little. Those who can experience this level can teach the use of stories. But first of all we must allow the working hypothesis that there may be such a level operative in stories. We must approach them from the point of view that they may on that level be documents of technical value: an ancient yet still irreplaceable method of arranging and transmitting a knowledge which can not be put in any other way.

In this sense such stories (because all stories are not technical literature), may be regarded as part of a curriculum, and as valid a representation of fact as, for instance, any mathematical formula or scientific textbook. Like any scientific textbook or mathematical formula, however, stories depend for their higher power upon someone to understand them at the higher level, someone who can establish their validity in a course of study, people who are prepared to study and use them, and so on.

At this point we can see quite easily that our conditioning (which trains us to use stories for amusement purposes) is generally in itself sufficient to prevent us from making any serious study of stories as a vehicle for higher teaching. This tendency, the human tendency to regard anything as of use to man on a lower level than it could operate, runs through much of our studies, and has to be marked well.

Yet traditions about stories do in fact linger here and there. People say that certain stories, if repeated, will provide some sort of “good luck”; or that tales have meanings which have been forgotten, and the like. But what would be called in contemporary speech the “security aspect” of stories is almost complete in the case of the genre which we call “teaching-stories” because of another factor.

This factor is the operation of the law that a story, like a scientific industrial formula, say, can have its developmental or teaching effect only upon a person correctly prepared for its understanding. This is why we must use stories in a manner which will enable us to harvest their value for us in a given situation.

There is another problem which has to be appreciated when dealing with stories. Unlike scientific formulae, they have a whole series of developmental effects. In accordance with the degree of preparation of an individual and a group, so will the successive “layers” of the story become apparent. Outside of a proper school where the method and content of stories is understood, there is almost no chance of an arbitrary study of stories yielding much.

But we have to go back to an even earlier stage in order to ground ourselves, prepare ourselves, for the value of the story. This is the stage at which we can familiarize ourselves with the story and regard it as a consistent and productive parallel or allegory of certain states of mind. Its symbols are the characters in the story. The way in which they move conveys to the mind the way in which the human mind can work. In grasping this in terms of men and women, animals and places, movement and manipulation of a tale, we can put ourselves into a relationship with the higher faculties possible to the mind, by working on a lower level, the level of visualization.

Let us examine a story or two from the foregoing points of view. First, take a story of the Elephant in the Dark.* This has actually been published as a children’s book. It appears in the books of Rumi and Sanai. We have made it the subject of a commercial film, The Dermis Probe. This story, on the lowest possible level, makes fun of the scientists and academics who try to explain things through the evidence which they can evaluate, and none other. In another direction, on the same level, it is humorous in as much as it makes us laugh at the stupidity of people who work on such little evidence. As a philosophical teaching it says that man is blind and is trying to assess something too great for assessment by means of inadequate tools. In the religious field it says that God is everywhere and everything, and man gives different names to what seem to him to be separate things, but which are in fact only parts of some greater whole which he cannot perceive because “he is blind” or “there is no light.”

* A number of blind people, or sighted people in a dark house, grope and find an elephant. Each touches only a part; each gives to his friends outside a different account of what he has experienced. Some think that it was a fan (the ears of the animal); another takes the legs for pillars; a third the tail for a rope, and so on.

The interpretations are far and high as anyone can go. Because of this, people address themselves to this story in one or more of these interpretations. They then accept or reject them. Now they can feel happy; they have arrived at an opinion about the matter. According to their conditioning they produce the answer. Now look at their answers. Some will say that this is a fascinating and touching allegory of the presence of God. Others will say that it is showing people how stupid mankind can be. Some say it is antischolastic. Others that it is just a tale copied by Rumi from Sanai – and so on. Because none of these people can taste an inner content, none will even begin to imagine that one exists. As I say these words the ordinary mind will easily be able to dispose of them by thinking that this is just someone who has provided a sophisticated explanation for something which cannot be checked.

But we are not here to justify ourselves. We are here to open the door of the mind to the possibility that stories might be technical documents. We are here to say that there is a method of making use of these documents. Especially we are here to say that the most ancient and most important knowledge available to man is in part contained in these documents. And that this form, however primitive or old-fashioned it may seem, is in fact almost the only form in which certain teachings can be captured, preserved and transmitted. And, too, that these stories are conscious works of art, devised by people who knew exactly what they were doing, for the use of other people who knew exactly what could be done with them.

It may take a conventional thinker some time to understand that if he is looking for truth and a hidden teaching, it may be concealed in a form which would be the last, perhaps, which he would consider to be applicable to his search.

But, in order to possess himself of this knowledge, he must take it from where it really is, not from where he imagines it might be.

There is plenty of evidence of the working of this method, that of the story deliberately concocted and passed down, in all cultures. We do not have to confine ourselves to Eastern fables. But it is in stories of Eastern origin that we find the most complete and least deteriorated forms of the tradition. We therefore start with them. They lead us, naturally, to the significant documents in the Western and other branches of the tradition.

In approaching the study of stories, then, we have to make sure that we reclaim the information that stories contain, shall we say, a message. In this sense we are like people whose technology has fallen into disuse, rediscovering the devices used by our ancestors as we become fitted for it. Then we have to realize that we have to familiarize ourselves with certain stories, so that we can hold them in our minds, like memorizing a formula. In this use, the teaching story resembles the mnemonic or formula which we trot out to help us calculate something; like saying “one kilo equals 2.2 pounds in weight”; or even “thirty days hath September.”

Now we have to realize that, since we are dealing with a form of knowledge which is specific in as much as it is planned to act in a certain way under certain conditions, those conditions must be present if we are to be able to use the story coherently. By coherently I mean here, if the story is to be the guide whereby we work through the various stages of consciousness open to us.

This means that we must not only get to know certain tales; we must study them, or even just familiarize ourselves with them, in a certain order. This idea tends to find opposition among literate people who are accustomed to doing their own reading, having been led to believe that the more you read the more likely you are to know more. But this quantitative approach is absurd when you are dealing with specific material. If you went to the British Museum library and decided to read everything in it in order to educate yourself, you would not get very far. It is only the ignorant, even in the formal sense, who cannot understand the need for particular kinds of specialization. This is well exemplified by the club porter who once said to me, in all seriousness “You are a college man, Sir, please explain football pool permutations to me.”

It is in order to get some possibility of right study that I continually say things like “Let us get down out of the trees and start to build.”

So far, however, we have not been saying much more than this:

  1. A special, effective and surpassingly important teaching is contained in certain materials. In this case the materials are stories.
  2. We must accept the possibility before we can begin to approach the study of this knowledge.
  3. Having accepted, even as a working hypothesis, the foregoing contentions, we have to set about the study in an efficient manner. In the case of the tales, the efficient manner means to approach the right stories, in the right manner, under the right conditions.

Failure to adhere to these principles will make it impossible for us to function on the high level needed. If, for example, we settle for merely knowing a lot of stories, we may become mere raconteurs or consumers. If we settle for the moral or social teaching of the story, we simply duplicate the activities of people working in that domain. If we compare stories to try to see where the higher level is, we will not find it, because we do not know unless guided which are the ones to compare with each other, under what conditions, what to look for, whether we can perceive the secret content, in what order to approach the matter.

So the story remains a tool as much as anything else. Only the expert can use the tool, or produce anything worthwhile with it.

Having heard and accepted the above assertions, people always feel impatience. They want to get on with the job. But, not knowing that “everything takes a minimum time,” or at any rate not applying this fact, they destroy the possibility of progress in a real sense.

Having established in a certain order the above facts, we have to follow through with a curriculum of study which will enable us to profit by the existence of this wonderful range of material. If you start to study what you take to be teaching-stories indiscriminately, you are more than likely to get only a small result, even with the facts already set out. Why is this?

Not only because you do not know the conditions under which the study must take place, but because the conditions themselves contain requirements of self-collection which seem to have no relationship to the necessities for familiarizing oneself with a literary form.

We must, therefore, work on the mind to enable it to make use of the story, as well as presenting it with the story. This “work” on the mind is correctly possible only in the living situation, when certain people are grouped together in a certain manner, and develop a certain form of rapport. This, and no other, is the purpose of having meetings at which people are physically present.

If read hurriedly, or with one or other of the customary biases which are common among intellectuals but not other kinds of thinkers, the foregoing two paragraphs will be supposed to contain exclusivistic claims which are not in fact there.

This is itself one of the interesting – and encouraging – symptoms of the present phase of human intellectual folklore. If a tendency can readily be seen manifesting itself, whether in physics, scholasticism or metaphysics, one may be approaching its solution. What is this tendency?

The tendency is to demand a justification of what are taken to be certain claims in the language in which the demand is made. My stressing, for instance, that meetings at which people are present who have been grouped in a certain manner, may easily (and incorrectly) be supposed to state that the kind of learning to which I am referring can take place in no other manner. The intention of the paragraph, however, was simply to refer to one concrete manner in which what I have called “a living situation” can come about. A meeting of a number of people in a room is the only form of such a situation familiar to any extent to an average reader of such materials as this.

I have used the word “folklore” to refer to a state of mind of modern man closely similar to that of less developed communities. But there is a great difference between the two folklores. In what we regard as ingenuous folklore, the individual may believe that certain objects have magical or special characteristics, and he is more or less aware of what these are claimed to be.

In modern man’s folklore, he believes that certain contentions must be absurd, and holds on to other assumptions, without being aware that he is doing so. He is motivated, in fact, by almost completely hidden prejudices.

To illustrate the working of such preconceptions, it is often necessary to provide a “shock” stimulus.

Such a stimulus occurs both in the present series of contentions about the teaching-story (because, and only because, certain information about it is lost to the community being addressed) and exists equally strongly within the frameworks of such stories themselves, when one can view them in a structural manner. This train of thought itself produces an illustration of the relative fragmentation of contemporary minds. Here it is:

Although it is a matter of the everyday experience of almost everyone on this planet, irrespective of his stage of culture or his community, that any one thing may have a multiplicity of uses, functions and meanings, man does not apply this experience to cases which – for some occult reason – he regards as insusceptible to such attention. In other words, a person may admit that an orange has colour, aroma, food value, shape, texture and so on; and he will readily concede that an orange may be many different things according to what function is desired, observed or being fulfilled. But if you venture to suggest that, say, a story has an equal range of possible functions, his folkloric evaluating mechanism will make him say: “No, a story is for entertainment,” or else something almost as Byzantine: “Yes, of course. Now, are you talking about the psychological, social, anthropological or philosophical uses?”

Nobody has told him that there are, or might be, categories of effective function of a story in ranges which he has not yet experienced, perhaps not yet heard of, perhaps even cannot perceive or even coherently discuss, until a certain basic information process has taken place in his mind.

And to this kind of statement the answer is pat and hard to combat. It is: “You are trying to be clever.” This, you may recall is only the “yaa-boo” reaction of the schoolchild who has come up against something which it cannot, at least at that moment, rationalize away or fully understand.

THE MAGIC HORSE

from Caravan of Dreams by Idries Shah.
© The Estate of Idries Shah
A version of The Magic Horse written especially for children is also available from Hoopoe Books.

This tale is of great importance because it belongs to an instructional corpus of mystical materials with inner content but – beyond entertainment value – without immediate external significance.

The teaching-story was brought to perfection as a communication instrument many thousands of years ago. The fact that it has not developed greatly since then has caused people obsessed by some theories of our current civilisations to regard it as the product of a less enlightened time. They feel that it must surely be little more than a literary curiosity, something fit for children, the projection, perhaps, of infantile desires, a means of enacting a wish-fulfilment.

Hardly anything could be further from the truth of such pseudo-philosophical, certainly unscientific, imaginings. Many teaching-stories are entertaining to children and to naïve peasants. Many of them in the forms in which they are viewed by conditioned theorists have been so processed by unregenerate amateurs that their affected content is distorted. Some apply only to certain communities, depending upon the special circumstances for their correct unfolding: circumstances whose absence effectively prevents the action of which they are capable.

So little is known to the academics, the scholars and the intellectuals of this world about these materials, that there is no word in modern languages which has been set aside to describe them.

But the teaching-story exists, nevertheless. It is part of the most priceless heritage of mankind.

Real teaching-stories are not to be confused with parables; which are adequate enough in their intention, but still on the lower level of material, generally confined to the inculcation of moralistic principles, not the assistance of interior movement of the human mind. What we often take on the lower level of parables, however, can sometimes be seen by real specialists as teaching-stories; especially when experienced under the correct conditions.

Unlike the parable the meaning of the teaching-story cannot be unraveled by intellectual methods alone. Its action is direct and certain on the innermost part of the human being, an action incapable of manifestation by means of the emotional or intellectual apparatus.

The closest that we can come to describing its effect is to say that it connects with a part of the individual which cannot be reached by any other convention, and that it establishes in him or in her a means of communication with a non-verbalized truth beyond the customary limitations of our familiar dimensions.

Some teaching-stories cannot now be reclaimed because of the literary and traditionalistic, even ideological, processing to which they have been subjected. The worst of such processes is the historicising one, where a community comes to believe that one of their former teaching-stories represents literal historical truth.

This tale is given here in a form which is innocent of this and other kinds of maltreatment.

• • •
Once upon a time – not so very long ago – there was a realm in which the people were exceedingly prosperous. All kinds of discoveries had been made by them in the growing of plants, in harvesting and preserving fruits and in making objects for sale to other countries, and in many other practical arts.

Their ruler was unusually enlightened, and he encouraged new discoveries and activities, because he knew of their advantages for his people.

He had a son named Hoshyar, who was expert in using strange contrivances and another – called Tambal – a dreamer, who seemed interested only in things which were of little value in the eyes of the citizens.

From time to time the king who was named King Mumkin, circulated announcements to this effect :

“Let all those who have notable devices and useful artifacts present them to the palace for examination, so that they may be appropriately rewarded.”

Now there were two men of that country – an ironsmith and a woodworker – who were great rivals in most things, and each delighted in making strange contraptions. When they heard this announcement one day, they agreed to compete for an award so that their relative merits could be decided once and for all, by their sovereign, and publicly recognized.

Accordingly, the smith worked day and night on the mighty engine, employing a multitude of talented specialists, and surrounding his workshop with high walls, so that his devices and methods should not become known.

At the same time the woodworker took his simple tools and went into a forest where, after long and solitary reflection, he prepared his own masterpiece.

News of the rivalry spread and people thought that the smith must easily win, for his cunning works had been seen before, and while the woodworker’s products were generally admired, they were of occasional and undramatic use.

When both were ready, the king received them in open court.

The smith produced an immense metallic fish which could, he said, swim in and under the water. It could carry large quantities of freight over the land. It could burrow into the earth; and it could even fly slowly through the air. At first the court found it hard to believe that there could be such a wonder made by man; but when the smith and his assistants demonstrated it, the king was overjoyed and declared the smith among the most honored in the land, with a special rank and the title of “Benefactor of the Community.”

Prince Hoshyar was placed in charge of making more of the wondrous fishes, and the services of this new device became available to all mankind.

Everyone blessed the smith and Hoshyar, as well as the benign and sagacious monarch whom they loved so much.

In the excitement, the self-effacing carpenter had been all but forgotten. Then, one day, someone said: “But what about the contest? Where is the entry of the woodworker? We all know him to be an ingenious man. Perhaps he has produced something useful.”

“How could anything be as useful as the Wondrous Fishes?” asked Hoshyar. And many of the courtiers and people agreed with him.

But one day the king was bored. He had become accustomed to the novelty of the fishes and the reports of their wonders which they so regularly performed. He said, “Call the woodcarver, for I would now like to see what he has made.”

The simple woodcarver came into the throne-room, carrying a parcel wrapped in coarse cloth. As the whole court craned forward to see what he had, he took off the covering to reveal – a wooden horse. It was well enough carved, and it had some intricate patterning chiseled into it, as well as being decorated with colored paints but it was only … “A mere plaything!” snapped the king.

“But, Father,” said Prince Tambal, “let us ask the man what it is for…”

“Very well,” said the king. “What is it for?”

“Your Majesty,” stammered the woodcarver, “it is a magic horse. It does not look impressive, but it has, as it were, its own inner senses. Unlike the fish, which has to be directed, this horse can interpret the desires of the rider, and carry him wherever he needs to go.”

“Such stupidity is fit only for Tambal,” murmured the chief minister at the king’s elbow; “it cannot have any advantage when measured against the wondrous fish.”

The woodcarver was preparing sadly to depart when Tambal said: “Father, let me have the wooden horse.”

“All right,” said the king, “give it to him. Take the woodcarver away and tie him on a tree somewhere, so that he will realize that our time is valuable. Let him contemplate the prosperity which the wondrous fish has brought us, and perhaps after some time we shall let him go free to practice what he may have learned of real industriousness, through true reflection.”

The woodcarver was taken away, and Prince Tambal left the court carrying the magic horse.

Tambal took the horse to his quarters, where he discovered that it had several knobs, cunningly concealed in the carved designs. When these were turned in a certain manner, the horse – together with anyone mounted on it – rose into the air and sped to whatever place was in the mind of the person who moved the knobs.

In this way, day after day, Tambal flew to places he had never visited before. By this process he came to know a great many things. He took the horse everywhere with him.

One day he met Hoshyar, who said to him, “Carrying a wooden horse is a fit occupation for such as you. As for me, I am working for the good of all, towards my heart’s desire!”

Tambal thought, “I wish I knew what was the good of all. And I wish I could know what my heart’s desire is.”

When he was next in his room, he sat upon the horse and thought: “I would like to find my heart’s desire.” At the same time he moved some of the knobs on the horses neck.

Swifter than light the horse rose into the air and carried the prince one thousand days’ ordinary journey away, to a far kingdom, ruled by a magician-king.

The king whose name was Kahana, had a beautiful daughter called Precious Pearl, Durri-Karima. In order to protect her, he had imprisoned her in a circling palace, which wheeled in the sky, higher than any mortal could reach. As he was approaching the magic land, Tambal saw the glittering palace in the heavens, and alighted there.

The princess and the young horseman met and fell in love.

“My father will never allow us to marry,” she said; “for he has ordained that I become the wife of the son of another magician-king who lives across the cold desert to the east of our homeland. He has vowed that when I am old enough I shall cement the unity of the two kingdoms by this marriage. His will has never been successfully opposed.”

“I will go to him and try to reason with him,” answered Tambal, as he mounted on the magic horse again.

But when he descended into the magic land there were so many new and exciting things to see that he did not hurry to the palace. When at length he approached it, the drum at the gate, indicating the absence of the king, was already beating.

“He has gone to visit his daughter in the Whirling Palace,” said a passer-by when Tambal asked him when the king might be back; “and he usually spends several hours at a time with her.”

Tambal went to a quiet place where he willed the horse to carry him to the king’s own apartment. “I will approach him in his own home,” he thought to himself, “for if I go to the Whirling Palace without his permission, he may be angry.”

He hid behind some curtains in the palace when he got there, and lay down to sleep.

Meanwhile, unable to keep a secret, the princess precious had confessed to her father that she had been visited by man on a flying horse, and that he wanted to marry her. Kahana was furious.

He placed sentries around the Whirling Palace, and returned to his own apartment to think things over. As soon as he entered his bedchamber, one of the tongueless magic servants guarding it pointed to the wooden horse lying in the corner. “Aha!” exclaimed the magician-king. “Now I have him. Let us look at this horse and see what manner of thing it may be.”

As he and his servants were examining the horse, the prince managed to slip away and conceal himself in another part of the palace.

After twisting the knobs, tapping the horse and generally trying to understand how it worked, the king was baffled. “Take that thing away. It has no virtue now, even if it ever had any,” he said. “It is just a trifle, fit for children.”

The horse was put into a store-cupboard.

Now King Kahana thought that he should make arrangements for his daughter’s wedding without delay, in case the fugitive might have other powers or devices with which to try to win her. So he called her to his own palace and sent a message to the other magician-king, asking that the prince who was to marry her be sent to claim his bride.

Meanwhile, Prince Tambal, escaping from the palace by night when the guards were asleep, decided that he must try to return to his own country. His quest for his heart’s desire now seemed almost hopeless. “If it takes me the rest of my life,” he said to himself, “I shall come back here, bringing troops to take this kingdom by force. I can only do that by convincing my father that I must have his help to attain my heart’s desire.”

So saying, he set off. Never was a man worse equipped for such a journey. An alien, traveling on foot, without any kind of provisions, facing pitiless heat, freezing nights, interspersed with sandstorms, he soon became hopelessly lost in the desert.

Now in his delirium, Tambal started to blame himself, his father, the magician-king, the woodcarver, even the princess and the magic horse itself. Sometimes he thought he saw water ahead of him, sometimes fair cities, sometimes he felt elated, sometimes incomparably sad. Sometimes he even thought that he had companions in his difficulties, but when he shook himself he saw that he was quite alone.

He seemed to have been traveling for an eternity. Suddenly, when he had given up and started again several times, he saw something directly in front of him. It looked like a mirage: a garden, full of delicious fruits, sparkling and almost, as it were, beckoning him towards them.

Tambal did not at first take much notice of this, but soon, as he walked, he saw that he was indeed passing through such a garden. He gathered some of the fruits and tasted them cautiously. They were delicious. They took away his fear as well as his hunger and thirst. When he was full, he lay down in the shade of a huge and welcoming tree and fell asleep.

When he woke up he felt well enough, but something seemed to be wrong. Running to a nearby pool, he looked at his reflection in the water. Staring up at him was a horrible apparition. It had a long beard, curved horns, and ears a foot long. He looked down at his hands. They were covered with fur.

Was it a nightmare? He tried to wake himself, but all the pinching and pummeling had no effect. Now, almost bereft of his senses, beside himself with fear and horror, thrown into transports of screaming, racked with sobs, he threw himself on the ground. “Whether I live or die,” he thought, “these accursed fruits have finally ruined me. Even with the greatest army of all time, conquest will not help me. Nobody would marry me now, much less the Princess Precious Pearl. And I cannot imagine the beast who would not be terrified at the sight of me – let alone my heart’s desire!” And he lost consciousness.

When he woke again, in the dark and a light approaching through the groves of silent trees. Fear and hope struggled in him. As it came closer he saw that the light was from a lamp enclosed in a brilliant star-like shape, and it was carried by a bearded man, who walked in the pool of brightness that it cast around.

The man saw him. “My son,” he said, “you have been affected by the influences of this place. If I had not come past, you would have remained just another beast of this enchanted grove, for there are many more like you. But I can help you.”

Tambal wondered whether this man was a fiend in disguise, perhaps the very owner of the evil trees. But, as his sense came back he realized that he had nothing to lose.

“Help me, Father,” he said to the sage.

“If you really want your heart’s desire,” said the other man, “you have only to fix this desire firmly in your mind, not thinking of the fruit. You then have to take up some of the dried fruits, not the fresh, delicious ones, lying at the foot of all these trees, and eat them. Then follow your destiny.”

So saying, he walked away.

While the sage’s light disappeared into the darkness, Tambal saw that the moon was rising, and in its rays he could see that there were indeed piles of dried fruits under every tree.

He gathered some and ate them as quickly as he could.

Slowly, as he watched, the fur disappeared from his hands and arms. The horns first shrank, then vanished. The beard fell away. He was himself again. By now it was first light, and in the dawn he heard the tinkling of camel bells. A procession was coming through the enchanted forest.

It was undoubtedly the cavalcade of some important personage, on a long journey. As Tambal stood there, two outriders detached themselves from the glittering escort and galloped up to him.

“In the name of the Prince, our lord, we demand some of your fruit. His celestial Highness is thirsty and has indicated a desire for some of these strange apricots,” said an officer.

Still Tambal did not move, such was his numbed condition after his recent experiences. Now the Prince himself came down from his palanquin and said:

“I am Jadugarzada, son of the magician-king of the East. Here is a bag of gold, oaf. I am having some of your fruit, because I am desirous of it. I am in a hurry, hastening to claim my bride, Princess Precious Pearl, daughter of Kahana, magician-king of the West.”

At these words Tambal’s heart turned over. But, realizing that this must be the destiny which the sage had told him to follow, he offered the Prince as much of the fruit as he could eat.

When he had eaten, the Prince began to fall asleep. As he did so, horns, fur and huge ears started to grow out of him. When the soldiers shook him, the prince began to behave in a strange way. He claimed that he was normal, and that they were deformed.

The councilors who accompanied the party restrained the prince and held a hurried debate. Tambal claimed that all would have been well if the prince had not fallen asleep. Eventually it was decided to put Tambal in the palanquin to play the part of the prince. The horned Jadugarzada was tied to a horse with a veil thrown over his face, disguised as a serving-woman.

“He may recover his wits eventually,” said the councilors, “and in any case he is still our Prince. Tambal shall marry the girl. Then, as soon as possible, we shall carry them all back to our own country for our king to unravel the problem.”

Tambal, biding his time and following his destiny, agreed to his own part in the masquerade.

When the party arrived at the capital of the West, the king himself came out to meet them. Tambal was taken to the princess as her bridegroom, and she was so astonished that she nearly fainted. But Tambal managed to whisper to her rapidly what had happened, and they were duly married, amid great jubilations.

In the meantime the horned prince had half recovered his wits, but not his human form, and his escort still kept him under cover. As soon as the feasting was over, the chief of the horned prince’s party (who had been keeping Tambal and the princess under a very close watch) presented himself to the court. He said: “O just and glorious monarch, fountain of wisdom; the time has now come, according to the pronouncements of our astrologers and soothsayers, to conduct the bridal pair back to our own land, so that they may be established in their new home under the most felicitous circumstances and influences.”

The princess turned to Tambal in alarm, for she knew that Jadugarzada would claim her as soon as they were on the open road – and make an end of Tambal into the bargain.

Tambal whispered to her, “Fear nothing. We must act as best we can, following our destiny. Agree to go, making only the condition that you will not travel without the wooden horse.”

At first the magician-king was annoyed at this foible of his daughter’s. He realized that she wanted the horse because it was connected with her first suitor. But the chief minister of the horned prince said: “Majesty, I cannot see that this is anything worse than a whim for a toy, such as any young girl might have. I hope you will allow her to have her plaything, so that we may make haste homeward.”

So the magician-king agreed, and soon the cavalcade was resplendently on its way. After the king’s escort had withdrawn, and before the time of the first night-halt, the hideous Jadugarzada threw off his veil and cried out to Tambal:

“Miserable author of my misfortunes! I now intend to bind you hand and foot, to take you captive back to my own land. If, when we arrive there, you do not tell me how to remove this enchantment, or I will have you flayed alive, inch by inch. Now, give me the Princess Precious Pearl.”

Tambal ran to the princess and, in front of the astonished party, rose into the sky on the wooden horse with Precious Pearl mounted behind him.

Within a matter of minutes the couple alighted at the palace of King Mumkin. They related everything that had happened to them, and the king was almost overcome with delight at their safe return. He at once gave orders for the hapless woodcarver to be released, recompensed and applauded by the entire populace.

When the king was gathered to his fathers, Princess Precious Pearl and Prince Tambal succeeded him. Prince Hoshyar was pleased, too, because he was still entranced by the wondrous fish.

“I am glad for your own sakes, if you are happy,” he used to say to them, “but, for my own part, nothing is more rewarding than concerning myself with the wondrous fish.”

And this history is the origin of a strange saying current among the people of that land, yet whose beginnings have now been forgotten. The saying is: “Those who want fish can achieve much through fish, and those who do not know their heart’s desire may first have to hear the story of the wooden horse.”

 

THE STORY OF TEA

from Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah.
© The Estate of Idries Shah

In ancient times, tea was not known outside China. Rumors of its existence had reached the wise and the unwise of other countries, and each tried to find out what it was in accordance with what he wanted or what he thought it should be.

The King of Inja (“here”) sent an embassy to China, and they were given tea by the Chinese Emperor. But, since they saw that the peasants drank it too, they concluded that it was not fit for their royal master; and furthermore, that the Chinese Emperor was trying to deceive them, passing off some other substance for the celestial drink.

The greatest philosopher of Anja (“there”) collected all the information he could about tea, and concluded that it must be a substance which existed but rarely, and was of another order than anything then known. For was it not referred to as being a herb, a water, green, black, sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet?

In the countries of Koshish and Bebinem, for centuries the people tested all the herbs they could find. Many were poisoned, all were disappointed. For nobody had brought the tea-plant to their lands, and thus they could not find it. They also drank all the liquids which they could find, but to no avail.

In the territory of Mazhab (“Sectarianism”) a small bag of tea was carried in procession before the people as they went on their religious observances. Nobody thought of tasting it; indeed, nobody knew how. All were convinced that the tea itself had a magical quality. A wise and said: “Pour upon it boiling waiter, ye ignorant ones!” They hung him and nailed him up, because to do this, according to their belief, would mean the destruction of their tea. This showed that he was an enemy of their religion.

Before he died and he told his secret to a few, and they managed to obtain some tea and drink it secretly. When anyone said: “What are you doing?” they answered: “It is but medicine which we take for a certain disease.”

And so it was throughout the world. Tea had actually been seeing growing by some, who did not recognize it. It had been given to others to drink, but they thought it the beverage of the common people. It had been in the possession of others, and they were worshipped it. Outside China, only a few people actually drank it, and those covertly.

Then came a man of knowledge, who said to the merchants of tea, and the drinkers of tea, and to others: “He who tastes, knows. He who tastes not, knows not. Instead of talking about the celestial beverage, say nothing, but offer it at your banquets. Those who like it will ask for more. Those who do not, will show that they are not fitted to be tea-drinkers. Close the shop of argument and mystery. Open the teahouse of experience.”

The tea was brought from one stage to another along the Silk Road, and whenever a merchant carrying jade or gems or silk would pause to rest, he would make tea and offer it to such people as were near him, whether they were aware of the repute of tea or not. This was the beginning of the Chaikhanas, the teahouses which were established all the way from Peking to Bokhara and Samarkand. And those who tasted, knew.

At first, mark well, it was only the great and the pretended men of wisdom who sought the celestial drink and who also exclaimed: “But this is only dried to leaves!” or: “Why do you boil water, stranger, when all I want is the celestial drink?” or yet again: “How do I know what this is? Prove it to me. Besides the color of the liquid is not golden, but ochre!”

When the truth was known, and when the tea was brought for all who would taste, the roles were reversed, and the only people who said things like the great and intelligent had said were the absolute fools. And such is the case to this day.

• • •

Drinks of all kinds have been used by almost all peoples as allegories connected with the search for higher knowledge.

Coffee, the most recent of social drinks, was discovered by the dervish sheikh Abu el-Hasan Shadhili, at Mocha in Arabia.

Although the Sufis and others often clearly state that “magical drinks” (wine, the water of life) are an analogy of a certain experience, literalist students tend to believe that the origin of these myths dates from the discovery of some hallucinogenic or inebriative quality in potations. According to the dervishes, such an idea is a reflection of the investigators incapacity to understand that they are speaking in parallels.

This tale is from the teachings of the Master Hamadani (died 1140), teacher of the great Yasavi of Turkestan.

THE TALE OF THE SANDS

from Tales of the Dervishes by Idries Shah.
© The Estate of Idries Shah

A stream, from its source in far-off mountains, passing through every kind and description of countryside, at last reached the sands of the desert. Just as it had crossed every other barrier, the stream tried to cross this one, but it found that as fast as he ran into the sand, its waters disappeared.

It was convinced, however, that its destiny was to cross this desert, and yet there was no way. Now a hidden voice, coming from the desert itself, whispered: “The Wind crosses that desert, and so can the stream.”

The stream objected that it was dashing itself against the sand, and only getting absorbed: that the wind could fly, and that this was why it could cross a desert.

“By hurtling in your own accustomed way you cannot get across. You will either disappear or become a marsh. You must allow the wind to carry you over, to your destination.”

‘But how could this happen?’

“By allowing yourself to be absorbed in the wind.”

This idea was not acceptable to the stream. After all, it had never been absorbed before. It did not want to lose its individuality. And, once having lost it, how was one to know that it could ever be regained?

“The wind,” said the sand, “performs this function. It takes up water, carries it over the desert, and then lets it fall again. Falling as rain, the water again becomes a river.”

“How can I know that this is true?”

“It is so, and if you do not believe it, you cannot become more than a quagmire, and even that could take many, many years; and it certainly is not the same as a stream.”

“But can I not remain the same stream that I am today?”

“You cannot in either case remain so,” the whisper said. “You’re essential part is carried away and forms a stream again. You are called what you are even today because you do not know which part of you is the essential one.”

When he heard this, certain echoes began to arise in the thoughts of the stream. Dimly, he remembered the state in which he – or some part of him, was it? – had been held in the arms of a wind. He also remembered – or did he? – that this was the real thing, not necessarily the obvious thing, to do.

And the stream raised his vapor into the welcoming arms of the wind, which gently and easily bore it upwards and along, letting it fall softly as soon as they reached the roof of a mountain, many, many miles away. And because he had had his doubts the stream was able to remember and record more strongly in his mind the details of the experience. He reflected, “Yes, now I have learned my true identity.”

The stream was learning. But the sands whispered: “We know because we see it happen day after day: and because we, the sands, extend from the riverside all the way to the mountain.”

And that is why it is said that the way in which the Stream of Life is to continue on its journey is written in the Sands.

• • •
Reprinted by permission from Point, (Winter 1968-69) in The Nature of Human Consciousness: A Book of Readings, edited by Robert Ornstein.

 

 

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