Real Practice For Real People

Real practice for real people

The New Message from God places a much greater emphasis on what a person practices, than on what a person believes. I wish to share yet another story from the book “Tales of the Dervishes” by Idries Shah (1924-1996). This tale is from the teachings of the Khilwati (‘recluse’) Order, founded by Omar Khilwati who died in 1397. It is very pertinent to the subject of practice.

Real practice for real people

Two pious and worthy men went into a mosque together. The first one took off his shoes and placed them neatly, side by side, outside the door. The second man removed his shoes, placed them sole to sole and took them into the mosque with him.

There was an argument among a group of other pious and worthy folk who were sitting at the door, as to which of these men was the better. “If one went barefoot into a mosque, was it not better to leave the very shoes outside?” asked one. “But should we not consider”, said another, ‘that the man who took his shoes into the mosque carried them to remind himself by their very presence that he was in a state of proper humility?”

When the two men came out after their prayers, they were questioned separately, as it happened, by different parties from the onlookers.

The first man said: “I left my shoes outside for the usual reason. The reason is that if anyone wants to steal them he will have an opportunity of resisting that temptation, and thus acquiring merit for himself.” The listeners were most impressed by the high-mindedness of a man whose possessions were of so little account to him that he willingly entrusted them to whatever might be their fate.

The second man, at the same time, was saying: “I took my shoes into the mosque because, had I left them outside, they might have constituted a temptation to steal them. Whoever had yielded to this temptation would have made me his accomplice in sin.” The hearers were most impressed by this pious sentiment, and admired the thoughtfulness of the sage.

But yet another man, a man of wisdom, who was present, cried out: “While you two men and your followers have been indulging in your admirable sentiment, training each other with the play of hypothetical instances, certain real things have been happening.”

“What were these things?” asked the crowd.

“Nobody was tempted by the shoes. Nobody was not tempted by the shoes. The theoretical sinner did not pass by. Instead, another man altogether, who had no shoes at all to carry with him or to leave outside, entered the mosque. Nobody noticed his conduct. He was not conscious of the effect which he might be having on people who saw him or did not see him. But, because of his real sincerity, his prayers in this mosque today helped, in the most
direct way possible, all the potential thieves who might or might not steal shoes or reform themselves by being exposed to temptation.”

Do you still not see that the mere practice of self-conscious conduct, however excellent in its own realm, is a pale thing indeed when measured against the knowledge that there are real men of wisdom?

Who am I practicing for?

There are multiple things one could take away from this story. One thing I am taking away now is that in the realm of practice, hypothetical people are overrated. The theoretical sinner did not pass by. He might never pass by. The two supposedly pious and worthy men started with an incidental detail of practice. They then wove a fantasy for the purpose of feeling good about themselves. Any sincere effort by (or for) a real person is much more significant than every effort by (or for) a merely possible person. It is my sincere hope that students of every tradition engage in real practice for real people.

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