Into the Marketplace with Helping Hands

Practical Mysticism in the Lives of Saints and Prophets

In the search for realization of Supreme Reality, or God-consciousness, seekers of all religions have gone through long periods of turning inside, retreating from the world. But once that transcendent Reality, that all-pervading Presence, is found within, one can discover it everywhere. The sweetness of communion with the Beloved can no longer be only a private inner experience, for with God-realization comes the flowering of compassion. One naturally seeks to help those who are suffering because they are cut off from the Self. Thus the full path of mysticism does not leave one wandering in bliss in the ethers, but ultimately brings one back into society to serve humanity.

In the Chinese Ch’an and Japanese Zen traditions, spiritual progress has long been described and taught in poems and pictures using the metaphor of a wild ox being tamed. The wild ox represents the mind, or one’s true nature. Found and tamed with a rope through its nose, the ox becomes gentle enough that the seeker can ride atop easily. At last the seeker reaches mystical experience of the oneness of everything, having abandoned the ego and with it, the sense of separation. In many versions of the Zen Oxherding Pictures, this is the final stage, the perception of ultimate Emptiness. This realization is typically represented by an empty circle. As the fifteenth-century monk Shubun described it,

Both the man and the animal have disappeared, no traces are left,

The bright moon-light is empty and shadowless with all the ten-thousand objects in it;

If anyone should ask the meaning of this,

Behold the lilies of the field and its fresh sweet-scented verdure.

[Shubun, The Ten Oxherding Pictures, from D. T. Suzuki, The Manual of Zen Buddhism,]

If one is only seeking his own liberation, this is the final stage. But for those on the Bodhisattva path of renouncing their own liberation until all are liberated, this so-pleasant personal emancipation is not the end of the journey. After the stage of “Both Ox and Self Forgotten,” the seeker returns to where he was before. Now he sees everything as it is, without attachment:

Dwelling in one’s true abode,

Unconcerned with that without—

The river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

[The Zen Oxherding Pictures, translation by Paul Reps, Zen Flesh Zen Bones, Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1989,, accessed 1/26/2010]

The final stage is sometimes titled “Entering the Market Place with Helping Hands.” Not only does the seeker recognize everything as it is, but with the joy of illumination he re-enters society and shares his enlightened wisdom with others, helping them to find the path to enlightenment. According to one commentary, “I visit the wineshop and the market, and everyone I look upon becomes enlightened.” According to another,

Buddha, after attaining the state of illumination, almost didn’t come out again and return to the world. His compassion for all beings finally took hold and the rest of his life he dedicated to intense social work that transformed culture and society in his time. In this drawing the illuminated man now directs himself to other beings to help them. He puts all his wisdom at their service.

[The Zen Oxherding Pictures, commentary by Alfonso Carrasco, Shotokai Encyclopedia on Karate-do Japanese Martial Arts, 2001,, accessed 1/26/2010]

Re-entering the marketplace to help others may be shocking and disorienting for a person who is on the path to enlightenment but has not reached the final stage. However,  once that inner wisdom and peace are awakened, the person gets along easily with anyone and adjusts to any situation with wisdom and peace intact. Therefore we could say that trying to help others without that inner enlightenment may cause feelings of frustration, wounded ego, and the like. But if a person has already become established in inner peace and wisdom, nothing can shake him or her and he or she can truly be of help to others.

The saint or prophet is drawn to people or places where there is need, not to comfortable or lovely surroundings. Lesser lights may prefer to stay in beautiful natural places which bring solace to their own souls, but a fully realized person will sacrifice his or her own spiritual pleasure for the sake of helping people where they are. This may mean living or moving among people whom others disdain. The great eighteenth-century Hasidic Jewish master, the Baal Shem Tov, never stayed in one place permanently, and kept no assistant to protect himself from people’s demands. He reportedly wanted to be available to anyone who was troubled, so he was continually on the move. Eli Wiesel summarizes stories about the Baal Shem Tov:

He addressed himself to men and women. . .  in synagogues and streets, at fairs and in taverns, at all hours, day or night. . . . No place was too far, no man too unworthy: “As long as the branch is not cut from the tree every hope is justified,” he said. And also, “To pull another out of the mud, man must step into the mud himself.” He is also supposed to have said, “Small Tzaddikim like small sinners, a great Tzaddik likes a great sinner.”. . .

And so it was with total unconcern that he moved in and out of suspect—not to say ill-famed—circles; he felt more useful there than among the just. Robbers sought him out to be their arbiter; criminals and outlaws asked for his blessing; and drunkards chose him as their confessor. He considered it an art and a virtue to listen to others.

One day he saw a man who had had too much to drink; he was stammering and singing sad songs. The Baal Shem listened attentively, and remarked: “When a man confesses himself, the way he chooses to do it doesn’t matter. One may not turn away.”*

[Eli Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, trans. By Marion Wiesel, New York: Random House, 1972, pp. 20-21]

In recent times, the Cambodian Buddhist saint Maha Goshananda (1929-2007) walked through the most dangerous places in order to bring healing to his violence-torn country. Decades of terrifying social engineering by the Khmer Rouge had resulted in the deaths of two to three million Cambodians from execution, starvation, disease, torture, and overwork. Near the end of this period, when the Khmer Rouge were still carrying on their extraordinarily cruel programme, he began to visit refugee camps alone to bring solace to the shattered survivors. He had been studying meditation for years under great Buddhist masters in India and Thailand, and at last took the opportunity to put his fully awakened compassion and inner serenity at the service of those who had suffered so terribly. He himself had lost his whole family to the ravages of the Khmer Rouge regime, and only about 3000 Buddhist monks were still alive, out of a previous total of some 50,000.  Yet with great courage, he entered the refugee camps and began to distribute the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s teachings of compassion for oppressors. Until the end of his life, he continued to move among the Cambodian people, often walking through land-mined areas, bringing the Dharma back and trying to rebuild peace in his country. He explained,

We must use our religious heritage as a living resource.

What can Buddhism do to heal the wounds of the world? What did the Buddha teach that we can use to heal and elevate the human condition? One of the Buddha’s most courageous acts was to walk onto a battlefield to stop a conflict. He did not sit in his temple waiting for the opponents to approach him. He walked right onto the battlefield to stop the conflict. . . .

We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to the Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields will then become our temples. We have so much work to do.*

[Maha Ghosananda, Step by Step, Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 1991, pp. 62-63]

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), whose profound writings on mysticism have become classics, observed that not only does mystical experience enhance one’s ability to deal with difficulties, but also difficult times actually seem to deepen the mystical experience. She explained that if the experiences of many mystics whom she had studied

reveal to us a world of higher truth and greater reality than the world of concrete happenings in which we seemed to be immersed, then that value is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and sufferings of the present time. It is significant that many of these experiences are reported to us from periods of war and distress: that the stronger the forces of destruction appeared, the more intense grew the spiritual vision which opposed them. We learn from these records that the mystical consciousness has the power of lifting those who possess it to a plane of reality which no struggle, no cruelty, can disturb; of conferring a certitude which no catastrophe can wreck. Yet it does not wrap its initiates in a selfish and other-worldly calm, isolate them from the pain and effort of the common life. Rather, it gives them renewed vitality; administering to the human spirit not—as some suppose—a soothing draught, but the most powerful of stimulants.*

[Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1960, p. ix]

Many prophets and saints have appeared during times of social disintegration and therein given people the inner tools not only to survive but also to develop higher patterns of thinking and behaving. Jesus was born when Israel was under oppressive Roman rule. Heavy taxation and economic difficulties eventually led some parties to stage armed revolts. Many Jews were anticipating an apocalyptic age in which a messiah would rescue them from oppression and bring a new reign of righteousness. But when Jesus began his public mission at the age of 30, he did not propose a political revolution. He spoke instead of the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. According to some interpretations, he anticipated an apocalyptic future event; others feel that he was teaching people about the inner transformation which would reveal that the Kingdom of Heaven was already present and could be perceived mystically. Jesus himself is said to have undertaken a forty-day spiritual retreat in the wilderness before undertaking his public mission, and to have withdrawn from the people from time to time for the sake of private communion with God. He reportedly taught people to appeal to God faithfully like a child to its generous father:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

[Holy Bible, Luke 11:9-10]

But Jesus cautioned his followers against craving material goods, saying, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He repeatedly tried to direct their attention to the inner life of the spirit, the “living water” which he had come to give. He reportedly said to a Samaritan woman at the well,

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. . . . The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

[Holy Bible, John 4:10-24]

These are instructions in mysticism. Jesus’ closest disciples apparently followed them, for they became so spiritually empowered that they were reportedly able to heal and preach in languages they did not even know. The men and women so empowered spread his mission fearlessly and were emboldened to face severe repression, many becoming martyrs.

Activism born of mystical communion characterized the lives of many later Christian saints. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) reformed the Carmelite Order of monastics, insisting on strict discipline, including absolute poverty, going shoeless as a form of penance. She founded seventeen convents and many cloisters for men, traveling on poor roads through the Spanish countryside carrying goods for the monastics on crude wagons, struggling with officials, staying in dirty inns, encountering local hostilities, and dealing with ignorant and jealous superiors. She was always busy, but also ever rooted in her spiritual practices. She was in fact one of the greatest teachers of the inner life, and her guidance to her sisters, Interior Castle, is one of the classics of mystical instruction. She had a vision of the inner life as an “interior castle” with seven “mansions,” each representing a higher level of spiritual development. By prayer, meditation, repentance, and self-denial, the soul ultimately reaches the stage of the “spiritual marriage” in which it is always united with God:

It is like rain falling from the heavens into a river or a spring; there is nothing but water there and it is impossible to divide or separate the water belonging to the river from that which fell from the heavens. Or it is as if a tiny streamlet enters the sea, from which it will find no way of separating itself, or as if in a room there were two large windows through which the light streamed in: it enters in different places but it all becomes one.

[St. Teresa of Avila,  Interior Castle, trans. By E. Allison Peers,  New York: Doubleday Image Books, 1961, pp. 214-215]

In addition to her beautiful descriptions of the spiritual journey of the soul toward this union, St. Teresa urged her sisters to work constantly for God:

Oh, my sisters, how little one should think about resting, and how little one should care about honours, and how far one ought to be from wishing to be esteemed in the very least if the Lord makes His special abode in the soul. For if the soul is much with Him, as it is right it should be, it will very seldom think of itself; its whole thought will be concentrated upon finding ways to please Him and upon showing Him how it loves Him. This, my daughters, is the aim of prayer; this is the purpose of the Spiritual Marriage, of which are born good works and good works alone. . . . The only repose that these souls enjoy is of an interior kind; of outward repose they get less and less, and they have no wish to get more. . . . It cannot be doubted that, if we are made one with the Strong, we shall gain strength through the most sovereign union of spirit with Spirit, and we shall appreciate the strength of the saints which enabled them to suffer and die. . . . In this life, then, the soul has a very bad time, for, however much it accomplishes, it is strong enough inwardly to attempt much more. . . .

[Op. cit., pp. 228-230]

This practical mysticism combining brilliant administration with spiritual profundity was also the hallmark of the life of the Prophet Mohammed. According to Hadith, he used to have dreams that came true, and then he developed a love of seclusion. He would go alone to the cave of Hira for many days at a time to worship Allah. It was during one of these retreats that the angel Gabriel came to him and pressed him to read, even though he professed to be illiterate. Eventually divine revelations were coming to him regularly, and from them, the Holy Qur’an was comprised. He reportedly had very high spiritual experiences, such as his Night of Ascension, in which he was said to have risen through the seven heavens to the far reaches of the cosmos and into the Divine Presence. There he was blessed by all the former prophets and the Divine. He remained a contemplative with a deep inner life, and inspired a group of people around him—the mystics who became known as Sufis–to live in voluntary poverty, praying night and day.

Having had such sublime experiences and being himself a very noble, trustworthy, kind, and humble human being, a beautiful model for humanity, the Prophet was a fit vehicle for the divine revelations. One of the highest of them is the Verse of Light in Surah An-Nur:

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,

The parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche

And within it a Lamp:

The Lamp enclosed in Glass:

The glass as it were a brilliant star:

Lit from a blessed Tree,

An Olive, neither of the East nor of the West,

Whose Oil is well-nigh Luminous,

Though fire scarce touched it:

Light upon Light!

Allah doth guide Whom He will to His Light.

[The Holy Qur’an, 24: 35, English translation and commentary by Yusuf Ali, edited by The Presidency of Islamic Researches, Ifta, Call and Guide, Madinah: King Fahd Holy Qur-an Printing Complex]

Interpretation of the meanings of this parable of Light have filled volumes, with layers upon layers of possible allusions. Its divine origin is considered unquestionable.

Along with the heights of the Prophet Muhammed’s revelations, his very high spiritual experiences, and his spiritual virtues, he was also a remarkably practical, effective, and just leader. He was born into a crude culture of nomadic desert tribes whose means of sustenance included robbing caravans and settlements and among whom blood feuds, drinking, gambling, and prostitution were apparently common. Unwanted girl children of poor families were sometimes buried alive, masters sexually abused their slave girls, and men often kept women as concubines. As the Prophet began receiving revelations amidst this “age of ignorance,” he was so physically stunned and terrified by them that he asked his wife Khadija to wrap him in a blanket. However, he gradually overcame his fear and emerged as a great leader who totally transformed his culture.  Driven out of Mecca, he was invited by believers to Medina to solve the political and social problems of the city. There he created a constitution that became the model for Islamic social administration. He became so politically powerful that he returned to Mecca and took over the city with very little resistance. From there, he spread Islam to surrounding areas as a multi-cultural, multi-racial religion that overrode the previous tribal identities of the people. In contrast to the former social injustices and cruelties, he modeled compassion toward women, children, widows, orphans, and animals. According to the revelations he received, the mission of Islam was to reform society, actively opposing oppression and corruption. Intellectual endeavors became highly elevated. As Islam spread and developed, it was the base for highly civilized culture in cities such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. While Europe was in its Dark Ages and London and Paris were only mazes of muddy alleyways, Cordoba had seventy libraries and paved streets. Medicine, astronomy, logic, mathematics, geography, history, literature, art, and architecture all soared to great heights.

Many saints and prophets have combined lives of mystical contemplation with active religious reform. They have directly connected with God and can see that superficial rituals and restrictions in the name of religion do not lead to God-realization. Guru Nanak often sat in meditation as a child, and as a young man he reportedly entered into the presence of the Divine when he seemingly disappeared for three days into the river. Thenceforth, he travelled widely to engage in dialogue with religious leaders and to point out to them the hypocrisy and pointlessness of worshipping without love and sincerity.  His critique of religious practices was so sharp and true that many surrendered their pride and became his disciples. He preached the way of continuous remembrance of and surrender to God, through the blessing and instruction of the true Guru. From his own spiritual experience, he sang of the treasures of inner realization:

The Lord God’s palace is beautiful.

In it are studded stainless gems, rubies, pearls, and diamonds.

It is a golden fort, the house of nectar.

How shall I scale the fortress without a ladder?

By meditating on God, through the Guru,

I shall behold that Guru is the ladder, Guru the boat, and Guru the raft. . . .

If it pleases Him,

I shall go to bathe in the true tank and become pure.

[Guru Nanak, Sri Rag, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 17]

Guru Nanak sang very touchingly about the way of love, the bhakti path:

Oh my mind, love God as a fish loves water;

The more the water, the happier is the fish,

The more peaceful his mind and body.

He cannot live without water even for a moment.

God knows the inner pain of that being without water.

[Guru Nanak, Sri Rag, Guru Granth Sahib, p. 59]

By contrast, he had trenchant criticism for those who had made religion their profession and were duping the people:

The Qazi tells lies and thus eats filth,

The Brahman kills life and then takes purifying baths,

The blind Yogi does not know the way.

Thus all three are laid waste.

He alone is a Yogi who knows the way to God.

By the grace of the Guru, he recognizes only God.

He alone is a Qazi who turns away from the world

And who, by the Guru’s grace, remains dead in life.

He alone is a Brahman who reflects upon the Lord. . . .

A hypocrite closes his eyes and holds his nose to deceive the world.

Holding his nose with his thumb and two fingers

He proclaims, “I am seeing the three worlds.”

But he does not even see what is behind him.

[Guru Nanak, Dhanasri, Guru Granth Sahib, pp. 662-663]

In addition to attacking religious hypocrisies, Guru Nanak did practical work. To feed people who came to him, he developed a working farm at Kartarpur. And wherever he encountered water shortages in his travels, he apparently used his mystical vision to locate good underground water supplies and had wells dug there. He taught a simple, practical path to God: Work hard with your own hands to support yourself, from your own earnings share with those in need, and always remember God.

This practical path empowered by remembrance of God is the basis of the mission of the great saint Baba Virsa Singh Ji (c. 1934-2007). As a child in rural Punjab, he turned toward contemplation after his visionary experience when cutting fodder for his family’s dairy animals. When he saw sap oozing from the plant he had just cut, he had the shocking feeling that he had gravely wounded the plant and that it was in pain. He could not bear to continue cutting the fodder, as it seemed a great sin, but he wondered how to explain this feeling to his strict father. He prayed to God to spare him from this duty, and at once, painful sores appeared on the soles of his feet. Since he could not walk, his father indeed relieved him of that work. Young Virsa thenceforth began to sit long hours in meditation under a ber tree which had previously been sanctified by the presence of a local Sufi saint. Again and again, he called out to the One Whom he could not see, and at last began to have visionary experiences of Baba Siri Chand (the ascetic elder son of Guru Nanak) and Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Sikh Guru. Each in his own way, they taught him to meditate intensively according to the path shown by Guru Nanak and they directed his life of spiritual service as a model of Guru Nanak’s teachings.

Babaji became known, loved, and respected by many people for his visionary guidance, his powerful blessings, and his healing power. But he never capitalized on his spiritual gifts. Rather than demanding money from people who came to him, he fed them all from his own hard labour and that of his disciples. He determined that he and his mission should be self-supporting and free of any institutional restrictions, for he was always opposed to hypocrisies and power-mongering in the name of religion. Ultimately he developed a huge farm in Uttar Pradesh on previously barren flood-prone land on the banks of the Ganges, for the sake of supporting his practical spiritual work. He himself worked tirelessly night and day to develop the farm lands for the sake of alleviating poverty and also to support his mission of helping people to grow closer to God through their own prophet and at the same time to respect other prophets. He always combined work and worship. As he said,

Every person has to work and help others, for this is God’s hukam. One who simply sits idle and meditates will not find favor in God’s court, and because he is not helping people, he will not find favor in the world either.

God is the greatest Worker. He is always busy caring for everything—the trees, the people, the earth. If God is constantly working in the world, then how can those who say they believe in God sit idle? Those who become part of this mission tend to work four times harder than anyone else. The power that comes from their love of God brings out not only that work ethic but also the strength to follow it. Work with your hands and feet and keep your mind joined with God. Work is a form of meditation if your mind is in a state of love. If your mind is attuned with dedication, you are with the Creator as you are serving. If your mind is far away—if you are thinking of your family or friends, for instance—then you are not able to do the dedicated work you are supposed to do. When you combine work and worship, you can work harder and serve more.

[Baba Virsa Singh, Loving God—The Practical Teachings of Baba Virsa Singh, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers/Gobind Sadan Society for Interfaith Understanding, third edition, 2006, pp. 69-71]

Babaji and his dedicated volunteers in Gobind Sadan—“The House of God without any Walls”–have devoted the fruits of their labor to the service of the people, rather than holding on to any wealth. This detachment from the fruits of one’s efforts and compassion for the sufferings of others is also a result of spiritual practice. Hard work alone is not a spiritual practice. If hard work and dharma were combined, the world’s economies would look vastly different, for the great gap between rich and poor would not exist. Babaji explained his approach, which derives from the teachings of Guru Nanak:

Dharma tells us, ‘Share whatever you have.’ Gobind Sadan’s wealth is for the people. Pilgrims continually come and whatever is here—our food, our spiritual wisdom—is shared with all. Those who work hard but still cannot meet their needs are given food, clothing, medical care, school fees, employment, weddings. Books and newsletters are printed to spread dharma. Thus the people’s bodily thirst and also their spiritual thirst are satisfied. We hold big celebrations of the birthdays of all prophets—such as Jesus, Muhammad, Lord Krishna, Buddha, and Sikh Gurus—for those days are very auspicious. All those times, God sent us a messenger in human form like us. He put His Light, His Voice into those forms, so that we could remember the Light that we have forgotten.

What is the difference between the income of a saint and the income of an ordinary person? The ordinary person uses all his earnings for his small family. But the saint considers whoever comes to see him his family. He gives everything he has to everyone who comes. The greatest thing he has is enlightenment, and he shares that freely. If he has any worldly goods, he shares them also.

The system of kirat is that you work hard and share whatever you have. If you have nothing, even then you share.

[Baba Virsa Singh, Arrows of Light: Healing the Human Mind, New Delhi: Sterling Paperbacks/Baba Virsa Singh Ji Maharaj Memorial Trust, 2009, p. 124]

Empowered and inspired by God, Babaji’s volunteers have worked very hard but with great joy. Once we were planting sugarcane in a field at Shiv Sadan, Babaji’s biggest farm. We were the usual Gobind Sadan mixture of young and old, educated and illiterate, urban and rural people of various religions—a cross-section of humanity, no one special. It was a cold winter day, and while we were in the fields, it started raining. Without shelter, we got very wet and then very muddy in that exposed place. At last we made our way to a horse barn, where we were fed lunch. Babaji himself was there, and with his own very large hand, he gave us all huge servings of sweet boondi, insisting that we should eat it all. Once we did, we were no longer tired or cold. The rain had stopped, so we returned to the field with Babaji and began to work so hard and so fast that our hands were blurs of pure energy. We kept working until it was too dark to see anything. Then as we left the field and began to walk back toward the main community, everyone was so full of energy and joy that we sang and danced all the way home. Rather than becoming tired, everyone was tremendously energized by working in Babaji’s presence.

Thus we experienced personally the truth of the path of the saints and prophets: If one is connected to and guided by God—in this case, through the medium of the Guru–rather than by one’s own small thinking and small energy, one can do a tremendous amount of effective work in the world. The mystical path can thus be an eminently practical one with potential for great social as well as personal transformation.

[paper presented at “Mysticism in World Religions,” international conference co-convened by Gobind Sadan and Jamia Millia Islamia University, February 17 and 18, 2010]