Cinderella and the Dead Parrot
A poem of Saint Paltu runs, in part:
In the court of the Lord, O Paltu,
nothing counts except love and devotion.
Love and devotion alone count,
for they please Him most.
He prefers a poor devotee’s insipid food
to a kingly feast.1
Of this poem Maharaj Charan Singh says: “All saints have a universal message to give. They have the same teaching to offer. ... They teach us that man and God are one, and there is the veil of ego which separates the two. Love alone can remove that veil. This is the core of their teachings.”2
That only “love and devotion count” means that a lot of things don’t count in the court of the Lord. A short list would undoubtedly include:
Pride, anger and arrogance
Wealth or poverty, health or sickness, worldly success or failure
Male or female, straight or gay, short or tall
Ingenious explanations of why we haven’t attended to meditation
Here are a few more things that don’t count in the court of the Lord:
Seva with body, wealth and mind unless carried out with love and devotion
The number of satsangs we’ve listened to, or indeed given
Humility, unless it is true humility – the realization that I really am nothing; only Shabd is true. This level of humility cannot even be imagined while we identify ourselves with the body or the mind, though it can be glimpsed in the generosity and selflessness of the exemplary sevadar – the physical master.
OK, we can all recognize our failings even if we don’t admit them. There is a saying: if the cap fits, wear it. It’s a saying that derives from the dunce’s or fool’s cap, and it means “if a criticism of you is true, acknowledge it.”
A modern variant of that saying is “if the shoe fits, wear it.” This seems to be derived from the story of Cinderella. In that tale the prince visits all the houses in a town trying to find the beautiful girl he has fallen in love with. She left one glass slipper behind when she fled at midnight from the grand ball at the palace. In this case the saying ‘if the shoe fits’ is positive; the story of Cinderella is a tale of love, after all. When the glass slipper fitted only Cinderella’s foot, Cinderella and the prince got married and lived happily ever after.
Stories are told and retold because they carry meaning, sometimes meaning that is hidden. We can look at the Cinderella story from a mystical and spiritual point of view. Cinderella is the soul, so she is beautiful beyond imagination. However she is imprisoned in a hostile home and dressed in rags, her beauty concealed. Powerless, she is at the beck and call of her cruel stepmother and her two considerably less beautiful sisters – let’s call them Mind and Maya. These relatives have ugly characteristics – ignorance, anger, pride, greed and so forth. They force Cinderella to stay at home and do all the dirty work for them. In other words Cinderella, the soul, is the slave of the mind, the senses and the passions. Naturally, she yearns to be free.
On the night of the ball, Cinderella is in despair at her plight. Her longing to escape her imprisonment and attend the ball captures the attention of a good fairy – let’s say it is the guru. The good fairy tells Cinderella that she can go to the ball and shows her how to get there. These are the initiation instructions: the master enabling us to meditate. But she warns Cinderella that she still has responsibilities to fulfil at home, and that she must leave the ball and return home when the clock strikes eleven.
Cinderella is revealed in her true beauty and travels to the ball. The lights, colours and dancing there symbolize the bliss of Shabd within. She dances with the handsome prince, who is her true love; her lord. The soul and the Lord are temporarily connected. But the fairy godmother’s spell is broken when the clock chimes midnight and Cinderella finds herself again dressed in poor rags. She has to flee back home, losing a glass slipper on the way. She is still under the power of time, still in the realm of mind and maya. She has left the prison house of the body and made contact with true love, but this is not permanent liberation; she is still bound down by her karmas and cannot escape from the clutches of mind and maya by her own efforts alone.
We all know the end of the story. The prince, representing the grace of the Lord, seeks out his loving devotee and identifies her as his own, by her glass slipper. The slipper is a fragment of Shabd, the ocean of love, of which Cinderella’s beautiful soul is also a drop. The glass slipper, being made of Shabd, rejects the two sisters Mind and Maya. When the prince, the inner Shabd master, finds Cinderella, he rescues her from her captivity to the mind and passions and unites her soul with his own in the court of the Lord – where love alone counts.
The story of Cinderella is a story of dying while living. Cinderella goes to the ball one night – that is to say she goes within – and fleetingly meets the prince, the radiant form of the master. However, she has to return to this world to fulfil her responsibilities, to complete the course of her karmas. Likewise, through meditation we can taste the bliss of Shabd within, but by our own efforts we cannot achieve permanent liberation. We need effort and we need grace. But to be receptive to that grace, we need to make like Cinderella and go to the ball; we need first to die, to die while living.The parable of the dead parrot
Death, as has often been observed, is not an event in life. If I drop dead, I won’t be around to join those who survive me in viewing my mortal remains and having an interesting chat about the meaning of life and death. Nor will I take with me anything that I currently think of as me, or belonging to me. And I won’t be aware that I have died, any more than I am aware when I fall asleep that I have fallen asleep.
So where will I be? As Baba Ji says, that depends. Dying while living obviously does not mean ordinary physical dying. Everybody dies. Despite astonishing medical advances the death rate remains at a stubborn 100 percent.
We use many synonyms and euphemisms for physical death. In the famous Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch, the customer in a pet shop has bought a parrot in a cage. But when he gets home he finds it stone dead and standing upright only because it is nailed to its perch. He returns to the shop to complain and to insist that the parrot is dead despite the shopkeeper’s protestations that it is just resting. This parrot, says the customer, is deceased, demised, has come to the end of its life, has passed away, shuffled off the mortal coil, kicked the bucket, popped its clogs, expired, ceased to be, drawn its last breath.
Now, none of those represents any kind of accomplishment. Dying is not advancement, it is not progression. As Hazur Maharaj Ji very often said, one does not suddenly become a better person just by dying. If we are illiterate when we die we’re not going to get a PhD just because we’re dead. If we want to learn how to play guitar or drums, waiting until we are dead doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Another couple of terms for death in that Monty Python sketch however give us pause. The indignant customer says that the parrot ‘has joined the choirs invisible’ and ‘gone to meet its maker.’ These are no doubt euphemisms; we like to think that someone who has died has gone somewhere nice, or gone to God. At the very least these terms reflect a belief that there is more to death than just the end of life. However, the same principle applies. If we haven’t joined the choirs invisible while still alive we won’t suddenly find that we have a singing voice and a place reserved in the heavenly choir when we’re dead. And if we are not already good friends with our maker in life, are we likely to be invited to God’s house to meet him personally, just because we have left our body behind (and our home and family, nationality, bank balance, mobile phone and everything else) and thus have nothing else to do? Unless we’ve made advance plans, rather than being greeted like a celebrity at the gates of heaven just because we’ve died, we will continue going into whatever situations our choices and actions (karmas) have created for us, in whatever form we’ve earned. And unless there’s a major change in our consciousness, we’ll keep reacting to events and creating new karmas in that form in just the same way as we do now.
While we’re under the sway of the mind and senses we really don’t have a choice. Yes, we can read the Sant Mat books and listen to satsang and try to meditate and resolve to behave with the patience of saints. But as as long as we are below the mind, subject to the passions, we’ll react to events according to our conditioning. And we’ll either express that reaction, which will create new karma there and then, or we’ll repress our reaction, file it away and probably act on it another day.
On the other hand, if we have learned how to die while alive, then death is an event in life.Dying while alive
Dying while alive means leaving the body in meditation while remaining fully aware and fully awake – indeed more awake than we currently are. This state of wakefulness is achieved by by stilling and focusing the attention at the eye centre in meditation. The eye centre is the only doorway within the body which leads inward and upward toward the Shabd, the One, rather than downward and outward into the realm of the scattered senses. If we can still and focus the mind in this way we can rehearse dying – rehearse what happens when we leave the body behind – while still living. Maharaj Ji used to say that meditation is nothing but a rehearsal for death:
Meditation is nothing but a lifelong rehearsal to die, a rehearsal to learn to withdraw our consciousness to the eye centre and then leave the body.3
Great Master, talking about meditation, particularly simran or repetition, said:
Simran should not be done in haste. It should be done slowly and with love and devotion, the Names being repeated clearly and correctly. To do it in haste or to regard it as an unwanted task, or to go through it merely as a routine leads nowhere. If the mind becomes lazy while doing simran, or the attention turns towards sense pleasures, one should repeat the Names audibly for ten or fifteen minutes, so that the mind’s attention reverts to the proper place.
Repetition should be done with one-pointed attention. By so doing, your hands and feet will become numb and the entire consciousness of the body will collect at the eye center. In due course a stage is reached when repetition ceases and the Form contemplated upon manifests itself. This is the culmination point of repetition.
The results of repetition will be in direct proportion to the love and faith brought to bear upon it. Carry out the simran of the Lord with love and faith. His Names have a great power. When done with faith, one feels intoxicated with joy, with the result that he forgets his body and himself and is aware of the presence of the Lord. How potent and blissful is the Name of God, for it creates in the devotee a fast-flowing current of bliss, peace and soul force, and he gets truly blessed.4
Meditation, dying while alive, is not about how or when we die physically. We die physically when our karmas for this particular life come to an end. Until our karmas for this life are over, then we are like Cinderella – can go to the ball and taste life in the court of the Lord but only for a limited time. We can temporarily leave the body in meditation but we will come back to face another day because we still have karma here.
Our karmic load will lessen if we follow the vows: avoid killing (the vegetarian diet); live honestly without cheating; avoid drugs and alcohol, thereby preserve our capacity to discriminate, to make good choices; and, most important, make our best effort in regular daily meditation to contact the Shabd through simran and bhajan.
But reducing our karmic load, that is, ‘cleaning the cup,’ will take us only so far. The cup keeps getting refilled with more choices, more actions. Something has to get rid of the karma once and for all, otherwise we will remain stuck here, unable to escape mind and maya. Since we can’t liberate ourselves on our own, we need help. Someday our prince – the Shabd form of the master – will come and take us inward to merge with him. Love, said Maharaj Ji, is to lose our identity and become another being. That being is the Shabd, the Lord.
Meeting the Shabd form of the master is the real initiation, according to Maharaj Ji. He says:
The real initiation starts when you see the radiant form of the master. What is initiation? To be led on the path back to the Father. So actually, you start your spiritual journey from the point where you see the radiant form. ... But to reach the radiant form of the master, you also have to know some technique and method, so that is also a form of initiation. But the real initiation is when we are led by the master within, back to the level of the Father.5
When this meeting occurs – the contact between the soul and the Shabd – the physical so-called disciple becomes the real disciple: the surat, the soul. Whether we call the union of the soul and the Shabd ‘Sach Khand’ or ‘living happily ever after’ doesn’t really matter. These are just concepts we use out here to give us something to aim for.Rumi’s dead parrot sketch
The great Sufi poet Rumi had his own dead parrot sketch, just as amusing as the Monty Python one though considerably more profound in its spiritual meaning. In Rumi’s story,6 a merchant in the Middle East has an Indian parrot whom he loves on account of her sweet song, so he keeps her in a cage in his house. He is about to set off to India on a business trip and asks the parrot if she has any message to be delivered to her relatives in India. The parrot says, “Tell them I’m trapped in this cage and please ask them how I can get out.” The merchant agrees to do this.
When he reaches India he finds a flock of parrots in a tree, and passes on the message. Immediately, one of the parrots falls down dead. When the merchant finally returned home his own parrot asked him, “What was the reply?” “I’m very sorry,” said the merchant, “but I have not brought back any reply for you. As soon as I asked your question about how to escape one of the parrots fell down lifeless to the ground, and I didn’t have the heart to keep asking.”
As he said these words, his own parrot also fell down lifeless from its perch. The merchant berated himself, saying, “Why did I pass on such a distressing message? I should have kept my mouth shut!” Then, lamenting the loss of his fine songbird, he scooped up the dead parrot from the floor of the cage and flung the small corpse away. To his surprise, the parrot spread its wings and flew up to a nearby tree.
The merchant asked, “What’s going on?” The parrot replied, “That true friend of mine in India secretly answered the question you delivered on my behalf. By falling down dead, she showed me how to escape. You kept me prisoner because you wanted me to serve you by singing your tune. While alive and singing I could never escape. By dying, I became worthless to you, the door of the cage was opened and I was free.”
Rumi goes on:
The merchant said to her, “You have
now shown me a new path.”
The merchant (then) said to himself, “This is the advice for me: I
will take her path, for this path is luminous.
“How should my soul be inferior to a parrot? The soul ought to
(follow) such as this, for it is a (very) good track (indeed)!”
The body resembles a cage. The body has become a thorn to the
soul because of the deceptions of those (who are) inside and
Rumi’s message is clear. If we want to get out of the cage of this body, if we want to escape from the cycle of life after life, we need to die. But this has nothing to do with physical death. It means dying daily, leaving the body, flying up to spend at least some time every day on a branch of the tree of the Lord, so that when the grace of the Lord is bestowed and that door to eternity is opened, we are capable of accepting that grace – we know which way to fly, we are free, not imprisoned by our karmas. Then we do indeed go to meet our maker, or, ‘join the choirs invisible’; that is to say, merge with the Shabd. We can do that because we’ve already established that relationship with the Lord while we were in the body. As Jesus told his disciples according to John 12:35: “For a little while longer, the Light will be among you. Walk while you have the Light, so that darkness will not overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going.”
By ‘walk’ Jesus means undertake the journey of meditation while we are alive. Attend daily to simran and bhajan for at least two and a half hours. Not because we can, not because we necessarily want to, not because we’re any good at it, not because anybody else is watching, but because that’s the instruction we got from that wise, positive and helpful master-parrot in India when, by some strange quirk of fate, we got a chance in this life to meet a true master and ask him for guidance. His message is: the way to become free is to die while living. Initiation explains how it’s done. We still have to do it; we still have to learn for ourselves how to fall off our ego-perch and lie there, apparently dead to the world but actually wide awake on that threshold within and ready to fly away the moment the inner doorway is opened.
If we die physically and we still have karma here, we’ll have to come back to pay it off. In fact, that’s what happens every day; we only wake up in our familiar body in the morning because our karma for this life didn’t happen to run out while we were sleeping. We can die daily while alive through simran and bhajan. When our meditation period ends, we come back to ‘ourselves,’ our daily karmas. We’re back inside the cage of the five senses, like a captive parrot singing for its supper with a backing group called the five passions. That is life. Our bhajan and simran is our expression of devotion. The rest is marking time.
When Paltu says “love and devotion alone count in the court of the Lord” he means that these are the only actions that evoke the Lord’s grace. We cannot get there by our own efforts, but without our effort his grace will not flow. Why? Because only love and devotion count in the court of the Lord, and love and devotion are nothing other than making the effort in meditation. We don’t have to be successful by our own standards, just persistent, regular, punctual, positive, unflinching. The Lord is surprisingly generous in his appreciation of our paltry efforts, which is very lucky for us. As Paltu says: “He prefers a poor devotee’s insipid food to a kingly feast.”
- Isaac A. Ezekiel, Saint Paltu, 4th ed. 2009, p. 27
- Discourses on Two Poems of Saint Paltu, 3rd ed. 1988, p. 1–2.
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #328
- Maharaj Sawan Singh, Philosophy of the Masters (abridged), Chapter 2
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. II, #30
- Versions of Rumi’s story of the parrot can be viewed at http://www.dar-al-masnavi.org/n-I-1547.htm and at http://www.masnavi.net/1/50/eng/1/1503/