Jesus said, The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same. (4)
The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a small child seven days old about the place of life, and he will live. This is a prime example of a metaphysical statement that can be taken in more than one way–all of them wise. Whether this multiple-level meaning is intentional or whether commentators are simply ingenious in reading unintended subtleties into the sacred words is really undeterminable. In the study of scriptures there are two equally unfortunate pitfalls: 1) failing to see the meaning, and 2) seeing meaning where none was intended. The following story from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, illustrates this very well.
“Provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with those who live there, any wandering monk can remain in a Zen temple. If he is defeated, he has to move on.
“In a temple in the northern part of Japan two brother monks were dwelling together. The elder one was learned, but the younger one was stupid and had but one eye.
“A wandering monk came and asked for lodging, properly challenging them to a debate about the sublime teaching. The elder brother, tired that day from much studying, told the younger one to take his place. ‘Go and request the dialogue in silence,’ he cautioned.
“So the young monk and the stranger went to the shrine and sat down.
“Shortly afterwards the traveler rose and went in to the elder brother and said: ‘Your young brother is a wonderful fellow. He defeated me.’
“‘Relate the dialogue to me,’ said the elder one.
“‘Well,’ explained the traveler, ‘first I held up one finger, representing Buddha, the enlightened one. So he held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teaching. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teaching, and his followers, living the harmonious life. Then he shook his clenched fist in my face, indicating that all three come from one realization. Thus he won and so I have no right to remain here.’ With this, the traveller left.
“‘Where is that fellow?’ asked the younger one, running in to his elder brother.
“‘I understand you won the debate.’
“‘Won, nothing. I’m going to beat him up.’
“‘Tell me the subject of the debate,’ asked the elder one.
“‘Why, the minute he saw me he held up one finger, insulting me by insinuating that I have only one eye. Since he was a stranger I thought I would be polite to him, so I held up two fingers, congratulating him that he has two eyes. Then the impolite wretch help up three fingers, suggesting that between us we only have three eyes. So I got mad and started to punch him, but he ran out and that ended it!’”
Reading wisdom into inane or foolish words is a particular skill of the East, as is making ingenious (and ingenuous) rationalization for nonsensical and even evil deeds committed by spiritual figures–taking folly and evil and making them seem wisdom and virtue. Writing about Eastern texts in the context of Eastern thought, a commentator must assiduously avoid this pitfall, although few do. And his readers should be equally cautious about accepting any interpretations without careful consideration and thought. Discrimination is always wisdom, though the sentimentalism current in most religion runs counter to it. Now having said that I will warily try to comment on this fourth verse of the Gospel of Thomas.
Most spiritual traditions use age references to indicate spiritual levels. Even in cultures where age is respected and people are proud of their advanced years, “old” means mired in time, “aged” by identification with external existence, marked by the conditionings of many lives. “Young,” on the other hand, means one who has become rejuvenated in the spirit by erasure of those metaphysical “age wrinkles” and regained his original spiritual vigor. Such a person is not a blank as he was at the beginning of his peregrinations through many rebirths, but retains all the growth he has attained while “young” in spiritual vigor and refreshment. In the New Testament we read a goodly bit about “old” versus “new” men: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” (Romans 6:6). “That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). “Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him” (Colossians 3:9,10).
We are also told about the renewal of consciousness in becoming “as a child” in the spirit. “Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4). We are told that “children” are the natural inhabitants of the Kingdom of God Consciousness. “Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:13,14).
Saint Paul writes about the “days” of evolution and their number, harking back to the “days” of Genesis that symbolize the stages of unfolding consciousness. (See the fourth chapter of Hebrews and the first chapters of Genesis.) A “man old in days” is someone that is worn and weary from the troubles and uncertainties of many births. “A small child seven days old” is one who has traversed the seven levels of spiritual development and renewed himself within. Such a “young” one should be approached by the “old” even if their chronological ages are reversed.
I saw this very clearly during my first trip to India. More than once I saw adults taking very seriously the words of children in relation to spiritual matters. In one ashram I attended a gathering of adults to listen to a small boy recount his meditation experiences and what he had concluded from them. After some discussion they unanimously told the boy they were confident that his experiences were real and that he should act on them. “A little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6) is accepted in India, though hardly ever in the supposedly Christian West.
In his Hymn to Dakshinamurti [Shiva], Shankara writes of the aged disciples surrounding the youthful guru. It is often seen that externally aged teachers show more youth than their seemingly younger students. It is all in the heart.
The place of life
The “old” will ask the “young” about “the place of life.” The place of life is where the Lifegiver is to be found, and that is the heart of each seeker. “I am the Self abiding in the heart of all beings; I am the beginning, the middle and the end of all beings as well” (Bhagavad Gita 10:20). “With hands and feet everywhere, eyes, heads and faces everywhere, with ears throughout the universe–THAT stands, enveloping everything. Having the appearance of all the qualities of the senses, yet free of all the senses, unattached yet maintaining all, free from the gunas, yet experiencing the gunas, outside and inside beings–the animate and the inanimate–incomprehensible because of its subtlety, far away and also near, undivided, yet remaining as if divided in beings, this is to be known as the sustainer of beings, their absorber and generator. Also this is said to be the light of lights, beyond all darkness; knowledge, the to-be-known, the goal of knowledge seated in the heart of all” (Bhagavad Gita 13:13-17).
Those who seek within and find that place of life and the Lifegiver himself shall truly live, for: “The Lord lives in the heart of every creature. He turns them round and round upon the wheel of his Maya. Take refuge utterly in him. By his grace you will find supreme peace, and the state which is beyond all change” (Bhagavad Gita 18:61-62).
For many who are first will become last, and they will become one and the same. The first half of this sentence is expounded in the Gospel of Matthew: “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (Matthew 19:30; 20:1-16).
The idea behind all this is that the goal is absolutely the same, and the attainment for each one of us is identical, whether we reach it early or late. It is often supposed that some people attain liberation very easily in a short time, but this does not take into account what may be hundreds of previous lives of spiritual effort. Conversely, someone who may seek for an entire lifetime before attaining any perceivable result may only have a comparatively few lifetimes of effort behind him. But at the end all are the same, for all spirits are identical in scope of consciousness. In the kingdom of heaven there are no greater and lesser citizens, only divine rays of the Divine Light.
Becoming “one and the same” implies more than equality of rank. It means that everyone will have perfect realization and unity with both one another and with God–that every drop in the ocean of light shall be united and share in one another’s being as much as they share in God’s infinite Being. “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4:17) and each other.
Read the next section in The Gospel of Thomas for Yogis: From the Seen to the Unseen