Leo Tolstoy's "The Three Hermits"

October 14, 2009

While on my retreat last week I finished a book titled Autobiography of a Yogi, and in that book the author shares a summary of the story The Three Hermits by Leo Tolstoy, and I'd like to share an even more abridged version of that story here:

On an island there lived three old hermits. They were very simple people, and didn't know complicated prayers. In fact they knew only one: "We are three, Thou art Thee, have mercy on us." In spite of this one and only prayer, the hermits were said to have created many great miracles.

One day the local bishop heard about the three hermits and their prayer, and he decided to visit them to give them prayers which were "more correct" to him and the church. He arrived on the island and endeavored to teach them several prayers from the church.

Afterwards, as his boat was sailing away from the island, the bishop turned and saw a radiant light quickly gaining on the ship. As the light approached he discerned the three hermits, who were holding hands and running on the waves in an effort to catch the boat.

"Bishop, we have forgotten the prayers you taught us", they said, and asked him if he would please repeat them.

The bishop shook his head in awe at the miracle he was witnessing. "Dear ones", he replied humbly, "Please forgive me, and continue to live with your old prayer!"

(I haven't read the full story of The Three Hermits yet, and I hope I haven't condensed it so much as to lose its original meaning.)

Faith, commitment, and effort ("try mind")

This story reminds me of something I have read again and again in different stories related to religion and anyone who has explored the concept of having a soul (or as I think of it, having some form of consciousness that is separate from the physical body). I have read all sorts of books on Zen, yoga, Christian mysticism, Jewish mysticism (the Khabbalah), Sufism, and at some point they all say the same thing: It doesn't matter what you believe in, as long as you put faith and your whole heart into what you believe.

(When I use the word "faith" in the previous paragraph, I don't mean "faith in a god", I mean this more as giving your complete commitment and focus to the current moment, or in the case of a prayer or chanting, giving your entire focus to the chant, without a second mind (the small ego) observing and questioning what you are doing.)

There are several Zen stories along this line that I find both humorous and helpful. In one story, Zen Master Seung Sahn (ZMSS) says "Chanting 'Coca Cola' can be just as good as long as you keep a clear mind." When I stayed at the Providence Zen Center I always wondered why English-speaking students chanted Korean versions of the sutras, but when I read this "Coca Cola" statement I realized that chanting is much more about committing to the act of chanting than it is the actual chant, or as ZMSS says, keep a "try-try-try" mind.

I can't find the second story right now, but in that story a Zen monk chanted the wrong version of a particular chant for a long time, but nevertheless he found enlightenment, where other monks who chanted the "correct" chant did not. (I'll update this post when I run across that story again, but he actually chanted something about "shoes", and I remember thinking that it was very funny when I first read it.)

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