Are All Tools Equal? Are All Mantras? [January 2005]

Sarabhanga Giri
On a recent trip by (old) car into the Himalaya, our clutch (previously slipping) was destroyed on a steep hill in the forest. The next day, a village mechanic removed the engine and replaced the clutch in a few hours, and we were on our way again. The only tools this skillful mechanic used were: a large, bent, and badly burred "screwdriver", and a hammer.

What you have is not so important as what you do with it!

Devi Bhakta
Thank you, Sarabhanga, that is a good and vivid illustration of your point.

But does it resolve the "are all mantras equal" question?

Let me repay your kindness with a small story of my own. My father, now gone more than three years, was a woodworker of great skill and delicacy. When I was a child, he was building fine furniture -- beautiful, graceful tables, chairs, cabinets, etc. When I was a youth, he'd moved on to building clocks, with marvelously intricate casings and tiny fine details and filigrees. By the time I was an adult he'd left both of these behind and was doing straight woodcarving. That gave him the freedom to retire in comfort -- corporate CEO's and high government officials paid him well for these lifelife birds of prey and whatnot to display in their McMansions and/or corner offices. He died having achieved a considerable measure of renown in the woodcarving field.

When he was dying, I asked him why he hadn't started with woodcarvings, since these are obviously what made him happiest. The othr things often seemed like work, but the woodcarvings were pure pleasure for him. Did he not have the skill when he was younger?

He told me, "It was not so much that I lacked the skill; I lacked the money to buy the best tools. When I built furniture with my cheap, blunt tools, I earned money to buy better tools and then I could make finer things like clocks. When I sold the clocks, they earned my the money to buy still finer tools, with greater precision and made with more delicacy and better metals. Then I could make anything at all."

I asked him, "So tools are more important than talent?"

He said, "They go hand in hand. A person without talent will not be helped much, even by the best tools. But a person of true talent can be limited by bad tools. One who has both talent and the best tools is just unstoppable."

So. That is just one man's opinion, and he wasn't talking about mantras. But I see the lesson as similar.

In your example, a talented man working with poor tools nonetheless managed to get you from Point A to Point B. He did what he could -- in a pinch, he was able to save the day.

But in the long run, in the world of mantras, isn't it also true that -- at a certain point -- we want more than simply limping from Point A to Point B? Isn't there a certain point where the right "tools" can be the difference between riding in an old, coughing jalopy, and soaring first class in a supersonic jet (so to speak? And if this is so, though both mantras will ultimately get you to your goal, are some not "more equal" than others?

(I am not arguing that they necessarily are, by the way. My question is not rhetorical but very honest. I would like to know your opinion. As well as that of any other members who care to chime in.

Mary Ann
What a beautiful story about your father, and yes, it does seem apt to the question. It is similar to musical instruments: the highest quality material makes highest quality sound, and whatever limitations or gifts the musician brings to it are another matter.

The "are all mantras equal" question brings to mind some opinions I have heard that it does not matter what religion one subscribes to, if the faith is strong, the prayer works. My perspective is that it is important to recognize underlying factors that may be present in prayers, mantras, belief systems, etc. and clarify those elements and refine them out so as not to continue disharmony within and without. To my mind, this clarification and refinement process is about bringing the talents and the tools together successfully to bring about the unstoppable state.

Devi Bhakta
Dear Mary Ann:

Thank you. I'm glad you liked the story and found it relevant.

As it happens, I was just now reflecting on this story again, and what it might teach us about mantras, and whether some are "more powerful" than others or whether they are all equally powerful in their own way. And so, as a strange little coda to the story I told in my previous post, I will add a bit of a postscript to that tale. I hope some of you might find it useful:

You see, after my father retired, he bought a piece of land on a lake in the far northern woods where he was born and raised, figuring he had another 20 years or so to enjoy there (as it turned out, he had two years left). He hauled away the old collapsed ruin on the site, and was all ready to built his dream retirement hideaway there, as he'd always hoped and planned: Full circle, back to where he started.

Well, "back to where he started" turned out to a good description of the project, but not in quite the way he had intended. You see, there were two factors at work in that remote corner of the world: First, winter comes early there, so you really have only three good building months per year. Second, it is a very rural, sleepy backwater kind of place, and the locals have no concept of rush or hurry or deadlines.

So my father and I went around talking to the local carpenters, telling what was needed and asking them to come up to the lake and give us an estimate. They all said, "Sure, I'll be up in a day or two" but a day passed, then two, and no one came, of course. Now, as I said, my father grew up in this place, but he'd been away a long time and his personality had become somewhat less laid back soon he was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger and getting very surly.

At a certain point, he finally tossed me a shovel and took one himself and said, "Well at least we get something started while we wait," and we began digging holes for the concrete foundation stanchions, by hand. A day or two passed and we finished, but still no carpenters or other contractors came. So my father rented a little concrete mixing machine and backhoe and we finished the foundation. At that point, my holiday time was over, and I had to leave him. So he called a couple of his old school pals now achy 65+ year-old characters like himself; children of the Great Depression and World War II and three or four of them kept working along at their own slow-but-steady pace. Within a few weeks, they'd finished the sub floor and by the end of a month or so, they'd managed to frame the walls and raise the center beam for the roof (how I do not know, since they were all pretty queasy about heights).

Now as I related in my earlier post, by this time in his life my father had gained a pretty nice reputation as a wildlife woodcarver, and in that capacity he'd accumulated all kinds of fine precision tools for close, fine woodwork. However, all of this fancy stuff was useless to him there in the backwoods: He needed the big heavy rough tools essential to house construction. And he didn't have them. However, after a lifetime of woodwork he *had* learned to improvise a bit, and no exaggeration he was literally using a rickety old circular saw for about 90% of what needed to be done there. Throughout the summer, he continued to look for professional help; and throughout the summer they promised to come but they never did.

So in the end, he finished the house himself with his old pals and their old-fashioned, beat-up hand tools. They were so proud! It was like their last great act of defiance and achievement before surrendering to the passivity and infirmity of old age. I mean, the house wasn't 100% finished, not in all the details, but it was finished enough to secure it for the long, cold winter all roofed and shingled, dry-walled and insulated, and with a few basic utilities. It was (and remains) a handsome, rugged structure.

Well, sure enough, in late August or early September, just like in the fairytale "The Little Red Hen," the contractors suddenly realized the cold season was coming and they'd better get to work and earn some money for the long winter ahead so one by one they all remembered my father, and came up to the lake saying, "Okay, now what do you need done again?" And one by one, he sent them all packing.

So the moral, I guess, is this: I'd mentioned that my father, at the end of his life had two important possessions (1) innate woodworking skills, highly developed through a lifetime of effort and practice; and (2) excellent tools that allowed him to exploit these skills to the fullest. Then suddenly, at the end of his path, with all these precision tools and skills at hand, he found himself with a job for none of these fine skills and tools did him a damned bit of good a big, rough brawny job that required the grossest, most basic, "meat-and-potatoes" skills and tools.

But because he'd gathered his skills and tools slowly and methodically, he could draw on the deep roots of his long, steady professional evolution and improvise; i.e., he could build a beautiful little home from the ground up with little more than some old hand tools, a worn-out circular saw, and a couple of cranky, arthritic pals. You see? To truly be useful, even a distinguished old fellow with lots of fine, fancy precision tools needs to retain something of Sarabhanga's young hotshot who could fix a clutch in a pinch with an old, bent-up, blunted screwdriver.

Which brings me back to the subject of mantras and their ultimately "equality" or otherwise: For some things we need to go back to the old tools; the simplest, most basic mantras. Even a great guru, facing a particular shishya, cannot do his job by simply reeling off the greatest, most refined truths of the most secret texts. Sometimes he needs to go back to square one, rethink the basics, and build something new and suited to the job with only a few improvised tools at hand.

One such guru recently told me of a young hotshot in the realm of esoteric knowledge, who approached him asking for knowledge. Already this young shishya could reel off ancient truths and secret texts like a stormtrooper. He was a wonder to behold. But he lacked the practical grounding and, due to his intoxication with secret wisdom and divine siddhis, and due to the self-regard he'd developed in relation to his prodigious knowledge, he lacked the patience to do the boring, unglamorous work of building a truly lasting spiritual foundation.

The guru told me that even though this ambitious and talented young adept could (in Tantric terms) produce fine moving clockworks and intricate filigrees, he couldn't hack together a basic lean-to shelter with an ax to protect himself if he were ever to face a killer storm. In other words, he had all the flashy, fancy tricks, but lacked a solid, staple-grain foundation to rest them upon. He had the frosting, but lacked the cake.

That too, I think, teaches us about how all mantras might be equal, if only after their own fashion.

Sarabhanga Giri
Namaste DB,

And thanks for your beautiful illustration.

A fool can do nothing with even the best of tools; but with a little understanding and skill, and the best equipment and plans, even a beginner can make great strides; and with practice and natural ability, the precision tools and expert designs become less important for success.

Eventually and ultimately, and this seems to be Bhasurananda's point, the true expert can achieve wonders with little assistance.

One who truly knows the WHOLE of their trade even has the skill to make any necessary tools from scratch ~ and this is a true Master, who can surely work a miracle with (apparently) no tools at all.

A true Master using the best tools is certainly the ultimate scenario!

Some devices are just so badly designed that they are really no use to anyone at all; and such tools may even be dangerous. And even the best equipment may be dangerous (or at least useless) when used by an ignorant person for an inappropriate task.

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