Virgo (2): Beginner's Mind

Virgo (2): Beginner’s Mind

Story: The Overflowing Cup

A very clever University professor went to visit Nan-in, a Buddhist holy man. The professor wanted some advice on how he should live a spiritual life. ‘I have been studying for many years,’ he told the holy man. ‘I have read hundreds of books; I have sat at the feet of many gurus; and I have attended many different places of worship; but I have never found what I am looking for. So now I have come to see you.’
Nan-in looked kindly at the professor. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ he asked with a smile.
‘Yes, please,’ replied the professor.
Nan-in prepared the tea and began to pour. The professor’s cup was filled to overflowing, but Nan-in continued to pour the tea until it spilled out on to the saucer, and then on to the table.
‘What are you doing?’ asked the astonished professor. ‘The cup is full. No more will go in!’
‘Just like you,’ said Nan-in. ‘Your head is so full of theories, scriptures, ceremonies, and philosophies that there is no room for anything else. Before I can start to teach you, you must empty your cup.’

Sermon from September 2007

ast Saturday, 8th September, Bridget called me from Montenegro to say that the nuns in the local convent had been singing and chanting for virtually the whole day. It must be a special feast day, she thought, and she found out subsequently that her surmise had been correct. It was a special Catholic festival, the birthday of the Virgin Mary. But, one asks, why celebrate it now? Surely there’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Mary’s birth – there’s nothing about the date of Jesus’ birth, for that matter. We celebrate the birth of Jesus at the time of the winter solstice, but the Bible doesn’t say explicitly that he was born then. So Mary’s birthday is even more conjectural.
You, I’m sure, will not be surprised to learn that there is a certain astronomical appropriateness in celebrating the birth of the Virgin at this time of the year. Many centuries ago, when the Church calendar was drawn up, on the 8th September, the stars of the constellation Virgo once again became visible before sunrise after being overwhelmed by the powerful rays of the sun for about three weeks: ‘the virgin is born’. From mid-August, the stars of Virgo had been invisible; they had, poetically, been taken up into the glory of the sun, hence the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven which has been celebrated by Catholics for centuries on 15th August. So, the dates of two Catholic festivals are determined by the sun’s path in the sky, and we can add a third, because the feast of the Immaculate Conception – a big feast in Catholicism, a Holy Day of Obligation – occurs on 8th December, nine months before Mary’ birthday on 8th September. These were, originally, references to astronomical phenomena, and had deep mystical significance, but their astronomical correspondence has been lost in the Church’s fervent attempts to apply them, absurdly, to the life of an individual who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago.
The Assumption of Mary (Rubens)

But remember, as I keep stressing throughout these sermons on the correspondence of the Gospel stories with the zodiac signs, we are not dealing with history here; still less are we dealing with biology. Birth of the Virgin, or birth from a virgin, are not statements relating to physical birth in either a historical or a biological sense, in spite of what the orthodox theologians say. The original mystical message of these metaphors is that the Christ, the divine life, is always born of a virgin. The birth of the Christ spirit within the individual – in you and me and everybody else – is a spiritual birth, a rebirth, which owes nothing to flesh and blood. And it always occurs symbolically in Bethlehem, which means, in Hebrew ‘The House of Bread’, or Virgo, the sign of the harvest, the sign pictured by the ancients as a Woman with a Sheaf of Wheat in her hand, or as the goddess Isis with the child Horus in her arms.
            So, there was a connection, in the ancient mysteries, between this time of the year and the virginal rebirth of the spirit. That’s why Mark’s Gospel introduces children at this point in the narrative, and why Jesus tells us that we have to become like children if we want to inherit the kingdom of God. These sayings of Jesus have always puzzled people, particularly those people (like me) who have had a lot to do with children, and who have found it difficult to sentimentalize their behaviour. We all know that children can be noisy, troublesome, demanding, selfish, impatient, and unreasonable. In fact, it may well be that this is their natural condition, so we can’t think that the kingdom of God would be a place of peace and quiet if it was peopled only by the childlike. However, you will be relieved to hear, Jesus wasn’t asking us to copy any of these characteristics. But there are some aspects of childhood which we could well do to rediscover. One is lack of cynicism. Whatever else a child might be, he or she is not cynical. Cynicism, world-weariness, lack of delight in the world, lack of trust in human beings, is adult, learned behaviour. The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, and while it may once have been the name of a respected school of ancient philosophy, today the word describes a person who has no heroes, who sees self-interest as the only real human motivator, and who is suspicious of  virtue or altruism.
            Children are free from this corrosive spiritual disease; they are still interested in the world, still see it as a magical place, while we have become what the Harry Potter books call ‘Muggles’, non-magical people, who have lost any sense of wonder and delight in the simple things of life. The contrast is brought out beautifully in chapter 4 of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Grown ups love figures. When you talk to them about a new friend, they never ask questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he prefer? Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father earn?’ It is only then that they feel they know him. If you were to mention to grown-ups: ‘I’ve seen a beautiful house built with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof...’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them: ‘I saw a house worth two million pounds.’ Then they would exclaim: ‘Oh! How lovely!’

Rediscovering the child-like delight in the world is a prerequisite of entry into the kingdom of God, says Jesus. Not sophistication; not knowledge; not accumulated experience; not skill; not expertise. The Kingdom of God is not something we grow into; paradoxically, it’s something we grow out of, and this gives rise to the spiritual principle, which runs completely counter to secular and even religious wisdom, that the people who understand the world best are those who have lived in it least. As Wordsworth says:

            Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison‑house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the Vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Sometimes it takes catastrophe or even tragedy to bring us back to this primal state of awareness, in which we can experience ‘the vision splendid’, which is why the spiritual writers are not so dismissive of adversity as are politicians or economists, and it is also why, as I’ve mentioned before from my own experience, when one thinks that one’s time on earth is limited, one begins to perceive the world in a completely different way – a way akin to the way one perceived it as a child. There is no better example of this than that described by the British playwright Dennis Potter in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, just a little before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994. He knows he’s going to die soon, and yet, he says, ‘the nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.’ He goes on:

Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg

Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’....last week, looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are more trivial than they ever were, and more important, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance....not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy, can you celebrate it!

Potter here mentions the second child-like virtue: the capacity to enjoy the moment, to live ‘in the present tense’.

....if you look at a child, talk about present tense, that’s all they, all a small child lives in. So a wet Tuesday afternoon can actually be years long, and it – childhood – is full to the brim of fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety...

Fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety. How troublesome they are! We’re better off without them! Let’s just keep our lives nice and tranquil, inoffensive, trouble free. Let’s just keep shopping and eating and travelling and washing the car and watching television. Is it any wonder that the Western world has come under the spell of Prozac?
            ‘Look at these children,’ says Jesus. ‘Learn a lesson from them.’ The third lesson they can teach us is the lesson of spiritual and intellectual humility. Aren’t we so proud of our adult sophistication and our learning? Aren’t we so much more intelligent and so much better informed than our forebears who were swathed in almost invincible ignorance? In some ways we are, but in many ways we’re no more enlightened than they were. Just because we have words and concepts like ‘Big Bang’ and ‘Evolution’ doesn’t mean we have solved the problems of existence. We still haven’t got a clue about the really big questions of meaning and purpose. It’s a mysterious world. Some corners of the blanket of mystery have been lifted, but, there is much more to discover and, perhaps, some things that will never be discovered. Even so, this doesn’t stop us filling our heads with complicated and conflicting theories, about which we argue and fight, interminably. But our clever but inadequate theories actual keep us from any real understanding. This is why, according to the Buddhist parable we heard earlier, we have to ‘empty our cup’.
            ‘Emptying your cup’ is what the Buddhists call ‘cultivating beginner’s mind’, starting again, looking at the world again, getting back to that openness to experience which we had as children, but over which our pretended sophistication has thrown a veil.
 I was in England last week for my six-monthly hospital check-up, but throughout my time there this sermon was on my mind. On Tuesday night I was sitting in the kitchen trying to read when I became aware of a moth flying crazily between the lights in the ceiling. It seemed to me as if it was mad – angry, or drunk, or drugged – and I was disturbed by it, even picking up a newspaper to swat it in case it came too close to my head, which it seemed to be threatening to do. Then I began to ponder the amazing nature of this tiny piece of animated matter, this miracle of aerodynamic beauty, this entity with a rudimentary mind, countless tiny muscles and nerves, perfectly working organs of nutrition, reproduction, and respiration, with an unfathomable but fatal attraction for the light, and I decided against killing it. I turned off the light so that it would calm down and went off to bed.
            I momentarily perceived the moth a little differently from my usual perception of such a creature, and I was reminded of Walt Whitman’s opinion that ‘a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels’. Even the simplest creature defies our powers of explanation and understanding. I’m not arguing for creation against evolution here. Nothing could be further from my mind. At that moment on Tuesday, I wasn’t concerned with how it came into being. I was simply content to experience its unfamiliarity, its strangeness, its ‘mothness’, and in doing so I’ve been prompted to consider the strangeness and unfamiliarity of myself and of those around me, and of everything.
            Try it yourself. Each day take something, or someone, and try to experience it, or him, or her, as if for the first time. Look with new eyes, not the jaded eyes of your conventional sight. Consider the intricacy and beauty of their physical make up, or the mystery of their consciousness. See how your chosen subject resembles others of the same category, but consider too how each thing or person has a uniqueness which stands beyond categorisation. I love what Gabriel Garzia Marquez said about his wife of many years: ‘I have been married to this woman for thirty years, and I know her so well that I haven’t the slightest idea who she is.’
            Marquez is a poet, and poets are people who see the world with fresh eyes. The poet is one who has a unique and idiosyncratic perception of the world, who refuses to be imprisoned in consensus reality, in the cliched world of derived opinion. The poet is a perpetual beginner.
            When we allow ourselves to become beginners again, to become children again, we die to the cynical, grasping, greedy kingdom of mammon, and are reborn - virgin-born - into the kingdom of God.


My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from


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