The Dilemma of the Expert
In a western country there once lived an expert on the game of squash. After a long and successful career he decided to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He found a publisher with whom to work and dedicated himself to setting down the numerous secrets and subtleties of the game. In due course his book, a weighty tome, was published to great praise from his fellow experts.
Yet, despite his many efforts to bring his book to the wider attention of followers of the game, sales were poor. Disappointed, he decided to seek the advice of other experts from foreign lands. He travelled far and wide, listening carefully to their views and reflecting on their observations on the game. Yet for all their openness, hospitality and goodwill, he was at a loss to understand why his book continued to lie unbought and unread.
The Discovery of the Players
At long last, in a desert country, he came upon a small squash club. The club’s two courts and changing room were housed in an old building in a small town, many miles from the nearest city. Hearing the sound of play, he climbed to a small balcony overlooking the courts and looked down on the players. To his amazement, they were the best he had ever seen! Truly, he thought, they must have learnt from someone who knows all there is to know about the game.
As they finished their matches, he asked them who their teacher had been. All mentioned the name of the same man whom they called the Master. The expert asked where he could be found and they directed him to a tea-house in a nearby street. The expert thanked them and hurried to the establishment, eager to meet their teacher.
A Conversation with the Master
At the tea-house he was directed towards an old man with a white beard. The expert approached the man and introduced himself. He told him that he had visited the squash club and had been told by the players there that they owed their mastery of the game to him. That was so, said the old man, and invited the expert to join him.
The expert told the Master of his long and successful career. He had decided, he said, to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He gave the Master a copy and watched as he leafed through the pages in silent wonder.
Sensing the Master’s admiration, the expert confessed his disappointment that sales had been poor despite great praise from his fellow experts. What could he do, he asked the Master, to increase sales? None of the experts he had asked during his travels had been able to advise him.
“I too have known disappointment in seeking to teach those who love the game,” replied the Master. “When I was a young man, I attained great proficiency and joy in playing the game. As I grew older, I wanted to share my insights and secrets with my fellow players. But I was not an educated person. I lacked the means with which to teach. Then one day, in a tea-house, I met a traveller and told him of my desire and of my frustration.”
“What did he advise?” asked the expert.
“Unfortunately, he knew nothing of the game,” said the Master, “but he did tell me a story which helped to change my fortunes. Perhaps it will change yours.”
The expert listened in silence as the Master told him the traveller’s story; the story of the book.
The Story of the Book
In land far to the east, there once lived a wise man who taught his many followers from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wisdom. He attributed all he knew to a large book which he kept in his room. He would allow nobody to open it.
When he died, those who followers who regarded themselves as his heirs ran to open the book, anxious to possess what it contained. But they were surprised and disappointed when they found that there was writing on only one page. They became even more upset and then annoyed when they tried to grasp the meaning of the single sentence which met their eyes. It read: “When you realise the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.”
The Opinion of the Scholars
The wise man’s heirs took the book to the most famous scholars of the time, saying:
“Help us to understand this book. It belonged to our late master and is all he left behind. We cannot fathom its mystery.”
At first the scholars were delighted to see a work of such size, bearing the name of its former owner. They knew that he had been revered by multitudes of people and assured his heirs that they would reveal its true meaning. But they became angry when they discovered that the book was all but empty and that what words it did contain made no sense to them. Believing themselves to be the victims of a hoax, the scholars shouted at the students, driving them away in their fury.
It was a time, said the traveller, when scholars could not imagine a book which could do something, only a book which said something.
The Interpretation of the Traveller
The dispirited students went to refresh themselves in a tea-house where they came upon a traveller. He listened to their story and, seeing their distress, asked them:
“What did you learn from the scholars?
“Nothing,” answered the students. “They could tell us nothing.”
“On the contrary,” said the traveller, “they told you everything! They showed you that the book was not to be understood in the way assumed either by you or by them. You may think that they lacked insight but you in your turn lack sense. The book was teaching something through the incident itself, while you remained asleep.”
But the students found this explanation too subtle for their minds. They soon left and neither they nor the traveller knew that their conversation had been overheard by another regular visitor to the tea-house.
The Book of the Book
The visitor, a carver of precious stones, was so impressed by the story of the book that he had it written down by a scribe and bound in a large book. He kept the book in a place of honour in his house where he could reflect on its teachings. In the course of time he gained a reputation as a master of his art. He was sought out by wealthy men eager to commission his work but, despite the offer of great riches, he agreed to requests only from those he judged to be most appreciative of his art.
As his apprentice he chose Babur, the only child of a widow who had fled conflict in her native land.
Babur Saves the Book
After many years the master died, leaving no heirs. Finding the book in its place of honour, Babur thought to himself:
“Surely, this must be the source of my master’s wisdom, happiness and prosperity.”
He read the contents of the book, translating them into the words, forms and subtleties of his own native language. Marvelling at its teachings, he opened a shop where he kept copies of the book on view. Nobody was allowed to look inside until he had paid two pieces of silver. Some learned the lessons of the book and wished to study with him. Others wanted their money returned but Babur said, “I cannot give you back your money until you return me what you have learned from our transaction, as well as from the book itself.”
Some who read the contents of the book preferred mere appearance to inner content. They called Babur a deceiver but he told them, “You have always looked for deceivers, so you will always assume that you have found one in anybody.“
Ahmed Transmits It
One day, a young man paid Babur two pieces of gold to look inside the book. The young man, whose name was Ahmed, was returning to his home country after completing his studies in a city far to the east. Returning the following day, he gave Babur another ten pieces of gold, saying: “What I have learned from the book is worth far more than this, but it is all I have to give.”
Returning to his native country, Ahmed wrote down the content and history of the book of the book and had it bound in a single volume of over two hundred pages.
The traveller’s story, said the Master, had been passed down by the masters of the east for over five hundred years. Then he stood, bowed to the expert and walked away.
The Story of the Expert
The expert returned to his native country. From his home he began to travel from town to town and from city to city. Whenever he could, he visited squash clubs and watched the game being played. In the course of his travels, he met others who loved the game and many more who knew nothing of it. Many of those he met shared their stories just as he shared his with them. As he travelled, he became aware of some who were regarded by many as masters of their art. Some of these he followed until such time as he felt the urge to travel to other places, meet others and share stories.
In due course, he decided to write a book.
Thanks are due to Idries Shah.