TALMUDIC DHARMA: Four in the Orchard

This morning as we had a delicious drawn out breakfast here in Petach Tikwa near Tal Aviv, a massive thunder storm developed lashing the building with wind and rain.  Vimala shared with us a story from the Talmud that has provoked many different interpretations among Jewish commentators and asked for our view.

He read to us from the book.  The book is laid out in an interesting way.  On each page the original Aramaic text is in the middle and the Jewish translation is to one side.  The various commentaries then unfold in a spiral around the page going down the right hand side, across the bottom right to left and then up the left side.  The text is small and dense, so there is a huge amount of traditional wisdom condensed into this volume.

The story is as follows. Four people enter the orchard.  They are told that in the orchard they will find the true marble.  They are warned that, when they see the marble, not to think of it as water.  The four each has a different experience.  The first, second and fourth are known historical figures, the first and second being lay seekers from distant history and the fourth being a famous rabbinic teacher.  The third is simply called “the other one”. The experiences of the four who enter the orchard are as follows.

The first peers into the marble and immediately dies.

The second glances at the marble and is wounded and goes mad.

The third sees the marble and cuts down all the trees.

The fourth sees the marble, is unharmed and goes forth into the world.

Vimala told us some of the traditional interpretations.  There is general agreement that entering the orchard refers to entering upon the spiritual path and that the marble represents the holy of holies, the shekinah, God. But what of the rest of the story?  Here opinions are diverse.  Some think that it tells us how meeting God can be dangerous.  Many are confused especially by the experience of the third person and by his lack of any specific designation.  Also, why is only one of the four a rabbi?  And so on.  A common assumption is that they represent good and bad ways of understanding, usually it being taken that the fourth is the best.

What did I think?

It came to me that all four represent valid ways of being on the spiritual path.  They are all good, but they are different styles.

There are those whose attention is transfixed by the Holy.  They are seized by Amida completely.  The ego dies.  They are completely intoxicated with this sacred vision; so much so that they are as if dead to the worldly world.  They are completely unified with the Love.

There are those who see the Holy and it “wounds” them.  This is like falling in love.  The lover longs for the Beloved.  To the observer, such a person is mad.  They do not care about worldly conventions.  They only long to find the Beloved, to enter the sacred spirit.

There are those who encounter the Holy and are inspired toward purity.  Everything that is not the true marble is cut down.  This is the path of the Arhat, the purist.  They cannot bear that anything other than the Holy exist.  They seek passionately to renounce and eliminate all trace of impurity from their life.

There are those who encounter the holy and then go forth into the world to spread the Dharma.  This is the path of the bodhisattva.

Regarding the names, the first three are all lay followers and the last is one who takes on the religious life in a more formal way.  The first two and third are specifically named because those figures from history illustrate these ways of being.  The third is not specifically named because this is the common way of doing things - ordinary people associate spirituality with moral strictness.

Regarding not seeing water, perhaps this is not to see one’s own reflection (as one does in water), or anything that flows away, but to see the “true marble” which, like diamond in Buddhism, represents the enduring substance - that which is not impermanent. 

We then had a rich discussion of the different ways that one can play with these ideas as a means of understanding the spiritual path and the holy life.

Good food, good company, good discussion and remarkable weather - a fine breakfast.

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  • Thanks, Tineke - you should have been here at our breakfast discussion in Tel Aviv !

    Some of the points you have made did come up, others are additional.  There is certainly an issue about whether the four are to be seen as four good alternatives or as four options only one of which is correct.  I was of the first opinion, but several commentators are of the second view.

  • Thank you for sharing this, David. This story contains some strong symbols and I would like to share a few thoughts.

    The story starts in an orchard (as a symbol for entering the spiritual path). To me, an orchard has a feminine taste. It is a place of growth, flowering, fruits, harvest, nutrition… The trees are rooted in the earth and the grow up to the sky. Trees can be seen as symbols of change and transformation.

    C. G. Jung was quite fascinated by the figure 4 and did a lot of research on it. He suggests that 4 has an archetypal meaning which symbolizes completeness, wholeness and orientation (like the 4 cardinal points). In the story, the orchard is entered by 4 people. Maybe it helps to see them as a whole rather than individuals.

    And what does water have to do with it? Remember the four people were warned that, when they see the marble, not to think of it as water. Water is often seen as a symbol for the feminine side of wisdom. Of course, it has an everchanging and flowing quality to it. So, if we want to discover the marble as the holy dimension beyond change, we need to open our minds for the possibility that there is another truth.

    I wonder, who uttered the warning? Do the 4 keep to the warning?

    What is our approach to the divine when we walk through the orchard? What is our attitude when discovering the true marble?

    The first peers into the marble and immediately dies.
    This person’s approach was straight forward, may be too straight forward. It didn’t allow for integration. So, what is the use of it?

    The second glances at the marble and is wounded and goes mad.
    This person does not peer into but glances at. May be this is a lack of commitment that leads to a lack of understanding, which confuses his mind.

    The third sees the marble and cuts down all the trees.
    This person’s approach seems to work, he can see the marble, but his conclusion is a bit strange: He destroys the fruitful trees! His way of integration does not work. He draws the wrong conclusion from discovering the marble.

    The fourth sees the marble, is unharmed and goes forth into the world.
    The fourth person goes into the world. He (or she?) has found a way of integration that allows her or him to serve the world. This person lives happily with the different dimensions of truth: the truth of change and transformation as well as the truth beyond change.

    Warm wishes,


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