The Power of Formlessness in Adhyatma Teachings

There is a story in many forms, in different cultures and traditions. It is a very old one in India, possibly from before the Buddha. The Gods do battle with the Titans and the Gods win. There is something strange about the victory but anyway, the Gods take all the credit to themselves. While they celebrate, a report comes that something mysterious has been seen in a particular place in the Himalayas, something the form of which cannot be made out, which seems to have no form and yet it is there! So Indra, King of the Gods, sends the God of Fire – who symbolises various things including speech – to find out what this mysterious something is. He, too, cannot make it out: there is no actual form and yet there is something. And that mysterious something asks, ‘Who are you?’ He answers, ‘I am the God of Fire.’ ‘And what can you do?’ He says, ‘I can burn anything.’ The voice says, ‘There is straw there, burn that.’ The God of Fire, in all his splendour, concentrates on the straw but cannot burn it. So he goes back and he reports to the King of the Gods, ‘I could not find out.’

Then the God of the wind goes and the same happens. ‘Who are you, what is your power?’ ‘Wind. I can moveanything with my energy, its impetus.’ ‘Move that straw.’ He finds he cannot move it.

So the story continues. One after one, Indra sends his messengers, all these great irresistible powers which serve him, yet they can do absolutely nothing. Finally he goes himself – the interview which follows does not matter, but the point of the story is that even our most powerful instruments and agents will fail before that which is formless. They can affect anything that has form, but before the formless and what is blessed by the formless, they are completely helpless.

Such traditional myths and stories are universal and have very practical applications. We have the same also in the Christian tradition. What is formless? In Exodus, I think it is 22, they went up the mountain and saw the God of Israel – his body, as it were, the clearness of Heaven – clearness of space. Well, that part is generally hastily passed over, but it is perhaps a little hint that the same experience and teaching is there.

(The trustees of the Trevor Leggett Adhyatma Yoga Trust gratefully acknowledge the permission of The Zen Centre in London to reproduce this article which appeared in their magazine Zen Traces, Volume 12 number 4, September 1990.)