A Mysterious Parable


The Fourth Quill

from The Fourth Quill by Toby Johnson $15.00
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After their romantic candlelight dinner, Jon suggested to Mark that they run over to catch a lecture at the C.G. Jung Institute.

“A friend of mine is in charge of their public programs,” Jon explained as he and Mark were finishing up the dishes. “She’s been running a series of monthly lectures this year to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of publication of Joseph Campbell’s marvelous book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell was a major influence on me. I met him—through my friend at the Jung Institute—back in the seventies when he was real big on the California lecture circuit. I’ve attended most of the talks in the series. And tonight’s was one I really wanted to hear. The subject’s going to be ‘The Spirituality of the Suffering Bodhisattva in the Mahayana Tradition.’ ”

Mark giggled. “I don’t think I understood half the words in the title. But if you want to go, I’ll be happy to keep you company.”

“You know, this may be about some of the same ideas we were talking about earlier. The big issue in Buddhism is the meaning of suffering.” Seeing that all the dishes were dried, Jon hung up the towel he’d been using.

“I’ll try to understand it. If it’s important to you, I’d like it to be important to me. And, I guess, suffering is the big issue.” Mark rinsed the sink. “Can we take my bike? It’ll be faster and it’s a beautiful night.” At Jon’s nod of affirmation, Mark pulled his leather motorcycle jacket from the coat rack. “Now what was the word you used after suffering?”

“ ‘Bodhisattva.’ You ready for a lecture before the lecture?”

“Sure, but let’s keep moving. It’s almost eight now.”

“Early Buddhism was all about getting out of the cycle of suffering by renouncing the world and sitting in meditation being detached and monkish,” Jon explained as Mark pulled his little Kawasaki scooter out of the narrow passageway alongside the house. The night was cold, but brisk and clear: a nice night for a ride on the little motorbike.

“Later on, another tradition developed, called Mahayana, which was much less other-worldly. It wasn’t restricted to the monks, and it wasn’t world-renouncing. In fact, it was pretty incarnational, sort of like Christianity.’’

“Hop on,” Mark said. “But keep talking. I can drive and still listen.’’

“Okay. Well, the central figure of Mahayana is this character called a ‘Bodhisattva.’ His name was Avalokiteshvara.”

“That’s a mouthful,” Mark shouted over his shoulder as he revved the motor and started down the hill toward Castro Street.

“Tell me where we’re going.”

“Oh, near Gough and California. Turn left here and then stay on Divisadero. I’ll show you when to turn.”

“Go on about Avalo-be-walla-walla.”Avalokiteshvara

“Avalokiteshvara,” Jon laughingly corrected. “The bodhisattva is sort of a parallel to Jesus Christ. The two myths come from about the same period in history. The Buddhist guy, Avalo-be-walla-walla… ”

“See, I gotcha,” Mark shouted as he turned left onto Castro and the bike labored to get up the hill.

“… Avalokiteshvara felt such compassion for the sufferings of the world that he vowed to renounce his own entry into nirvana—you know, the total escape from suffering—until all other beings could follow. It was like giving up his own salvation for the sake of others.”

Jon was in his lecturer mode though having to go at full volume. “But by this vow Avalokiteshvara virtually became a god. And a goddess, too; in China, he’s called Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion. So it seems like the idea is that compassion transforms the experience of suffering so that suffering isn’t the same anymore. Through it you can enter into a totally different consciousness. The Mahayana Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna said: ‘Between samsara’—that is, the everyday world of change and suffering—‘and nirvana there is not the least ascertainable bit of difference.’ I think that sort of means you escape from suffering by accepting it, ‘going with the flow’ in the old sixties idiom.

“A variation on the myth is that the bodhisattva replaced all the other reincarnating beings, that’s how he saved them; he took on all their incarnations for them, so that Avalokiteshvara is the only being left. I mean, then, all of us are reincarnations of that One Enlightened Consciousness, pretending we don’t know who we are in order to fulfill that vow of compassion. That’s like the Christian notion that we’re all the Mystical Body of Christ and we should recognize Jesus in everybody else and treat everyone accordingly.

“Now you’re gonna turn right on California Street. There’s a sort of gay twist to this story, I think… ”

“Oh? Our fellow Avalo’s gay?” Mark teased.

“Well, in Buddhist art, he’s usually bare-chested and sometimes he’s got a woman’s necklace on; he’s most often shown sitting with one leg cocked instead of in full-lotus, sort of relaxed with his leg like hanging over a wall or something; and he’s described as sweet and kind and lovable and as bisexual, meaning androgynous, with the best traits of both male and female. Everybody who knows him loves him—”

“That sounds pretty gay, I mean in a really nice way. A cutiepie,” Mark shouted over his shoulder.

“You’re a cutiepie,” Jon said in Mark’s ear, shouting through the helmet. “And, hey, there’s a funny gay thing about reincarnation—”

“You believe in that?” Mark interrupted, as they slowed to stop at a red light.

“I think it’s a good story,” Jon answered, “a myth, you know, that means something whether it’s scientifically true or not; I’m not sure reincarnation of souls is what science will ultimate discover to be the explanation for why people sometimes have memories from lives in the past or children have precocious talents. It’s like there are bigger patterns than individuals. But till we get a better understanding of consciousness, this is one way of explaining things.”

“Oh, I get that,” Mark agreed. “So what was your story about gay reincarnation?”

“Well, this is just my idea, you know. But it makes sense if you take the myth seriously. One of the ways souls get incarnated supposedly is that when they’re in the ‘bardo,’ the space between lifetimes, they’re like ghosts and can fly around and watch what’s going on. So naturally some of them watch couples having sex—”

“You mean in the afterlife you get to watch?” Mark joked. “I like to watch.” Jon got Mark’s allusion to the Peter Sellers character in the movie Being There, the simpleton Christ-figure who walks on water and who likes to watch.

“But if you get too close and are paying too much attention to a couple when they happen to conceive a child, you get pulled into that body. And that’s how sexual desire causes reincarnation.”

“Oh, that makes sense… I mean, in a mythic way.”

“So gay souls could watch an awful lot of homosexual sex and never get pulled into incarnation… ”

“Hey, sounds good to me. So do the gay souls ever come back?”

Countless… Those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel, Jon remembered words from a sci-fi novel he’d read a few years ago; he’d have to tell Mark that story too sometime. He’d been surprised by the Buddhist reference in what seemed like an unexpected place and pleased with himself for recognizing it; he’d marked it with pink highlighter and read it over so many times he’d ended up memorizing the whole passage. It wasn’t about gay souls specifically, but it was about coming back; it was about sensitive souls. “Well, sure, but maybe because between times they also see so much suffering and feel compassion so deeply that they want to help. So they come back voluntarily.” As the light finally changed and Mark accelerated up the hill, Jon added, “Wouldn’t you?”

“Sounds pretty gay to me,” Mark shouted back over the roar of the little motorbike.

After paying the donation at the entrance, Jon led Mark into the Jung Institute’s big meeting room. The talk had already begun. Jon noticed his friend Barbara in the front corner, apparently counting up the attendance in the well-packed room. As Jon pointed her out to Mark, she recognized him and waved.

There were a couple of folding chairs leaning against the back wall which Mark opened up. As they sat, the speaker was saying, “… story of the previous incarnations of the Buddha in the Panchatantra which Campbell associates with the story of the suffering savior in Buddhism, Christianity, and the Grail legends.

“Joe Campbell is a great story teller,” he said as a kind of aside. “He does voices, you know, putting on funny accents for the characters in the stories—sometimes intentionally anachronistic and mostly of New Yorkers. He was a great New Yorker; lived down in the Village most of his life. He’s retired now and living in Hawaii; he and his wife, the dancer and Broadway choreographer Jean Erdman, moved back there to be closer to her family; she’s from one of the early settler families. He’s not here to tell the story tonight, so I’m going to try to tell it the way he would, embellishing it a little beyond the text which, by the way, appears in Volume Four of The Masks of God.

“Four friends, stricken with poverty and seeking to get rich, meet a magician named Bhairavananda, that is, “Terror-Joy,” who gives them each a magic quill—you know, like an eagle feather or a hawk—and instructs them to proceed north until their quill drops. There they will find treasure, he promises.

“They set out together, each with quill in hand. After a short journey, one quill suddenly drops out of its bearer’s hand—working sort of like a dowsing rod—and sticks in the earth. The four men dig and find a rich vein of copper just under the topsoil. ‘Why go further?’ says the man whose quill dropped.” The speaker put on a mock New York Irish accent to play this character: “ ‘Surely there is enough ore here for all of us and our wives and families to be comfortable the rest of our lives.’ But the other three leave him with the copper and go in search of more treasures.

“After a longer interval, another quill drops. Again they dig and find silver several feet beneath the surface. ‘Ah,’ says the new owner of a silver mine, ‘stay with me and the three of us shall be rich men indeed.’ ” This time the accent sounded Italian. “But the other two depart.”

“A yet longer interval passes and after a more strenuous journey, the third quill drops. The two men dig and, as expected, after much effort come upon a deposit of rich, purest gold.” In a Jewish diamond dealer voice, “ ‘We can be kings, the two of us; stay with me,’ says the one. But the other looks at the quill still in his hand and thinks to himself that the next mine must hold diamonds or emeralds or rubies large as hens’ eggs: I must go on.

“And so the last seeker, the one whom incarnations hence would become the Buddha, sets out on the final leg of his journey.

“For many weeks he walks, through forests, over mountains, and finally into a vast desert. He begins to despair, thinking his avarice will be the destruction of him, thinking that he should have remained behind, satisfied with the copper or silver or gold. But the vision of precious gems sparkles before him and he walks on doggedly.

“After many days in the desert, his food and water all gone, his belongings strewn behind him as he’s lightened his load with each step, he was praying that the quill would drop, drop to show him a well of clear, cold water. For, by now, no treasure could be greater.

“Suddenly he looks up from the endless sand and rock over which he’d been plodding and beholds a strange sight. Before him in the desert on a whirling platform like the world-disk stands a man, arms outstretched as though embracing the whole world; and about his head spins a crown of bright shining razors that slice deep into his forehead. All down his body flow streams of blood.”

The lecturer paused, looked out at his audience, and then in a dramatic stage whisper, said, “The quill drops.

“ ‘What does this mean? Why is this wheel on your head?’ asks the treasure-seeker. And immediately he finds himself beneath the blades of the spinning wheel.

“ ‘Thank you,’ says the other man who now stands freed.” In a booming voice, like Cecil B. DeMille in The Ten Commandments, the storyteller explained: “ ‘I have been waiting for countless eons for someone to come and ask what is the meaning of all this suffering, as you shall now wait, free of hunger and thirst, until someone else comes along to ask such a question.’ And he departed.”

The lecturer paused again and then commented familiarly, back in his regular voice, “Well, that’s quite a story, isn’t it?

“Now the purely worldly explanation is that the wheel of suffering was a device to guard the great treasure, and the story’s a warning about greed and overreaching. But Campbell explains that in the Panchatantra  this tale really was not about getting rich but about pursuing the path to Buddhahood. The man with the fourth quill, remember, was a previous incarnation of the Buddha.

The implication then is certainly that ‘the greatest treasure of all’ is the full weight of the world’s suffering. It was the discovery of human suffering, after all, that motivated Prince Gautama to seek the answer to suffering and so become Buddha. Perhaps this is also because suffering forces us to change our attitudes and because it can teach us compassion—this is the Mahayana variation on the story: compassion not world-rejection is the secret to release. As we feel empathy with other beings we begin to see that ego-separation is an illusion and we’re really all one.

“A certain amount of suffering just goes with being alive and being in time. Buddhists say that impermanence is one of the big causes of suffering: loss, loss, loss. But that’s what it means to be alive; sentience is the experience of change. The greatest treasure of all is the accumulation of all human experience. Everything’s OK.

“And, actually,” he added, “if everybody was OK with the way things are, things really would get better. I mean, that’s the paradox. So the Buddhists say to practice compassion, loving kindness, joy in the joy of others, and equanimity. Those are the virtues that this whole mythological tradition recommends. And they would result in less suffering for everybody. That’s why the bodhisattva can take upon himself the ‘suffering of the world.’ He loves the world; he loves being alive.

“Campbell cites Viktor Frankl’s experience of the Nazi concentration camp as a modern version of that same path to Enlightenment through suffering. Let us look at the origins of the bodhisattva myth to see… ”

Mark tugged at Jon’s sleeve. He mouthed the word “AIDS,” and smiled knowingly.

Jon felt a shiver of awe, both at the young man’s perspicacity and at the implication of meaning Mark recognized.

 Read more about Avalokiteshvara and the mythology of the bodhisattva

Return to The mystical gay novels of Toby Johnson

Read another excerpt from PLAGUE: Mark's death and experience of "Going into the Light"


The Story of the Four Quills in the Panchatantra is slightly different from this in many details, but basically tells the same story -- but leaving it as the spinning wheel on the head as a punishment for greed. Here are links to the original story. This first presents the men as young orphan boys with cartoon illustrations: Panchatrantra 55: Too Much Greed Leads to the Wheel. The second presents the men as Brahmins: The Rotating Wheel

Compare the Spinning Wheel to "the lathe of heaven" in Ursula LeGuin's novel of that name. This is the sci-fi novel that Jon remembered with the words "Countless the living and the dead, those who have returned in pure compassion to the wheel." Here's an article about The Lathe of Heaven

And consider that the suffering of that wheel on the head is experienced by all of us, through compassion for suffering mankind, as the world we find ourselves in. Everywhere around us there is suffering and misfortune.

 Floods, famines, hurricanes, forest fires, diseases, pestilence— all this, I think, a bodhisattva is supposed to see and willingly take it on as part of the experience of all sentient beings, which he has agreed to take on himself in order to transform the suffering to joy through his skillful means of knowing how to respond to everyone's problems who appear before him asking assistance. He is their healer and servitor, a soother of all the sorrows of all creatures. He does not turn back or run away, does not tremble, is not terrified, nor afraid, does not turn back or despond. For he sees beyond the surface; he raises his vision to behold a wonder—such is life.

The Bodhisattva song

Pack Up Your Sorrows by Richard & Mimi Fariņa

If somehow you could pack up your sorrows
And give them all to me,
You would lose them, I know how to use them.
Give them all to me.

Here's the song on YouTube

Another Twist to the Story

The Pope in Tarot of Marseille

In a book of Christian Hermeticism titled,
Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous
—who was a Estonian Anthroposophist named Valentin Tomberg (Feb 26, 100-Feb 24, 1973)—
this story of the Four Treasure Seekers is told with a very different ending. This is in the chapter on the Tarot card, The Hierophant/The Pope, discussing the vows of religious life:

"The following is a short story which makes evident in a wonderful way the practical spiritual meaning of poverty:

[One has to wonder how Tomberg gets "poverty" out of this story, but that's what he says.]

"Once upon a time four brothers went on a journey in order to seek the greatest treasure. After a week of travelling they arrived at a mountain of iron ore. “A whole mountain of iron ore!” cried one of the four. “Here is the treasure we have been seeking!”

But the three others said: “This is not the greatest treasure,” and continued their walk, whilst their brother remained by the mountain of iron ore. He was now rich and they were as poor as before. One month later they arrived at a field strewn with greenish and yellowish stones. “This is copper!” cried one of the three brothers. “This is certainly the treasure that we are seeking!”

But the two other brothers did not share his opinion. Thus, he remained there, being the rich proprietor of a copper mine, whilst the two others continued on their way as poor as they were before. After a year they arrived at a valley full of stones shining with a whitish light. “Silver!” cried one of the two brothers. “This is at last the treasure that we are seeking!”

But the other brother shook his head and continued on his way, whilst his brother remained there as the rich proprietor of a silver mine. Seven years later he arrived at a stony place in an arid desert. He sat down, being half-dead with fatigue. It was then that he noticed that the pebbles under his feet were gleaming. It was gold…"

Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg). Meditations on the Tarot (p. 113). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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Toby Johnson, PhD is author of nine books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, four gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness. 

Johnson's book GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.

His  GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They remain in print.

FINDING YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual qualities of gay male consciousness.

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