The issue of the ego (a recurrent theme in Buddhist teachings) is an enormous one, because ego is wily and slippery and difficult to pin down. It can, and often does, hold us in thrall without our being any the wiser.
The little tale that follows is one of my favourite teaching stories, although I don’t know who to attribute it to. (If anyone does know, I’d like to find out so that I can offer credit where credit is plainly due.) Here it is:
A devoted meditator, after years of concentrating on a particular mantra, had finally attained enough insight to begin teaching. His humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery felt that he would improve with time.
A few years of successful teaching left the young meditator with no real thought of learning anything from anyone; one day, though, upon hearing about a famous hermit living not too far away, he decided that the opportunity to visit this man was too exciting to be passed up.
The hermit lived alone on an island in the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island.
The meeting went well. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit; and as they shared a cup of tea together, the meditator asked the old man about his spiritual practice. The hermit replied simply, saying that he had no spiritual practice except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself.
The meditator was pleased; it turned out that the hermit was using the same mantra that he himself used. However, when he heard the hermit speak the mantra aloud, he was so horrified that he nearly dropped his teacup!
“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit.
“Oh Venerable One,” the young man replied, “I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”
“Oh, dear,” said the hermit. “that is terrible. Please tell me; how should I say it?”
The young meditator gave him the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful. He excused himself then, explaining that he needed to be left alone so he could get started practicing the new pronunciation right away.
On the way back across the lake, the meditator, now confirmed in his own mind as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit. It’s so fortunate that I came along, he thought to himself. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.
At that moment, he noticed that the boatman had stopped rowing and was simply sitting there with his mouth open, looking shocked. He turned, and to his utter astonishment, there was the hermit standing on the water next to the boat, waiting to be acknowledged.
“Excuse me, please,” the old man said. “I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation. Could you please kindly repeat it for me?”
“But…but…you obviously don’t need it,” stammered the young man; however, the old hermit persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced.
Upon hearing the pronunciation once more, the old man thanked the meditator and strode off for home, repeating the mantra slowly and carefully as he walked back across the surface of the water to the island.
Now, isn’t that a wonderful story? And see how delicately it offers us the chance to see ourselves in the characters?