Knowledge & Understanding in Meditation

There is a Russian fable called ‘The Three Hermits’ that Leo Tolstoy wrote; the famous author of War and Peace, Anna Karenina and many other great literary delights. He rewrote ‘Three Hermits’ after experiencing his spiritual awakening. The fable coincidently illustrates the difference between knowledge and understanding and serves as a great teaching device by spiritual teachers. It goes something like this…….

“A bishop was travelling to the Solovetsky Monastery across the White Sea north of Russia. On the course of the journey, a fisherman pointed out a small island to the bishop. The fisherman told him that three hermits live on the island for the salvation of their souls. He knew because they once helped him repair his wrecked boat. The hermits are very old, illiterate and live mostly in silence. They live in mud huts, but they are generous and happy.

The bishop insisted that he was taken ashore on the island to meet the hermits. When he met them, they were just as described: scruffy and almost mute. He asked them what they do to pray. The hermits repeated a primitive and short prayer.

The Bishop

The bishop mildly praised their effort but told them that the best way to please God is to recite the correct prayers as is practised by the Church. He spent hours instructing them in the Lord’s Prayer, which they learned with a great deal of difficulty.

When dusk fell, the bishop had to leave. He had finally got the three hermits to recite the Lord’s Prayer by heart. As he got on his boat he blessed them and instructed them to pray as he taught them.

The bishop set off on his boat back to the anchored ship. The ship sailed into the night. The bishop could not sleep but instead gazed out over the sea. As he pondered the moonlight on the waves he noticed something strange. A light was fast approaching the ship across the sea.

The bishop could not believe his eyes as he began to make out the three hermits running across the sea as if running on dry land.

The steersman, who also saw the hermits, let go of the helm in a panic. All the passengers gathered at the stern and looked on in curious terror as the three hermits approached, glowing and oblivious to the sea beneath their feet. When they reached the ship, the hermits, still stepping on the water, told the bishop that they had forgotten the prayer that he had taught them and asked him for more lessons in prayer.


Humbled by the sight of the miracle and the humility of the three men, the bishop crossed himself and, leaning over the side of the ship, told the hermits that their own primitive prayer was sufficient to reach God. “It is not for me to teach you,” he said, “pray for us sinners.””

I’m sure the beauty of this story can’t fail to touch you as it did me. I first read it 25 years ago reading books by Osho, and have remembered this fable ever since.

Knowledge and Understanding

The thing is you may have all the knowledge in the world. There are certainly many people wanting to sell you all sorts of books, courses and devices that bring you knowledge. Just like the bishop.

Real understanding comes from direct experience. In meditation that comes from sitting every single day and testing the knowledge you have acquired with your experience and observation. Keeping a journal becomes an important part of this journey. With experience comes realisation and understanding. Just like the three monks.