Storytime with Jack Kornfield

From a Soul Food, a collection of stories compiled by Jack Kornfield.

One of the best examples of the attentive heart came after Gandhi’s death, when the whole Gandhian movement was in disarray. Within a year or two of the establishment of India, a number of Gandhi’s followers decided to have a nationwide meeting to see how best to continue his work. They hoped to convince one elder, Vinoba Bhave, Gandhi’s closest disciple and heir apparent, to lead this conference, but he declined. “We cannot revive the past,” he stated. After much pleading, they finally convinced Vinoba to lead their gathering, but only on the condition, as he requested, that it be postponed for six months, giving him enough time to walk on foot from where he lived to the meeting site, halfway across India, and listen as he went.

He began to walk from village to village. As he stayed in each village, he would call a spiritual meeting just as Gandhi had done. He would listen to their problems and at times advise the villagers. Naturally, he walked through a series of very poor villages, there being many of them in India. In one, many people spoke of their hardship, of their hunger and how little food they had to eat. He would ask, “Why don’t you grow your own food?” But most of them were untouchables, and they said, “We would grow our own food, sir, but we have never been allowed to own land.” Upon reflection, Vinoba promised them that when he returned to Delhi he would speak to Prime Minister Nehru and see if a law could be passed giving land to the poorest villagers in India.

The village went to sleep, but Vinoba, struggling with the problem, did not rest that night. In the morning he called the villagers together and apologized, “I know government too well,” he said. “Even if after several years, I am able to convince them to pass a law granting land, you may never see it. It will go through the states and provinces, the district head man and the village head man, and by the time the land grant reaches you, with everyone in the government taking their piece, there probably will be nothing left for you.” This was his honest but sad predicament, “I wish I knew what to do,” he said.

Then one rich villager stood up and said, “I have land. How much do these people need?” There were sixteen families, each needing five acres apiece, so Vinoba said, “Eighty acres,” and the man, deeply inspired by the spirit of Gandhi and Vinoba, offered eighty acres to the poorest families in the village.

The next day Vinoba walked to another village and heard the plight of hunger and landlessness from its lowest caste members. In the meeting he recited the tale of the previous village, and from his story another rich land owner was inspired. He offered 110 acres for twenty-two desperately poor families. Within the day the land was granted to the poor at a meeting and celebration.

Village by village, Vinoba held meetings and continued this process until he reached the council several months later. In the course of his walk, he had collected over twenty two hundred acres of land for the poorest families along the way. He told this story to the council, and out of it, many joined him to start the great Indian Land Reform Movement. For fourteen years that followed, Vinoba Bhave and thousands of those inspired by him walked through every state, every province and most districts in India. Without any government complications or red tape, they collected over ten million acres of land for the hungriest and most impoverished villagers.

This was one of the greatest peaceful transfers of land in modern history. And it all began with an open mind and attentive heart.

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