In Sufi teachings - Sufism being the esoteric or mystical branch of Islam - the garden is often used as a symbol of the state of our collective and individual spiritual being, just as wine (the product of the most highly cultivated and intoxicating first fruit of the garden) is used as a symbol for true religious, spiritual and ecstatic experience.
In successive generations, he visited gardens and cultivated places throughout the world. In one place he planted a wonderful garden and instructed the people in its upkeep and even in the theory of gardening. But becoming accustomed to seeing some of the plants come up and flower every year, they soon forgot that others had to have their seeds collected, that some were propagated from cuttings, that some needed extra watering, and so on. The result was that the garden eventually became wild, and people started to regard that as the best garden there could be.
After giving these people many chances to learn, the gardener expelled them and recruited another whole band of workers. He warned them if they did not keep the garden in order, and study his methods, they would suffer for it. They, in turn, forgot - and since they were lazy tended only those fruits and flowers which were easily reared, and allowed the others to die. Some of the first trainees came back to them from time to time, saying: 'You should do this and do that,' but they drove them away, shouting: 'You are the ones who are departing from truth in this matter.'
As is the way of men, the difficulty of the gardeners remains that they are too easily attracted by the superficial. They say: 'I like this flower,' and they want everyone else to like it as well. It may, in spite of its attraction or abundance, be a weed which is choking other plants which could provide medicines or food which the people and the garden need for their sustenance and permanency.
Among these gardeners are those who prefer plants of one single colour. These they may describe as 'good'. There are others who will only tend the plants, while refusing to care about the paths or the gates or even the fences.
People who are brought up in one garden or another generally have been so powerfully instructed as to the merits or demerits of how the inhabitants see things that they are almost incapable - though they make the effort - of realizing that they have to return to the concept of 'garden'. At the best, they generally only accept, reject, suspend judgment or look for what they imagine are the common factors.
From time to time true gardeners do arise. Such is the abundance of semi-gardens that when they hear of real ones people say: 'Oh, yes. You are talking about a garden such as we already have, or we imagine.' What they have and what they imagine are both defective.
The real experts, who cannot reason with the quasi-gardeners, associate for the most part among themselves, putting into this or that garden something from the total stock which will enable it to maintain its vitality to some extent.
The real gardeners may work with them because true gardens can sometimes be brought into being, for the benefit of all mankind. They do not last long, but it is only through them that the knowledge can be truly learnt and people can come to see what a real garden is.
Shah's story of the master-gardener leaves many questions hanging, as it is supposed to do. Who was the master-gardener? Who was the first group he trained, and who was the second? What is the "Herb of Longevity"? Who were the master-gardener's "chief assistants," where are the "real experts" and where do they associate? Etc., Etc., Etc.
Some of these questions can be answered, but not all of them, perhaps. While, for other questions, there are multiple answers, and those answers will vary by degree according to the reader. And even those answers will be temporary, changing with conditions as a real garden does.
"Sufism," like gardening, perhaps, Shah notes, "must be studied with a certain attitude, under certain conditions, in a certain manner." Or, as the great Sufi teacher, Ibn Arabi said: "The Sufi must act and speak in a manner which takes into consideration the understanding, limitations and dominant concealed prejudices of his audience."
I leave to the reader, then, how to interpret Shah's story; but I leave it with the observation that the story must be understood, perhaps, within Shah's larger works, of which "The Way of the Sufi" is but an integral part.