Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not Zen 39: No Consequence

On a cold night on a windy hillside, a young ewe circled her flock. The guard dog gazed down from the top of the hill. The rest of the sheep huddled together. Most protected themselves from the wind but one ewe kept moving, looking for her child.

Even after she found her lamb a third of the way into the crowd where he had fallen asleep with his playmate, she continued to wander. The guard dog huffed. He got to his feet and trotted down to the ewe.

"There are no predators," he told her. "You can rest now."

"Do you know me?"

"Of course I know you. You are the one who worries a lot."

"Is that how you think of me?" The ewe shuffled.

The dog tilted his head. He waited.

"I keep telling myself to be calm but it doesn't work," said the ewe. "I have to deal with problems all the time. I'm always tense and upset."

"Those problems," said the dog, "must be similar to those of the other sheep. To be calm inside, you should remind yourself of that."

The young ewe shook her head. She contemplated her troublesome lamb, the rams who kept fighting over her and the other ewes, her relatives, seemingly always in trouble. She recalled the wolf who had stalked the herd in the previous year and all of the things that were constantly going wrong in her life. She remembered the things that had gone wrong and she anticipated all of the things likely to go wrong in the future, as well, which seemed to her to be nearly everything.

"I'm not like my sisters, you know," she proclaimed. "My oldest sister is so irresponsible. She mates and bears children without a care. She eats anything, entertains her friends and pleases herself. I'm not like that."

"Is your sister calm?"

"Hah. If you can all it that."

"Close your eyes for a moment. Pretend you are your sister."

"Yes?" The ewe squinted for a moment. She started to peek. Then she saw the dog watching and tried to keep her eyes closed tighter.

"Now imagine your problems as you always do. This time, regard them as if you were your sister."

The young ewe imagined that she was her sister viewing the world. She eyed the rams with contempt. The grasses were hers. Other sheep rumbled about the hillsides without clear goals but they did not affect her. She lived in the moment, without worries. If the wind disturbed her she sidled up inside the flock. If her lamb's bleating annoyed her, she trotted away until she felt better.

"Those problems are of no consequence!" she exclaimed in nearly her sister's voice.

"Yes, I thought that might be the case."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Not Zen 38: The Giving Limit

A doctor in a large city decided to take some cases for no money. At the end of each day, she set two hours aside for her charity work. Many poor people came to take advantage of her gift. Many people who were not poor came as well.

Since the doctor had no way of knowing who lived in poverty and who did not, she was forced to serve everyone. Soon she had more free cases than she could treat in her allotted time. She began to turn customers away, taking patients in order of physical need but leaving many untreated.

One of the customers was a vagrant man who had once been a monk. Although he had a deep sore on his arm, he let others go before him lest they be turned away. For two days, he arrived early but let others go in ahead and was not seen by the doctor. At the end of the third day, he became feverish and found himself unable to leave. The doctor was forced to treat him as her last appointment.

"Why didn't you show me this before?" she asked as she cut the dead flesh from his arm.

"You should know, since you give charity," the vagrant replied.

"Then why come to see me now?"

"Why do you go home?" he said.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not Zen 37: Living Gifts

Budhai, Copyright by Eric Gallagher 2013
Art by Anson Gale
A minister, single and childless in his young adulthood, traveled to visit his relations during the holidays. He usually enjoyed bringing his faith to the occasions. But one year, he was obligated to visit his older sister, who had converted to Buddhism.  Upon arriving at her house, he noticed the figure of a fat, Buddhist monk at the top of his sister's Christmas tree. The monk was dressed in a red robe. He carried a sack that seemed to overflow with presents.

"That's not Santa Claus," he remarked as he took off his coat.

"No, it's Budai," said his sister. She greeted her brother and hung his coat. Then she offered him a plate of treats. "He embodies the spirit of the season."

"The spirit of the season is joy at celebrating the holy gift of a son. That is, the holy birth and the holy presents given to a special child. What has the spirit of Budai got to do with that?"

His sister offered him a candy cane from the plate. He waved it away.

"Budai gives gifts," she explained. "Sometimes they are ordinary things like toys for children or sweets or medicines. Sometimes the gifts are special. They can even be living things, like children."

She picked up a tray of cookies and offered him one. He shook his head.

"You can't make a gift of an actual, living child," he said. He scowled at Budai and his sack.

"Oh." She set down the plate of cookies. "I thought you would feel differently."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Not Zen 36: Nature of the Job

An elephant was born in the wet season, the first calf of the year. He ate and played within the herd weeks before any other child was born. He grew large. Within a month, he was picking on the younger, newborn calves. Their mothers reproached him but he paid no attention to their trumpeting.

When other elephant calves grew big enough, the first born one began to lead them into mischief. He persuaded them to hide in tall grass until their mothers cried out in fear. Then they emerged, laughing. Later, he led them in charges on their aunts and uncles. The calves butted their heads against the knees of older elephants and hurt them.

His mother was the lead female. She felt embarrassed but she was unable to catch her son when he was misbehaving. She tried to enlist her mate to chastise the child. But the old bull would not listen.

During the dry season, the mischief culminated when a few young males on the edge of the herd found a trove of succulent palm grasses. The lead male and a group of females took it over. They were happily trumpeting and celebrating their meal when the misbehaving calf stole a swathe of it. They chased him but, laughing, he carried it off. His father returned to the meal and the calf ate his ill-gotten gains away from everyone else.

Only a short while later, the child returned. This time, as the adults prepared to drive him off, he snorted a cloud of dry, noxious dust all over the food. He had gone down to a clay pit and stored dust in his trunk so as to spoil the meal for his elders.

His father chased the miscreant down and swatted his behind with a switch. The calf ran off crying. The bull returned to the females, puzzled and frustrated.

"What are we going to do about that boy?" grouched the bull.

"I've been saying that you need to guide him," the matriarch replied.

"Guidance? Advice? That means nothing to him. He has turned against the herd."

"You underestimate yourself. It will mean something when the advice comes from you." She gestured with her trunk in the direction of their son, who could still be seen trying to hide at the edge of the veldt.  "Guide him every day. In time, you can turn him in our direction."

"That doesn't solve the problem right now." The bull stomped on his spoiled meal in frustration. "He needs to be fixed today. Those pranks have got to stop!"

"Guidance will do it if you're patient," the female replied.

"I'm not feeling patient."  He opened his mouth and took a shuddering, calming breath. He snorted at the dusty air.  "How much time will it take?"

"Until he's grown, I suppose."

"That's a dozen years, maybe more!"  The bull shook his head.  "When did correcting him become my job?"

"When you became the parent of an elephant," said the female.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Not Zen 35: Why We're Here

A winter wind blew across the clearing. The night was cold. The poorest men of the area, drunks and travelers, gathered around a trash fire. The vagrant who had started the fire welcomed the others with gestures and nods. He sat next to a stack of broken planks, which he used as fuel.

A few of the fellows pulled up rags and blankets close to them. They leaned against rocks, tree stumps, and their bundles of cloth. Soon they fell asleep.

Two men with bottles of wine in their hands remained awake. Occasionally they muttered to each other about the wine. Across from them, a young traveler took off his backpack, pulled out a metal container with water in it.  He set it in the coals of the fire to make tea.

"We're scum," grumbled one of the drinkers. No one argued with him.

"I lost all of my friends," said the other after a swig of wine. "That's what did it. That's why I ended up here. I lost track of some.  The others died. Then there was just the drinking."

The tea-maker snorted.

"Life is an illusion," he said. "Friendship is an illusion, too. I know that I'm hardly here at all. Same for you. We don't count. I don't have friends. I don't worry about it."

The three were quiet for a while. The man who was tending the fire threw another piece of wood onto it.

"Why are you here, fella?" one of the drunks asked.

"I'm here as a friend," he replied. He tossed on another broken plank.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Not Zen 34: Proper Coordination

"You seem impatient," said the secretary to her executive vice-president.

"Of course I am!" he wailed. "All day at these meetings, we talk and talk. We plan endlessly. And for what? We hardly do anything. I wish I was like that day laborer out there."

He looked out his window to where a man was hauling bricks in a wheelbarrow.

"That's a simpler, better life," he said. "You can see the progress you make."

"We only accomplished one major task today," the secretary acknowledged. "But we did it well. If we try to do more without cooperation from the rest of our business, we'll do harm."

"But we need to accomplish more!"

"There is always more to do," she said. "But it's a mistake to assume that anything more needs done."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Think about how to do things the right way. That man down there who you're envying doesn't try to do more than he should. He wants to build a brick wall. So he's patient. If he's too slow, the mortar will dry. If he's too fast, the wall will tumble. Everything has to be done at the right speed. You say you want to be like him? Then do things when they need to be done."

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Not Zen 33: Finding Trouble

The owner of a small restaurant promoted a young waiter to be her assistant manager. The more senior staff were angered. The young man's parents were at first overjoyed but soon became anxious.

Day after day, the assistant manager worked in the worst circumstances. The owner had him calm down the drunks who were cut off at the bar. She had the young man resolve arguments among the staff, many of whom were jealous of the man's position. The staff called on him to deal with customers who were upset with the quality of their food or their service.

The young man was not upset with these chores but his parents grew agitated.

"They're taking advantage of you," said his mother one night.

"Every job does that," replied the son.

"But you get all the hard cases."

"Don't worry, mom. It's my job to sort out the troubles so that's what I'll do."

The parents knew that their boy loved peace and harmony. They worried that the staff were out to cause him difficulties. Sometimes it seemed as if the owner disliked the young man because she put him into the most awkward situations. But the young man said no, he was pretty sure his boss liked him. Why else would she have promoted him?

Finally, at a holiday party for the restaurant staff, the mother confronted the restaurant owner and asked her why she kept giving her son the worst assignments.

"He's really a caring, gentle young man," the mother explained. "He meditates by himself in his room. He's practically a hippie. Don't you understand that he wants to wants to live a peaceful life?"

"We all want that, ma'am," said the owner. "But your son achieves it."

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Not Zen 32: Relaxed Mind

A woman who had recently moved to a new town visited the local knitting circle. In an upstairs room, the works of the many knitters were laid out on furniture – sweaters, scarves, socks, and other clothes, some of them finished, some not. As the new woman passed by a complicated sweater, she make a sad, clucking noise at it and shook her head.

"You don't like it?" said the woman who had knitted the sweater.

"Oh, it's beautiful."  She pointed to a section of the weave she'd noticed. "It's just that someone used a knit stitch here instead of a purl. It should have been a purl to keep it regular."

"Nonsense." The woman set down the piece she was working on and strode to the sweater to inspect it. A friend joined her. Soon, a small committee had gathered to inspect the work. They counted stitches in the pattern and agreed that, yes, one stitch was wrong.

"That's not easy to notice even when you're really looking hard," said the knitter. "How did you see it right away?"

"I had a relaxed mind," said the newcomer. She had taken a seat and a barn of yarn. "It's not easy for me to spot flaws by searching from stitch to stitch. I have to take a fresh look. When I have no preconceived notions of how things should be done, my mind adjusts to the form the piece wants to take."

"And then you spot the flaws?"

"I don't spot them. They announce themselves."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Not Zen 31: Not Enough Power

There was a bull hippopotamus known along his stretch of river for being gentle. Other bulls killed their rivals in defense of their territory. He never did. He was so large and strong, he was able to drive other males away without crippling them. He never slew any of the male children from his herd as other bulls did. He rarely raised his voice, not even to the egrets who picked at the wounds on his back.

He never exhibited a temper when defending the females and calves. His stretch of river became a haven for peaceful animals. They knew that if they kept a respectful distance from the herd, the bull would not object and they could drink in peace.

One day, a pair of crocodiles slipped into the river and swam towards a hippo calf. The bull, alarmed, charged the two hunters. They turned to fight.

The bull crushed the smaller crocodile between its jaws. He expected the other crocodile to flee but instead it redoubled its efforts. Every time it rushed for the calf, the bull moved to block it. Finally, next to the shore, the bull hippo rolled over on the great crocodile, pinned it, broke its jaws, and tore at it until it was dead.

When the fight was over, none of the usual birds came to clean the bull although he had many wounds that needed tending. The bull called for them. A female, too, asked for the birds to come. The gazelles on the shore told the birds to go help. But no bird would do it. They were afraid. They had not seen the bull kill in so many years, they had forgotten what a dangerous animal he was. Now it was fresh in their minds. The bodies of the two crocodiles lay broken in the water.

The storks told the egrets to go. The egrets asked the sandpipers. Finally, a single sandpiper volunteered to fly out to the bull. It landed on the edge of the water but did not approach the great beast.

"Why are you afraid?" the hippo asked. "Have I done wrong?"

"You have torn your enemies asunder," said the sandpiper. "You are mighty. We are nervous. You may notice that the gazelles and foxes have told us to go to you but they will not come down the hill to drink."

"Yesterday, you sang my praises. Nothing has changed."

"Hasn't it?" asked the bird. "That is the question for the rest of us. You have always been the greatest power on the river. But you never used your power to kill. You were always gentle."

"I didn't kill those crocodiles because I was powerful!" protested the hippo. "If I could have turned them aside without hurting them and without letting a calf be taken, I would have done it. But they would not turn away. I had to kill them because I didn't have enough power to stop them in any other way."

The sandpiper turned to make sure its flock was watching. Then it fluttered onto the bull's great head and walked slowly to the middle of his back.


Sunday, November 4, 2012

Not Zen 30: Living Quickly

A teenaged novice loved the stillness and quiet of the folks around him studying enlightenment. However, he was dismayed to find that his pace of life was considered too fast and too noisy by other students.

"Everyone frowns at the way I move," he complained. "And I talk too quickly, so they say. I seem impatient to the others. But I'm not impatient. I just like the speed I'm at. Do I have to slow down to study?"

"Enlightenment does not have a foot speed, nor a hand speed, nor even a mouth speed," replied the old teacher. He sat against the front wall of his home.

"How about a brain speed?"

"Not even that." The teacher remained sitting while the novice paced the porch floor. "True, students of enlightenment often mistrust scholarly learning. That's because such learning can be a distraction from the process. But fulfillment can be achieved by scholars. It's possible."

"Master, you are so patient with me. From what I see, you're patient with everyone. Are you enlightened?"

"Maybe." He leaned back again. "It's not a productive question. Perhaps I am just patient, not enlightened at all. Could you tell the difference?"

They watched the cicadas on a nearby tree for a while. They watched bees circle around a flower. A butterfly floated among the other insects, unafraid. The novice hardly noticed, however, because by that time he was studying the old teacher.

"I think you are enlightened," he said. "Did it change your pace of life? Would it change me?"

"The cicada and the butterfly move at different speeds." The teacher stood and brushed his robes. "If the cicada tried to slow to the speed of a butterfly, it would fall from the sky. Before enlightenment or after, you will live at your natural speed."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Not Zen 29: Being Who You Are

Three chameleons crept out of a fitweed bush. They clambered down the rocky shore on their way for a drink from the river. Before they could reach their destination, a voice cried out. A large iguana had perched on a boulder in order to speak to other iguanas along the shore and its cry echoed from shore to shore.

“Stop!” said the iguana. “Stop! Stop imitating the cats that hunt us. You are injuring yourselves. Just because you have fought off a cat does not mean you can hunt like them.”

“We are strong,” came the reply from a young iguana. “How else should we learn to act but from other animals of might?”

“Fellow iguanas, be your true selves. Eat the bushes and the insects that you have always eaten. Swim in the pools that give you prey.” The iguana noticed the three chameleons a few feet below him. “Don't be like our cousins, the chameleons. They should be green lizards like us. But they change their colors from minute to minute and look, now they are grey and brown, the color of these rocks.”

A chameleon strode closer. He had been mesmerized by the speech of the elder iguana. Now he felt ashamed to be so unreliable and weak compared to the larger lizards.

“Our cousins change so much,” the iguana continued, “they can't know who they are anymore.”

The chameleon looked at himself. His body had changed to a pebbly color without much effort. For the chameleon it was a greater effort to turn green again. In imitation of the iguanas, however, he managed it. In half a minute, he transformed himself into a smaller version of the tough, steadfast lizards.

Just then, a kestrel spied the chameleon against the brown rocks. It swooped down and picked up the unfortunate lizard in its claws. The kestrel flapped its wings once and was gone.

“Truly, the iguana was right,” said one of the remaining chameleons. All of the other animals in the area hushed.

“How can you say that?” screeched the remaining chameleon. “Our friend listened to bad advice! He changed to be like an iguana and was killed!”

“He did not understand himself. We are not green lizards.”

The other animals looked to the sky, then back to the remaining chameleons.

“'Be who you are' is fine advice. But first you must know yourself. Then you can grow and change, as all creatures must, in harmony with your nature and not in response to what someone else thinks about you.”

The old iguana nodded and clambered backwards off of its rock.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Not Zen 28: Dance

A roshi who had spent the last two years studying in the quiet of meditation halls went with his friends to a nightclub. He was led to the club's mosh pit, which sat just below the stage occupied by a noisy band. In the pit, he was surprised to find his martial arts skills useful. He wasn't dismayed by the roughness but he hadn't expected it.

"Why do you dance like this?" he shouted to the friend who had brought him. He to shout because there was no other way to be heard.

"Because life sucks," said his friend.

After dancing a while longer, the roshi asked a stranger the same question. The stranger had shaved his head bald and he wore tattoos on his face.

"Because life has no meaning," said the stranger. "Because I hurt. I drink. I hit people. It feels good."

"Everyone smiles here," observed the roshi. He remembered to raise his voice. "Even those who are upset. Their shouts are joyous."

"Yes! We share the anger. It's the only time we're happy." The strange man ran away and slammed into a crowd of other men, who shoved him back. A moment later, he returned to the roshi and said, "Hey.  You're smiling, too."

"Yes!" said the roshi. "You are a great dancer! This is a wonderful dance!"

The man smiled and spun away.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Not Zen 27: What Might Have Been

On a hot, sunny morning, a roshi and his friend sat on the edge of a park. They watched people on the street in front of the park walking from place to place in town.

"Oh, that woman!" said the roshi's friend. He pointed to a young mother with her child. "Had things worked out differently, I might have married her. What would it have been like, I wonder? Would we have a son?"

"Your longings for things that never can happen are worse than your material longings," said the roshi. "You might as well ask yourself what might have been if you'd studied Zen as a child instead of taking it up so late in life."

"What a wonderful thought! What could I have achieved? Would I now be enlightened?"

The roshi sat frowning for a while.

"If you were the teacher among us," he said. "What would you tell me to do?  What would you tell yourself?"

His friend closed his eyes in thought. When he opened them, he pointed to a nearby tree.

"Let's go sit in the shade," he said.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Not Zen 26: The Proper Measure

In a shallow, clear-water lagoon there lived an octopus. He rested under a cowrie shell when he was newborn. He moved into a giant clam shell when he grew older. At each dusk and dawn, he emerged to hunt for fish, crabs, crayfish, and mollusks in the sparkling, white sands.

A human spear-fisher also hunted in the wading depths of the lagoon. He learned to recognize the octopus. They came to an understanding and let each other take prey in peace. Sometimes at night the human would sit on the beach by the lagoon and talk to the octopus.

One day, the octopus felt compelled to swim out to sea.

"I must leave," he told the man. He swam close to shore and waved his body.

"You are going to coral reef, like the other big hunters," the man replied. He gestured out to sea. "You have already stayed here too long. All of the big hunters have gone there except for me."

The octopus had hardly been aware of the reef at the edge of the lagoon. Now he  turned towards it and realized that the human was right. That was his destination. It would be his new home.

"I will return to visit someday," he promised. Then he left.

When he returned a month later at dusk, he encountered the human knee-deep in the water. The man held his spear but faced the shore so he didn't notice his old friend. A loud ripple in the water was the announcement.

"Is that you, octopus?" said the man. He turned and smiled at the sight.

"It is." The octopus stretched. "But seeing my old home makes me sad.  The sands are as beautiful as I remember. The waters are so calm you can feel every minnow. I wish I lived here still. Yes, I should move back."

"You think so? Well, your giant clam shell is still here. I caught a crab under it yesterday."

The octopus hurried to the shell. It had not moved far or perhaps the man had returned it almost to its usual place. But the blue and white shell looked small. The octopus had to check it for the red edging and the pit marks that made it his, just to be sure. He tried to slip under it.

"I thought so," said the human as he approached. "You don't fit."

"Impossible," said the octopus. He tried to pull himself in tighter.

"I can still see most of you." The man crouched. "I don't have to lean down very far to see half of your body."

"How did this happen?" wailed the octopus.

"My friend, you lived in these shallows for many years. This place kept you small. You did not challenge yourself. You thought you were mighty. And you are but this was never the correct measure for you. You've left only for a little while and already you're growing to your natural size."

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not Zen 25: Endless

Two women were sweeping an office building. One of them was new and she took pleasure in complaining about careless people who dropped their trash, left footprints, lost jewelry and other precious items, spilled their drinks, and more. Even on a good day, she complained about her sore back, her rough clothes, and the weather.

"This is a wonderful morning," responded the senior woman. She paused to lean on her broom. "We do a simple job and have time to think while we work. Enjoy it."

"Bah. This job is endless." The younger one did not need to pause. She had not been working for a long while. "It's like eating an elephant."

"As to it being endless, that's not so." The senior woman resumed her sweeping. "You just said so yourself. Eventually, there is an end to the elephant."

"But there is no end to this life of toil!"

The sweeper laughed. "Who told you that?  You don't have forever to learn to conduct yourself."

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Not Zen 24: Big Fish

An old roshi woman was sitting by a stream, fishing. She received a visitor around noon, a girl who had problems in school.

"I don't want to be here," said the young woman.

"Then you should go." The roshi pulled her line from the stream and re-cast it.

"But I seek enlightenment. Everyone told me to come to you." The girl leaned forward hopefully. "I've read lots of books on Zen detachment. I like them."

"I see," said the roshi with a sigh. "And are you ready for enlightenment?"

"No. I'm troubled, I think. That's what everyone says. I was tortured as a child, locked in a closet."

"That's too bad. I suppose you won't become enlightened, then."

"I thought so. I've never really been successful at anything." She scowled, nearly in tears.

"I suppose you won't even try." The roshi did not seem angry or saddened. Her expression was one of acceptance.

"My parents died recently. Both of them."

"Yes, that's horrible. It's possible that you won't overcome that."

"Ma'am, maybe it's not my place to question," said the girl after a pause to consider, "but aren't you supposed to encourage me?"

"See that great fish out in the deeps of the stream?" The roshi pointed to where the brown water drifted most slowly. There was a dark silver carp near the surface. It rested in place, its fins barely moving.

"It's as long as my arm," observed the young woman.

"Yes. That is it's natural state. Imagine what you would think if you saw a fish that large floundering in the water near the shore. It would be too big for the shallows."

"I would think, what a dunce that fish is. It should dive deeper."

"But if you are afraid to try, afraid to succeed, you are like a big fish afraid to swim deep. Until you are willing to give your true effort, you will flounder. So you will not study with me. And you will not reach your potential."

"I think I understand," said the student, chastised.

"Let's see if you do," said the master.

They sat together for a long while. At first, the student seemed inclined to continue the conversation. Later, with nothing to say, she seemed content in the master's presence. After half an hour, the student stopped thinking. Her posture relaxed. The master closed her eyes. The student closed her eyes. The fish, in the center of the stream, sank deeper but barely moved its fins.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Not Zen 23: Complexity

A pair of scientists sat in their break room. One of them played with a puzzle toy.

"I enjoy these little enigmas," she said. "You'd think I'd be tired but, actually, I enjoy working to my best capacity. What is it in me that makes me seek out complex games? I like Daoism but everyone says that a busy, full life is antithetical to the Dao. I try to stay busy but I still enjoy the Dao."

"It's true that some people say a busy life goes against the Dao." Her friend peeled his orange. "But isn't the Dao itself more complex than it's usually portrayed? It's the river of life and, as one would expect, it has calmness in its currents and it has turmoil, too. It's difficult and it's simple."

"Is that supposed to be a paradox?"

"No," he replied. He tossed orange peels in the trash. "It's only supposed to sound like one. I think you've noticed an important question. Many religions deal with the need for simplicity. But not many pay attention to the attractions of complexity."

"Why is complexity attractive?" She put down her puzzle toy.

"Do you enjoy stretching your muscles?"

"I suppose I do."

"Does it feel natural?"

"Absolutely."

He reached out for the puzzle toy. "I think stretching your mind must be natural."

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Not Zen 22: The River

A traveling scholar hiked along a dusty road on a hot, summer day. He drank heavily from his canteen. When he reached a bridge across a stream, he stopped. He tied his bags tighter and scrambled down the slope. In the shade beneath the bridge, he filled his canteen.

He rested for a few minutes. Then he rose and decided he had to relieve himself before going on. He hesitated when he saw a man approach the river from the opposite bank. The fellow appeared to be a farmhand dressed in ragged clothes. He descended to the water with a practiced gait that hardly disturbed a blade of grass.

The farmhand nodded acknowledgement to the traveler. Without hesitation or apology, he undid his pants and proceeded to take care of his bodily functions. The scholar smiled with relief and joined in. The two of them stood on opposite banks for a long moment.

The scholar broke the silence.

"You can't pee in the same river twice," he said, chuckling at his own cleverness.

The farmhand narrowed his eyes. He seemed to think about the point for a minute.

"Everyone pees in the same river," he replied.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Not Zen 21: Childish View

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art by Luna Gale
"Why not?" said the father. He stepped over a puddle. The rain had ended but he hardly noticed the weather because he was so preoccupied. "They're my family. And they're not asking for a lot."

"Because we need the money," answered the mother. "They'll just waste it. That's the way they are. And we can't go around saving everyone. You don't make that much."

Their daughter wasn't listening to them. She had noticed the worms that had come up from the ground and covered the sidewalk.

She had been the one who'd asked to go outside, although she hadn't expected to find anything so interesting. Her father had turned from the wide, grassy path by her house onto a narrow, paved path through the park. There, she could see the earthworms that had emerged from the bracken on either side of the path.

"Yuck!" said the father as he stepped around the first cluster of worms.

The girl stopped. She let go of her mother's hand. She crouched down to touch a puddle.

"Look at how many!" she exclaimed.

"It's just rained, honey," her mother replied. "This is what happens."

"We have to save this one," she said. "It's drowning."

"Don't be ridiculous." Her mother didn't look down. She followed her husband along the path. "Why save one worm? There are thousands."

"Can we save thousands?" the girl said eagerly.

"No." Her mother turned back to give her a stern glare. "We don't have time."

"Then I want to save this worm," she asserted. Before her mother could protest, she scooped it up.

"You're worse than your father!" her mother exclaimed.

The girl set down her rescued worm in a dry spot. Then she rushed to catch up.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Zen 20: What Love Is

by Luna Gale, https://www.facebook.com/luna.gale.5
art by Luna Gale



"Who can tell me what love is?" the master called to his class.

"It is a lure into samsara," said his brightest student. "It is an invitation to desire and pain, a thing we must escape to achieve enlightenment."

"No, wait. It's more than that!" said a young woman. "The Buddha had love for all people. Can anyone deny that? Therefore, it must be possible to love but be enlightened."

"Yes, I can't see it as a snare," said a third student.

The discussion continued. But one of the youngest, lowest-ranked members of the class, Nathan, had gotten out of his chair when the master asked his question. He eyed the collection of Buddha figures along the class window sills. They had been gifts to the master. Although the master deemed them to be of no importance, mere material things, he nevertheless displayed affection for the statues from time to time.

At the front of the classroom, Nathan offered to his master the figure of the Buddha he had been carving. It was almost finished. The master eyed it with a gentle smile.

"Thank you, Nathan." The master nodded for his student to put the gift down on the floor next to him. "You may be excused from today's class. You already know what love is."

The rest of the students spent all day in debate.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Not Zen 19: Reflexes

A young man studied Daoism and martial arts with the same instructor. At his martial arts lesson, he stopped in the middle of his drill.

"How is this natural?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" his instructor replied. "This is not a time for you to relax. This is a time for discipline."

"But you said earlier today that I should behave naturally."

"That was in meditation class. And anyway you will find this physical discipline to be natural, in time. Self defense will become part of your being."

"This is learning," the student insisted. "All learning goes against our nature. That's what you said."

"I said we must learn to forget our learning. That is different. Anyway, monks have studied both disciplines together for centuries. In time, you will learn enough martial arts to forget your learning of it."

"Why bother to learn it at all, then?"

"Let's not misunderstand nature," said the instructor. He dropped his stance and walked over to the student. "Dying is natural. Those monks centuries ago could have died in their travels. But they strove to fight bandits, to defend themselves, to live. All things strive to live. That is natural, too. In studying defense, we commit ourselves to life."

The instructor aimed a long, over-handed blow at his student's head. The student blocked it without thinking.

"You see? Defense is in your true nature. But of course your true nature has been shaped by your parents, by the environment of your childhood, and by your spiritual essence."

He struck again, from the side. The student blocked him again.

"It can be shaped by others. We are demonstrating that now."

He bowed. The student bowed in response.

"You see? Your nature has been, and can always be, shaped by you. The next step is to use that to your advantage."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Not Zen 18: The Heavy Staff

During springtime in the mountains, travelers hiked through the narrow trails from valley to valley. Following one such trail, an elderly hiker crested a rise near the top of a high hill. There he saw a younger hiker deep in the practice of a kata. The kata employed many strikes with a staff.

The elder stopped to watch. After a while, the dedicated fury of the younger man disturbed him. In particular, he was troubled by the potentially deadly staff.

"Your hiking rod looks hard and heavy," he said after the young man finished a kata. "It is the same size and weight as my walking stick and yet it is so different."

"Do you not practice martial arts?" asked the young man.

"I do. There is nothing wrong with preparation. But what is your purpose, I wonder? The land is at peace. Why do you practice your physical skills so furiously?"

"Because wherever I go with my trusty staff, I find strife."

The elder narrowed his eyes.

"Wherever I go with my humble walking stick,” he replied, “I find only peace."

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Not Zen 17: Seeking, Finding

A guru was visited by his friend, a university professor. After the professor hung up his coat, he said, "I heard you tell one of your yoga students that seeking enlightenment gets in the way of enlightenment. How absurd! In order to find something, you start by seeking."

"Speaking of seeking things," the master said as he patted his pockets. "I believe my yoga robes are in this trunk with the lock on it. Please help me find the key."

The guru's friend searched for a few impatient minutes. Finally, he found the key on a night stand. As he approached the brown trunk, however, he slumped.

"The trunk is unlocked. Like I fool, I went looking for the key without noticing."

"Yes. I apologize for misleading you. But it was to show this point: when you were looking for that key, you were occupied by the task and so did not notice that the trunk was open. Likewise, when you are seeking so earnestly for enlightenment, which involves intense awareness of the present moment, you blind yourself to the present moment."

"It was unlocked all the time!" His friend lifted the lid.

"Yes," said the guru sadly. "It is never locked."

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Not Zen 16: Self-Discipline


A student was trying to cure her bad habit of biting fingernails. She was an excellent practitioner of sitting meditation and quickly surpassed her roshi in all but the comprehension of apparent contradictions. Her roshi, an old, fat woman, advised her on the issue of nail-biting to simply have more self-discipline.

The student looked at her fat roshi.

"The self-discipline I've got should be enough," she said.

"Everyone has some self-discipline.  It is like breathing." The roshi nodded to herself. "That lets you know how important it is. Everyone breathes well enough when doing things to which they have become accustomed. For instance, I'll bet you breathe quite well even after a long run."

"Of course," said the student.

"That wouldn't be true for me," said the roshi. "I'm not used to running. But I am accustomed to self-denial and self-discipline. I wonder if you're as good as you think. Are you thirsty?"

"Not really. A little." The student shrugged.

"We have an hour lesson." The instructor set her bottle of water in front of her student. "Sit next to this water for an hour.  But don't drink any."

Before the hour was finished, the student grabbed the bottle, uncapped it, and took a drink.

"The time is not yet," chided the roshi.

"Isn't it?" The student looked at the nearby clock. Her shoulders slumped.  "I thought it was. Anyway, that was kind of hard, having the water sit here in front of me. It made me thirsty right away."

"You're really out of shape," said the roshi.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Not Zen 15: Failure

A reporter went to interview a man who was widely known to be successful in multiple disciplines - as a banker, as a philosophy teacher, and as a painter.

"Were you talented in school?" the reporter asked him.

"No.  I showed no talent."

The reporter crossed our her next prepared question. After resting a moment with her pencil against her chin, she skipped halfway down her list.

"If you weren't talented ..." she asked, "... how did you get into college?"

"I was rejected every time. I couldn't get admitted in the usual way, so I took a menial job at a university. As part of the job, they offered me free classes. I took them and learned what I could."

"Did you get your degree in art? Or in finance?"

"I got a degree in philosophy."

"That's pretty widely regarded as useless. How did you become successful at banking?"

"At first, I was a terrible failure. You're right that I wasn't prepared. I didn't understand banks. But from my failures, I learned. Soon, I was a good assistant manager. And because I was young, I thought I could start my own bank."

"And you did!"

"Yes. Now I've applied the same lessons to painting, which is apparently why you are here. As I said, I showed no talent as an artist. I made many bad paintings at first."

"If that's true, why did you keep on painting?"

"Art is easier than banking. You can make mistakes and still produce a worthwhile picture. I took pleasure in being allowed to do things the wrong way. I had fun with mistakes. That's why I became a better artist."

"What about this one?" The reporter turned to the wall of the studio. She pointed to a ink drawing of an apple. "It's perfect. No mistakes. All the lines are exactly right."

"That one started out as a picture of an orange." The philosopher shook his head. "Only when I realized that it had gone wrong did I add some reflections and a stem."

"Are you serious?"

"The only real mistakes we make, I now believe, are in not profiting from our earlier mistakes."

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Not Zen 14: Slave Status

The stoic master Seneca became famous for his talks on spiritual harmony with nature. Students came from afar to hear his speeches, which he gave in his courtyard and in his orchard. Wealthy followers gave him money for the lectures.

"You are held in more esteem than any other in the city," one follower told him.

"Such is life," said the stoic. He knew there were others as worthy as he but they did not speak as well.

Late one summer, the city was overrun by a barbarian army. Thousands of citizens were killed. Many thousands more were captured and taken as slaves. They were forced to work in fields and huddle together for shelter.

"You are the lowest of the low," said their captors.

"Such is life," said Seneca. He reported for work early every morning and assisted with the harvests as ordered.

A month later, the invaders divided their forces. Soon a Roman army re-captured the fields. They unshackled the slaves, including Seneca.

"You are free!" shouted the soldiers.

The former slaves cheered, except for Seneca. Unlike the others, Seneca saw no reason to celebrate his freedom. He had never felt the weight of slavery or the fear of death.

"Thank you," he said. He calmly shook the hands of several soldiers. "What now?"

"Now we must all work in the orchards to bring in the rest of the harvest," they ordered. "It is the will of the new emperor!"

"Such is life," said the master.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Not Zen 13: Lightness

A roshi and his apprentices took a job picking fruit.  Early in the day, one of the apprentices hiked through the orchard to approach the roshi.

"I feel a wholeness for which there are no words," he said.  "I want to tell everyone.  But how are we supposed to teach things that are not verbal?"

The roshi handed his heavy basket to the apprentice.

"How can we express such complete joy as I feel?" continued the student.  He seemed oblivious to the basket.

The roshi held an apple in his hand.  He bit into it.

"Or lead others to this sublime feeling?"

The master turned the apple in his hand.  He put it to the mouth of his apprentice and nodded to encourage the young man.  The apprentice bit down.  Juice dribbled onto his chin.  He chewed and, without knowing the reason, laughed.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Not Zen 12: Everything Sacred, Nothing Sacred

A group of athletes played basketball together every day at the same time.  They invited a new player, a student of religion, and he quickly learned the game. His interest in religion became a matter of discussion after the games, off the court.

"It all sounds crazy to me," said a big man after he wiped his face with a towel.  "What is sacred to you?"

The student of looked around.  After a moment, he noticed what he was holding in his hands.

"This basketball is sacred," he answered.

"How?"  The big man laughed and reached for his drink.

"It is connected to everything."  He spun the basketball in his hands.  "It is part of the flow of the universe.  We can't exist without it.  All parts of the universe are necessary.  Everything is as it should be."

"Then is everything sacred?" the big man asked sourly.  "Is the basketball as sacred as the chalice at my church?  As my minister?  As my wife or my kids?  As your teachers?"

"Nothing is sacred," answered the student.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Not Zen 11: Focus

Two monkeys walked out of the forest.  They scrambled up the side of a cliff in search of insects, worms, and other food.  Halfway up the north face of the cliff, they noticed an overhang above.  As they squinted at it, they could make out part of a small kanju tree that had grown in a soil deposit on the rocky slope.

"We can't reach the tree," said the larger monkey.

His smaller friend shook his head.  He hadn't even imagined trying.

As they dug for worms in the patches of moss, a gust shook the high tree above.  An kanju fruit fell past them.  It landed near, bounced, rolled, and when it reach a spot fifty feet below them, fell over the sheerest part of the cliff.  It tumbled in the air for a hundred feet and burst open on the forest floor.

"That kanju mush could have been ours if we'd stayed in the forest," said the smaller monkey.

"But don't you see?" screamed the larger one.  "If the wind blows again, we can catch those kanjus!"

"The wind is rising," said the smaller monkey.  "I think we will get the chance."

"There will be a storm.  And when it shakes the tree, oh, the fruit I will catch!  I'll grab a kanju with each hand.  I'll grab one with my mouth!"

"I don't think I can do that," said the smaller one.  "Maybe I could catch one if it came my way."

"You pitiful fool!" screeched his companion.  "I will catch many fruits, not just one.  I will catch them with my tail, too.  I'll make a stack of them.  I'll get them all."

"Oh!  Here comes the wind!"

A storm cloud blew over the top of the cliff.  The entire north face of the mountain shuddered under the gale.  The tree above them shook.  A dozen ripe kanjus fell.

The older monkey screeched and flailed.  He scrambled for all that he could but, instead of catching one, he missed them all.  He even missed a kanju that hit him on the side of the head.  As a result, he lost his footing on the ledge.  He tumbled down the side of the cliff, rolling over and over until he caught himself just before he would have fallen through the air down to the forest floor.  If he had not stopped, he would have been split open like one of the kanju fruits.

"Are you okay?" asked the smaller monkey after a while.

"I missed," said his friend after he caught his breath.

"Not a single kanju?"

"Not a single one."

The larger monkey lay in silence for a while, bruised and defeated.  After a while, he noticed a crunching noise above.

"What are you eating up there?" he asked.

"My kanju," said the smaller monkey.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Not Zen 10: Senseless Death

Two days after a tragedy, the young man arrived at his temple.  His mother had been one of many people murdered in the marketplace.  The act had been committed, so far as anyone could tell, out of a misplaced sense of revenge.  Victims had not died because they had wronged the murderers but because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and were vulnerable.

The young man cried tears and raged for a while about the injustice of it.  Then he sat.

"You're a good man," he told the priest.  "But your parables say nothing about terrors or senseless death."

The priest knew that all of Zen, all of Stoicism, and all of the Way dealt with the senselessness of death and, in fact, of living, too.  No tragedy was ignored.  But he remained silent.

"My mother was killed by brutes.  And for what?  For nothing.  Because she looked like someone a killer didn't like.  Her last moments were suffering and fear.  That's what I dream about now.  Her last moments."

"You and I will die that way, too," said the priest.  "I don't mean in the marketplace.  But we will suffer in our bodies and maybe in our souls.  Don't fool yourself.  Even if we pass away in our sleep, our bodies will suffer.  We will feel agony."

"Is that what life is about, then?  Ending in agony?  Is there no hope?"

"Hope is a worldly thing.  It is not part of the way.  You know that."

"What do you have to offer, then?"  The young man began to cry again.

"Compassion.  Compassion is always part of the way."

"And compassion leads to hope?"

"It shouldn't."  He put his hand over the young man's trembling hand.  "It should lead to more compassion."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Not Zen 9: Determination

A young lion, driven out of the pride by his father, wandered far in search of game.  He found that the calves in the territory of a wealthy, ranching family were easy kills.  But when the ranch owner noticed his two youngest calves had gone missing, he walked the bounds of his land and located the young predator in the grassy hills.

He pointed at the beast and, since his oldest grandsons were with him, he ordered them to go out and slay it.

"Take my armor, spears and knives.  You are strong enough and fast enough."

But the grandsons feared the lion and the lion could sense their cowardice.

As the young men dressed for battle, the lion crept onto a rock overlooking them and said, "One of those spears looks like it's about to break.  I could bite it in two.  Which of you will get the good spear and which the bad, I wonder?"

The two young men, eager for an excuse to avoid danger, fell to petty arguing.  They never hunted for the lion that day.  When their grandfather found out, he was angry and blamed their father.

"It's your duty now, son.  You must gather your brother and your cousins and explain what has happened.  Ask them to bring their weapons, too.  Then do the job yourselves."

A day later, the middle aged men gathered.  Many of them were leaders of the village.  They were proud.  As they dressed to slay the young lion, the lion watched from the other side of the creek.

"That armor doesn't fit well, does it?" said the lion.  "It was meant for smaller men, I think.  It doesn't cover your necks.  Yes, I think I can get at your necks easily enough.  And are those shields wicker? Ho, ho.  You might as well use a fan.  I would enjoy a cool breeze as I run amongst you."

One of the men agreed that the armor did not fit him properly.  He announced that he was going back to his home to find better protection.  Soon, another man decided the same.  In a short time, the ranch owner's son was left alone.  He eyed the lion from across the stream and decided he didn't want to cross the water in his armor.

"Are you all imbeciles or cowards?" shouted the grandfather when his family told him the news.  "The beast is not even fully grown."

"I'm sorry, father," said the son, ashamed.

"I have to do everything myself."  The old rancher grabbed a spear from the wall and stomped out of his house.  Although he was white haired, he was still a strong fellow and he knew his lands well. From the lay of the grass, he could tell that the young lion had crept up the nearest hill overlooking the cattle herd.  The rancher marched directly at the predator.

"Now this man is in earnest," the lion said to himself.  It worried him, especially since he'd been trying to hide and the rancher had spotted him immediately.  His opponent seemed smart and determined.  So the lion attempted to intimidate the rancher in the same manner he'd used with his grandsons and sons.

"Don't you want to fetch your armor?" he called.

"That's only for men who haven't killed lions before," replied the rancher.

In the face of the steady advance, the lion turned and fled.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Not Zen 8: Pain

A young man drove his father to the doctor's office. There, his father was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas. The doctor explained that it was one of the most painful diseases known. The father nodded, accepted his prescriptions, and left.

In the car, his son sat stunned. He rested his hands on the wheel but didn't move.

"Doesn't it hurt in that region of your stomach?" he asked his father after a minute of thought.

"Yes. In fact, it's hurt for years."

"And your back? Has that hurt, too?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you say anything, dad?"

"What would we have done about it? I had to work. It didn't matter what my problem was. I had to provide for you and your mother."

"That's crazy." The young man shook his head.

"No. It's what parents do. Your mother does the same thing. You'll do it, too, when you're older. Wait and see. Living with pain is nothing special."

"I don't think I can do it. Not like you."

"You say that now. But you won't get far without doing it. Sometimes all you can give other people is your patience, love, and toleration for the aches and pains of life. Anyway, didn't you sprain your wrist yesterday? You've got a brace on."

“Are you seriously comparing that?" The young man lifted his arm to look at it for a moment. “This is nothing.”

"Well, thanks for getting me here," his father said.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Not Zen 7: Fake Success

A town held contests for many talents in their theatre, among them singing, dancing, and playing music. A local actor won them all. It became a matter of gossip in the town. When the contest judges heard that the actor was studying towards enlightenment once a week on Mondays at a local temple, they decided that a wisdom contest was in order.

The contest board invited many of the local religious leaders to compete against one another. All refused. But the actor, wishing to lend some of his fame to his master, begged him to join in the competition so that an audience could see the difference between fake wisdom and the real thing.

On the night of the performance, the actor, pretending to be wise, gave the audience a stirring speech. To his secret glee, he had copied the speech word for word from his instructor. The crowd applauded wildly. Now they will see the real thing, thought the actor.

When it was the master's turn to come on stage, the small man stood in silence for a moment. He closed his eyes and held still. A little girl in the front row began to cry. After a second or two, the master knelt to the girl and handed over his prayer wheel. She began twirling it. She stopped fussing and her parents nodded in gratitude.

Satisfied by this lesson, the master left the stage. But the audience was angered by his abrupt departure. They voted unanimously for the performance of the actor instead. In back of the stage, as he witnessed the voting, the actor turned to his master in tears.

"Why are they applauding me?" he wondered, aghast. "I'm a fake. And they know I'm a fake."

The master embraced him for a moment.

"See you on Monday," he said.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Not Zen 6: Non Action

A young mother sat in the grass outside her guru's studio. She had brought her infant son, who was of an age to walk. As a consequence, when he awoke from his nap during the tutoring session, he proceeded to crawl to the nearest iron railing and pull himself upright.

He wobbled and nearly fell over onto the sidewalk. The guru, having dashed over in her blue robes, saved him. She was not upset with the mother for bringing her child but she reproached her for failing to pay attention.

"But I was practicing my sitting," the mother protested. "I was feeling my breath. You told me to practice 'non action.'"

"Non action is not inaction," explained the guru. "It is not natural for a mother to watch her child in danger and do nothing."

"What is natural, then?"

"Have you learned so many things from books that you don't know what's natural? This is what Lao Tse meant by needing to unlearn. 'Non action' occurs when a person acts in harmony with inner principles. The inner principle is what Lao Tse called the 'De.'"

"I read that De meant the 'true nature' of a thing."

"It is the opposite of learned, artificial, and often incorrect knowledge. It is the part of life that is not formally learned."

"Is De what we call instinct?"

The guru sighed. She let the infant boy go crawl in the grass.

"Lao Tse lived long ago and he used language differently than we do now. Perhaps what you call instinct is a small part of De. To know your De, you must let go of book learning. See the world not as it should be in those books but as it really is. Don't act on what you think is true. Instead, practice non action."

"You mean, don't act?" said the student as she watched her son try to climb up at concrete step at the end of the sidewalk in front of the studio.

"And don't 'not act,'" said the guru as she stepped forward. She rolled up the sleeves of her robe, put out her hands, and caught the child as it fell backwards.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Not Zen 5: What Is Expected

"Take nothing for granted," said the leader. "My feet seem to carry me and yet I do not expect to come to the end of this farmer's field. If you can live without the barest of expectations, every step becomes a delight of newness and every sight a formless wonder to the eye. This is the ever-present awe that must be achieved."

Behind the spiritual leader trailed four followers and the farmer who had fed and housed them the night before.

"To me, the sounds in the air are unexpected," said one of the students. "I am in wonder that they take form in my ears."

"Very fine," the master encouraged. "That is a good start."

"I have no expectations for the bags we carry," said another. "My memory is that the farmer filled them with food. But what is memory, I wonder? Perhaps we shall open the bags and find twenty cats."

"Yes, fair enough. Memory is an illusion." The master nodded as he walked.

"I wonder if there is another side to the front of that tree," ventured a third student. He pointed to a willow near the end of the farmer's field.

"Even better!" the master exclaimed.

"I wonder if there is a brain in any of your heads," grumbled the farmer.

"Exactly!" shouted the master.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Not Zen 4: Parent Trap

A hunter devised and placed carnivore traps to please his neighboring farmers. In these traps, a predator might crawl in but could not turn around. The only possible escape would be through a tiny door on the top, wired shut.

It happened that a fox cub wandered into one such trap, lured by the bait of a dead rabbit. After it ate what it could, the cub realized that it was too big to get out and it howled. Nearby, a bobcat crept into a similar trap and it protested mightily.

Led by the crying sounds, the cub's mother found them. She studied her cub's trap until she saw a way to effect a rescue. She set her teeth to the wired door hinge. It cut her gums as she chewed through it. The door at the top of the trap dropped open. Unfortunately, her cub could not climb up. She strode into the trap herself, lifted her cub, and pushed it out of the trap.

"Thank you, mother," said the cub when it had calmed. "Can you get out?"

"Trapped!" howled the bobcat nearby. "The hunter will come and kill us."

"Now I am caught, yes." There was not enough room for the vixen to turn so she lay down where she was. Her cub rubbed his nose against hers through the trap bars.

The bobcat continued to bemoan its fate. The fox was calm.

"I knew this was a trap," she said to her cub. "Because of my desires, I walked into it. Now I can't escape. But can I claim to be surprised? No. So it's better that I contemplate how wonderful life has been to me so far. I would like to spend some time, before the hunter comes, in peace with my cub rather than torment myself with regrets like that bobcat. Life ends soon enough. Let's appreciate it while we're able."

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Not Zen 3: Stoic Ending

When the Emperor Justinian shut down pagan temples, libraries, and schools of philosophy, he included in his orders the closing of the Stoic houses where masters taught logic, reason, and harmony with nature.

Marcus, great-grandson of the philosopher Epictetus, went to the emperor's court to plead his case. Before the magistrates, he explained that Stoic virtue consisted of a spirit aligned with the cosmos.

"We are free from envy and anger," said Marcus. "We accept even slaves as our equals, for all people are divine. To us, the souls of humans and animals are part of the living being of the universe. Stoics see that all things cooperate with all other things that exist. Can we not continue to teach such logic and harmony throughout the Roman Empire?"

He applied his reasoning skills to demonstrate how Stoics helped the empire and the lands beyond. But the emperor's magistrates would not hear his case. Their guards escorted him away.

Outside the courthouse, Marcus met his fellow Stoics. They did not despair because they had virtue. Nevertheless, they discussed what actions they could take. Marcus advised no further protests.

"Only a house has been destroyed," he concluded. "And that is no great thing. It is the way of human nature both to destroy and to build. So let our hearts hold nothing too dear and there will be nothing to cause us pain when it is taken away. All material things pass. Only virtue remains."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Not Zen 2: Mercy

In a summer when the land was parched, a lioness had difficulty hunting enough game to feed her cub. She roamed far and wide, often with her child beside her. She caught small animals, mostly hares and foxes, but they were not enough. The two lions were always hungry and thirsty.

One morning she and her cub were returning from their watering hole when she came upon a lone hyena. It had left its pack in search of scarce game. Whether in hunger or for some other reason, it had laid down to weep. It would be an easy kill.

When it saw the lioness, the hyena did not run. It stopped sobbing. The predators stared at each other for a moment.

"Why should I not kill you?" said the lioness. "Is it because you have children to feed? I have children, too."

"My children are dead," said the hyena.

"And you cry for them?"

"I cry because the world is so beautiful even without my children in it. I want to give aid to everyone. I want to help the pack but also the antelope, the elephant, and the fox. Everyone. I love you and your cub, too. If you really want to kill me, I won't resist. My body will hurt but I will still love you and your cub. After all, I loved my children too."

The lioness nodded and continued on her way. Her cub hesitated.

"Mother, are you letting her live?" asked the cub when it caught up. After a while, the cub continued, "Why did you let the hyena live?"

"The world needs more like that one," answered the lioness.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not Zen 1: Precious Expectations

A group of fishermen cast their widest net into the deeps of the river. It had been a poor fishing season all summer, so when they began to pull up the net, they got excited. From the weight and tug of the strands, they could tell they had made their finest catch.

However, when they began to haul the catch on board, they were disappointed to find that most of the weight was due to loose rocks. A recent flood had changed the river bottom so their cast had gone too deep.

In their disappointment the crew began to heave the debris overboard. Men began to kick and curse at everything they saw. The captain scrambled down from his perch to make sure they didn't throw out hooks or ropes or other needed equipment by mistake.

As he knelt to help with the stones, he lifted one and found that it was a mud-covered silver vase. It had been dented by rocks but it was still recognizable.

"Stop! Stop!" he shouted. He raised the silver vessel high. "Are you blind? Stop!"

The men did not listen. The captain saw his crew toss away pieces of fine copper and stoneware, former tools and luxury items that must have come from a wrecked ship now at the bottom of the river. The captain tackled the biggest man.

"Stop!" he shouted again. He shook the fisherman's hand, which held a mud-filled copper pot. "Look at what you're doing."

Finally, the men turned to their leader.

"You didn't get what you expected," he continued. "But don't let your disappointment make you throw away the fortune you hold in your hands."