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."