Sunday, April 28, 2013

Not Zen 56: Universal Reason

A woman offered flight lessons to the elderly clerk of her meeting group. He was eager to learn and arrived early. Together, they ran through the check-down list to make sure their small plane was ready. Then she took them up.

When they reached cruising altitude, she passed the controls to the clerk. His first lesson went well. Near the end, his instructor felt free to bring up things he'd said in church.

"You talked about the the Stoics," she said. "Apparently they believe there's a universal sense of reason. I like that. But at another time you said you believe in the Buddha, too, who told his followers that we create the universe with our thoughts. Those two beliefs are in direct conflict."

"No, there's no conflict." He concentrated hard on keeping a level flight.

"Yes, one of those statements opposes the other."

"No, both are true. Look, will you accept that this plane must obey the laws of gravity?"

"That's what I've been telling you. We don't keep it in the air by thinking Buddha thoughts."

"But that's exactly how we keep it in the air! We do it by thinking. Without the presence of an intelligence to recognize these material things as a plane, there isn't a plane. It doesn't exist without us. We create the 'plane' by recognizing it."

"Without us, there's nothing? Is that what you're saying?"

"Without intelligence in the universe, there could be variances in mass from place to place. But there would be no one to say, 'These masses make an airplane.'"

"Well, I'm telling you it's our understanding of nature that lets us fly."

"Well, I'm agreeing. We have to understand our own nature and think the right thoughts to stay up here."

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Not Zen 55: Sweetness

Three golden jackals trotted across a meadow. They had followed the scent of an elk herd. After half an hour of work, they grew excited by the added aroma blood. They picked up speed.

An hour later, they ran past the borders of their territory and pressed closer to a death scent. The stench of it was everywhere. The smaller jackal, daughter to the mates, trailed behind. On her slightly shorter legs, she arrived to their destination last. She was tired and panting. For the first time in her life, blood did not smell good to her. The clearing felt wrong. She scanned the bushes and underbrush. Where were the elk? They had fled.

She caught sight of her parents not far ahead. They huddled together between a hibiscus and a firethorn shrub. Another body lay in that spot with them. As the jackal loped over, she recognized the form as similar to her own. Someone had crawled near the firethorn for shelter. Closer still, she recognized who it was: her mother's sister. 

The creature was her aunt, dying. One of her ribs had been broken and laid bare. The white bone of it trembled in the air. An elk had gored her with its antlers.

"Come," he mother said to her. "Come say goodbye to my sister."

The young jackal did not want to approach. In sadness and in fear, she moved sideways as she crept closer. She sidled east and west but eventually she came to a spot beside her parents but out of view of her dead or dying aunt. She craned her neck to study the body for signs of life. It had moved a little, earlier. Now she understood that it was a corpse. She had seen its last breath.

Area jackals gathered in a large group every year. It was how they found mates and kept traditions. Through their yearly meetings, they maintained a system of mentors and pupils. Her aunt had been her teacher. She had been a wise jackal, able to track any animal, even hares and snakes, and she had been strong, tougher than her mate who had died in a fight the year before. She had occupied a difficult territory and had outlived her only two children.

"Last month, I told her I would play with her later. I never did." She had sworn she would visit more, too, and listen better. She hadn't. She hadn't wanted to spend time around someone older. She'd forgotten her promises until now.

"Sometimes the present moment is too late," said her father.

"How sour this day has turned!" she wailed.

"No!" Her mother touched her, nose to nose, and then she backed up to look at the remains of her sister. "How sweet this day can be. How sweet is every day when you are alive.  Someday, your father and I will be gone. Only you will remember my sister and cherish her. If we have other children, they will carry on our ways. Only you can pass on my sister's spirit."

The young jackal looked to the fallen body. A memory came to her of her aunt in better times, laughing and running. A breeze blew over them. She raised her head and gazed around. She watched a cloud as it sailed across the blue sky. The day appeared beautiful and clear.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Not Zen 54: The Sign Painters

A sign painter and his young apprentice sat one afternoon in a park near the center of town. It was a slow work day. In times like this, the two painters spent hours practicing their craft. They created portraits of people in the park for fun and sometimes for money.

The apprentice set down his brush. He pointed past the willow trees and honeysuckle bushes to where the police barracks stood on the other side of the street from the park.

"Yesterday, the police beat my friend," he said.

"How did that happen?" the old master asked, one eyebrow raised.  He did not put down his brush. He finished adding a gentle line to his ink sketch.

"He was in a fight." The apprentice shook his fists. "He called for the police but instead of helping him, they beat him along with everyone else they arrested. Later, they put him in a cell with the men who had been beating him. So he was beaten further."

"Why were those men hurting him in the first place?" The master set down his brush with care not to disturb the sharp point of its bristles. "To take his money?"

"No, it was over politics."

The master thought about that for a while, hands on his knees.

"So he got into an argument," the master ventured, "one man against many.  Instead of backing down he decided to fight. Is that right?"

"Generally speaking, yes."

"And when the police arrived, they found many men fighting. From their point of view, they ended the fight and threw everyone in jail."

"But he was calling for them. The police are supposed to distinguish right from wrong. Shouldn't they have helped him?"


"He said they hit him right away."

"Did he hit them back?"

"Of course."

The master sat and watched the crocuses and honeysuckle plants sway in the breeze.

"Your friend lives, as many people do, with ideas in his head of how the world should work."

"Doesn't everyone?"

"It is has always been my aim, as a painter, to let go of preconceptions. That is because I think it best to draw what is there, not what I think I should see. Art is misleading enough already. Anyway, it is not so very hard to see what is really there. Animals can do it. Do you think a fox would fight a pack of wolves? Would an animal make such a mistake?"

"We are not animals."

"More pity that we do not observe the truth. If your friend avoided assuming the world is other than it is, he would not have thought the police would understand his view immediately. He would have seen them as the ordinary people they are."

"That does not excuse the police."

The master nodded. The sign painters sat side by side for a minute. Breezes shook the trees and the bushes.

After a while, the old man said, "Can you tell me why the cabbage butterfly avoided those flowers?"

"Has it?" asked the student.

"Yes." The older fellow pointed. "Can you see the mantis nearby? It is shaking the leaves as it stalks."

"Ah, now I see. That's a large mantis. But the shaking is hard to see in the wind."

"No, the shaking is different from the wind. In the insect world, I expect it is a loud, obvious thing. Yet the mantis does not care. It is counting on the wind to cover it. And it must be right about the cover, too, because it lives. It eats insects who tell themselves, for a moment, 'oh, the wind is moving the leaves.' They do not see the mantis until it is too late."

They returned to their painting. The student, having nothing better to do, decided to paint the mantis. It stalked among the honeysuckle leaves quite slowly. In each great gust, the mantis lowered all its limbs and clung tight to its perch. In the softer breezes, it moved one limb, then another. It shook the leaves beneath it but the student painter found it hard to tell the difference between the wind and the effect of the mantis even while he looked for it.

A different cabbage butterfly swept in but avoided the flowers near the mantis. It took a few minutes for another insect, a honeybee, to try its luck. As it passed close, the mantis snatched it out of the air. It cut the bee with its claws and began to devour it.

"Ah." The master set his brush down. He placed a stone on his paper to hold it in the winds. "The butterfly, aware of its lack of defenses, observed closely. The honeybee did not."

"Does this have to do with my friend?"

"Your friend did not observe his situation as it was. He got into a fight because he thought being in the right would be an advantage. When he realized it was not, he called for the police. When he should have surrendered to the police, he fought them. Would you have done these things?"

"Maybe. I think he was unlucky. I could get unlucky, too."

"Yes, to those who do not observe the world, awareness seems like luck."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Not Zen 53: On the Way

Many pilgrims travelled together on an old bus. They were on their way to build homes for the victims of a disaster. Among the travellers were two friends, one a student of the Way, another a student of Zen.

"How can you say everything is not an illusion?" asked the Zen devotee, arms around her knees in her bus seat by the window. "You admit that the physical world, samsara, is full of deception and is, at its base nature, transitory. Everything passes, in time."

"There is a great difference between being transitory and being illusory," said the Daoist, an older woman. "After all, would you say that this pilgrimage is an illusion? Would you call your good deeds an illusion?"

"Yes, I would," insisted her friend.

"Really? Then is love an illusion? Is our friendship?"

"You are asking the wrong questions." The Zen devotee shifted uneasily in her seat. "That is like asking if enlightenment is an illusion."

"Is enlightenment an illusion?"

"It makes no difference if enlightenment is an illusion or not."