Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not Zen 129: The Spokeless Wheel

"There are no precepts, really," the nurse said as he strolled through the cracked-open door. A crowd of people had broken into the storefront.

"That is a dangerous thought." His friend's scowl deepened. He hesitated before he entered. When he finally moved, he jammed his hands into his pockets and kept his eyes on the broken glass that lay all over the floor.

"Look for something besides bandages," the first one said. "They're not having luck with those. We need tourniquets."

"I will not steal. I told you already, that is against the precepts."

"We should try to save the wounded people regardless."

They had come upon a crowd of around twenty people in a panic. Some in the crowd had participated in a demonstration, which had met a counter-demonstration, which had turned into a riot. Stones had been thrown. Shots had been fired. Now there were wounded men and women among the crowd. They and their friends had rushed to the drugstore to seek refuge and medicine.

When they found the doors locked, they broke in. Passers-by helped, including the nurse, who felt he could stop some people from dying if he worked quickly.

"The woman you are thinking of has surely bled too much already," said the reluctant fellow behind him.

"I see iodine." The man pointed to a shelf of bottles. "I'll grab that too. That's helpful."

"This package actually says it's a tourniquet." With an air of regret, the follower noticed the right box. He took two steps, bent, and picked it up. Behind it was another box of tourniquets, and another. The first man rushed over.

"Come," he hissed. He grabbed the rest. "We have to be fast."

Outside, the two men approached a woman who had been shot in the leg. Her friends were trying to stop her bleeding but her heartbeat pushed the red liquid through their fingers. They had not slowed her impending death.

The nurse pushed supplies into his friend's hands. He gave orders to the woman's companions, who were frantic and eager to help. They elevated her leg and held her. He knelt next to her and tied a tourniquet rope around her thigh. He tightened it until her bleeding slowed to a trickle.

"Right," he said. "You say you have experience. So bandage her. Who's next?"

A young man offered his left arm. He had ripped off his sleeve and tied it near his shoulder. The cloth didn't reach his pressure point and he hadn't pulled it tight enough. The nurse's friend elevated his arm while the nurse tied a proper bandage.

Finally, three people rushed forward with a late arrival, a young man who couldn't walk. A white splinter of bone jutted out of his bloodied leg below the knee.

"There are two stretchers in there," the nurse said to his friend. "Go in and grab them both."

"But ..."

"Hurry. This man needs carried somewhere else and so does the woman who was shot. Her friends put a bandage on and it looks good. But she's passed out."

A half-dozen people rushed back into the drugstore. The nurse's friend followed them. He had seen the stretchers, too, behind the sales counter. He gave directions. The other folks shouted in triumph as they carried out the body boards and straps. Then they grabbed other medical supplies. Again, they shouted with glee as they discovered what they needed.

"Why are you crying?" the nurse asked his friend on his return.

"Because they are wounded." His dark-haired friend had to wipe his eyes. He sniffed. "Because they fought other people. Because they stole. And because we theived these bandages and tools."

"We are doing what we can to save lives." The nurse kept working on the broken leg.

"We did it wrong."

"The precepts are a guide to thinking. That's all." He finished cleaning the wound. With a nod, he allowed the young man's friends to lay the blood-matted head down on the road. "They are not a rulebook in some lifelong game. It does not help you or anyone to blindly follow them."

The second fellow closed his mouth. He wiped his face with his sleeve while he watched his friend complete the temporary splint.

"Following the precepts helps others," he responded.

"That's a good point. It shows that you're thinking. Go on, then. I'm almost done here. Pick a precept and I'll explain it as a guide, not a rule."

"One of the five, one of the eight, or one of the ten?"

"Listen to you." The nurse laughed. He covered his patient in a blanket to aid against shock. "This is why I had to say there are no precepts."

"I pick 'refrain from stealing.' It is vital. You cannot refute the rightness of it."

"Fine. I won't attempt to refute it. Who can doubt that refraining from stealing is a good thing?  But saving the wounded is more important." The nurse motioned for the stretcher. Three men and a woman brought it over. They laid it down next to the prone body. "These people and we, too, broke into the store for medicines. They recognize that it was right to do. How can you not?"

"Perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps you are wrong."

"Does it feel wrong?"

Everyone crouched. His friend, too, knelt to lift the half-conscious man onto the stretcher.

"Maybe this is not stealing," said the nurse's friend. He raised his voice as the wounded man cried out in pain. "Most of these people were not taking the medicines for their own benefit. You weren't. The need is urgent. They and you could not wait and maybe let the wounded die."

"I agree." The stretcher carriers took over for a moment. They strapped the young man in place on the board. "But the store owner would not agree. The equipment and medicine has been lost to him. The police and your precepts do not agree with this either. Do you understand?"


One of the stretcher carriers asked if they could carry away the man with the broken leg. The nurse nodded. Another bleeding woman approached. She had received a cut along her arm from fingertip to elbow. The nurse peeled back her sleeve while the nurse's friend, with care and drying tears, elevated her arm.

"The precepts are not a rulebook," the nurse continued. "There are not eight spokes in your dharma wheel. There are no spokes at all. Or maybe there are an infinite number, an endless interconnection between moral discipline and the circle of mindfulness that holds everything together."

"If there are no spokes in the wheel, then I'm lost. That is too free for me."

"You have reasons, I understand. But loosen your grip on your false simplicity.  And tighten this bandage."


  1. This is an interesting piece. What is greater a belief or a human life? Some might argue in either direction; are either of them truly wrong? Such a hard idea to tackle but you really put it in a prose that left me thinking.

  2. Although you can't see the G+ comments, Ruinwen, the story received insightful ones about the need to interpret religious laws. We shouldn't fall so in love with good rules that we apply them blindly. Our minds are better than that.

    In fact, I think many people do this naturally. We pick up on the correct context in the moment. It's the second-guessing habit we have of trying to follow the word of a religious law rather than the intent that gets us into trouble.