Sunday, January 25, 2015

Not Zen 146: Best

The lead bull of the harbor seals flipped his tail and turned into the jaws of a shark.  Even the shark was surprised.  If the creature had been less in size than a great white, perhaps the bull seal would have won the battle.  Instead, the confrontation ended in an instant.

The herd scattered into the shallows to escape the blood and thrashing.  Soon after, they clambered onto the shore for added safety.

"Why did he charge?" said next strongest bull.  "He went straight at it."

"Straight to his death," said his younger friend.  "He was always a strange one.  Moody."

"But he was the best."

Their leader had been the mightiest among them for years.  He'd hunted the fastest cod and whitefish.  He'd dived the deepest, two hundred feet to the crabs on the ocean floor.  He'd broken through the toughest ice on their long journeys, had scouted for bears, and had defended the herd against walruses.

When it became popular in the warm months for the seals to tend gardens of sea urchins and starfish, he strove to tend the wildest, largest area.  When others feared to approach a large octopus that followed the seal pups, he confronted the beast and bit off one of its legs.
Until today, their leader had been content to swim rings around sharks.  He could turn his body faster than any predator could chase.  In past years, he'd used his agility to tease them.  He won at everything.  Yet always he was dissatisfied.  Always, as some of his rivals observed, he was moody.

A group of males gathered to watch the waters.  They looked for signs of more sharks.  While they did, they barked to one another in alarm.  Their leader's death created a void.

"He never knew peace," a bull remarked to his uncle.  His gray-furred relative ambled over.

"This is the case," his uncle agreed.  He lowered his head, more interested in his nephew than in sharks.  "He always competed.  You were his best rival."

"Why wasn't he happy?  If I accomplished so much, I would be happy."

"That is what you think.  But you've already accomplished much and you're not happy.  He accomplished more.  It did not bring him happiness."

"I will accomplish more and be greater than ever."

"Yes."

"But something is wrong with me, too.  I will fight and fight and never be at peace."

"You talk as if you will attain peace through violence.  Still, I know what you mean.  The inner calm you admire is not obtained by fulfilling your desires."  The uncle shook his head.  "It comes from the removal of desire."

"I must let go of my ambitions?  Truly?"

"To be at peace in your heart, there is no other way."

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Not Zen 145: Cruelty

Between the city and desert, a conclave of cats gathered around a row of grain silos. The grain brought colonies of rats, mice, and birds to the area, all them prey for the cats. Each feline, whether stripped or patternless, whether calico or uniform in color, left a harder, hungrier life to follow the migrating herbivores. Each traded the solitude of single territory for the unfamiliar company of a shared one.

As cats do, they developed ordered societies. The mightiest hunted in the best locations or simply stole prey from those who couldn't defend themselves. The weakest retreated to the outskirts of the silo district. Some returned to the city or the desert.

"Mine!" A tortoiseshell cat howled as a large male approached. The young one had caught a rat inside the southmost silo.

This was a prime spot, not one for weak felines to hunt in. It was also not easy to escape with large, fat prey. The young tortoiseshell dashed for the hole in the silo door but the aggressive, orange male arrived first. It knocked down the younger one and gave it a few hard kicks. The kicks drew blood.

The hunter dropped its rat and backed up. The larger one ignored the fallen prey, intent on driving away a rival.

"You don't belong, runt," he said. As he passed the rat, he noticed other felines watching. There were three of them, each in a prime hunting location. He hesitated, aware that other cats would grab the rat if he left it. In that instant, the young hunter ran for the exit.

Outside, he licked his wounds. As he did, a large, gray tabby pounced. It kicked him and drove him farther away into the fields. Others watched from their perches.

"Out, runt! Out, out!" The cat growled as it drove the smaller one off.

The young hunter took cover in the bushes.

Even the bushes at the edges of the fields were popular. Other cats waited for rats to come and go from the silos. In time, the hunter noticed a mouse between the bush rows. It darted for cover from one bush to the next but it was slow.

The hunter pounced. Angered at having lost his better prey, frustrated by having lost two fights, he began to torture the fat mouse.

"Are you not hungry?" Another gray tabby emerged from the bush. "Why did you catch the mouse?"

"It was slow. So I caught it."

"I saw you tortured by the stronger cats." The newcomer laid back her ears. "When my turn came to drive you away, I took pity on you. Yet here you are committing the same torture to the only creature lower than you."

The hunter said nothing. He lay down low to the ground, hackles raised along his spine, and panted in fear.

"It seems that the tormented are likely to turn cruel." The strong cat took her time as she paced. "You live in fear. Out of fear, you imitate the mean-spirited."

"This is what the mighty do. This is our nature."

"So it is," said the objector. "Many before us have tortured. Many after us will do so. Yet I will not."

"Why?"

"You may never have much power. You may live in fear your whole life. But you can refrain from passing on cruelty. For doing less than that, there is no excuse."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Not Zen 144: Narrative

The playroom floor lay covered in toys.  By the corner next to a bookshelf, a boy lay in a bare spot and listened his father read parables from an illustrated book.  After the second story, he asked to see the book.  After the third one, a story about knights and chivalry, he turned the pages.  By the fourth, he read to his father.

After he finished reading, he asked, "Do things really work like in the stories?"

"No, not really."

"Then why do we read them?"  He closed the book with a frown.  He re-opened it to gaze at one of the elaborate pictures of a knight on a horse.

His father rose.  Hands on hips, he surveyed the room.  He picked up one of toys and waved it, an indication that he wanted to find where it belonged.  The boy pointed to a wooden chest.  His father tossed the toy in.

"Stories give us direction," he said.  He nodded to himself.  A moment later, he picked up another toy and inspected it.  "Yes, that's the reason."

The boy's mother poked her head into the room.  She smiled as she noticed them cleaning.  With a grunt, she leaned over to grab a plastic golf club and a dull, toy sword.

"Stories were around before cities, honey," she told the boy.  "They were there at the start of humanity.  They're how people perceive.  Or really, it's how they make sense of what they perceive."

"Remember those pictures we showed you of the cave walls?" his father added.  "They had stories drawn on them, didn't they?  You told us what they were about."

"Yeah."  The boy stood.  He shut the book and turned to the shelf to put it back.

"Without stories in our heads," said his mother, "we would have no sense of causality.  That's, uh, how one thing leads to another.  That's the basis of our narrative structure, cause and effect."

"Stories can be misleading," said his father.  "Even when they don't mean to be.  And they can mean to mislead, too.  So they're not so great."

"What?"  His mother gave a smiling sort of scowl.  She dropped the golf club into its bagged set.  "How does daddy figure?  Daddy, what do you mean by that?"

"It's like ... when I was younger and I didn't want children."  He hesitated.  His wife's and his son's eyes widened.  "My mother experienced two late-term miscarriages and a stillbirth before me.  I told myself that I was the diseased child of a problem family.  Later, when I wanted children, the same facts became a different story.  In my mind, I became the first child who lived.  I was the survivor.  In fact, I could survive anything.  My children would, too."

"I never heard about this before," his mother growled.  She picked up a box of crayons.

"But which story is true?" the boy asked.

"It's the same facts," his father replied.  "Both stories are true.  The same circumstances lead to different stories depending who you ask.  Do you know what a self-fulfilling prophecy is?"

"No."

"Uh-oh.  Mommy does."  She leaned on the sword for a moment.  But it wobbled.  She straightened up.  "It's like when she was a little girl and told herself she couldn't draw.  So she didn't.  And that's how it came true.  Don't do that, by the way.  Keep drawing."

She passed her boy the crayon set and gestured for him to put them in his open desk drawer.

"That's a good example," said his father.  "You have to be careful with the stories you make for yourself.  If you tell stories about your inevitable failure, you give up trying.  And if you tell yourself about your coming success, you succeed.  The setbacks along the way don't bother you.  Other people would give up.  But not you.  Because you know how your story goes and eventually, you succeed."

"So if it's a good story does that make it right?"

"I'm not sure.  Sometimes the stories you tell about yourself reveal who you are.  But sometimes they determine it, too."

The boy rubbed his chin, the way his father did when he thought.  He found a hollow golf ball and dropped it into the golf set.  His mother hadn't moved in a while.  She kept rubbing her tummy while his father worked.

"If you give me some little brothers like Sir Gawain the knight," the boy said to both parents, "I'll take care of them forever and ever."

His mother took half a step towards him.  She poked him gently with the sword.

"Little sisters, too?"

"Of course!"

She patted her belly.  "I like that story."

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Not Zen 143: Highest Vanity

He carried the casket of a childhood friend, a young man who had enlisted in the army. The fellow had been killed in a far away land. The body had been recovered, sewn together, and sent to the family so they were able to hold a funeral. 

Although he didn't support the war or even the military, he had been glad to support his friend. Now he could lend his assistance one more time. He lifted the brass handle on his corner. With five other compatriots, one the soldier's brother, he carried the black coffin high.

"God hates you!" someone yelled.

Alongside of the funeral procession, demonstrators gathered. They held signs protesting the war. They shouted. 

The presence of such language outside the funeral home had come as a shock. No one had warned him. Outside the cemetery, it felt less hurtful. He'd known he would be a pallbearer. He'd seen how close the hearse had driven to the gates and the nearby, open grave on the other side. He'd had time to think about the demonstration.

One of the picketers ran up as close as the cemetery gates would allow. 

"God killed him! God killed him!" he yelled. "He hates you sinners!"

Other attendees of the funeral rushed to fill the space between the protestors and the family of the deceased. It sounded like there might be a fight. But he couldn't look. He had to carry the body.

At the end of the ceremony, he tossed a shovel of dirt into the grave, as he'd been asked to do. Then, after a conference with his friend's family, he returned to the gate. The family had decided to leave the graveyard through a different exit. He took their place in walking through the demonstration. He felt it would be better to have strangers yell at him than at anyone else. He and two of his other friends, accompanied by the funeral home staff, met the protestors.

To his surprise, many had left. The few demonstrators who held signs and shouted slogans seemed to recognize that no one leaving were soldiers or members of the family.

"God hates you," said one of those, a short, older woman. She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled at him.

"Do you really believe that?" he said. "Me, personally?"

She drew a breath, prepared to shout an anti-war slogan. Then she saw the pendant on his chest. It hung from a chain around his neck, over his tie.

"Are you even a Christian?" she asked. Her scowl didn't change.

"I believe in peace," he replied. He spoke with her for a half-minute in a reasonable tone and she responded without shouting. Her friends took no interest in him. They seemed more concerned with one another. 

When he made the mistake of referring to enlightenment, she jumped on that as an admission.

"You can't be enlightened or you wouldn't support a soldier. Or his family."

"You may be right. I'm just doing my best. I wouldn't want to claim anything special. It's like the commandment you have about vanity."

"You mean, 'You shall not use the name of the Lord in vain?' That's not about vanity." She set her hands on her hips and leaned closer.

"Doesn't taking the name of god in vain happen when you say 'God bless you' or 'God damn you?'"

"That's the right meaning, yes." She gave a curt nod.

"Although saying 'God bless you' is nice, it is said out of vanity, as if those blessings are anyone's to give. They're not."

"Good of you to notice. No one talks about that part anymore."

"Likewise, the damnations of God are not just anyone's to give, not according to the commandment. No one should pretend to speak in the holy spirit out of vanity."

"That's not what our pastor would say.” She retreated a step and crossed her arms. “He'd tell you that commandment comes from the established clergy trying to claim that only they have the right to speak for God."

"By the words of their holy book, what the professionals think doesn't matter. Their prejudices are not God's. When they mistake their hatred for a holy thing, when they pretend to speak for God and do not, that's when they commit a sin. To misrepresent holiness ... what could be worse?"

At that point, a pair of the other protestors overheard. They marched over and shouted slogans. He noticed they didn't seem aimed at convincing him as much putting as stop to the conversation. He decided to catch up to his friends. Before he left, he shared an uncertain nod with the woman, who scowled.