Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not Zen 168: Unknowing Privilege

In a forest, on a high hill, there lived a bearded hermit. His home lay to the northwest of a small town. Children hiked from the valley town to visit him up on the hill. He tried to discourage their intrusions on his solitude. Their parents, however, continued to let the children roam.

The parents and the children regarded the hermit as a tolerant man. This was the case. He endured the noise and the naive questions of his visitors. He took them to the garden and encouraged them to work as they chattered about the details of their lives. The hard labor discouraged a few. He spoke to the rest about matters of spirituality. That drove away more.

A handful of visitors remained as regular callers to his home, however. One of them who returned many times was a young girl, dark-haired and small. The hermit watched her grow, over the years, into a young woman.

"When there's no other person here," she asked one day. "Do you remain quiet?"

He nodded as he tended his garden beside her.

"I think I would like to be a hermit," she said.

She didn't say anything more for hours. Instead, she worked in silence. After she straightened and took a break, she hiked farther up the hill. She seemed to be looking for sites to build her own hut. Although he liked her, he felt some alarm. He did not want her to live so close. Fortunately, she found a vantage point and surveyed different hills. She seemed to settle on one above the northeast of town. A home there would have fewer trees for shelter but it would have access to a stream. The solitude would perhaps be better because the slopes by the stream there looked steeper.

He approved. Although he did not say a word, she caught him studying the site. Her eyes glinted. She smiled as she walked back to his home.

"So would you really recommend a solitary life for me?" she asked him when she arrived.

"For anyone who wants to be alone in their contemplation of holy existence, I do recommend it," he replied.

Her decision seemed so resolute that he expected that he would not see her again. However, a few days later, she returned. In her company was a woman the hermit had never seen before.

"I am her mother," the woman said. She fluttered her robe to wave off the heat of the steep walk. Without smiling, she bowed her head politely.

The hermit bowed his head as well.

"You recommended a solitary life for her?" the mother asked.

"She may find it good."

"She may. It's not that women don't also wish to be hermits, alone in the wilderness. Clearly, you live a beautiful life." The woman expanded her arms as if to encompass not only his hut and garden but the entire wilderness.

"Then what is the problem?"

"The problem is that men cannot seem to permit women to be alone."

"I would. Many men would, I think. Most."

"Many would gladly allow women that freedom, of course, but it only takes a few to make the practice impossible. It is not the point of being a hermit to occupy oneself constantly with self-defense."

"I had not thought of that." The vision disturbed him. A young lady's hermitage would often be under threat. But it did not surprise him except in that it hadn't occurred to him before. "You are correct. I'm protected by being a man and by having nothing to steal. Otherwise I would come to harm."

"Women on their own must take pains to appear diseased or crazy. My daughter would have a difficult time with either." Her glance slipped to the young lady by her side, calm, self-assured, and glowing with health.

"She would."

"A nunnery, perhaps, or a quiet life with a quiet family on the edge of town would work. But can you see that being a hermit is not an option?"

"It would be needlessly difficult." It saddened him to agree.

"I'm surprised to hear you admit it. I thought you must be telling all of the children that the life of a hermit is best."

"This way of living is best for me." He took a deep breath of the mountain air. "Thank you for enlightening me. This is why each path must be different. When I took a vow of poverty, I had not expected to ever see myself again in a position of privilege. But I have been living with this particular privilege the whole time."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Not Zen 167: Always-Land

His daughter leaned forward in her chair. She closed her book. Her finger, he noticed, remained in place so she could open it again in an instant.

"Daddy." She turned her head towards him. Although the whole family had packed into the living room to read after breakfast, he was the closest to her seat. "What do the people in Neverland call this place?"

The question made him sift though his childhood memories. He'd read the same book. He should have known what the children there called the real world.

"Home, I think." It was a right answer but he was pretty sure his daughter was looking for something more.

"What about the grown-ups? That's who I mean. The ones who live there. Like, it's the mermaids, the warriors, the gnomes and fairies, the pirates, and probably more folks. Do they have a name for our place?"

He leaned back and stretched his arms. His gaze swept the room. His youngest son had sprawled on the couch with a comic. His wife bent over a magazine by a casement window, shoulders hunched, forearms resting on the sill. She hated to be interrupted.

"The Mainland, maybe?" He sighed. His attention turned from his wife to his child. "My memory isn't so good. There are probably other names for our place in the book. I'm sure there would be more that aren't written."

"I know." His daughter stretched out her words as if she'd made the most obvious point to someone not understanding. "I want you to tell me the other names. That's why I'm asking."

"You want the unwritten names?" he chuckled.

His girl didn't laugh with him. She folded her arms and waited for an answer.

"Well, this place is the opposite of Never-Never Land." He closed his book. This time, he gave his daughter a moment of serious thought. "So this should be called Always-Land."

"Okay." She shook her head in agreement. Good. "But Neverland is where you don't have to grow up. That means that here in Always-Land, we're growing. Right?"

"Sure." He hadn't thought about it but of course she was being logical. "That's the point, isn't it? Always-Land is the opposite of daydreams. Here, what's important is our awareness of how things are. In our shared land, we maintain connectedness. We allow ourselves to be conscious of our responsibilities."

"That's too much, daddy."

"Okay, I make too much of awareness and responsibilities, maybe. We build those things up in our minds to be too big, too hard, and too imposing. Maybe that's why, in Always-Land, we make so many gateways to the Neverlands. Fantasy lands don't take up much space. We have room in our lives for escapes."

"Is that good?"

"Fantasies are like everything else." He drew chopping motions in the air with his open hand as he tried to illustrate the point. "Knives are good for cutting up your food. They can be used for bad things, too. If you meet someone who gets too preoccupied with knives, like to the exclusion of having friends, you probably think they're sad and a little creepy."

"I know, yuck."

"It's the same with the Neverlands we make. Do you let them do something good for you? Are you learning how to be brave or smart or a good friend?"

She turned over her book in both hands and looked at it doubtfully. "I think so."

"Or do you get overly occupied with fantasies? That's where it goes wrong."

She barked with laughter. 

"It's not the poor potato's fault I'm fat," she said.

"What?" He shook his head. "You're not fat."

"That's what you said yesterday!" She raised an eyebrow at him as if he didn't listen to himself, which often he didn't.

"Oh, right. I see what you mean. I was complaining that I eat too much." He patted his stomach. "Well, here in Always-Land, we continue to develop. And it happens to us whether we pay attention to it or not."

"Why wouldn't we pay attention?"

"Good question." He lifted himself from the chair. "If we have awareness, maybe we can cultivate the goodness in ourselves. And we can let everything else just fall away as we grow."

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Not Zen 166: Peace Process

On a hill nestled between greater hills, in a cleft of the hill's rocky south face, lived a colony of mastiff bats. Each year after the snow melted from the mountains around them, the bats bore their children. Mothers nursed the young in a protected nook of the colony. Fathers brought back food for the mothers - usually moths, birds, lizards, and pieces of fruit foraged from the forest floors.

One spring, the smallest of the children found herself being pushed around by members of the colony. Other young ones would not give her space to rest. Her parents were gentle souls and felt ashamed by her complaints. They did not want a bullied child. On the other hand, they were not willing to confront the parents of larger children.

"Don't yell," they told her. "It excites the bigger ones. Ignore your bullies and they will go away."

The next evening, her parents headed out to hunt. Other young bats pushed the smallest one. When she didn't respond, they raked her with their wing claws. It hurt. Frightened by the sight of her own blood, she fought back. But there were too many. She fled and took shelter in the hanging moss outside of the nursery. She emerged only after her parents returned and called for her.

When she told them what had happened, they said, "You must not strike back. Anger begets anger. Violence begets more violence."

Since she didn't know how to stop the violence, she started to avoid the other children. During times when both of her parents were gone, she hid in crevices, or behind sleeping children, or in the hanging moss. There weren't many places she could go. Each time the bullies found her, they teased her, raked her wings, or bit her ears.

Only when she nursed with her mother did she have peace. In those times, she dreamt of flying. She longed to join her father in freedom. She stretched her wings as often as she could. Thanks to her motivation, she was the first of the spring litter to leave the nursery.

"Finally I will be free from bullies," she told her mother. Her mother gave her a reassuring embrace.

She flew only in the cave, at first. But soon she ventured out. For two nights, she was right about the relief she experienced. Although she was still the smallest of her colony, she flew in peace. She watched her father's methods. She learned to hunt by studying him and her uncle. Patient fellows, they showed her how to locate insects of the right size for her. Her uncle stressed the need to avoid the edges of the treelines where owls roosted.

On the third night of her self-sufficiency, as she dove at a moth, another bat swooped close. It was one of her former tormentors. He had left the cave. He screamed at her to ruin her echolocation. A second, larger girl snatched her moth.
 
She screeched at them with outrage. The bigger two flapped away, laughing.

"Don't provoke them," her mother replied when she learned of the incident.

"Provoke them by eating?" She had to confront the impossibility of her parents' advice. "You think I should stop having food?"

Her next few days of hunting were interrupted by the bullies. Sometimes she ate in peace. Too often, she didn't. Hunger did odd things to her mind. She considered dire solutions. One long, hungry night, she followed one of the bullies and attacked him while he was eating. It was a fight she'd known she would lose and it was over in a few seconds but, if she couldn't eat, she felt determined to make sure that her tormentors knew how she felt.

As she landed on a tree branch, a larger bat joined her. She spun, ready to fight another tormenter, but it was her uncle. 

"I suppose you're going to tell me that I should let the bullies do what they want," she said.

"No. It's bad for everyone when that happens," he replied. "Violence and thievery is the result."

She lifted her head. It wasn't the usual answer she'd heard. "Then what?"

"All of us must train ourselves." Her uncle spread and re-folded his wings. "Some of us become expert at self-defense in the air. Your parents were not willing to learn. But I am willing to teach you."

She couldn't imagine that there was anything someone could teach her that would help.

"Peace cannot be obtained through fighting, my parents say." It was the only thought that came to her mind.

"Yes, your father is childish in that way." Her uncle chuckled. "He and your mother have an immature concept of peace. Social equality and justice are not achieved once then then forever set. Peace must be maintained in a continual process."

"But my parents say ..."

"There are some of us in the colony who achieve calm lives for a while by being meek. Those folks depend on the justice maintained by others."

"That's my parents."

"Yes, and it is a position of luxury. Perhaps they don't realize it but their meekness means someone else must do the work. Not everyone can escape responsibility. Some are called upon, for a short while or for a lifetime, to do the hard work of maintaining peace."