Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not Zen 39: No Consequence

On a cold night on a windy hillside, a young ewe circled her flock. The guard dog gazed down from the top of the hill. The rest of the sheep huddled together. Most protected themselves from the wind but one ewe kept moving, looking for her child.

Even after she found her lamb a third of the way into the crowd where he had fallen asleep with his playmate, she continued to wander. The guard dog huffed. He got to his feet and trotted down to the ewe.

"There are no predators," he told her. "You can rest now."

"Do you know me?"

"Of course I know you. You are the one who worries a lot."

"Is that how you think of me?" The ewe shuffled.

The dog tilted his head. He waited.

"I keep telling myself to be calm but it doesn't work," said the ewe. "I have to deal with problems all the time. I'm always tense and upset."

"Those problems," said the dog, "must be similar to those of the other sheep. To be calm inside, you should remind yourself of that."

The young ewe shook her head. She contemplated her troublesome lamb, the rams who kept fighting over her and the other ewes, her relatives, seemingly always in trouble. She recalled the wolf who had stalked the herd in the previous year and all of the things that were constantly going wrong in her life. She remembered the things that had gone wrong and she anticipated all of the things likely to go wrong in the future, as well, which seemed to her to be nearly everything.

"I'm not like my sisters, you know," she proclaimed. "My oldest sister is so irresponsible. She mates and bears children without a care. She eats anything, entertains her friends and pleases herself. I'm not like that."

"Is your sister calm?"

"Hah. If you can all it that."

"Close your eyes for a moment. Pretend you are your sister."

"Yes?" The ewe squinted for a moment. She started to peek. Then she saw the dog watching and tried to keep her eyes closed tighter.

"Now imagine your problems as you always do. This time, regard them as if you were your sister."

The young ewe imagined that she was her sister viewing the world. She eyed the rams with contempt. The grasses were hers. Other sheep rumbled about the hillsides without clear goals but they did not affect her. She lived in the moment, without worries. If the wind disturbed her she sidled up inside the flock. If her lamb's bleating annoyed her, she trotted away until she felt better.

"Those problems are of no consequence!" she exclaimed in nearly her sister's voice.

"Yes, I thought that might be the case."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Not Zen 38: The Giving Limit

A doctor in a large city decided to take some cases for no money. At the end of each day, she set two hours aside for her charity work. Many poor people came to take advantage of her gift. Many people who were not poor came as well.

Since the doctor had no way of knowing who lived in poverty and who did not, she was forced to serve everyone. Soon she had more free cases than she could treat in her allotted time. She began to turn customers away, taking patients in order of physical need but leaving many untreated.

One of the customers was a vagrant man who had once been a monk. Although he had a deep sore on his arm, he let others go before him lest they be turned away. For two days, he arrived early but let others go in ahead and was not seen by the doctor. At the end of the third day, he became feverish and found himself unable to leave. The doctor was forced to treat him as her last appointment.

"Why didn't you show me this before?" she asked as she cut the dead flesh from his arm.

"You should know, since you give charity," the vagrant replied.

"Then why come to see me now?"

"Why do you go home?" he said.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Not Zen 37: Living Gifts

A minister, single and childless in his young adulthood, traveled to visit his relations during the holidays. He usually enjoyed bringing his faith to the occasions. One year, he was obligated to visit his older sister, who had converted to Buddhism.  Upon arriving at her house, he noticed the figure of a fat, Buddhist monk at the top of his sister's Christmas tree. The monk was dressed in a red robe. He carried a sack that seemed to overflow with presents.

"That's not Santa Claus," he remarked as he took off his coat.

"No, it's Budai," said his sister. She greeted her brother and hung his coat. Then she offered him a plate of treats. "He embodies the spirit of the season."

"The spirit of the season is joy at celebrating the holy gift of a son. That is, the holy birth and the holy presents given to a special child. What has the spirit of Budai got to do with that?"

His sister offered him a candy cane from the plate. He waved it away.

"Budai gives gifts," she explained. "Sometimes they are ordinary things like toys for children or sweets or medicines. Sometimes the gifts are special. They can even be living things, like children."

She picked up a tray of cookies and offered him one. He shook his head.

"You can't make a gift of an actual, living child," he said. He scowled at Budai and his sack.

"Oh." She set down the plate of cookies. "I thought you would feel differently."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Not Zen 36: Nature of the Job

An elephant was born in the wet season, the first calf of the year. He ate and played within the herd weeks before any other child was born. He grew large. Within a month, he was picking on the younger, newborn calves. Their mothers reproached him but he paid no attention to their trumpeting.

When other elephant calves grew big enough, the first born one began to lead them into mischief. He persuaded them to hide in tall grass until their mothers cried out in fear. Then they emerged, laughing. Later, he led them in charges on their aunts and uncles. The calves butted their heads against the knees of older elephants and hurt them.

His mother was the lead female. She felt embarrassed but she was unable to catch her son when he was misbehaving. She tried to enlist her mate to chastise the child. But the old bull would not listen.

During the dry season, the mischief culminated when a few young males on the edge of the herd found a trove of succulent palm grasses. The lead male and a group of females took it over. They were happily trumpeting and celebrating their meal when the misbehaving calf stole a swathe of it. They chased him but, laughing, he carried it off. His father returned to the meal and the calf ate his ill-gotten gains away from everyone else.

Only a short while later, the child returned. This time, as the adults prepared to drive him off, he snorted a cloud of dry, noxious dust all over the food. He had gone down to a clay pit and stored dust in his trunk so as to spoil the meal for his elders.

His father chased the miscreant down and swatted his behind with a switch. The calf ran off crying. The bull returned to the females, puzzled and frustrated.

"What are we going to do about that boy?" grouched the bull.

"I've been saying that you need to guide him," the matriarch replied.

"Guidance? Advice? That means nothing to him. He has turned against the herd."

"You underestimate yourself. It will mean something when the advice comes from you." She gestured with her trunk in the direction of their son, who could still be seen trying to hide at the edge of the veldt.  "Guide him every day. In time, you can turn him in our direction."

"That doesn't solve the problem right now." The bull stomped on his spoiled meal in frustration. "He needs to be fixed today. Those pranks have got to stop!"

"Guidance will do it if you're patient," the female replied.

"I'm not feeling patient."  He opened his mouth and took a shuddering, calming breath. He snorted at the dusty air.  "How much time will it take?"

"Until he's grown, I suppose."

"That's a dozen years, maybe more!"  The bull shook his head.  "When did correcting him become my job?"

"When you became the parent of an elephant," said the female.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Not Zen 35: Why We're Here

A winter wind blew across the clearing. The night was cold. The poorest men of the area, drunks and travelers, gathered around a trash fire. The vagrant who had started the fire welcomed the others with gestures and nods. He sat next to a stack of broken planks, which he used as fuel.

A few of the fellows pulled up rags and blankets close to them. They leaned against rocks, tree stumps, and their bundles of cloth. Soon they fell asleep.

Two men with bottles of wine in their hands remained awake. Occasionally they muttered to each other about the wine. Across from them, a young traveler took off his backpack, pulled out a metal container with water in it.  He set it in the coals of the fire to make tea.

"We're scum," grumbled one of the drinkers. No one argued with him.

"I lost all of my friends," said the other after a swig of wine. "That's what did it. That's why I ended up here. I lost track of some.  The others died. Then there was just the drinking."

The tea-maker snorted.

"Life is an illusion," he said. "Friendship is an illusion, too. I know that I'm hardly here at all. Same for you. We don't count. I don't have friends. I don't worry about it."

The three were quiet for a while. The man who was tending the fire threw another piece of wood onto it.

"Why are you here, fella?" one of the drunks asked.

"I'm here as a friend," he replied. He tossed on another broken plank.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Not Zen 34: Proper Coordination

"You seem impatient," said the secretary to her executive vice-president.

"Of course I am!" he wailed. "All day at these meetings, we talk and talk. We plan endlessly. And for what? We hardly do anything. I wish I was like that day laborer out there."

He looked out his window to where a man was hauling bricks in a wheelbarrow.

"That's a simpler, better life," he said. "You can see the progress you make."

"We only accomplished one major task today," the secretary acknowledged. "But we did it well. If we try to do more without cooperation from the rest of our business, we'll do harm."

"But we need to accomplish more!"

"There is always more to do," she said. "But it's a mistake to assume that anything more needs done."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Think about how to do things the right way. That man down there who you're envying doesn't try to do more than he should. He wants to build a brick wall. So he's patient. If he's too slow, the mortar will dry. If he's too fast, the wall will tumble. Everything has to be done at the right speed. You say you want to be like him? Then do things when they need to be done."