Sunday, December 29, 2013

Not Zen 91: Imitating Serenity

Two women grew up in the same neighborhood of the same town, one a year older than the other. After they finished school, they each went into the business of nursing to the sick and elderly. Both had reputations for kindness. The younger of the two women, shorter and stronger, grew nervous over the years. Her sleep grew restless. Her health had been excellent when she was young but, finally, one day on the job she passed out from exhaustion.

The next morning, she lay in bed recovering. She improved as she talked with her first two visitors. However, the next person who came to her bed was the thin, older and more famous nurse. In a few minutes, the younger one began throwing up.

She didn't stop vomiting until her friend left. The other nurses noticed her symptoms. They conferred and decided to call for their boss.

“I hear that you're unhappy with your visitors,” said the senior nurse when she arrived.

“Who said that?”

“Never mind. Is it true?”

“I don't know. I don't think so. I'm just unhappy in general, I think.”


“I have no idea. I mean, just look at my friend who came earlier today. She does the same things I do. She's satisfied and at peace with herself.”

“I know her. And I know you. I see a great difference in the way you do things.”

“No, there's no difference.”

“You think there isn't because you compare yourself to her. You mirror what she does. You're careful that there's no gap between her achievements and yours, right down to the small, virtuous habits that make her so good.”


“Can't you see that's the difference? She loves you but she doesn't measure herself by you. She doesn't act nice to others in order to compete with you. She does it because she feels that's it's right to be that way.”   

“I do that, too.”

“Sometimes, yes. But when you try to imitate your friend, it wears you out.”

“It shouldn't. She was always the sickly one when we were growing up. If anyone is getting tired, it should be her.”

“Really? Who is going to be better at being her? Who needs to work hard and who can just be herself?”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Not Zen 90: The Laughing Master

“Why do you laugh so much?” complained a disciple to his roshi. “Other devotees are much more strict than you.”

“I am not a master in a temple,” replied the teacher, “and that is one reason. Also, I am strict when there is a need, which is fairly often. When I do not have cause, I see no need to hide my joy. I learned this view from my teacher. When I was young, I felt he was far too carefree."

“You also had a master who laughed too much?”

“He laughed when it rained. He laughed when it snowed. He laughed when a cloud passed over the sun. He laughed when the sun reappeared. He laughed at butterflies. He laughed at his foolish students. Sometimes, I thought, his wanton mirth was simply too much. One person should not be so happy all the time. Such happiness could be a sign of foolishness instead of wisdom.”

“Exactly.” The disciple nodded. The other students of Zen, all seated around a table eating their lunch, did the same.

“I prepared a short speech on the subject, which I dared to give in the dining hall." The roshi smiled at the parallel since his group of students was seated. "But thankfully before I could give my speech, one of the other students, a fellow who had been ordered to bring our food, slipped. He was carrying four small tureens of soup. Each tureen had a lid. When he went down, the containers and lids flew up. The soup flew out. Of course, the pots and utensils came back to earth. They made a lot of noise. A spoon hit the poor student. Then a tureen landed on his head like a dunce cap. A lid clanged off the tureen while it was still on his head.”

The roshi’s students began to giggle at his story.

“Yes, it was very funny. I had never seen anything quite so funny looking. And then a second lid came down, too, and hit him on the head almost where the other one had hit. My fellow students burst into laughter. We fell almost in tears with laughter. Only one man did not laugh.”

“The student who fell?”

“My master did not laugh. He had not been standing close to the spill but he nonetheless arrived in time to catch the second lid before it hit the floor. He set it aside gently and checked to make sure that his student was not hurt. Truly, none of the rest of us wanted to see that fellow bruised or burned. He was a friend to us all. But his fall … to this day, the memory of it can make me smile. Then I think of my old master. He, who took joy in nearly everything, had simply taken action. Who can doubt that he was right?”

The students turned back to their places at the table and ate their lunches in silence.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Not Zen 89: Silent Lecture

An old man had been studying at his local temple for decades. For the last few years, he had remained silent. He spoke to no one, not even to the masters, and the head of the temple permitted his behavior even though the man was not a member of the clergy, only a visitor, and had taken no vow of silence. In time, no one thought it was unusual or rude.

The old man swept the floors in every room. He did it every evening, sometimes in the mornings or after large gatherings. He had another job outside of the temple and monastery.  Here he was a volunteer. He came and went as he pleased.

One day, a new student at the temple wandered into his dormitory. He watched the sweeper for an hour or so. Every so often, the new student looked to his fellow students to see if they were watching. They weren't.

The next day, the student came back to his room while the silent fellow was sorting the trash. He sat next to the old man and helped.

"That was a good lesson you gave yesterday," he said. "Why doesn't the head of the temple make all of students attend?"

This made the old man think for a while. He had not been silent in the rest of his life, only during his visits to the temple.

"There would be no point in that order," he replied. "I have been setting the same example for three years. You're the first one to remark on it besides the master."

"He provides a silent sermon through you."

“There are such sermons everywhere you look.”

“Even outside the temple?”

The old man returned to his task sorting the trash.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Not Zen 88: Soul Sight

She found her mother reading a book on their front porch. When she was in the kitchen, she spied the top of her mother's head through the glass door. She shouted and waved. Her mother didn't turn from her reading. She shouted again. Her mother closed her lips tight and leaned closer to the book.

The girl realized that she wasn't being polite. She skipped through the front door and onto the screened-in porch, where her mother could notice her when the time was right.

"Momma, can you see someone's soul?" she asked when she got tired of waiting.

With a sigh, her mother closed the book. She leaned forward in her chair.

"No one can see a soul," she said. "Souls are hidden inside. If they exist, they're always changing. They live from moment to moment, like sparks of electricity in our brains and hearts."

"So you can't see them?"

Her mother shook her head. "No."

The girl pointed to the family cat.

"Not even the cat can see them," her mother said. She let her hand drop low, near the floor. The cat trotted over to it and rubbed itself on the fingers. "Souls might be fluctuations of chemicals in cells and between cells. We can't see them inside people. Cats can't see them. No one has the right eyes to see the pictures they make. They might be beautiful. But we'll never know."

The girl turned and marched away. She wandered from one room to another until she spied her father in the back yard. He knelt in the dirt as he transplanted a sapling maple tree.

"Daddy, can you see someone's soul?" she asked as she burst out the back door.

"Sadly, yes."

"You can?"

"Of course. So can you." He stood and picked up his spade. He sank the metal blade into the pile of dirt next to the tree. Then he paused and glanced at his daughter. "In every smile and frown, in every action and in every hesitation, we see one another's souls."

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Not Zen 87: Search Strategy

A master of a Daoist temple went to visit the nearby government office. From that large building in the center of the city, his temple received grant money for its projects in the community. On this day, the master's appointment was first and he arrived with time to spare. He walked into the lobby as light dawned. Immediately, he introduced himself to the other early arrivals and to the security guards. A junior officer brought tea for everyone. 

As the master chatted, he noticed a janitor who he knew from the temple a few years earlier.
“Is it student Jeffries?” he called. He waved as he strolled over to the man with a mop. “How nice to see you again.”

“Good morning, master.” The student bowed respectfully. He showed no sign of the impatience for which he had been famous when a member of the temple. 

“You left so suddenly.” The master sighed. “I worried you might have taken your life. You know, you struck me as a prideful student but a promising one. Many of the older monks were disappointed when you grew frustrated so quickly. May I ask you what you are doing now aside from cleaning these offices?”

“I looked for enlightened folks in your monastery. I found none, so I judged. Now I look for enlightened ones in this office building.” 

The master looked around at the trappings of wealth and power. There was a fountain in the lobby. There were marble stairs. The doors and fittings were glass and brass. Above them hung chandeliers of finest crystal. 

“You have cast a fishing line high into the treetops,” said the master with a slight bow. “But I can't complain because I do it, too. Who knows? Maybe you will find a fish.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Not Zen 86: Under the Tree

On the back deck of a large, south-facing house, a student sat with her roshi. They drank sweet tea and discussed Stoicism, Buddhism, and other disciplines that lead, perhaps, to enlightenment. An hour into their conversation, a walnut fell from the tree above and hit the student on her shoulder.

She complained about the tree for minutes.

“That is your life exactly.” Her master sighed after her patience ran out. She moved her chair away from the tree.

“What do you mean by that?” asked the student.

“I mean, you are hurt by life because you are not paying attention. And then you come to complain to me.”

“Well, that is what life does. It hurts me.”

“So ... if you had looked up, would you have moved?”

“Of course.” At this, the student did look up. She rose with her chair and moved closer to the roshi.

“Good. Bring the tea pitcher, too.” She motioned to her student, who went to retrieve the covered jug. “Do you remember that yesterday you complained about a friend of yours at work who had all of the luck that you didn't?”

“Yes. She got promoted over me even though I'm as smart as she is, probably smarter.” The student brought the jug. She topped off her glass and took her seat.

“I think life is like this tree,” said the roshi. She gestured to the lower branches. “It rains things down on us from time to time. They might be nuts, leaves, twigs, or any of that sort of thing. Some people look down at their feet. They get hit and complain. Others look up to avoid the hardships. And still others hold out their hands.”

She held out her hands. The tea glass was in them. A bit of leaf dropped into her tea.

“Oops,” she said as she fished it out. “Well, it takes work, of course, to catch and crack a nut.  But I think it's a good analogy. If you are aware of it, a nut falling down is a good thing. If not, it might prove painful.”

“I don't think my friend at work studies towards enlightenment,” said the student. “She just got lucky.”

“Maybe. But it could be that she doesn't need to study much.” The roshi nodded to herself.  “Not everyone walks the same path. She may practice awareness in her own way and that is why she looked up at the right time. When life threw something at her, she was ready.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Not Zen 85: Graduation

A guru often said, "Graduation comes when you have learned to teach yourself."

In spite of hearing that many times, one of her advanced students was surprised when the guru announced it was time for that student to leave. It happened after the student had delivered a presentation outside a coffee house. The subject had been a small point on the history of philosophy. Due the breeze that day, she had trouble making herself heard. When she sat down, she felt her talk had gone badly. Her guru disagreed.

"You teach yourself all the time now," said her guru over a stoneware cup and saucer. She paused to sip her tea. "You're past done. You've learned everything important that I know. You're going beyond. It's time you started your own school."

"I can't do that," the young woman responded.

A few months later the young woman found herself in a strange city, sitting in a small studio surrounded by a group of students assigned to her by her guru. She had a new pupil in her class as well, a young man lured in by his friendship with others. He asked more questions than anyone and he wondered aloud about the lack of furnishings in most of the school rooms. The space had come cheaply but not the furniture. Everyone had to sit on mats on the floors.

"I will write to my guru for advice," the new teacher said.

"You will?"

"She knows how to get donations for such things. I started this school, after all, when I got her agreement that I could write to her for guidance."

In her first month, she asked for suggestions on how to raise money, on what gifts she might expect from which patrons, and on the best ways to settle disputes between students. In the next few months, she requested her guru's recommendations on diet and on religious debates. Later, she wrote to obtain counsel on dealing with another teacher, a peer.

Often she wrote her requests to her master on cards the older woman had provided. One day, in her guru's studio, another such card arrived.

"From my newest teacher," the guru said as she saw the address. She sighed as she opened it because she knew it would be a request for advice.

The card was blank. She turned it over twice to make sure. Then, to the perplexity of the students around her, she laughed. She held her belly.

"Did something go wrong?" one student asked. "Why would she send you a blank note?"

"This is a comment," she replied, "Because graduation also means having the confidence to acknowledge one's mastery."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Not Zen 84: Emotional Reflexes

A boy brawled with his classmates. He argued with his teachers. He was the youngest boy in his home but he fought his bigger, stronger brothers. He teased his sisters. Eventually his parents sent him to military school. 

On graduation, he joined the army. He rose in the ranks and fought in wars. He was many times decorated for bravery. He found that in the field, in the midst of fighting, he felt at home. In the process, to his surprise, he discovered that he was loved as a commander. He hadn't felt much affection before. It made him proud. However, as he grew older and wiser he realized that, his troops liked him but his fellow officers did not. That meant his soldiers often got bad rations or bad equipment. 

For two decades he rose higher in the ranks. The more promotions he received, the more his manners seemed out of place to his peers. His superiors demoted him and returned him to battle. That suited him. He was again awarded for bravery. He received an elevation to field general. 

In a few months, he was rude to a governor and got demoted again. 

On the advice of another general, he went to see a roshi. This roshi practiced swordsmanship for sport so he and the general had something in common. They met and fenced on their first day together. The discussed tactics, met again, fenced for a few hours, and discovered that despite their different styles they were well matched. 

“This is fun,” said the general after one long session, “but I'm not as young as I once was. I need to rest. And you, young man, are supposed to help me with my manners.” 

“I am not an expert in manners,” said the roshi. “It's possible that I'm the wrong person to teach that sort of thing.”

“I've been referred to experts in manners before. I've failed them. My colleague recommended you for a reason. I don't understand him, I must say. I find you to be as rough as me.” 

“Yes, well, I'll try to help you in honor of our mutual friend. There are simple rules for dealing with other people. I understand some of them by process of observation. I see them as practical tasks. So I won't lecture you on the morality of politeness.” 

“Good. One expert told me that putting my feet on a chair is disrespectful,” the general snorted. 

“It may be,” said the roshi. “But instead of looking into the reasons for actions, as I would normally do, I'll try to teach you politeness as a conditioned reflex. In that way, it will seem more like martial prowess.”

“Are you comparing a 'thank you' to a parry with a sword?”

“No. But that thought might be in line with what I intend. After all, you are a good swordsman because you've developed an understanding of the simple rules of cut, thrust, and parry. You don't need to think. You react.” 

“When someone strikes, my reflexes take over.” 

“When I am finished with you, I want you to automatically respond correctly when a governor greets you.”

“I may not be an easy pupil, though I'll try. What's the way to generate a proper greeting reflex in myself? What are the rules?” 

The roshi put down his sword and demonstrated. He played the role of the governor. He played the role of the general. He switched roles and encouraged the general to practice. 

The general attended to his politeness reflexes for many weeks with the help of his roshi. 

Things began to happen in his life that had never happened before. His peers in the military started to invite him to social events. He was given an appointment to show his troops to politicians - ordinary for most generals but long denied in his case. The commander of the army, who had previously demoted the general back into the field, appointed him to an advisory post on the headquarters' staff. 

“Is it really this simple?” the general asked the roshi one day. “Did I have the wrong reflexes all this time?” 

“That may be the case,” the roshi allowed.

“It's a good thing I didn't learn these rules as a child,” said the general. “I would never have gotten into any fights at all. I would never have joined the army or become a general.”

The general tapped the roshi's sword with his own. The roshi laughed and nodded. 

“I'm shocked to discover how simple this is,” the general continued. “How has my life, all along, been so guided by these reflexes?” 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Not Zen 83: Familiarity

A burrowing parrot's sons were, like her, part of a colony of thousands of parrots. The grey-feathered birds made their homes in the hollows on the sides of the mountain. They'd lived there for longer than anyone could remember. The colony had gained strength. Their homes were full. Each year, the parrots dug their burrows a little deeper into the rock to make room for more parrots.

The two brothers had grown to maturity in good health. Their father had died long ago but they were strong enough to offer assistance to their mother before the hatching and brooding season. Their mother had not shown interest in finding another mate. So it had become a tradition for the sons to enlarge their mother's burrow. In time, they thought, she would take a mate or they would bring their families to move in with her.

One son had grown to be the alpha male for the colony. He led the largest groups in their migration flights. Many other birds gave way to him. They acceded even to his whims for food, nests, and drinking water. Now the only bird to whom he occasionally deferred was his mother.

He was tough and wise and had married the strongest of females. His children were many.

The other son had grown up to become an ordinary member of the colony. He was one of the weaker males, although considered wise. He had chosen a sickly mate out of love for her spirit. They had one child, now grown and out of their home.
"I feel horrible today," announced the alpha parrot as he landed on the edge of his mother's burrow.

"You look as strong as usual," his brother replied.

"My looks are deceiving. One of my friends tried to poison me."

His brother and his mother chirped at him. It was not unheard of for parrots to seek advantages over one another, especially near the top leadership positions of the colony. But it was alarming for them to hear of such things.

"What makes you say that?" his mother asked.

"He gave me a gift of seeds, as many do." The alpha male strode into his mother's burrow. The other two followed. "But the husks were poisonous."

"Pardon me," said his brother, "but couldn't you see that the husks were on?"

"Yes. I didn't care at the time. I thought I could gnaw off the husks. Isn't that what common parrots do?"

"We do indeed," said his brother. His mother nodded.

"That makes me feel stupid." The alpha parrot walked awkwardly. His stomach rumbled. He pecked once or twice at the back wall of the burrow. Even though he felt ill, his strength was greater than most. Flecks of stone fell from the wall. "I must have done a careless job of it."

"That's not like you," said his mother.

"I'm sure it can't be too bad." His brother joined him at the back where they had planned to expand the burrow. He also chipped away at the wall. "Perhaps you were sloppy. But you still couldn't have eaten many husks."

"I'm not accustomed to feeling ill."

"You'll get through it. You're the strongest, after all. You've been enormously successful."

"Not today. I hate to disappoint you, brother. Today, I'm sick and an idiot."

"I've admired how it hasn't kept you from doing great things.,” said his brother. "But I've always thought you were an idiot."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Not Zen 82: Missing Song

One Thursday night, a group of professional singers went to a tavern. They had just finished a practice session. After a few drinks, they proceeded to practice more by singing in harmony. The other patrons didn't mind.

The next week, the singers stopped over to the same place, drank a little, and sang a bit more. The Thursday night visit became a tradition. Sometimes the vocalists would drum in time to their songs. Sometimes the other patrons would pound on the tables, chairs, or the bar to provide accompaniment.

As the tradition grew, the performances grew rowdier and more elaborate. During well known songs, the tavern regulars would join in.

There came a point in the tradition at which patrons started coming to the bar to hear the singers. The notoriety of the performances spread through the town. Art patrons came and bought rounds of drinks. More critical folks arrived and sat in corners. Curious musicians and rival singers came to see what was happening . Often, the newcomers added to the impromptu music when it began. Even when one of the original singers grew ill and could no longer come to the tavern, his friends continued the tradition.

One night roughly two years after the tradition began, a local man invited his date to join him in the tavern. He had witnessed the gatherings several times before.

"I've been visiting on Thursdays off and on since last year," he said. "You're going to love it. The songs are rowdy but sung in elaborate harmony."

Around dinner time, three of the original singers arrived after their practice, as usual. But on this particular occasion, they'd just learned the news that their longtime friend, the one who had been sick, had died. After a drink or two, they raised their half-empty glasses and made the announcement to the rest of the patrons. There was a moment of silence.

One of the singers began to drum on his table. He cleared his throat. But when he tried to sing, nothing came out. His friends joined in the drumming. But they, too, did not sing. No words seemed to come to any of them.

Other people began to drum. The musicians and rival singers beat on their tables. The regular patrons stomped on the floor. The bartender pounded on the bar. Kitchen staff thumped on the walls. Everyone added to the sound. The entire tavern shook. Waiters had to race to catch cups and plates from falling off of shelves. It was an earthquake of rhythm. Folks who had been eating picked up their flatware, knives, and glasses to keep them from walking off their tables.

The drumming continued for longer than most people could have believed, half an hour, and ended only when the original singers raised their hands for quiet. They bowed and left.

"I'm sorry," the man said to his date once normality had been restored. "It's usually music. It's ... it's not this."

"Don't say another word," the woman replied.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Not Zen 81: The Simplest Understanding

A teacher and one of his students strolled through a park as they discussed the concept of the lack of distinction between places.  The student said she understood how there could be no 'here' or 'there'.  She said she thought it meant there should be no distinction between compass directions either since they can all be the same direction.

"I feel that I know this," she said.  "And I know that many religious figures agree on the concept.  But last month in school, you gave me demerits for my failure to understand.  Then, just yesterday, you admitted that your old teacher also failed to understand the same thing.  Why did you revere her?  You say that she experienced the same failure I've suffered."

"Perhaps for 'failure to understand' I should substitute 'degree of understanding' or 'way of understanding.'"  The teacher hopped across a rivulet of water onto an expanse of grass. His student followed.  "Do you not see that everyone's understanding, even in the failure to truly appreciate a concept, is different?"


"Very well." He stopped where he was. "Let's use an simpler example."

"That ball!" suggested the student.  She pointed to a small, red and white object they had been approaching for some time.

"A ball?  Well, I'll try."  He continued on his way until he reached it.  Then he picked up the ball from the grass and considered it for a few seconds.  "This is a mundane thing, of course.  But as humble as it is, can anyone truly understand it?"

"Everyone can."

"Really?  Look at it.  Tell me how it was made."

"I don't know.  Okay, so maybe I don't understand it.  I can see it has a stitched cover.  Someone or some machine sewed it shut.  It has tooth marks marring the cover, too.  I think that dog over there was playing with it."

"Right.  So let's use the dog, you, the fellow who made this ball, and the person who designed it.  All of you have some understanding of the ball, yes?"

"I suppose," the student looked down and crossed her feet.  She seemed uncomfortable with the inclusion of the dog.

"Or does the dog fail to understand?  It's okay to say that."

The dog noticed the ball in the teacher's hand.  It whined and crept forward.

"I don't know.  The person who made it probably knows it best."

"Perhaps.  But this was one of many, surely.  Did that person understand the materials?  Or care about them?  The designer surely cared."  The teacher took a moment to smile at the dog.  The dog sat down on the grass.  Then it laid down.  It waited for him to do something.

"Yes," the student rubbed her forehead, lost in thought, "but the designer had thousands made, probably, and wasn't there to see the defects in the materials or how fast the manufacturer worked or the problems in the tools used to do the job."

"That's true, a good point.  So you say that you fail to understand  the ball.  And the person who made it fails to understand it.  And the person who designed it fails to understand it.  Aren't those failures all different?  Aren't they all not failures, really, but different ways and degrees of understanding?"

The student threw up her arms.  She shook her head, unwilling to agree.

Her teacher threw the ball.  The dog chased after it.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Not Zen 80: Bad Example

In a dale between two hills lived a family of red foxes. The father kept patrol around the den. Together with his vixen, he raised and taught two litters of pups.

One day, the father led his pups to a stream and taught them how to catch crawfish. His youngest pups had never seen the creatures before. They shouted at the way crawfish swam backwards with a flip of their tails. The pups’ father told them that crawfish could flap their tails and fly in the air, too. The vixen chuckled. The oldest child announced that, no, crawfish could only swim. The youngest pup, the only girl in the litter, didn’t know who to believe.

A week later, their father chanced upon a nest of snakes. He killed the biggest. Then he called over his family. He told them to scavenge the hatchlings.

“How do I grab one?” asked his daughter. She danced in front of the smallest snake, wary.

“By the feet, of course!” her father laughed. Next to him, the vixen’s eyes twinkled.

“Daddy!” wailed the daughter. “My snake doesn’t have feet.”

“None of them do,” said the oldest boy. “Just look at them. Snakes don’t have feet. It’s like those flying crawfish. Dad’s just talking crazy.”

The father yipped at them. He let his tongue hang out.

“Where do you think you should grab a snake?” he asked.

“Behind the head?” ventured his daughter. “That’s the way I saw you do it.”

“So I’ll try that again.” He winked at his mate and at his older pups. “For some reason these little snakes have no feet.”

He demonstrated the way to catch one. Everyone got a clear look as he snapped it from behind. Then the pups practiced on the remaining snakes. They and their mother hunted until they were full.

A few days later, the fox’s daughter watched him slip out of the den. She followed far behind as he pranced across the stream and passed into a grove of beech trees. He trotted along the grove until he found a sunlit spot on the edge of the trees, dense with ferns and grasses. He sat down next to a patch of wild strawberries and began to eat. She watched him pluck berry after berry between his teeth and tongue. She licked her chops and approached.

“Are those good?” she asked.

“Oh no,” he replied. “They’re poisonous.”

“Are you crazy?” she shouted. “Daddy, I see you eat bunches.”

“Then I suppose they must be okay.”

“Are you talking crazy again, daddy?”

“What do you think?”

She laid herself down and studied him.  She got up and sniffed the strawberries in the bushes. She sniffed her father’s mouth. She licked the red juice off of his lower jaw. He turned his head away and laughed.

“Why did you say they were poisonous?” she asked.

“Am I being confusing? Should I explain?” He pawed the ground next to him. She sat down where he had gestured. He leaned closer. “Daughter, I have to say things like that because I’m not a good liar. Other animals are. This way I show you to look out for them. I want you to think about what everyone says and ask yourself, ‘Does this make sense?’”

“So you give me ridiculous answers to make me think?” The pup raised her head to look into his eyes.

“No, I’m just crazy,” her father admitted.

“Aha!” she shouted. “I knew it.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Not Zen 79: Act in Context

Two women sat beneath an awning in the rain.  In front of them, a young man in the street gave up his taxi to an older woman.  The fellow had to wait in the rain for a minute until he got another ride.

"I wonder if this is the last time in my life I'll see that," said the older woman.  She started doing the math in her head and guessed it had been nearly twenty years since she'd witnessed a similar scene.

The younger woman laughed. 

"Don't be silly," she said.  "You've got decades to live.  That sort of thing happens all the time."

"You're still young and pretty," said her friend.  "Maybe it happens to you but I'll bet that usually the men usually would rather ride in the taxi with you."

"Usually, yes."

"When you're older, you have a more complete sense of the context.  Have I tried to explain this before?  When you're young, you might hear about an office worker leaving her job because her superiors are unethical but it doesn't make an impression.  You don't understand how rare it is.  Later, you hear a similar story.  This time, you remember it because you've worked for a while.  You know a little.  But you don't have kids, so you still don't have the full context.

"Years later, when you're older and you're the family's sole source of income, you hear a similar account.  Now you have a much more complete sense of what happened.  The story seems so amazing that you almost can't believe it.  You can't believe someone would leave a good position simply because the upper management was corrupt.  You want to look for hidden reasons."

The younger one folded her arms and chuckled

"The first time you tried to make this point," she said, "was when you described pearl diving."

"What did I tell you?"

"That when a young diver discovers a perfect pearl, she takes it for granted.  She doesn't know the pearl is rare.  It's only when she's older that she realizes that the perfection she saw early on was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

"Maybe that's a better example."

"This feels like the hundredth time you've tried to tell me.  But it's the first time that I feel you might be right."

The older women nodded.  "You're finally building up enough context."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Not Zen 78: Rejection

When his hair was gray and fading, a man remembered the toils of his youth. He had been poor once and now he was wealthy. His job had gotten easier in the last few years after he had hired help. He spent his afternoons sitting and contemplating his past. 

After weeks of reminiscing over his struggles, he decided to return to his old neighborhood. He wanted to look up his childhood friends. When he got there, to his dismay, he discovered that his closest companions had died. The best he could do was to locate their children and grandchildren, who lived on. In remembrance of his old playmates and classmates, he resolved to help their children although they were strangers to him. 

For weeks he observed their needs. All of them were poor and required better food. Some were sick and needed medicines. He made gift baskets and, without the excuse of a special occasion, went from house to house one evening and left the baskets on their doorsteps. 

"What a wonderful sunrise!" he exclaimed to his wife as he woke up the next day. He threw up his arms at the prospect of visiting the homes of his friends' children and finding out how they liked what he'd left for them. 

"What are these baskets doing on our front step?" asked his wife. "I thought you were going to deliver them all last night." 

"But I did!" he protested. He put on a shirt and marched out to see. 

As his wife had told him, there were two baskets on the doorstep. In one of them, the note he'd left had been torn to bits and the presents smashed. In the other, he found a note in response to his. The reply berated him in vulgar terms. The medicine he'd sent for this woman's sick child had been returned unopened. 

"What did I do wrong?" He sat down on the floorboards of his porch. "Is receiving a gift such an injury to pride?" 

"No, I thought this would work," his wife said. She pulled up a chair to join him. "You convinced me. This was a good try." 

His wife had married him when he was poor. She bore his first two children in a one-room home. Although she had come to enjoy the luxuries of their current, lavish lifestyle, she enjoyed talking with him about the hard times and work they had put in over the years. 

"This note to me is right," he said. He held it up for her to see. "I was presumptuous to approach my friends' children." 

"A little, maybe." She cocked her head to one side and smiled at him. "But you always have been confident and generous. I remember that you did something like this when we were younger. We had just put together enough money to move us out of that neighborhood. You tried to give gifts then, remember?" 

"Oh." His cheeks flushed with shame. He had tried to give food. Someone had waited until he was turned and pelted him in the back with a peach. 

"People are often ashamed to get charity. Others don't think they need it. Or they think your charity stinks. It's a gift of what they don't want and so it wastes their time. Who's to say they're wrong?"
"I was a fool." 

"You stopped giving charity then. Have you learned your lesson?"

"I think I have." He gave her a brave smile. "It's prideful to think that my gifts and notes are wanted." 

"No. Notice the baskets that weren't returned." With a wave of her hand, she indicated the number of gifts that could have filled the porch. "The lesson is: this time don't forget those who accept your gifts." 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Not Zen 77: Not Good at Anything

A meerkat clan waited on the hillside for the emergence of the queen's only child.

The queen, Sticktail, had birthed two stillborn children due to the hardships of the dry season. But her third child had survived and its strength was seen as a good omen. A new pup meant that the members of the clan, reduced by predators during the drought, could see proof of their vitality.

Sticktail's pups were usually allowed to leave their burrows at three weeks old. This morning marked the time for the emergence ceremony. The queen positioned herself next to the east-most burrow entrance. Beside her waited her eldest daughter. The queen's mate and his attendants moved further afield. They occupied less likely tunnel entrances from which the pup might emerge. Lower ranking members spread out to every entrance on east and south sides of the hill. The crowed rustled. Clan members traded whispers.

Everyone agreed it was fortunate that the queen's pup survived and doubly fortunate that the boy showed his mother's strength, intelligence, and calm demeanor. Many meerkats had already begun to refer to him as 'the new king.'

A young male named Darkeyes from a previous litter waited with the others for the pup to emerge. He did not feel grateful. He did not think the new child was his future king. He felt jealous that so much respect should be paid to one who had done so little.

Darkeyes turned his back on the entire burrow and surveyed the lands below the hill. He sighed. His father, one of the king's attendants, overheard him.

“Why sad today?” his father whispered.

“Because,” Darkeyes said, “this new pup is growing big already.”

“Yes, he is,” his father agreed.

“And he's smart.”

“Yes.” His father stopped watching the crowd and the burrow entrances. He turned to his son. “Is that a problem?”

“I'm not big. I'm not smart. I'm not best at anything. Everyone else is best at something. Others are strong. Others are brave. Others are quick. The other meerkats my age can lead sometimes but not me. Never me. I'll never be best at anything.”

The boy and his father looked out in different directions as his father, Wideback, tried to think. It was true that his son was not the strongest or fastest. Where would the young, growing meerkat find his place?

They waited. Occasionally, Wideback turned toward the clan to see if the new pup had crawled into the open.

In time, they heard a scrabbling in the dirt. Wideback turned to a nearby tunnel and saw that their newest pup had elected to emerge toward them. Other males, including the leader, crept closer to watch. Soon the pup stuck his head into the sunlight. He squinted as he adjusted to the brightness. The queen began to walk towards the gathering crowd.

At that moment, young Darkeyes started to bark. He sounded angry.

“Stop that,” said his father without looking at him. “You'll scare the pup.”

His son continued to bark an alarm. It was a sound that went to the nerves of every meerkat. It was a signal to be used only in emergencies out of great distress or a need to pass warning. Wideback took a few steps towards his son.

“Stop it,” he called to the boy. “Just because you don't like the pup is no reason to frighten him.”

“Shut up your runt,” said the queen's mate, not too far behind.

Wideback glanced at the current king of the clan, his cousin. He was not too impressed. His cousin was a strong male but Wideback had been the leader once, too. Then he looked to the three-week-old pup, who had hesitated at the lip of the burrow. He felt pity for the king's only surviving son. He turned his attention to his own boy, Darkeyes, who was being disruptive. He strode out a little farther and followed his son's gaze.

A moment later, Wideback started to bark.

“What are you ...?” The king hopped forward. Other males rushed closer to see.

“Look in those bushes,” said Wideback. He gestured to a feline shadow in a line of young guarri shrubs. “It's a serval.”

Slowly, the figure took shape in the eyes of the other meerkats. When they saw it for what it was, they began to bark and hiss. The serval, fully grown and large enough to hunt meerkats, remained cover but its eyes and part of its spotted, black and yellow coat showed through the leaves. At this distance, it would not be able to pounce on them without a long run. Had it taken them unawares, it would surely have sprinted up to kill a young meerkat, perhaps even the new pup as it emerged from the burrow.

Now that the clan had roused to the alarm, they were in good position to fight. Several of the largest meerkats streamed to the front of the crowd. The smaller ones began to retreat toward the burrows.

At the mouth of the nearest entrance, the boy who had started the alarm met with the pup. His father watched them. The boys sniffed each other. The pup seemed to take a liking to Darkeyes.

“Get back in.” The king stepped forward to push his pup back into the burrow. Wideback moved to intercept him. For a moment, it seemed that the two males would fight. But the king focused past Wideback to his pup as it met with Darkeyes. He could see that his son was making a friend. He nodded and held still. The older meerkats waited. Other males and females streamed past to harass the serval. Eventually, Darkeyes led the pup back into the burrow.

“Yes, well, that was rightly done, boy,” called the ruler.

“So trustworthy,” said the queen. “Just like your father.”

Queen Sticktail gazed upon her mate's attendant. Her mate snorted and turned his back. He let the queen proceed first down the tunnel toward her pup. Then he ordered the youngest males and females to the front to fight the serval.

In the burrow, Darkeyes lay down next to the pup. The queen crept in next to them a minute later.

“You turned out to be a good one,” Sticktail said to the boy, not the pup.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Not Zen 76: Charity to Strength

"The owl is watching to take one of us," said a flock leader. With the nod of his head, he indicated the large, grey predator as it waited in a neighboring tree. "We have strength in numbers.  If we're going to rest here, we need to drive it off."

The ravens had landed in the largest willow-oak in the grove, a tree capable of providing shelter, easy communication, and the best vantage point in the area. The willow-oak lay between a farm and a strip of forest, both good supplies of food. But the edge of the forest was also the ideal location for owls. This one had flown in as soon as it spotted incoming ravens. It had taken up a spot on a nearby fir tree to study them.

Despite the obvious threat, barely a handful of volunteers stepped forward to answer the call. They were not the largest or the strongest birds but they were able-bodied.

"This is not enough to take on an animal that preys on grown birds," said the leader. He called for more volunteers. Two more crept forward. He knew it still wasn't enough. Soon the instigator was fluttering from branch to branch on the willow-oak to convince individual friends. The first one of these, he pressed into service. The second refused.

"You usually do good deeds for others, Too-Tall," he said to the young female. "Why won't you help us with this owl?"

"I'm making tools for this grandmother so she can eat," she said. Too-Tall was a jet-black raven with a grey spot at the top of her head. She indicated the mottled, smaller bird next to her. "She's more important than the owl. She's over twenty years old. She has trouble seeing."

"That grandmother is at least a great-grandmother. She's the one who couldn't keep up today," complained the leader. Nevertheless, there was no time to waste in an argument. He moved on to recruit others. The next in line, another young, large female like Too-Tall, agreed to go.

The leader and the other ravens flew out to harass the owl. They managed to force it out of the nearest tree. But the attackers didn't have the numbers to drive it off entirely. The owl settled in a different tree not much farther away and refused to leave. It had nearly grabbed the leader by the back of his neck during their attempt. No one wanted to risk that again. The volunteers returned to their perches on the willow-oak.

The owl attacked at dusk. It swooped in and killed a young raven on the edge of a long branch. Near dawn, it came back and grabbed a full grown, strong female. The loss of their loved ones made for a miserable morning. Everyone was in a bad mood.

"You should have helped," said a raven to Too-Tall after the sun had risen. Too-Tall recognized her as a female who had gone on the attempt to drive off the owl. "Others would have come if you had come. Two innocents died last night because we didn't have enough."

"I had other work," said Too-Tall. She had made stick-hooks to pry caterpillars out of their crevices in the tree. The grandmother she had helped with those hooks was grateful for it. "What can be more important than helping those in immediate need?"

"You give comfort to ravens that get drunk on old berries or rotted pumpkins," the other pointed out. "You support the out-of-luck thieves among us. You help the sick. You save the children, the infirm, and the poor. But you don't give anything other ravens who are doing good things. You never do."

"I help unfortunate birds. They're not effective members of the flock, sometimes, but they're good."

"And those effective ones, the ones that help others? Can't you help them?"

"Someone else can do that."

"Who will support those who help if they do not help one another? Don't turn up your nose at assisting the strong. They are the ones who the most with what you give them."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Not Zen 75: Weak Student

There was a young woman who visited all of the temples, churches, libraries, and schools in her area. Wherever she went, she learned more than what anyone tried to teach her. She heard about other women and men who read similar books, usually about philosophy, or got involved in similar spiritual activities. One name came up more than any other, a young man only a town away. Eventually she met him at a meditation center.

He taught a meditation class. The students were impressed by him despite his youth. He could speak well about disciplines of the body. He could expound on many schools of thought and many sciences. He could meditate on one subject at length, in the western style, and he could establish an empty state of mind.

She studied meditation with him for a few months. In time, she mentioned her new teacher to her parents.

“Oh, I know that boy,” said her mother. “His mother is smart.”

“I don't think you understand,” she said. “This is nothing to do with his mother. He is amazingly wise.”

“Try me. How wise?”

“I've never met anyone as dedicated to wisdom as him.”

“You underestimate yourself. You're as dedicated. You've tracked down spiritual teachers. You get wisdom out of everyone, whether they know they're teaching you or not. You're bright, eager to learn, and wise in your own right.”

“I know that, mother. I know what you mean. Believe me, he's different. Better.”

“As good as he is, when you learn from him you're getting the wisdom of someone who lives with his parents and is supported in every way by them. Think of all the things he can't teach you. Think of how much more wisdom there is to learn.”

“Everyone has flaws, mother. You could point out weaknesses in any teacher.”

“So could you. But you didn't.”

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Not Zen 74: Any Other Injury

The woman in the blue overcoat led her guests down the hallway. Footfalls echoed on the tile floor. Everywhere the taller man and his companion looked, they saw surfaces painted in neutral shades. On the walls hung watercolor paintings, all bolted into place.

"How long to we have?" the tall man asked. 

"There are forty minutes left in the visiting hour," the woman told them. She opened the door to well-lit room. There, the fellow spied his sister. She sat with her hands folded in front of her at one end of an oval, pine-wood table. The table was anchored to the floor.

His sister's curly, brown hair had been cut short. She probably didn't like that. But she flashed him a smile.

"You've brought a friend," she said. There was a long pause after she spoke.

"Yes," her brother said.

"You're useless," she concluded. She turned to the shorter fellow. He had taken a seat to her left. "But at least he's my brother. I know why he thinks he's here. Why you? Have you come to talk to me about religion?"

"We've only met once. I'm impressed you remember me. No, I'm here to support your brother. Insanity runs in my family, usually paranoia as in your case."

"You think I'm sick? My brother won't say it."

"I've known you were ill for a long time. I recognized the signs when we met." He folded his hands in front of him as he nodded. "You have a chemical imbalance. You haven't been treating it well."

"I'm careful with my body and brain. Very careful. I control my foods. I measure out my medicines."

"That's not what I mean. Your brain is like any other part of your body. It can be injured. When it is, it needs emergency care. It needs to be treated like a broken leg or a sprained ankle."

"Look," she said in an exasperated tone. "Can get me out of here? Or not?"

"You'll do that for yourself." His face inclined downward as he shook his head. "You're smarter than I am. Just observe. Watch your mental and emotional states carefully."

"That's all? Just observe?"

"People with your handicap need to observe the ways of things more than anyone. You have theories about how you got to be here, I'm sure. But you're in a lucid moment right now. You're aware enough to suspect that your theories may be wrong. No one likes to admit that. Everyone has pride. To make your pride worse, you're smart."

"My wits are the one thing I've got going."

"Brilliance makes the process of admitting mistakes more difficult. You can seem to fit the facts to your theories. You can find excellent-sounding reasons to ignore contrary facts. No one is going to convince you that you're wrong. It's up to you. You need to observe the warning signs in yourself. When too many people disagree with you on the facts, when you hear awkward silences after you talk, when people look to one another as you speak or act, not to you ..."

"Why do people do that?"

"They're looking to see who will be brave enough to mention your craziness. That's when you need to realize that you've sprained something, that you're injured. You can't wait for your brother to speak up."

"It's rude of you to call me crazy. It's rude to say my brother is timid."

"I don't mean to be rude. I was brought here to say the obvious. You have to recognize when your intellect is leading you into delusions about the world."

"And what would I do if I recognized the signs?"

"You wouldn't exercise a sprained ankle even if you had painkillers. You would rest and
 concentrate on healing. That needs to be your priority with your mind, too. Do your mental therapy just as you would do physical therapy."

She gave a contemptuous snort. She glanced at her brother.

"Thank you for your opinion. And is our mother well?"

She occupied the rest of the visit with a discussion of family.

Months later, at a holiday celebration, the woman visited her brother's home. She entered the living room and spied her brother with his friend. They had their backs to the far wall as they listened to an elderly gentleman.

At first she wanted to confront them but she decided to listen to their conversation. She grabbed a ginger ale because it looked like wine but left her mind clear. Then she passed in back of the elderly gentleman, who kept talking about some medical complaint that didn't interest her. She pretended to care for a houseplant on the end table.

"What did you say?" she blurted.

The silver-haired man stopped. He turned her direction. "Excuse me?"

"I think you said that you're taking the same medicine I am."

"Am I?"

"Do you like it?"

"Of course not."

"Do you take it?"

"Now that I've gotten the dose right, yes."

"Ah." She sipped the ginger ale. Her gaze drifted from the elderly fellow's face to that of her brother's friend. "I think I understand. You know, you have a great son."

"How do you know him?" The fellow seemed at a loss. He put down his own drink, which looked to
 her like water.

"I don't," she replied.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Not Zen 73: Time Management

Early one morning, three runners set out along a road. The sun lay on the horizon as they left. Birds rustled in the boughs of trees. The air was cool. All three dressed for the heat. They set a brisk pace.

The leader trotted to the front of the group. He steadied his rate to let his sister catch up. They ran side by side for a mile or so. Her husband loped along behind. The patter of their shoes on the pavement fell to a steady rhythm.

"Did I tell you?" he huffed. "I'm on a roll at work."

"You hadn't said," his sister replied. "But I could tell."


"You have a pattern," called his brother-in-law from a few yards away. "You leave your kids with your wife more often, like today. You get tied up with your job more. Your wife complains about seeing you less. Eventually, you don't do anything else but work, eat, and exercise."

"That's efficient," he asserted.

"And when you exercise with us, you talk about your job. It goes on for weeks. Then you burn out. You can't sustain the pace."

"You have no idea." Irritated with his running partners, he increased his speed. "I haven't reached my peak yet."

He distanced himself from his companions. For a long while, he bounded along in silence. Beneath his shoes the pavement turned to concrete, the concrete to grass, the grass to dirt. The clay soil path widened as it ran alongside a stream. In time, his emotions flagged. His speed faltered. His breath grew labored as he reconsidered his pace. The muscles in his left leg stiffened.

His sister blew past him. She jostled his shoulder as she went by. But she never said a word. He watched her back as she put extra distance between them. After a half a minute, he heard his brother-in-law's soft footsteps growing close.

It occurred to him that his sister wouldn't listen to what he had to say. He wanted to explain himself. He spoke over his shoulder to his brother-in-law.

"I'm getting so much done at work. It's nice. I'm really going all out on a project."

"That's the worst," his brother-in-law told him.


"It means you're trying to do more than anyone can really do."

"But I can do it."

"Not really. It's a problem of the human condition, I suppose. Animals don't make the mistake of planning more tasks than there's time for. They don't imagine solutions that don't exist or that time can be compressed or expanded at need."

"I don't think that's what I'm doing."

"Bright people have no problems conceiving of things getting done more quickly than possible."

"Well, maybe a little of that," he allowed.

As they rounded the mid-point of their training circuit, his sister slowed down to let them catch up. They swung back along the trail they'd just run. The three of them strode nearly side by side. He decided to continue the conversation as if she hadn't joined.

"But all I need to do is maintain my peak performance," he said.

"Peak performance is just that," replied his brother-in-law. "It's the pinnacle of what you achieve. Humans don't sustain a peak. Even machines don't sustain peak performances."

"Just because you can run a marathon in two hours doesn't mean you can run four every workday," his sister snapped.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Not Zen 72: Considerate Songbird

A student complained to her guru that he talked too much. She noticed that whenever he spoke, everyone fell silent, even the other teachers nearby. They all stopped to listen to her guru.

“You’re the best teacher,” she said. “But you’re intimidating to others.”

The guru remained seated on his mat. He had excellent students but he judged this one to be among his best. She’d learned a tremendous amount in a short time. He knew that he might not see many more students as adept as she. He rubbed his beard.

“Let’s say that there was a songbird who sang so beautifully that all of the other birds in the forest fell silent,” he said. “But he was a considerate songbird. He wanted others to sing. He wanted his wife to sing, too, and she didn’t like being silenced more than any other bird. So the songbird felt ashamed of his fine voice.”

“I’m not your wife,” his student said. She folded her arms.

“I don’t think birds have students. Anyway, this songbird decided to silence himself. He remained quiet so others could speak. Of course, his neighbors grew accustomed to this very quickly. They sang loudly at him, sometimes wrongly, but he did not complain. His voice grew out of shape. His voice had been important to his life and he noticed the loss of it. In the next mating season, he did not sing. His wife left him. Even then, he didn’t sing a note of complaint.”

“You think your students would leave you?”

“Why would they stay if I didn’t teach?” He closed his eyes. “For years, the bird remained silent.  He felt wise, loving, and content, so he reasoned that he had no real cause to speak. But towards the end of his life, he looked out on the forest floor and, struck by its perfection, sang a short song.”

“And did all the other birds shut up?”

“No. His voice was barely a whisper. They hardly took notice.”

“I don’t like this comparison.” The student stepped back to find a chair. “A songbird is just a bird. It sings to live. It can’t worry about other birds. They’re no more virtuous than it is.”

“I’m a teacher,” he replied. “I have a message for those who want to hear me. That is my life.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Not Zen 71: Sense of Importance

A man traveled late at night in the rain with his wife by his side. He thought about enlightenment and how hard it seemed to be to achieve. He needed to do everything he could to keep up his study of it. This trip he was on with his wife seemed to be one of many things in his way, a chore to be done.

He couldn't find a balance between his meditation practice and his everyday life. He was making lists in his head of all the things he needed to do. It all seemed very difficult, important, and stressful.

In the dark, his wife laughed. The noise interrupted his thoughts.

"What?" he said, irritated.

"Did you ever lie down at the top of a hill and roll to the bottom?" she said.

It took him a moment to remember. "Yes.  As a child."

"Well, that's what I was just thinking about."

"Oh." He stared in wonder at her for a moment. He thought about the grass around him on a hill he'd climbed as a child. He forgot about his lists. He watched the road ahead and the rain.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Not Zen 70: Creatures of Habit

An elderly monk sat on the banks of a stream, as he did every day in the summer. Each morning, he put out a begging bowl to collect money and food while he preached his thoughts on the Dao. Each evening, he threw away his food trash from the begging bowl into the stream and returned to his monastery.

On one particular afternoon, he received several visitors. Some wanted his advice. Some wanted to share his shade next to the stream. The next to last visitor was a wealthy young woman who came to donate money to the temple.

“That's wonderful,” the monk told her as he accepted her cash. “The summer has been dry and our harvest is poor. This will allow us to buy food for the winter.”

The woman bowed courteously and said she was glad to help. The monk tipped out the remains of his food into the water. Then he put the donation into his begging bowl.

As the master contemplated the gift, he received his last visitor of the day, a former monk. This man had given up the monastic life to become a businessman. He never donated to the temple. He never visited the dormitories. He simply dropped in on his former friend at the spot next to the water. It had become one of his habits.

At the end of each afternoon with the master, the businessman threw his food trash into the water and returned to his home in much the same way as the master emptied his begging bowl and returned to his monastery.

“You have gotten lazy,” said the monk.

“It's true.” The businessman nodded. He ate a pinch of fried dough that he'd bought for both of them. “I've gotten dependent on material wealth. I wear fine clothes. I eat meat and sweet desserts. I drink wine. All of this makes me fat.”

“You talked about this last week,” the monk observed. “Why don't you just break those bad habits of yours?”

“It's not so easily done.  I like all of those things.”

“Bah!” The monk threw up his arms. “You must control your habits or they will control you. You must see the patterns of your life. Understand them, let them guide you, and steer them or step out of those patterns when appropriate. That is what an enlightened man does. He is not a slave to habits.”

“Are you not under the power of any such habits?” asked the businessman doubtfully. “Not one?”

“I control myself completely, as all men of good spirit must do. It would be shameful to let any habit become the master of me.”

The monk rose, bowl in hand. He was irritated with his old friend and wanted to leave. The businessman, taking the cue, also stood. He dumped the crumbs of his fried dough into the stream.

The master, as was his habit, emptied his bowl. The donation to the temple fell into the water.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Not Zen 69: Enough Detail

A young and successful businessman grew more wealthy year after year.  But eventually his small business hit a downturn.  He tried hiring and firing in the staff positions he suspected of causing him trouble.  He brought in a consultant for advice but he didn't agree with the results.  Finally, he went his his religious leader, a Quaker clerk, for advice.

His clerk happened to be a patron of his business.  That meant the Quaker leader was in a good position to understand the problems.  She had no financial interest either, so she could be counted on to remain impartial.

“Why have you come to me?” the clerk asked as they were introduced that morning.  She motioned for her parishioner to join her in sitting in wooden chairs, both on the same side of the clerk's desk.

The businessman took a seat.  He made himself comfortable and considered his words before he spoke.

“I'm worried about my best manager, Emily,” he said.

“That's a surprise.”  The clerk nodded for the speaker to continue.  She picked up a teapot that had been sitting on a warmer on the desk.  “I've heard nothing but good about Emily.”

“Well, I'm worried about my other manager, too.”

“Really?”  The clerk poured a cup of tea.  “I have only good reports of him as well.”

“But they talk.  They may say bad things about what I've been doing.”

“Are you ready for my advice?”  The clerk set down her tea untouched.

“I haven't told you my problem yet.”

“You have told me that you're worried to have good, sweet people work for you because they may say bad things.  That tells me enough to give you advice.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Not Zen 68: Crazy Aware

A psychiatrist and her patient rose from their chairs in her office.  They strolled out of the second floor suite and treaded down a flight of steps. Outside, they found bustling sidewalks and traffic-filled streets.  They skirted throngs of pedestrians and a convoy of bicyclists. The glare of the sun cast confusing shadows.  Around them, people moved from place to place.  There were sounds of metal on metal, of children yelling, of shoes on the sidewalks. The patient talked about his observations.

"I thought I was going to hate this," he admitted.  "But I like how everyone's keeping their distance.  They're ignoring us."

"Just to confirm, you were initially anxious about seeing the crowds?" his doctor asked.

"Of course.  I was only hiding it."

"You think so?  Well, we're all limited.  Not everyone can see themselves in the mirror."

"Not everyone is afraid of crowds the way I am."

"I meant something different," she said.  She led them toward an outdoor cafe.  Smells of food drifted on the breeze.  Customers huddled together in groups as they ate.  "Everyone knows a little bit of your feeling.  But mostly, other people have different problems.  I see a lot of problems in my line of work."

"Do other people hide their disabilities too?"

"They try.  Their problems aren't hidden for anyone who looks.  No one really conceals mental issues."

"I can hide mine.  I do it every day."

"You might think so but no, you don't.  How can I explain?"  The psychiatrist sighed.  She took them around the sidewalk to the other side of the crowds.  Her patient stepped out in the street at first.  It took him in a few seconds to build up the nerve to follow her.  "You wouldn't be under this illusion if you were missing a finger.  You would know that people must notice.  It might take them a minute or two but it would be inevitable.  With emotional problems, it's the same."

"You think my fears are as noticeable as a missing finger?"

"If you and a friend sat down for lunch, in time your friend would forget the missing finger." She pointed to a group of diners.  They spoke animatedly with their upper bodies and ignored everyone else. "But mental problems become more obvious over time, not less.  They're in every choice you make, every word you utter, every glance, every gesture."

"That's awful."

"It's natural.  Your actions are shaped in every instant by your perception of the world, same as they are for everyone else.  That's why I think you'll improve."

"You think you can train me to lose my fears because everyone else is messed up?"

"I think you can succeed because you allow for the possibility that your perceptions are wrong. You check them and make corrections. That puts you ahead of people who are fooled by their senses all the time but never question what they perceive."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Not Zen 67: Reversal of Movement

"You wear suits now?" exclaimed the visitor.

John unbuttoned his jacket and hung it over his office chair.  He nodded.  With his left hand, he picked up a stack of papers.

His hair had turned gray during his years of work for charities.  Then he'd started his own cause.  He'd built a mid-sized enterprise that served health care to the poor.  Where once he had greeted every visitor in faded, torn clothes, he now solicited donations in a suit.  Where once his office had been open to the street, now its door lay wide to a reception area.

"Yes, I wear nice clothes," he said.  He didn't stop his work to chat with the visitor.  He read the final paragraph of the top document and signed it.

"And you have a bed in your office?"  His visitor pointed to the cot in the corner.

"Yes."  He signed another form.  "My back thinks that it's old and fragile.  It doesn't like me to sleep on chairs or on the floor."

"You sleep at the office?"

"I've always slept in my offices.  But I've never had a bed before last year."

"You nap during the day?"

"No."  The administrator looked up.  "I know you give money here and you seem shocked.  But I make fold-out beds available to all my staff.  It encourages them to stay."

"I see."  The visitor looked around uncomfortably at the rich surroundings.  "The place has grown a lot since I was here last."

"Yes.  I can tell you approved of poverty better."  The administrator sighed and sat down behind his desk.  "I did, too.  I thought that depriving myself of material goods would improve my spirit.  Thanks to people like you, I found myself surrounded by plenty.  I sought to give joy to others.  Soon I found myself happy."

"Ah," said the visitor.  He walked to the open doorway.  He saw a doctor pass by, then another.  "Now I understand.  You have invoked the rule of reversal of movement.  To achieve something, you first explore its opposite."

"I doubt it. "  John turned back to his papers.  “I didn't know about anything called that.  It doesn't sound like it should work.”

"I've doubted the principle, too.  But your life exemplifies it.  Don't you explore a lot of sickness here?"

"More than I'd imagined possible."

"Same principle.  By exploring sickness, you achieve health."

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Not Zen 66: Home Temple

A young man became engaged to an older woman. Everyone in their village thought it would be an excellent match. But on the eve of the marriage, he called off the ceremony. Without consulting anyone, not even his closest friends, he left his home and traveled to the nearest monastery.

His fiance knew that this was something he'd considered. She had, too. In fact, she had taken him on a tour of the local holy sites. She had an easy time tracking him. However, when she went to visit her lover, the monks would not allow her in.

She climbed the hill next to the compound and spotted her man meditating in the eastern courtyard. She hiked to the east wall. With the help of a pear tree, she scaled the wall and, unhurt by the drop on the other side, she strode to confront her lover.

His head was shaved and he wore a saffron robe. He seemed unsurprised by her presence. But he did not call for the other monks. She sat and adopted a pose of meditation similar to his.

"Are you at peace?" she asked after a while.

"I think I am coming to inner peace, yes," he replied.

"Did we have happiness at home? I thought we did, both of us."

"We did. Very much. But what is worldly happiness compared to eternal happiness?"

"It's nothing, of course. And what about love?"

"What about it? What is love compared to enlightenment?"

"They're teaching you nothing," she said sternly. "I taught you more. What is enlightenment without love that flows naturally from it? Aren't they joined? Shouldn't you know?"

The young man had no reply. The next day, he asked his teacher this question about love from enlightenment. He was not satisfied with the answer. A day later, he asked again and perceived a similar evasion. So he returned to his home town. He made apologies to his friends. Then he married the woman who had shown him the way to and from the temple.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Not Zen 65: Passage

A woman lost her infant to fever. Her mother had died not long before. The prospect of raising the daughter had sustained her through the loss of her mother. But there was nothing to sustain her through the loss of her child. The second death, so soon after the first, put her into depression.

The woman found it grew harder over the weeks for her to function normally. She performed her family duties without energy. She stopped cleaning. Her neighbors and friends criticized her behavior but she couldn't make herself care. She wasn't able to confide with her husband about her troubles because she felt she had failed him just as she'd failed her dead mother.

She considered suicide. Her husband was a good man, she thought, and could find another wife.

Before she took action, she went to her friend, a roshi who had studied meditation for many years. Her friend listened to her troubles with sympathy.

"I don't know how to deal with this loss," the young woman concluded. "You have studied detachment. Maybe you can help me."

"You cannot solve this problem by detaching yourself from it," answered the roshi.

"What? That's the opposite of what you should say. Even I know Buddhism better than that."

"Maybe you should tell me how it goes."

"You're supposed to say that my worldly desires will bring me sorrow."

"Oh, they will. They have."

"And that I should learn to let go of my worldly desires."

"You're correct."

"Then that's the way I should rid myself of this pain."

"No. You cannot deny the loss of your loved ones. You cannot deny what you feel. To attempt that is contrary to the Way. Never deny your expectations, hopes, or loves."

"But they bring me great sorrow!"

"You cannot avoid sorrow. You must live through it. And eventually you may move past it."

"That will take too long!  It could take my whole life."

The roshi nodded.  She insisted, "Nevertheless."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Not Zen 64: The Best Way

A young man traveling alone stopped at a temple to ask for directions. An attendant there gave him the information he needed. Before the traveler turned to leave, he asked, “And what's the best way?”

The attendant understood that this was a different question. He tapped the floor. When the traveler did not seem to understand, he said, “This way is best.”

The traveler left unhappy, having interpreted the answer as conceit for the temple. As he walked, he grew more and more impatient with the tapping of the hallway floor. He met a woman walking up the long hill road toward the temple and asked her the same question.

"Can you show me the best way?"

The woman smiled and tapped the ground with her foot. Then she continued on her way. The traveler felt this, under the circumstances, was a bit better.

Farther on, he happened to meet an elderly man who was apparently coming back from town.

"Can you show me the best path?" he said.

This man happened to work in the temple. He had lived in the area for a long time, tending to the monks and to the people of the town. He recognized that the traveler had been to the temple and had probably asked others the same question.

"Continue on this road," he said.

The young man was not satisfied.

"Continue on this road into town," said the old fellow. He gestured to the road behind him. "Turn left and walk another block. There you will find a bank. Stand in front of the bank and meditate. The answer will come."

Curious, the traveler did as he was told. He walked into town and found the bank, an impressive building with rich ornaments and a false brick front. There he stood, studying the building until he grew tired. When he could stand no longer, he sat. A bank guard came out and accosted him.

"Hey you!" he said. “Get out of here.”

“And the best way is?”

“To get moving!”

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Not Zen 63: Not a Contrarian

A vixen lost one of her cubs to a hunter's trap. She warned her surviving cub to stay away from the hunter, his prey, and his snares. The next day, while the vixen was gone, the cub spotted a thrush that had been wounded. He stalked the bird. Then he sprinted after it and chased it into a thorn bush.

When the vixen returned, she found her cub bleeding from his snout. He'd been cut by thorns. She held him down and cleaned him.

"Can you imagine what would have happened if the hunter had been following that bird?" she said. "You would have been caught."

"He wasn't anywhere around." The cub winced as she licked his wounded face.

"He injured the bird. He must have been someplace."

The next day, the vixen left after giving her cub a warning. Nevertheless, when she returned a few hours later, she found him gone. Fearing the worst, she dashed from place to place across her territory. She discovered her cub alive but dangling by his hind legs from a grass-twine snare.

"Didn't I tell you that the hunter sets his traps here?" she said. She climbed onto a tree branch to chew the cord.

"I saw the snares and went around them."

"You missed this one." She broke the twine. Her cub fell to the ground. "You're lucky it didn't get your neck. You're lucky that you're big and didn't have to fall far."

On their way home, it became clear to the vixen that her son still had not learned his lesson. As soon as sensation returned to his limbs, he began to stray. He was a contrary child and would not obey her.

"Perhaps you'll listen to your father," she said. She ran off to find her mate.

The cub's father was not surprised to hear the latest news. However, he didn't think he could persuade his son to listen.

"You must," the vixen insisted. "Take him hunting with you tomorrow. Help him learn enough wisdom so that I may have peace."

"That's fair," the fox agreed. "One way or another, you deserve peace."

The next morning, the fox met his son at the mouth of the den. He led the cub through a bramble patch. Instead of running with heads held high, the cub learned, they could crouch low and pass unharmed. At the other end of the thorns, they stopped to study a rabbit warren.

"This is a good place," said the fox. "The hunter knows it, too, and has set snares."

"I smell rabbits," said the cub.

Not long past dawn, the hunter arrived. He cut down two snares, one that had missed and another that had caught a young rabbit. He had taken a hare from a different set of traps, so he made small pile of the bodies. Then he knelt to dress his game.

The fox cub's mouth began to water.

"I'll bet I could get those," said the cub.

"Sure," his father agreed. "That way your mother will get some peace. Try it. You could grab a rabbit and run. They're not heavy. His back is turned. Go!"

"What?" The fox cub inched forward. He eyed the rabbit carcasses. He turned his wary gaze on his father. "But mother said the hunter would kill me!"

"Only if he catches you."

"Are you trying to get me killed?" squealed the cub. This, the hunter overheard.

He picked up his knife and game bag to chase after the foxes. Through the brambles they ran, although the father was not in too much of a hurry to make sure they kept low. They escaped without injury.

After they got home, the father gave his cub instructions to go out and hunt for himself. Then, laughing, he set off. A few hours later, the vixen returned. She found her cub waiting for her at the mouth of the den.

"You're still here?" she said. "I thought I told your father to take care of you."

"Yes, and father told me to take a rabbit from the hunter. He tried to get me killed!"

The vixen sat down to hear the whole story.

"Ah," she said as her cub concluded his version of the events. "Your father knows how to give you instructions."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Not Zen 62: See No Reason

A spiritual teacher had, as her worst student, her own son.

This teacher was a kind soul, known for being forgiving and generous. But her son rebelled against this gentleness. He despised it as a weakness and as a sign that his mother was mentally feeble. She gave up preaching to him about charity. Instead, she tried to show him practical things.

For a while, her appeal to his self-interests worked. Then he stopped listening to her at all. He refused to go to school. She tried to persuade him of the value of an education. Her arguments were seen as irrefutable to everyone else around her. Her son didn't agree. He rebelled against her reasoning even when it meant admitting that his own conclusions were nonsensical.

The next summer, a distant relative offered the boy a job as a laborer. He accepted although he understood that he would not earn enough to move out of his mother's house. Unfortunately, he was bad at the simple tasks he was assigned. He did not always show up for work on time. He did not work hard.  He didn't listen to his supervisors' instructions with care. He wasted his own efforts and the productivity of others with his sloppiness. Within a few weeks, he found himself out of a job.

“Now that you have time again,” his mother said upon receiving the news. “You should return to your studies.”

“I have no studies,” he said.

“I bought a book of logic for you.” She tried to put it into his hands. “Logic is good in every situation. Learning this would help you in all of your life, even in your jobs as a laborer.”

He pushed the book aside. “That is a waste. You are trying to teach me how to think. I see no reason to learn logic.”

“Like many things, this is a skill you will never understand the reason to learn,” she admitted, “until you have already learned it and put it to use.”

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Not Zen 61: Thrill Seeking

For two years, a student of the Dao emulated her roshi, Sara. Sara was an older woman who lived a quiet life. She worked hard and rested sensibly. She meditated every night. On occasion, she socialized with a few friends.

Everyone agreed that the roshi was in touch with her De. Her student, Humi, admired her for it. Nevertheless, she found the lifestyle tedious to imitate. She performed the same tasks every day although none of them interested her. She supposed it was part of her process of enlightenment.

One day, Humi received an invitation to go hang gliding with friends. It was something her roshi would never do.

"I hope you don't take offense if I go," she told Sara.

"Why would I?" Sara exclaimed. "This is the kind of thing that young people often enjoy. You can go out and break a few bones. You'll heal."

"Really? I thought you would tell me that hang gliding is just a form of thrill seeking, that it's contrary to the spirit of Daoism."

"How foolish." The roshi shook her head. "You haven't progressed as much as I thought."

"What does that mean?"

"If you want to go gliding and you let your conception of the Dao stop you, then you don't love hang gliding. And you don't love excitement. And you don't love the Dao. You only love the false idol of the Dao that you've made for yourself."

Humi was taken aback. She had always said the right words. She had always done the things that Sara did. She'd thought their concept of the Dao was similar. This was the first time that she'd realized Sara's practice of the Dao was not a ritual but truly a part of her. Humi had, unfortunately, made Sara's practice of the Dao into a ritual for herself but it had brought her no closer to enlightenment.

The next week, Humi went hang gliding. The grass on the hills was dark green. The wind swept up the slopes and carried her away without effort. The moments of clarity she felt while in the air astounded her. She knew she would remember this day for the rest of her life.

She flew three times and then she broke her leg on the third landing.

Her roshi went to visit her in the hospital. She sat down without saying hello. The exchange between student and roshi puzzled Humi's friends.

"Do you feel improved now?" asked Sara. She ignored the cast on her student's leg.

"Very much so," said Humi.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not Zen 60: Just This

In the cold seas of the arctic there lived an bull orca. He swam with the members of his pod, hunted seals and schools of fish with his pod, sang stories with his pod, looked at the stars with his pod, and played with the other members of his pod. His family of orcas occupied his entire life. As he grew into his adulthood, he wondered why he had to stay with a single group.

Why he couldn't roam with the wilder orcas who lived solitary lives? He'd seen them from a distance.  He envied their freedom.

One day, a female elder called the clan together for a meeting. The young bull decided not to attend but he wasn't given a choice. Other orcas gathered around him and talked about their travels. It was a subject of conversation he found tedious. As a junior member, he struggled to be polite with the males and females who remembered and debated. He settled for being silent. Even that was a struggle.

From a distance, his grandmother watched. 

A moment after he answered a question about where to dive for squid with, "How would I know?  We haven't dived for squid in months," his grandmother swam up to him. 

She whispered so that only he could hear, “From birth to death, it's just this.”

His spirits sank. His grandmother was strong and wise. She had seen into his spirit, right to what he was afraid of most: that his life would always be like this. She confirmed it. This was life. This was what it was. All day long and into the evening, he despaired about her words.

He spent a few days saying goodbye to the pod and to each of its members. He'd made up his mind to leave. He'd go to the deepest ocean, perhaps to sink to the bottom, stay, and die. He listened for the sounds made by the solitary orcas to the north, denizens of the deeper seas. The same thing was true for them, too: this was all there was, just this. From birth to death, existence was what was in him and around him. When he lived alone, there would be even less around him and he prepared for that.

There would be octopuses to see in the shallows and in the sea bottoms. The orca spent some time diving to them to study how they lived. They hunted crabs, he noticed after a few dives. He scooped up one of the crabs and ate it when he got hungry.

He explored the schools of fish, large and small. Sometimes they fled from him but sometimes not. He swam up to the land animals that ventured out to sea in boats. They usually tried to keep their distance but a few got close enough for him to get a good look, one on four legs, others on two. As the pod traveled south in the next week, he spent several days observing a strip of sand and ice on which a few polar bears roamed. Bears competed with orcas for their favorite food, seals. He was surprised to find that he held a grudging respect for bears. As swimmers, they were no match for seals and yet they hunted. They succeeded. They lived.

In time, the orca came to respect even the seals and walruses. He'd thought they were annoying before, especially the walruses, but he observed that some of them were tough, some were fast, and some were clever, much as the members of his pod were.

To his surprise, he began to find the pod meetings interesting. The others of his clan were no brighter than they had been before. They were no less full of silly talk about the weather or the fish or the kelp. But he understood that these things mattered to them and he felt more generous of their concerns. Other orcas did not often have grand thoughts about the purpose of life, the differences between males and females, the cultures of other orcas, or the ways of creatures that they hardly ever saw, such as dolphins, pilot whales, or deep sea squid. He felt that those creatures did have their own cultures, however primitive, but even his grandmother held few opinions about them.

He learned to relax during the pod meetings and listen for the observations made by the other orcas. He took their wisdom as he found it. Sometimes they surprised him and he learned from those who he'd disdained.

He never got around to leaving. He watched the lone orcas from a distance and realized they rarely vocalized except in anger or in hunting. Swimming alone would mean living without the company of those others, who were solitary by nature. It would be a tedious existence, nearly purposeless without others to care for, and anyway, from birth to death, this was all that there was. All that surrounded him was beautiful like the squids that flashed in the deeps and terrible like the bull sperm whales that hunted giant creatures where orcas could not go. The orcas had their place, though, hunting the whales in their turn. 

Existence was all those things at once. It was also all those things he could not understand from tides to deep currents, from storms to quakes, from swells to waterspouts. He knew he did not truly understand the bright sun or the stars at night or any other lives, small or great. Even before his birth and after his death, he was a part of an overwhelming, unknowable everything. Each mundane act and every miraculous effort played its part. Ordinary breaths of air and events like flocks of seabirds falling from the sky were equal. The pod meetings, too, played their part in how things were.

Years passed and his grandmother reached nearly ninety years before she was injured defending one of her great-grandchildren from another pod of orcas. As their group asserted its territorial claim over the bay, they watched their injured matriarch. For a day or two, she hung on but her wounds festered. She grew feverish. It became clear that she was going to die. She rested near the surface and watched the calves playing not far away from her. 

Her grandson, now one of the oldest males in the pod, floated up to the surface next to his grandmother and kept her company. She talked about the sun and its warmth. She wondered about birds and where they go. She reminded him that “between birth and death, there is only this.”

“Grandmother,” he replied. “Before birth and after death, I think it's the same, just this.”

“You shine in the sun,” she told him. They nuzzled and watched the world for a few hours more until his grandmother was dead. Her body began to sink.

The grandson paid no more heed. He blasted a great call to the others. He gathered them to a pod meeting. They discussed plans for travel eastward into the bay to hunt the great schools of fish they'd followed and then they left.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Not Zen 59: Parroting the Instructor

A sailing instructor on an island doubled as the chaplain and meditation tutor for a resort hotel.  As he matured, he worked less as a sailor and more as a religious mentor.  With an eye to entertaining his tourist clients, he trained his pet parrot to repeat the phrases, "one hand clapping," "chop wood, carry water," and "dog has buddha nature."  Morning and evening, visitors entering his imitation pagoda attached to the hotel were greeted by "chop wood, carry water" or some similar phrase until they grew tired and asked the instructor to put the bird away in a separate room, which he always did.

Another employee of the resort hotel stopped by one day.  The parrot's cage rested at the front of the chapel and the green bird in it rocked back and forth on its perch. 

“Sound of one hand,” called the parrot.  “Sound of one hand.”

The visitor put his hands on his hips.

“Why in the world did you teach it to say things like that?” he asked.

“Ah.”  The chaplain tapped his nose.  “I teach classes on Zen, you know.  I find that the parrot discourages students from repeating my words.”

“Is that all?”

“No.  More accurately, the benefit with students is a side effect.  Years ago, I trained the parrot to say catch phrases of wisdom in order to keep myself from repeating them.  It worked.  Of course, it keeps my clients entertained, too, but the purpose of the bird is to make me a better teacher.”

“I don't get it.”

“Every time I find myself using stock phrases with my students instead of putting things in my own words, I'm forced to ask myself, 'Do I know as little of Zen as my parrot?'”