Sunday, January 27, 2013

Not Zen 43: Contempt Needed

Before dawn, an elderly man hiked up the hill to a grand temple. He arrived when the front doors were closed. As the eastern sky glowed red, he was joined by a younger man. They waited until the priest noticed them and opened the temple.

They were the earliest visitors of the day and it was their first time inside. Tall, stone statues lined the front hall. Carpets with woven mandalas stretched out along the marble floor. Under the arch at the center of the temple, artists had painted a fresco of bright colors and intricate details. The younger man lifted his gaze as he followed his companion. He saw candle holders of brass, gold, and silver. He gaped at altars piled high with jade figurines, carved with love. Next to them and among them were icons made from citrine and aquamarine.

The older fellow stepped up to the raised platform at the center, where the prayer mats waited. He brushed aside the incense burners, books, and carvings that lay in his path. His companion gasped.

"Do you have something to say?" he asked.

"No, sir," the younger one said.

"Of course not. You are very respectful."

"Yes." said the pupil.

"Everything I say, you hear."

"Oh yes."

"You are so reverent, so serious ..."  The old man paused. He rubbed his balding head. "I cannot see how you will ever succeed."

"But … what do you mean?"

"You see me as above you. You see enlightenment as beyond you." He threw out his arms to either side and indicated their surroundings. "You see all this crap in the temple as worthy of reverence. It's not. Enlightenment is mundane. I'm an ordinary person. Have some contempt, damn it."

"Yes, sir."

"Sheesh. Listen to you." He pounded the floor. "If the holiest person alive was here on the mat next to me, I would tell you to doubt the words coming out of his mouth."

"Yes, sir."

"Damn it!"

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Not Zen 42: The Power of Natural

There was a semi-professional fighter and religious disciple who earned money by demonstrating his physical strength. Sometimes he found other promising fighters, strong men, or students of the Way to refer to instructors.

In one town, the fighter came across a farmer's truck stuck in a ditch. To show off his strength, he volunteered to lift the truck but, try as he might, he couldn't gain purchase on the muddy ground.

"I'm hauling bricks," said the farmer. "It might be too heavy."

"You're right." The warrior sighed and gave up. "I'm one of the strongest men in the world and I can't lift it in this mud. But I can walk a block to the trucking station and get someone to tow you out."

When the strong man returned, he was surprised to find the small truck already out of the ditch.

"How did you do it?" he asked the farmer in astonishment.

"Oh, Billy Joe lifted me out." The farmer hopped into his truck and started the engine. "Mighty Billy, we call him here. But you just missed him."

"I want to meet that man."

He followed in the direction Billy had gone. Only a block away, he met a woman who told him that Mighty Billy was in the garage. At the garage he asked a young man and was told, "Mighty Billy's in the shed."

Out at the shed, there was only a small man, nearly bald and gray with age. The warrior told the man that he was looking for Mighty Billy.

"Why do you want Mighty Billy?" the man asked.

"Because I know he lifted that truck. I want to learn how he did it."

"I'm Billy," admitted the man.

"You?" The warrior could hardly believe it. The man in front of him seemed strong but he was also smaller and thinner than most ordinary men. He could never be a prize fighter.

"I know what you're thinking," said Billy. "But when I raised that truck out of the ditch, it's because I knew how to use my strength. I wasn't showing off. I was just listening to my body and doing things in a natural way."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Not Zen 41: Better Than Finding

A man wanted his car repaired. He went to a dealership but the mechanics there said it was impossible for them to perform the correct procedure.

"Why?" he cried.

"They aren't making the flanges you need. We can't get them."

He took his car to a local garage, which told him the same thing. He went to a car hobbyist, who agreed that those parts hadn't been manufactured for years. However, the hobbyist said that he shouldn't give up hope. There was a junkyard owner not far away who might be able to locate the correct parts.

"That's not an antique, you know," said the junkyard owner when they met. He puffed his cigar and nodded in the direction of the well-used vehicle.

"I've had my car a long time," he replied. "I trust it and I want to fix it."

"Is this the parts list?" A greasy finger trailed down the page printed out from the dealer.

"Yes, it is."

"Okay. Come back in the morning. I'll have them for you."

He shook the owner's hand and vowed to pay anything. Later, as he stayed over night in a hotel, he regretted his enthusiasm. He worried that he would face a huge charge for such rare parts.

In the morning, however, he was surprised to find the bag of parts ready and a small bill attached. The price was less than a tenth of what he'd expected.

"This is wonderful!" he exclaimed. "But how did you find them so quickly? And why couldn't anybody else find the parts? I had all sorts of specialists looking for me. Some charged more money than you did and without giving me any results. What are you doing right?"

"I made the parts," the junkyard owner explained. He wiped the grease from his hands. "I had to charge for my time but otherwise, they're not worth much."

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not Zen 40: Excuses

The mice held court. In their grand hollow between two great oak trees, they thronged to hear accusations against two members of their clan. A pair of defendants had been caught with willow bark in their burrows. Chewing too much of the bark made mice light-headed and unreliable so it had been outlawed. Now the elders gathered to determine the facts and, if the defendants were found guilty, decide whether they should be torn apart or merely banished.

The guard mice who had discovered the caches of willow bark testified first. There seemed to be no doubts. Both of the accused had been caught with willow not only in their nesting chambers but in their mouths. Indeed, when the initial testimony was finished one of the defendants crept forward to beg for his life.

"I'm not like the other fellow," he pleaded. "I'm sorry for what I've done. I agree with the rule against willow. I'll never even look at it again."

"You let your children go hungry," said one of the elders. "You put a great burden on your mate and on your neighbors."

The defendant trembled. "I didn't notice. My ears were ringing. I'm very sorry."

The most senior, powerful mice conferred for a moment. They agreed that ringing in the ears was a symptom of too much willow bark.

"You step back," they said. "Bring the other one forward."

The second defendant had fought his arrest. His forelimbs and snout bore wounds from the struggle. The guards around him bore bloody wounds, too.

"What do you have to say for yourself?" asked one of the oldest mice in the burrow.

"I have a toothache," said the defendant. "So I'll eat willow bark if I want. It's up to me, not you elders. I didn't let any children go hungry. I kept my side of the stores full. I went on my patrols. I brought back better food than anybody. All I did was eat willow bark. Who cares how much? That's up to me."

His words caused a roar in the cavern as mice gossiped to one another. How could this solitary mouse dare to oppose the will of the majority? A few of the audience tried to shout him down toward the end of his speech.

Angrily, the head judge called a conference of the elders. He wanted to decide on sentences for the defendants right away. The other judges wanted to call character witnesses first. The head judge prevailed, however, shouting down the others. They took a poll among them. It did not produce a unanimous result. Some of the elders voted for clemency, mostly for the apologetic mouse. They polled themselves again and again, sniffing and talking and trying to reach consensus.

By the fourth vote, only one of the judges voted against the sentence levied by the others. However, she was one of the eldest and deemed the wisest despite her frail body. The difficult part for the head judge to understand was that the elder had voted to pardon the rude mouse and execute the contrite one.

"Did you make a mistake, venerable one?" he asked. "I can't help noticing that you may have gotten their names reversed. Did you mean to vote the other way?"

"I'm not so old that I'm confused," she said. "The rest of you should be ashamed for not understanding."

"But you're letting off the unrepentant fellow!"

"Be calm. Think," she replied. "Some of us here remember when willow bark was first made legal. Then it was made illegal again. Our ways change. Our laws change. All that defiant mouse needs is a change in our laws for him to be an upstanding citizen. But the other mouse, the one you like so much, he made excuses. I've heard him before. He did many things wrong and he excused himself from our rules many times and he says he is sorry. Well, I've dealt with his kind of mouse before. He would be a criminal under any laws, in any circumstances."

The other judges looked to one another. They sniffed. They talked. They voted again. All of them changed their verdict except for the one who had gotten it right in the first place. And so the defiant mouse was spared.