Sunday, February 24, 2013

Not Zen 47: Obvious Winner

On the hottest day of the summer, a swarm of sea lions arrived in the bay. They hadn't ventured this far north before but once they'd made themselves at home it didn't take long for them to discover the otters.

Great colonies of sea otters swarmed together in five rafts of hundreds of members each. The two larger rafts were mostly females.  The three smaller rafts consisted of males of various prestige, strength, and distance from the females. All of the otters, to their dismay, discovered that their large groups provided them no defense from the sea lions. They were easy prey.

Every day for weeks, the great predators swam up to the edges of the colonies and dragged otters to their deaths. Finally, a large contingent of otters decided they would prefer to swim north to the next bay rather than wait to be eaten by sea lions. The elders among them knew that the trip north would cross a hard stretch of ocean where they would be victims of shark attacks, hunts by orcas, and tests with other dangerous animals. Only the toughest otters would survive.

"Should we permit pups to travel?" asked one of the leaders.

"How can we not?" said an elder. "What else would they do?  Stay here to be eaten?"

"Only the best can make it." She nodded to a new male. He was large and tough for his age. "Not all of them, either, just a few like this."

"You're wrong about that one," said the elder. "He fights with his playmates."

"He wins."

"No, he simply doesn't learn. It's otters like that one, over there, who will be with us in the end."

She gestured to a young, ordinary male. But the leader could see no difference between him and many other undersized children.

"I can't imagine why you think that," she snorted.

The long journey began the next day. Most of the otters survived the swim into the open ocean. Sharks took their share of the travelers but not in great numbers. The real hardship was the lack of food. There were few shellfish to be had even near the coast. Pups suffered the worst. They could not dive to the depths for crabs or other suitable game. They were reduced to scavenging beaches for the tiniest of mussels. In desperation, they began eating the sea urchins available.

To get at the sea urchins, the pups had to learn to bite through the undersides, where the spines were shortest. They had to deal with rays and starfish along the shore, too, competitors for the soft contents inside the urchins' protective, poisonous shells. Many pups starved, fell sick from the urchins, or dropped behind when they'd grown too weak to continue.

At last, the pilgrimage reached its destination. The lead otters discovered a bay with no kelp forest but with sufficient food to survive. By that time, only a dozen pups were left.

"You see," said the elder to the lead female. "The pup you thought was too small and ordinary is still with us."

"I don't know why," said the leader. "The strong one went missing, too. How did you know?"

"Bigger and stronger and smarter are good. When a battle is otherwise equal, an advantage in one area determines the winner. But battles are never equal. And this was not a short struggle. This was a long one."

"So how did you know that ordinary-seeming fellow would win?"

"I could see that it never occurred to him to stop trying.  When others failed, they sulked. He failed, revised his approach, and tried again. He had many quick failures and kept improving."

"That's all?"

"It served him well when others starved.  Here is something that may seem odd to you because you are young.  Winners in any contest are not usually the best. Instead, they are the ones who learn the most from their failures. Over time, that is how all of life is won."

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Not Zen 46: Mutual Dependence

A school teacher sat behind his desk in the warm, afternoon sun. His students had left for the day.

"Sit in any chair, roshi," said the teacher to the elderly woman who entered. She was the matron who had once shown him the ways of Daoism and Zen. He rose and bowed his head to her.

His former mentor did not often have the chance to visit. Her health was bad. Even when she could make it to the school, she usually spent considerable time criticizing the way things were done in her absence.

She eyed the classroom furnishings and remained standing. Her right hand leaned heavily on the knob of her cane.

"Who made this chair?" she asked suspiciously. She banged the closest one with her stick.

"You did."

"Did I?" There was a twinkle in her eye. She seemed pleased. "Is this a trick? I was never a carpenter. Don't you think I would remember?"

"But you do remember, roshi. You are not so old as that. You recall that things derive their nature by mutual dependence. They are nothing by themselves. A wooden shape without anyone to sit in it is nothing."

"So I made the chair?"

"By your need, you did. Absolutely."

"This body is tired." Gratefully, she lowered herself into the seat. "I'm glad to make a chair for it."

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Not Zen 45: Accepting Promotion

In the woodlands, near a ridgeline, lived a grey wolf. She was the spiritual leader of her pack. Over the years, she had promoted two male wolves in their turns to the role of hunt leader. Now, with the current hunt leader injured by an elk, she deemed it time again to decide on the right male.

It was a cold morning and her breath, warm from the recent meal, billowed as she walked and surveyed the pack. Two of her males were not fully grown and to her mind not eligible. Others weren't strong enough. One was particularly unkempt. That left her four good candidates to inspect.

She made her way to the strongest male, a smooth-furred fellow who had striven for years to take the lead role. He had fought a bit too often with the old hunt leader but he also knew when to back down. He had never been hurt in a fight or in a hunt. He was usually second or third to the food. He didn't share with the cubs, which was unfortunate, but on the other hand he rarely tormented them.

“Perhaps your time has come,” she said as she drew nose-to-nose with him.  “The pack needs someone in front. Can you lead?”

“Oh, mistress,” he simpered, full of false modesty. He sat back and cleaned his paws for a moment as he considered his reply. “I am not worthy of such a promotion.”

“Right,” she said. She tried to picture him doing the extra work. It was hard.  He had never taken a serious risk. Could she let the pack endure a leader who hesitated to accept her offer? “Never mind. I'll find someone ready.”

She turned to her left and went off to the next male.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Not Zen 44: You're Perfect

"Roshi, are you enlightened?" the student questioned her teacher as he sat in contemplation before class.

"You've come a long way in your studies," said the roshi. He put down his book. "You know, of course, that I am supposed to say 'mu' and undo that question. For you, however, because I think you will understand, I say yes. All people can reach enlightenment in their lifetimes and they should. It is not so hard. Just try and don't try."

The student was not excited by this idea because she had long suspected this was the case. Also, she had observed the calmness and loving manner of her guru towards everyone in all situations. She saw him try and not try, both together, in every moment.

"I know that you let go of desires," she said. "It's obvious. But what did that feel like? What happened after you did that?"

The guru closed his eyes for a moment.

"It was a morning years ago when I let go of all my desires. Of course, it came after a few years of practicing and contemplating the nature of those desires. I tested letting them go. Then I let them go."

The student closed her eyes.

"A friend approached me as I sat," continued the roshi, "much as I sit now. I felt no separation between him and myself. We were aspects of the same, whole being. We were part of existence. I smiled at my friend and he studied me for a moment. Then he acted as he always did. We parted with a joke and a laugh. We were completely as we should be."

The student smiled. She found herself studying the smile of her teacher.

“Later that day, I met my lover and felt the same lack of separation. She and I were part of the whole of existence, exactly as we should be, and my emotions were as pure and unstained by argument or jealousy as if I were made of fresh snow. My love for her was clear. The world was fresh. It is always fresh, of course, but I did not always realize it, and did not always accept its beauty.”

“Am I as I should be?” asked the student.

“You are perfect,” said the roshi.