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?'”

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Not Zen 58: A New Idol

Chi Rho
On a holiday, members of two churches arrived at a soup kitchen together. The churches sponsored the shelter and soup kitchen as a joint venture but normally they sent their members to work there on separate nights.

For a while, everyone worked well together. They divided up the cooking and administrative chores according to their skills. But their discussions ran towards religion and one evangelical member was incensed that members of the other church didn't take the bible literally.

"It's the word of God. It's by His hand!" he said.

"That's not what we believe," replied the man who was making peanut butter sandwiches. "We believe the bible is divinely inspired. That's different."

"How?" He set down the trash can he'd been carrying. "It sounds like you agree."

"No, the holy spirit comes through the hands of men. But men aren't perfect. We believe in the holy spirit more than the words men write."

"The bible is perfect because God guides it."

"Perfection isn't something we achieve on Earth," said the sandwich maker sadly. He shook his head and continued, "That's the point of the second commandment."

"That's against false idols."

"Back then people worshipped kings or golden statues, not books. But it still applies. Mortal men, even those who are very good, aren't perfect. They're not God. Worshipping them leads you away from God. God doesn't want you to mistake a symbol of Him for the true unknowable that is His spirit and His being."

"Are you trying to say the bible is a false idol?"

"I'm saying it's a mistake to worship the words in a book instead of the spirit behind it."

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Not Zen 57: Not Grace Alone

After a meeting, as the members were clearing the chairs, a man named John mentioned that he saw an emergency technician save the life of a child.

"I hesitated to mention it," he admitted. "But I'm starting to feel it was a revelation. I think competence is part of what makes a saint.  The man who saved that little girl's life knew what was needed and he did it well."

"That's nice," said his wife. "But I don't agree about associating competence with sainthood. Trying to save that little girl's life and failing wouldn't have made anyone a bad person."

"But that's less good than succeeding," he thought out loud.

"Is it?" said his wife's best friend. "If competence is part of being good, wouldn't you have to say it's part of being a bad person, too?"

"You mean, if you're less competent, you're a worse person? I think I see what you mean. But even people you'd consider bad need to be competent. Maybe a thief robs a bank and gets away by car. He'd be worse if he was an incompetent driver and crippled someone crossing the street."

"You're carrying the example to extremes."

"I'm just pointing out that people try to do good things most of the time. Everyone resists killing people with their car, even axe murderers usually. You seem to be saying that competence doesn't matter."

"That's right. The saying is 'By grace alone shall ye be saved,' so I think competence doesn't matter to saintliness."

"But if you try to help someone and accidentally kill them instead, isn't that bad?"

"It's bad but it's not the same as murder."

"If someone tries to do good deeds all his life but keeps accidentally killing people, I'd have to say that, on balance, that's a pretty bad person, never mind the good intentions."

His wife and her friend laughed. "If you kept accidentally doing harm, wouldn't you learn to stop?"

"But ..."  He waved his arms. "A good person who does no good deeds? Who learns to deliberately do nothing? How is that a good person?"