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.

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