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.