Sunday, October 27, 2013

Not Zen 82: Missing Song

One Thursday night, a group of professional singers went to a tavern. They had just finished a practice session. After a few drinks, they proceeded to practice more by singing in harmony. The other patrons didn't mind.

The next week, the singers stopped over to the same place, drank a little, and sang a bit more. The Thursday night visit became a tradition. Sometimes the vocalists would drum in time to their songs. Sometimes the other patrons would pound on the tables, chairs, or the bar to provide accompaniment.

As the tradition grew, the performances grew rowdier and more elaborate. During well known songs, the tavern regulars would join in.

There came a point in the tradition at which patrons started coming to the bar to hear the singers. The notoriety of the performances spread through the town. Art patrons came and bought rounds of drinks. More critical folks arrived and sat in corners. Curious musicians and rival singers came to see what was happening . Often, the newcomers added to the impromptu music when it began. Even when one of the original singers grew ill and could no longer come to the tavern, his friends continued the tradition.

One night roughly two years after the tradition began, a local man invited his date to join him in the tavern. He had witnessed the gatherings several times before.

"I've been visiting on Thursdays off and on since last year," he said. "You're going to love it. The songs are rowdy but sung in elaborate harmony."

Around dinner time, three of the original singers arrived after their practice, as usual. But on this particular occasion, they'd just learned the news that their longtime friend, the one who had been sick, had died. After a drink or two, they raised their half-empty glasses and made the announcement to the rest of the patrons. There was a moment of silence.

One of the singers began to drum on his table. He cleared his throat. But when he tried to sing, nothing came out. His friends joined in the drumming. But they, too, did not sing. No words seemed to come to any of them.

Other people began to drum. The musicians and rival singers beat on their tables. The regular patrons stomped on the floor. The bartender pounded on the bar. Kitchen staff thumped on the walls. Everyone added to the sound. The entire tavern shook. Waiters had to race to catch cups and plates from falling off of shelves. It was an earthquake of rhythm. Folks who had been eating picked up their flatware, knives, and glasses to keep them from walking off their tables.

The drumming continued for longer than most people could have believed, half an hour, and ended only when the original singers raised their hands for quiet. They bowed and left.

"I'm sorry," the man said to his date once normality had been restored. "It's usually music. It's ... it's not this."

"Don't say another word," the woman replied.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Not Zen 81: The Simplest Understanding

A teacher and one of his students strolled through a park as they discussed the concept of the lack of distinction between places.  The student said she understood how there could be no 'here' or 'there'.  She said she thought it meant there should be no distinction between compass directions either since they can all be the same direction.

"I feel that I know this," she said.  "And I know that many religious figures agree on the concept.  But last month in school, you gave me demerits for my failure to understand.  Then, just yesterday, you admitted that your old teacher also failed to understand the same thing.  Why did you revere her?  You say that she experienced the same failure I've suffered."

"Perhaps for 'failure to understand' I should substitute 'degree of understanding' or 'way of understanding.'"  The teacher hopped across a rivulet of water onto an expanse of grass. His student followed.  "Do you not see that everyone's understanding, even in the failure to truly appreciate a concept, is different?"


"Very well." He stopped where he was. "Let's use an simpler example."

"That ball!" suggested the student.  She pointed to a small, red and white object they had been approaching for some time.

"A ball?  Well, I'll try."  He continued on his way until he reached it.  Then he picked up the ball from the grass and considered it for a few seconds.  "This is a mundane thing, of course.  But as humble as it is, can anyone truly understand it?"

"Everyone can."

"Really?  Look at it.  Tell me how it was made."

"I don't know.  Okay, so maybe I don't understand it.  I can see it has a stitched cover.  Someone or some machine sewed it shut.  It has tooth marks marring the cover, too.  I think that dog over there was playing with it."

"Right.  So let's use the dog, you, the fellow who made this ball, and the person who designed it.  All of you have some understanding of the ball, yes?"

"I suppose," the student looked down and crossed her feet.  She seemed uncomfortable with the inclusion of the dog.

"Or does the dog fail to understand?  It's okay to say that."

The dog noticed the ball in the teacher's hand.  It whined and crept forward.

"I don't know.  The person who made it probably knows it best."

"Perhaps.  But this was one of many, surely.  Did that person understand the materials?  Or care about them?  The designer surely cared."  The teacher took a moment to smile at the dog.  The dog sat down on the grass.  Then it laid down.  It waited for him to do something.

"Yes," the student rubbed her forehead, lost in thought, "but the designer had thousands made, probably, and wasn't there to see the defects in the materials or how fast the manufacturer worked or the problems in the tools used to do the job."

"That's true, a good point.  So you say that you fail to understand  the ball.  And the person who made it fails to understand it.  And the person who designed it fails to understand it.  Aren't those failures all different?  Aren't they all not failures, really, but different ways and degrees of understanding?"

The student threw up her arms.  She shook her head, unwilling to agree.

Her teacher threw the ball.  The dog chased after it.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Not Zen 80: Bad Example

In a dale between two hills lived a family of red foxes. The father kept patrol around the den. Together with his vixen, he raised and taught two litters of pups.

One day, the father led his pups to a stream and taught them how to catch crawfish. His youngest pups had never seen the creatures before. They shouted at the way crawfish swam backwards with a flip of their tails. The pups’ father told them that crawfish could flap their tails and fly in the air, too. The vixen chuckled. The oldest child announced that, no, crawfish could only swim. The youngest pup, the only girl in the litter, didn’t know who to believe.

A week later, their father chanced upon a nest of snakes. He killed the biggest. Then he called over his family. He told them to scavenge the hatchlings.

“How do I grab one?” asked his daughter. She danced in front of the smallest snake, wary.

“By the feet, of course!” her father laughed. Next to him, the vixen’s eyes twinkled.

“Daddy!” wailed the daughter. “My snake doesn’t have feet.”

“None of them do,” said the oldest boy. “Just look at them. Snakes don’t have feet. It’s like those flying crawfish. Dad’s just talking crazy.”

The father yipped at them. He let his tongue hang out.

“Where do you think you should grab a snake?” he asked.

“Behind the head?” ventured his daughter. “That’s the way I saw you do it.”

“So I’ll try that again.” He winked at his mate and at his older pups. “For some reason these little snakes have no feet.”

He demonstrated the way to catch one. Everyone got a clear look as he snapped it from behind. Then the pups practiced on the remaining snakes. They and their mother hunted until they were full.

A few days later, the fox’s daughter watched him slip out of the den. She followed far behind as he pranced across the stream and passed into a grove of beech trees. He trotted along the grove until he found a sunlit spot on the edge of the trees, dense with ferns and grasses. He sat down next to a patch of wild strawberries and began to eat. She watched him pluck berry after berry between his teeth and tongue. She licked her chops and approached.

“Are those good?” she asked.

“Oh no,” he replied. “They’re poisonous.”

“Are you crazy?” she shouted. “Daddy, I see you eat bunches.”

“Then I suppose they must be okay.”

“Are you talking crazy again, daddy?”

“What do you think?”

She laid herself down and studied him.  She got up and sniffed the strawberries in the bushes. She sniffed her father’s mouth. She licked the red juice off of his lower jaw. He turned his head away and laughed.

“Why did you say they were poisonous?” she asked.

“Am I being confusing? Should I explain?” He pawed the ground next to him. She sat down where he had gestured. He leaned closer. “Daughter, I have to say things like that because I’m not a good liar. Other animals are. This way I show you to look out for them. I want you to think about what everyone says and ask yourself, ‘Does this make sense?’”

“So you give me ridiculous answers to make me think?” The pup raised her head to look into his eyes.

“No, I’m just crazy,” her father admitted.

“Aha!” she shouted. “I knew it.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Not Zen 79: Act in Context

Two women sat beneath an awning in the rain.  In front of them, a young man in the street gave up his taxi to an older woman.  The fellow had to wait in the rain for a minute until he got another ride.

"I wonder if this is the last time in my life I'll see that," said the older woman.  She started doing the math in her head and guessed it had been nearly twenty years since she'd witnessed a similar scene.

The younger woman laughed. 

"Don't be silly," she said.  "You've got decades to live.  That sort of thing happens all the time."

"You're still young and pretty," said her friend.  "Maybe it happens to you but I'll bet that usually the men usually would rather ride in the taxi with you."

"Usually, yes."

"When you're older, you have a more complete sense of the context.  Have I tried to explain this before?  When you're young, you might hear about an office worker leaving her job because her superiors are unethical but it doesn't make an impression.  You don't understand how rare it is.  Later, you hear a similar story.  This time, you remember it because you've worked for a while.  You know a little.  But you don't have kids, so you still don't have the full context.

"Years later, when you're older and you're the family's sole source of income, you hear a similar account.  Now you have a much more complete sense of what happened.  The story seems so amazing that you almost can't believe it.  You can't believe someone would leave a good position simply because the upper management was corrupt.  You want to look for hidden reasons."

The younger one folded her arms and chuckled

"The first time you tried to make this point," she said, "was when you described pearl diving."

"What did I tell you?"

"That when a young diver discovers a perfect pearl, she takes it for granted.  She doesn't know the pearl is rare.  It's only when she's older that she realizes that the perfection she saw early on was a once-in-a-lifetime event."

"Maybe that's a better example."

"This feels like the hundredth time you've tried to tell me.  But it's the first time that I feel you might be right."

The older women nodded.  "You're finally building up enough context."