Sunday, November 24, 2013

Not Zen 86: Under the Tree

On the back deck of a large, south-facing house, a student sat with her roshi. They drank sweet tea and discussed Stoicism, Buddhism, and other disciplines that lead, perhaps, to enlightenment. An hour into their conversation, a walnut fell from the tree above and hit the student on her shoulder.

She complained about the tree for minutes.

“That is your life exactly.” Her master sighed after her patience ran out. She moved her chair away from the tree.

“What do you mean by that?” asked the student.

“I mean, you are hurt by life because you are not paying attention. And then you come to complain to me.”

“Well, that is what life does. It hurts me.”

“So ... if you had looked up, would you have moved?”

“Of course.” At this, the student did look up. She rose with her chair and moved closer to the roshi.

“Good. Bring the tea pitcher, too.” She motioned to her student, who went to retrieve the covered jug. “Do you remember that yesterday you complained about a friend of yours at work who had all of the luck that you didn't?”

“Yes. She got promoted over me even though I'm as smart as she is, probably smarter.” The student brought the jug. She topped off her glass and took her seat.

“I think life is like this tree,” said the roshi. She gestured to the lower branches. “It rains things down on us from time to time. They might be nuts, leaves, twigs, or any of that sort of thing. Some people look down at their feet. They get hit and complain. Others look up to avoid the hardships. And still others hold out their hands.”

She held out her hands. The tea glass was in them. A bit of leaf dropped into her tea.

“Oops,” she said as she fished it out. “Well, it takes work, of course, to catch and crack a nut.  But I think it's a good analogy. If you are aware of it, a nut falling down is a good thing. If not, it might prove painful.”

“I don't think my friend at work studies towards enlightenment,” said the student. “She just got lucky.”

“Maybe. But it could be that she doesn't need to study much.” The roshi nodded to herself.  “Not everyone walks the same path. She may practice awareness in her own way and that is why she looked up at the right time. When life threw something at her, she was ready.”

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Not Zen 85: Graduation

A guru often said, "Graduation comes when you have learned to teach yourself."

In spite of hearing that many times, one of her advanced students was surprised when the guru announced it was time for that student to leave. It happened after the student had delivered a presentation outside a coffee house. The subject had been a small point on the history of philosophy. Due the breeze that day, she had trouble making herself heard. When she sat down, she felt her talk had gone badly. Her guru disagreed.

"You teach yourself all the time now," said her guru over a stoneware cup and saucer. She paused to sip her tea. "You're past done. You've learned everything important that I know. You're going beyond. It's time you started your own school."

"I can't do that," the young woman responded.

A few months later the young woman found herself in a strange city, sitting in a small studio surrounded by a group of students assigned to her by her guru. She had a new pupil in her class as well, a young man lured in by his friendship with others. He asked more questions than anyone and he wondered aloud about the lack of furnishings in most of the school rooms. The space had come cheaply but not the furniture. Everyone had to sit on mats on the floors.

"I will write to my guru for advice," the new teacher said.

"You will?"

"She knows how to get donations for such things. I started this school, after all, when I got her agreement that I could write to her for guidance."

In her first month, she asked for suggestions on how to raise money, on what gifts she might expect from which patrons, and on the best ways to settle disputes between students. In the next few months, she requested her guru's recommendations on diet and on religious debates. Later, she wrote to obtain counsel on dealing with another teacher, a peer.

Often she wrote her requests to her master on cards the older woman had provided. One day, in her guru's studio, another such card arrived.

"From my newest teacher," the guru said as she saw the address. She sighed as she opened it because she knew it would be a request for advice.

The card was blank. She turned it over twice to make sure. Then, to the perplexity of the students around her, she laughed. She held her belly.

"Did something go wrong?" one student asked. "Why would she send you a blank note?"

"This is a comment," she replied, "Because graduation also means having the confidence to acknowledge one's mastery."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Not Zen 84: Emotional Reflexes

A boy brawled with his classmates. He argued with his teachers. He was the youngest boy in his home but he fought his bigger, stronger brothers. He teased his sisters. Eventually his parents sent him to military school. 

On graduation, he joined the army. He rose in the ranks and fought in wars. He was many times decorated for bravery. He found that in the field, in the midst of fighting, he felt at home. In the process, to his surprise, he discovered that he was loved as a commander. He hadn't felt much affection before. It made him proud. However, as he grew older and wiser he realized that, his troops liked him but his fellow officers did not. That meant his soldiers often got bad rations or bad equipment. 

For two decades he rose higher in the ranks. The more promotions he received, the more his manners seemed out of place to his peers. His superiors demoted him and returned him to battle. That suited him. He was again awarded for bravery. He received an elevation to field general. 

In a few months, he was rude to a governor and got demoted again. 

On the advice of another general, he went to see a roshi. This roshi practiced swordsmanship for sport so he and the general had something in common. They met and fenced on their first day together. The discussed tactics, met again, fenced for a few hours, and discovered that despite their different styles they were well matched. 

“This is fun,” said the general after one long session, “but I'm not as young as I once was. I need to rest. And you, young man, are supposed to help me with my manners.” 

“I am not an expert in manners,” said the roshi. “It's possible that I'm the wrong person to teach that sort of thing.”

“I've been referred to experts in manners before. I've failed them. My colleague recommended you for a reason. I don't understand him, I must say. I find you to be as rough as me.” 

“Yes, well, I'll try to help you in honor of our mutual friend. There are simple rules for dealing with other people. I understand some of them by process of observation. I see them as practical tasks. So I won't lecture you on the morality of politeness.” 

“Good. One expert told me that putting my feet on a chair is disrespectful,” the general snorted. 

“It may be,” said the roshi. “But instead of looking into the reasons for actions, as I would normally do, I'll try to teach you politeness as a conditioned reflex. In that way, it will seem more like martial prowess.”

“Are you comparing a 'thank you' to a parry with a sword?”

“No. But that thought might be in line with what I intend. After all, you are a good swordsman because you've developed an understanding of the simple rules of cut, thrust, and parry. You don't need to think. You react.” 

“When someone strikes, my reflexes take over.” 

“When I am finished with you, I want you to automatically respond correctly when a governor greets you.”

“I may not be an easy pupil, though I'll try. What's the way to generate a proper greeting reflex in myself? What are the rules?” 

The roshi put down his sword and demonstrated. He played the role of the governor. He played the role of the general. He switched roles and encouraged the general to practice. 

The general attended to his politeness reflexes for many weeks with the help of his roshi. 

Things began to happen in his life that had never happened before. His peers in the military started to invite him to social events. He was given an appointment to show his troops to politicians - ordinary for most generals but long denied in his case. The commander of the army, who had previously demoted the general back into the field, appointed him to an advisory post on the headquarters' staff. 

“Is it really this simple?” the general asked the roshi one day. “Did I have the wrong reflexes all this time?” 

“That may be the case,” the roshi allowed.

“It's a good thing I didn't learn these rules as a child,” said the general. “I would never have gotten into any fights at all. I would never have joined the army or become a general.”

The general tapped the roshi's sword with his own. The roshi laughed and nodded. 

“I'm shocked to discover how simple this is,” the general continued. “How has my life, all along, been so guided by these reflexes?” 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Not Zen 83: Familiarity

A burrowing parrot's sons were, like her, part of a colony of thousands of parrots. The grey-feathered birds made their homes in the hollows on the sides of the mountain. They'd lived there for longer than anyone could remember. The colony had gained strength. Their homes were full. Each year, the parrots dug their burrows a little deeper into the rock to make room for more parrots.

The two brothers had grown to maturity in good health. Their father had died long ago but they were strong enough to offer assistance to their mother before the hatching and brooding season. Their mother had not shown interest in finding another mate. So it had become a tradition for the sons to enlarge their mother's burrow. In time, they thought, she would take a mate or they would bring their families to move in with her.

One son had grown to be the alpha male for the colony. He led the largest groups in their migration flights. Many other birds gave way to him. They acceded even to his whims for food, nests, and drinking water. Now the only bird to whom he occasionally deferred was his mother.

He was tough and wise and had married the strongest of females. His children were many.

The other son had grown up to become an ordinary member of the colony. He was one of the weaker males, although considered wise. He had chosen a sickly mate out of love for her spirit. They had one child, now grown and out of their home.
"I feel horrible today," announced the alpha parrot as he landed on the edge of his mother's burrow.

"You look as strong as usual," his brother replied.

"My looks are deceiving. One of my friends tried to poison me."

His brother and his mother chirped at him. It was not unheard of for parrots to seek advantages over one another, especially near the top leadership positions of the colony. But it was alarming for them to hear of such things.

"What makes you say that?" his mother asked.

"He gave me a gift of seeds, as many do." The alpha male strode into his mother's burrow. The other two followed. "But the husks were poisonous."

"Pardon me," said his brother, "but couldn't you see that the husks were on?"

"Yes. I didn't care at the time. I thought I could gnaw off the husks. Isn't that what common parrots do?"

"We do indeed," said his brother. His mother nodded.

"That makes me feel stupid." The alpha parrot walked awkwardly. His stomach rumbled. He pecked once or twice at the back wall of the burrow. Even though he felt ill, his strength was greater than most. Flecks of stone fell from the wall. "I must have done a careless job of it."

"That's not like you," said his mother.

"I'm sure it can't be too bad." His brother joined him at the back where they had planned to expand the burrow. He also chipped away at the wall. "Perhaps you were sloppy. But you still couldn't have eaten many husks."

"I'm not accustomed to feeling ill."

"You'll get through it. You're the strongest, after all. You've been enormously successful."

"Not today. I hate to disappoint you, brother. Today, I'm sick and an idiot."

"I've admired how it hasn't kept you from doing great things.,” said his brother. "But I've always thought you were an idiot."