Sunday, January 26, 2014

Not Zen 95: Bridge of Promise

Between two small towns by a river, residents wanted to build a bridge. Their great-grandparents had tried. Their grandparents had continued the effort and had left tall pillars a third of the way into the river. Other generations had made attempts in the distant past, too, but no usable bridge had ever finished. For commerce between towns, the residents used ferry boats. Eventually their national government stepped in to examine the problem and decided that the towns would not be permitted to build. Instead, the government would erect a smaller bridge upstream.

The local townspeople filed protests over the decision. They called their government corrupt. They said the ferry boat captains had bought influence in the capital. Nevertheless, the order remained.

One day, a man appeared in one of the river towns saying that he'd gotten a permit to build a bridge. The permit didn't say exactly where he had to build it. He showed his papers to the local leaders.

"You see?" he said. "It says that I can build it across your river. I could put the bridge farther upstream but I could also place it here. It's more expensive to do construction at your location but I know I would make more money in the end."

"The permit says very little," agreed the mayor. "You could build anywhere on the river with this."

The man with the permit wanted to talk about the money to be made. He was not interested in a narrow, civic-minded structure or a floating bridge that would need constant maintenance. He showed them plans for a grand, for-profit span with heavy tolls. Such a bridge would last for centuries although it would need many investors in the beginning. The investors would be paid back from their shares of the tolls.

Everyone in the town grew excited. They had been waiting all of their lives for this project. Only one of the town aldermen sided with the ferry captains against building the bridge. He was shouted down in the town council. The council and the mayor raised tax money to invest in the bridge. Families emptied their bank accounts to buy shares. The town bankers put in their own money. The bridge contractor took a ferry to the town across the river. He drummed up more investors in his project. He created a rivalry between the two towns. He took bids to begin the construction. He awarded contracts for the widening of the local roads.

One day, the bridge contractor left to get the large equipment that would be needed to build support structures in the depths of the river. He said he would return in a week. Two days later, the national police arrived.

"We came to investigate suspicious money transfers," a police officer told the town councilmen. "Now we find that you're building a national bridge without a permit."

"We're not building it!" explained the council members. "We're only investing. The contractor you hired is doing all of the work."

"The government hasn't decided on a contractor," reported the police after they confirmed their suspicions.

"Impossible!" shouted the mayor.

"Tell us about this person building a bridge."

The police spent several days investigating what they decided was a scam. When they understood the scope of the deception and the money involved, they called for more investigators. The analysis lasted for weeks. Eventually, it became clear that the vast majority of residents in both towns had been duped. That meant the citizens who hadn't fallen for the scheme came under suspicion.

Some of the residents had been too poor to invest. Those who hadn't come into money in the meanwhile were dismissed. Likewise, the ferry boat operators were questioned briefly and released. Only a handful of citizens remained suspected of being accomplices to the scam.

One of them was the alderman who had spoken against the bridge project in the first place. As it turned out, he had placed a substantial bet against the construction of the bridge. He stood to collect more than a year's worth of salary.

"How did you know this was a scam if you weren't part of it?" the police asked him.

"The national government said it was against the bridge here," he said. "There were good reasons for the decision. The river is wide, so it's easier to build upstream. The sediment runs deep, so there are hundreds of feet of silt to go before reaching solid rock. A bridge would need to be built on large pylons at great expense. It could also be a floating structure but that probably wouldn't last through our storms. Everyone knew these things. No one wanted to think about them except for the ferry boat captains."

"Why were you not fooled?"

"This is the way of our lives. Everyone wanted to fool themselves. I did, too. But I made myself look at how things are. I knew that bridge would never be built. I knew it couldn't be built even if the bridge contractor wasn't a crook. And because I knew that, I was sure he was a crook."

"Are you against having a bridge here?"

"I'm all for having a bridge. But still I'm against ignoring how things really are."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Not Zen 94: Crazy Advantage

A psychiatrist and her patient rose from their chairs in her office. They left the second floor suite and strolled down a flight of steps. Outside, they found bustling sidewalks and traffic-filled streets. They skirted the pedestrians and a convoy of bicyclists. The glare of the sun cast confusing shadows. Around them, people moved from place to place. There were sounds of metal on metal, of children yelling, of shoes on the sidewalks. The patient talked about his observations.

"I thought I was going to hate this," he admitted. "But I like how everyone's keeping their distance. They're ignoring us."

"Just to confirm, you were initially anxious about seeing the crowds?" his doctor asked.

"Of course. I was hiding it."

"You think so? Well, we're all limited. Not everyone can see themselves in the mirror."

"Not everyone is afraid of crowds the way I am."

"I meant something different," she said. She led them toward an outdoor cafe. Smells of food drifted on the breeze. Customers huddled together in groups as they ate. "Everyone knows a little bit of your feeling. But mostly, other people have different problems. I see a lot of problems in my line of work."

"Do other people hide their disabilities too?"

"They try. Their problems aren't hidden for anyone who looks. No one really conceals mental issues."

"I hide mine. I do it every day."

"You might think so but no, you don't. How can I explain?" The psychiatrist sighed. She took them around the sidewalk to the other side of the crowds. Her patient stepped out in the street at first. It took him in a few seconds to build up the nerve to follow her. "You wouldn't be under this illusion if you were missing a finger. You would know that people must notice. It might take them a minute or two but it would be inevitable. With emotional problems, it's the same."

"My fears aren't as noticeable as a missing finger."

"If you and a friend sat down for lunch, in time your friend would forget the missing finger." She pointed to a group of diners. They spoke animatedly with their upper bodies and ignored everyone else. "But mental problems become more obvious over time, not less. They're in every choice you make, every word you utter, every glance, every gesture."

"That's awful."

"No, it's natural. Your actions are shaped in every instant by your perception of the world, same as they are for everyone else. And that's why I now feel sure you'll improve."

"I don't follow. How can you train me to lose my fears simply because everyone else is messed up?"

“Haven't you met people who are consistently wrong but are convinced they're right? And they refuse to check the facts?”

“A few. They're very irritating.”

“But you check the facts. I'm sure you'll succeed because you allow for the possibility that your perceptions are wrong. That puts you ahead of people who are fooled by their senses all the time but never question what they perceive."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Not Zen 93: Connection

Several practicioners of philosophy sat at a light dinner. The star student of the last few years finished his bowl of soup so that he could speak. Then he expounded to his roshi on his newest thoughts. His friends and his spiritual guide, the roshi, all nodded in agreement.

"Very good," said the roshi to his student. "Your words show great progress."

"But I have just had the same realization that your fellow teacher had last year!" the student complained. He felt his comprehension had marked the end of a journey. "Then you declared it was a sign of enlightenment. Now it is just progress."

"You have expressed the same realization. That does not mean it is the same."

"How can it be different?"

"You have expressed a realization of the mind. That is progress. When you understand it completely with all of your emotions, that is better progress."

"Is it still just progress? What can you say lies behind the mind and emotions?"

"Some might express it as a realization of the body, of the whole self. When you realize love for another with your mind, body, and all of your spirit, is that not close to total love?"

"Just close? Whether it's total love or total enlightenment, what progress can there be beyond realizing it with all of our mind, body, and spirit?"

"As you realize that your body extends outward as part of the whole universe, that everything you do is connected with everything else, then you can love someone with the force of the universe. Likewise, you can realize your enlightenment with the whole of creation. It is not a matter of understanding with your mind that you and the universe are the same. It is not a matter of the heart. It is not just an action of the body."

The student laughed. His friends looked bewildered. The roshi responded to the laughter with his own.

"When I completely realize that I am so very connected, maybe there will be no 'I,'" the student said when he was calm.

The roshi nodded. They sat in silence for a while. Then others continued their conversations.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Not Zen 92: Ideal People

Stoics gathered on the porch of a park building. The building overlooked a grove of trees and a meadow in the city.

It was a rare gathering because the Stoics hardly ever came together as a single congregation. More often, they met in small schools of a dozen or fewer. In daily or weekly sessions, teachers organized discussions and strove to show their followers how to align their spirits with the nature of the world.

This day was a holiday. The observances had finished and, at the end, one school occupied the western quarter of the wide, marble porch slab. Some members stood in the sun, others at the edge. Along the edge there was shade provided by poplar and cottonwood trees. Occasional breezes stirred the leaves of the trees and relieved everyone from the summer heat.

Several Stoic women had gathered in the shade to talk. One of the teachers nodded to them as he passed. It was out of concern for one of their number who had not been appointed successor of her school that this leader had decided to approach.

He met his fellow instructor in the corner of the porch.

"You want to know why I've announced no successor?" said the one who had been approached. "It's simple. I have none."

"Everyone has been expecting the announcement for months."

"I know who you're talking about." The first one shook his head. "No. Her understanding of my approach is terrible. She learns everything by rote, not at the level I demand. I will never bless her. I will never let her inherit my mantle."

"You shouldn't say such things." The younger fellow rubbed his short, brown beard.

"Because she is a woman? Or because I might hurt her feelings? I thought you were made of sterner stuff. I suppose you've only been fortunate to have had better students."

"You need to choose the best you can."

"Absolutely not. I will only choose an ideal candidate."

They discussed the matter for few minutes but with no resolution. The teacher who had brought up the subject of succession bowed and left. Behind him followed the members of his school.

"Their stoa has a long tradition in this city," he said. "But it must come to an end with this generation."

"Do you say that because their leader is your rival?"

"I know that he considers himself my rival," he said, testing the idea in his mouth. "I've never thought that."

"Why do you think their school of thought must end?"

"If one achieves a little wisdom, one must deal with the problem of bequeathing it. In every attempt to communicate to the next generation, hard-won wisdom must be entrusted, not guarded jealously. In that school, their teacher hoards wisdom like a miser hoards gold."

"I think he only awaits the ideal student."

"Do you not understand what that means? Other people have flaws. They can never never meet the ideals we envision. That teacher will never meet an ideal student." The philosopher shook his head. "Think of marriage or maybe of your work. We all must marry someone real. And we must hire real people to do jobs, not ideal craftsmen who work for free. Anyone who does not attend to real people in the hope of meeting an ideal one is not wise enough to pass on their traditions."