Sunday, February 23, 2014

Not Zen 99: Teasing

A herd of mustangs ruled a peninsula with lands bordered by the forest and the sea. The horses raced from grasslands to beaches. They swam in shallow waters, played in the sands by the freshwater streams, and rested in the shades of oak and maple groves. For years, they followed their dappled lead mare. She made the herd decisions. She found them cordgrass and giant reeds to eat. She uncovered safe ferns, explored shrubs and sweet maple saplings, and located new springs of fresh water.

One summer, this boss mare gave birth to a chestnut foal. Although her son was healthy, he was born late in the spring. For months, he was the youngest in the herd.

"Why do the other foals pick on me?" he asked her one day.

"They're trying to play," she said. "You're the smallest now. You're strong and soon you'll be big. Your feeling of being picked on will pass."

She pushed her son with her nose. It was a gesture she had used with her other children. She had nudged them playfully for as many years as she could remember. It got the same response from her chestnut son as it got from her earlier foals. He laughed.

Weeks went by. Her son grew strong. But he did not grow out of the teasing.

"Why does everyone hate me?" he wondered.

"They don't," said his mother. She nuzzled him, nose to nose. "Now that you're strong, you are playing too rough with the smaller horses. You need to be more gentle."

"They're not gentle with me!" he complained.

"Nevertheless," she replied.

More weeks passed, then months. Her son grew stronger. He grew wilder. His father, a roan stallion, barely tolerated the immature males. Her son made himself especially difficult to endure. Other immature males teased and tested one another. They bickered, they pushed, and they nipped at the other young horses. That was hard enough. But with her son, the teasing turned into fighting. Others would laugh and chase one another out of play. Her son turned angry and violent.

"Now even the stallion hates me," he said.

The mare remained silent. Her son had observed the truth. He had developed a bad relationship to the other males, his father included. He would find no help anywhere but his mother. He'd made enemies even among other mares.

"If you could refrain from violence in reaction to teasing," she offered, "in time everything would be better."

"I'm just teasing back."

"When you do it, it's bullying. Don't you see the difference?"

"There is no difference."

"Ah," she said. She stepped closer to him. "I can see that you don't understand what the other horses are doing. When you were the smallest, you were teased in a way that makes you misunderstand your situations now."

"I tried to stop the teasing. I told you that."

"No, that's the wrong way. The other horses' feelings are hurt when you don't tease or don't allow them to tease you. You are showing no trust in them."

"What does teasing have to do with trust?"

"When you don't respond correctly, it shows that you don't trust them. Then they become angry. If you let someone nip your tail or knock you in the shoulder, you show that you trust they will do you no harm. It's a matter of confidence on your part. You need to understand they're not trying to fight you. A gentle poke between friends helps to establish trust."

"Teasing is mean."

"It can be. It can be cruel or a test of strength. Usually, it's neither. Teasing is the first step to establishing friendship. When you allow teasing, you show trust in another's intentions. It is a judgment that the other horse is honorable. When you react appropriately with a similar push or nip, you show that you, too, can be trusted."

"This is a strange way of thinking, mother."

"You haven't thought this way before, so you've overreacted. You pushed the teasers too hard. You've been hurtful. That's a double violation of trust. The other horses expect you to push them or chase them, not to kick them or shout insults."

"Is that why everyone's angry?"

"When other horses your age stopped teasing you so much, you thought that was good. I did, too. But we were wrong. It was a warning sign. They no longer teased you in order to make friends with you. They approached you only when they wanted to do you harm."

"What can I do?"

"Approach them. Tease them. Let them tease you back. Earn their trust." She pushed her son with her nose. He snorted.

She nipped his mane. He laughed.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Not Zen 98: On Reflection

"These folks who are supposed to be wise spend an undue amount of time on reflection," said a young woman as she threw down the book she had been reading. She'd been leaning against the wall. She pushed herself away it.

Her grandmother turned the page on her magazine. It crinkled. Her gaze passed over her grand-daughter.

"At first I thought they must be talking about meditation," the grand-daughter said. She strode to the front door. "Then I read them again and again and there's no mistaking that they are talking about mundane physical reflections. They mention the moon all the damn time. It's always a reflection of the moon."

"Yes, images on still water," her grandmother confirmed. She closed her magazine and laid it in her lap.

"But why?" The grand-daughter ran her hands over the coat she'd left next to the door.

"It's an allegory." The old woman propped up her feet. Her grand-daughter snorted at her words without turning her head. "Those teachers are referring to the inter-dependence of things. They sometimes mean the immediacy of things as well."

"The immediacy part is true, I suppose." The young woman put her arm into the sleeve of her jacket. "It's the immediacy of the speed of light."

"They mean something more. I don't use the analogy much. If I did, I would say that both the immediacy and the interdependence are true. The image of the reflection can't exist without the water, the light, and the object in the image. Neither can those exist as they are, in the moment, without the reflection."

"All things are unified, yes. That's hardly a profound point." She finished with her jacket. Hands by her side, she waited.

"If you say so. You are full of such reflections yourself. I see your teachers in you. I see your mother. I see your son, who needs more of your attention."

"I'd rather not talk about that." She jammed her hands into her pockets and stared out the window above the front door. She caught a glimpse of the pale image of herself in the glass and turned away from it.

"You are an original," her grandmother observed. '"But you are a reflection of others, too."

"This is a pretty good explanation, grandma." She put her hand on the doorknob. With a sigh, she turned it. "I suppose this is your own, original take."

Her grandmother shook her head. She leaned back in her comfortable chair and closed her eyes.

"I'm sorry that you've missed the point," she said. She listened for the door but didn't hear it swing open. She peeked at her grand-daughter, who was still waiting with one fist in her jacket pocket. "Each idea is fashioned after another. Not a single person has ever existed without others."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Not Zen 97: True Believers

A flock of crows nested among the other flocks. Together they occupied not only the largest willow-oak but the neighboring oaks and all of the other trees anyone could see from high up in the forest. Each group had traveled for weeks, met other groups, flew together, and joined more.

As the flocks grew larger, more fights broke out. Sometimes the conflicts erupted between small groups that arrived to rest early and larger ones that arrived late and tried to take the best roosts, already occupied. Sometimes struggles erupted over matters of philosophy or the different cultures of the flocks. On the night previous, in a different part of the forest, three war parties had fought over matters of protocol. Two crows had died with a dozen more wounded.

A young crow with his eye to repeating the battle approached a veteran warrior from his troop.

"Old fellow," said the young. "Tonight we must correct the wrong-thinkers."

"If by that you mean 'kill the others because they speak oddly,' no."

"Come, now. You fought on our side when it was a matter of territory. Why will you not join us in holy glory? Are not moral principals greater than a mere the mere twigs and stalks of these boughs?"

"Yes, you and your friends talk a lot about ideals. They are vast, powerful things."

"They are everything. You must live your life for some cause greater than yourself. I have heard you say those words, old crow."

"And I do. I live for others."

"That is not what I mean."

"Yet it is exactly what I mean. Ideals accomplish progress. They help us make tools, heal ourselves, and achieve feats of endurance. But as great as they are compared to any one crow, they are limited. They mislead. They deceive us into a cycle of violence."

"Comrade, we fight for the glory of all creatures."

"You, young fellow, give life to your ideals. Without you and your friends, the concepts would be nothing. Do you not see? Even if your cause encompasses the whole universe, it is small in comparison to the mind of a single individual. All ideas, all transcendent loves, all undying passions, all unbearable depressions, all towering fears, hopes and inspirational ideas that our folks have ever held are combined in a single mind."

"Only one cause can be the just one, comrade."

"Many causes are just. As great as such concepts are, as much as we use them to improve ourselves, they are also so small that they all fit inside any reasonably bright child. The energy that moves you is so slight that it's in every individual. When you kill another, you kill a world of great ideas. You diminish our greatness."

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Not Zen 96: Choosing a Path

One morning, a grandmother took the village children out to do chores. She left three girls to sweep the warehouse floors. She assigned four boys to clear branches from the cart path. Then she took her oldest granddaughter to the jungle hedge at the town border. She handed the girl a machete and unwrapped another for her own use.

"Our job is to cut a shortcut for the carts," she said. "It's not too far to the road from this point."

The grandmother was frail. She took a slow, deliberate hack at the base of a bush. In two strikes, she knocked it down. Then she had to stretch and rest. Her granddaughter imitated her with whacks at a neighboring weed. But the girl chopped high first, then low. She tried many angles. Her strikes were fast and many but they were not effective.

"You'll learn," her grandmother assured her. "Follow me."

The old woman knocked down the next shrub and then another. Beside her, the granddaughter launched into her job with eagerness of a novice. She continued to experiment with the blade. She changed her chopping tactics every few minutes. After a while, she managed to cut down a spirea bush.

"I need a break," she said. "Why do I have to do this? Why not one of my cousins?"

"Why are you still in the farm school?" the grandmother asked. She felled a small butterfly tree. "You could have graduated by now and gone to the city. Is it a boy?"

"Maybe." The girl paused to rest.

"Does he like you?"


"And do you like him?" The old woman cleared another bush and carried it off to the side.

"I don't know."

"How can you not know something like that?" The grandmother raised an eyebrow. The girl, embarrassed, returned to her job with fury. "You are making things bad for your parents. And your boy can't be too pleased. You used to like school. You were smart. Don't you want to go to the city classes?"

"I don't know."

"You must make a decision. It's past time."

"I don't see why I should have to decide," replied the granddaughter. "Why can't I do nothing? Or do everything? You've done a lot You worked in a factory. You graduated school. You had children. You left town. You came back. Now you make pots and people come from far away to buy them. In your life, you got to do many things. Why should I have to chose one thing?"

"You misunderstand the choices," said the grandmother. "You must begin your life somewhere and make progress. To stop and start all the time, as you are doing with this underbrush and with your schooling, is to live a life of frustration and failure."

The girl renewed her attack on the plant in front of her. She saw that she had made almost no progress but her grandmother had gotten halfway to the road.

"I don't know that you are right," said the girl. She wiped her brow. "But even if you are, where should I begin?"

"Begin with a decision, any decision. Choose the boy or the school, either one. Or take the boy with you to the city. Do something."

"What if I make the wrong decision?"

"So what?" said her grandmother. "You'll fix it. The starting point doesn't matter. You need to pick a path and start swinging."