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."


  1. I like this Koan. The simplicity of the message resonates within me. :)

  2. This is one of my personal favorites, not only for the characters but for the lesson everyone has to learn. I think with these people in this situation, it comes out well.