Sunday, March 9, 2014

Not Zen 101: The Shame of Praise

At a meeting of many religious groups, there was a procession each morning from the lodgings to the conference halls. Monks, nuns, and other clerical figures marched along a city street for a few blocks before they could meet and debate.

One of the attendees was a Zen acolyte. On his first morning walk, he stopped to give assistance to a woman who needed help putting a large, black dog back onto its leash. A group of bishops, priests, nuns, and monks watched while the student hooked the dog to its chain. The lowly acolyte was upbraided by his Zen master for slowing the progress of the group.

“Can't you see that you're delaying important people?” yelled the Zen master.

“Being who they are, they will wait for an act of kindness,” replied the unrepentant student. He seemed to pay his master's criticism no mind. The representatives of other religions nodded in agreement with him. They often disagreed with the Zen master anyway.

On the following morning, the student stopped the procession to open doors for a pair of men who carried a heavy couch between them. This time, to the surprise of all, his Zen master praised his acolyte's kindness effusively even while the boy held the doors.

“They should thank you, those men there,” he told his student. But the student was so flustered that he let go and nearly hit the last man with the edge of a door. He turned away, flush with embarrassment. He tried not to listen to the gratitude of the working men or to his master.

The other religious leaders shook their heads.

“Yesterday, I thought your master was crazy,” said one as he pulled the boy aside. The group resumed its march. The acolyte and the other man lagged at the back of the procession. “Now I think he's teaching you a lesson. He's teaching all of us. Look, you're a good person, aren't you?”

“I-I'm trying to be,” answered the student uncertainly.

“Well, I think you are. You're doing right things for right reasons.”

“But my master was mad about that yesterday.”

“He knew it wouldn't stop you from helping other people. But he also knew how you would react to his praise today. It made you embarrassed. And you stopped helping because of the praise. You let go.”

“I did? Oh, yes.”

“You're a fine person when you do right things in the face of criticism. But when you are enlightened, you will do the right thing at the right time, regardless of criticism or praise. You will be affected by neither.”

“And don't forget to say thank you when praised,” said a nun who had dropped behind the main group and had overheard.

“Shh,” said the Zen master. He turned from his walking and raised a finger to his lips.

“Thank you,” said the student, not at all quieted. His master turned back, laughing, to his partners in the procession.


  1. Praise is strange. Most crave it, yet when they receive it they cannot accept it.

  2. I have to agree. We are taught not to accept praise. And we teach ourselves too much about politeness and false humility, perhaps, not enough about a sense of proportion with regard to it.