Sunday, June 29, 2014

Not Zen 117: Meekness

Four teachers sat in their meeting room with stacks of preparatory work on the tables around them. Each had created a week's worth of lessons, including tools for their students to use for in-class sessions. Making the tools out of paper and laminates had taken them days.

A fifth teacher arrived late. She burst in and swung a heavy bag onto her chair. She shrugged off her coat, turned, and hung it on a wall hook. Then she surveyed the work that the others had done. With a smile, she grabbed the youngest teacher by the elbow.

"I didn't get mine finished this weekend," she said. "And my students are already behind, you know. Can I borrow your lessons again?"

"I guess so." With her free arm, she waved toward her stacks.

"Fine. When you run off copies, make an extra ninety for me." The late teacher let go of her. "You're a real lifesaver. I gotta go to my classroom now. But I'll be right back."

"But your students won't have their tools." She pointed to the ones that she had spent hours laminating.

Her colleague frowned. "You didn't make any extras? No? Well, I'll do without. I've really got to get to the classroom. Really."

She spun and left before her co-worker could think of a way to split the home-made tools. 

As the young woman leaned over her stack of student tools to consider how they could be shared, she became aware that the room had grown quiet. She looked behind her to see that the other three teachers were scowling. Obviously she'd done something wrong. But she didn't know what.

"This is why everyone's angry with you both," the senior one said.

"Why are you mad at me?" She put a hand to her chest.

"Because your teaching partner is supposed to do her own work."

"I know." She searched their faces. She still didn't understand why they were upset. "But she doesn't. And then her students suffer. I can't stand that."

"They'll suffer, regardless." The faces of the older teachers softened at the mention of the students. "It's hard to see beyond the immediate moment to the greater pattern but you really need to do that now. You can't keep going on like this. You can't cover for a bad teacher."

"But her children ..."

"Come on, suppose you were working with a doctor. You'd find it tempting to cover up the habits of a bad doctor so that his patients wouldn't suffer. Wouldn't you?"

"Of course."

"But if you don't make the doctor understand what he's doing wrong, those patients will die when you turn your back. So don't cover up for the doctor. Don't keep a bad doctor in business for twenty years, still hurting patients every time you're not around."

"I ... I guess I see what you mean. But every time I don't cover for her, she tells me that her students are behind schedule. And they really are."

"She threatens you that way because it works. If you wonder why everyone else hates the example you set, it's that. You encourage your teaching partner to be selfish. Instead of negotiating with her, instead of demanding more effort from her, you let her continue as she is, hurting her students."

"I'm trying to help her."

"You're not. You aren't being kind to her or her classes. You're being meek. And your meekness is hurting the school." The senior teacher sighed. "I know that you're not a forceful person. But you'll have to be resolute. You have to insist that your work partners treat you fairly. That's the way you'll teach them to treat others fairly, too."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Not Zen 116: Not So Great

The clerk of a Quaker church was widely regarded as a holy woman. She carried out many good deeds in her community. Her neighbors sought her spiritual advice. Local politicians saw this and coveted her support. She gained influence and, because of this, even more people sought her advice.

One morning, a young woman from her church approached her after the service. Together, the two walked from the meeting room down a path that led to a nearby park.

"I'm not doing well in my life right now," the young woman admitted when they were alone. "I've made a lot of mistakes. You aren't making any. What's your secret?"

"Secrets are beyond me," said the clerk. "Every day, I meditate on my life. Then I meditate to clear my mind. And after I finish my meditations, I ask myself, 'Am I a good person yet?' and the answer is always no, I'm not."

"But you're a saint!" The younger one shook her head in disbelief. "You're perfect!"

"No. You just don't know me well enough to see all of my mistakes. And before you go to someone else and say the same thing to them, let me tell you: they're making mistakes, too. We all are."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Not Zen 115: Right Livelihood

Beavers laid claim to every waterway. All of the rivers, all of the creeks, all of the streams, brooks, and rivulets of any size were dammed. In some places, the dams created lakes, marshes, or ponds full of life.  In other areas, they made water barrens devoid of all but grasses and large, hardy species.

Through the generations, the geographic center of the beaver clans hollowed out.  Beavers ate the maple, alder, willow, and birch trees until there were no more.  Even sedges and lilies had scant time to grow before they were discovered and devoured.  Older beaver lodges rotted and collapsed.  Clans rebuilt them from the same, half-rotted materials, taking wood from multiple dwellings to form a single new one.  Every fresh sapling seemed precious.  Except for a few months in springtime, only ancient trees stood in their area.  Those trees took great efforts to fell.  Broken branches from them, found on the forest floors, became treasures.

Beavers began to fight among themselves, not over survival but over wealth.  They longed for the luxurious plants of generations past.

So it was one summer evening that a young female headed out from her mother's home.  She swam to the shore and headed into the forest to search for fallen branches.  It didn't take long before she sensed that she was being followed.

Although she couldn't see her pursuers, she could smell them when the wind blew uphill under the canopy of firs.  They were at least at least two members from the upstream beaver clan.  They had cut off her return to her lodge.

She found a birch stump from one of the last of the young trees she'd cut down.  Sometimes it tried to grow back and it provided her with food.  Today it had a single, diamond-shaped leaf.  She munched it while waiting for her followers to arrive.  But they never ventured uphill.  After a while, she stopped smelling them.  It was safe to move on.

She trudged down another slope, back toward the shore.  Although she heard an animal in the pine needles, she didn't smell predators.  And she still hadn't found any fallen branches.

Because she had nothing better to do, she located a pine tree the she had previously gnawed.  It was too large to fell in a single day.  If fact, she'd been working on it, on and off, for a week and she'd gotten halfway through.
Pine tasted bitter.  It was not her favorite.  But this tree grew next to the water.  When she took it down, she could cut off branches and carry them to her home.

She went to work and discovered that the sour sap had dried.  That made the wood easier to chew or at least more palatable.

As she gnawed, she remembered better jobs than this.  Only a few hundred yards north, there had been a stand of poplar trees.  A clan long gone had tended to them and to some willows, too.  But the upstream lodge had taken over the poplars and raised scent mounds to mark their territory.  Then they had felled every tree.  This year, they hadn't bothered with scent mounds.  They'd left nothing to protect.  The dead grove was no longer worth anyone's bother.

The young beaver worked past dusk, longer than she'd meant to.  Her progress on the dying wood encouraged her.  She paused to listen for predators.  She knew there were no wolves nearby.  They made noises she could hear even over her chore.  And the stink of a bear would have been impossible to miss.  She worked her way deep into the trunk.  As the tree began to creak, she risked her life for the final cuts.  The trunk began to tilt.  She scurried to safety.

As soon as the tree fell along the shore, she caught the scent of others beavers again.  She heard two of them slide into the water.  They were coming downstream to her, members of the hostile clan.

"We'll take this, cousin."  Another beaver, a large male stepped out of the underbrush along the bank.  How long had he been watching her work?

"Are you a band of thieves, now?" she said.  Her first instinct had been to slap her tail against the ground and flee into the water.  But she recognized these scents.  She shouldn't need to escape them.  She only wanted the branches she'd worked so hard to put in reach.

"You've got no right to protest," he replied.  "We're bigger.  We have more to feed.  We take what we can.  Those are our orders."

"I recognize you," she said.  "Last winter you asked my parents to hide you from a wolverine.  You were in my home.  We saved you.  And now you're stealing from us."

He fell silent.  One of the other beavers clambered ashore. 

"What are you waiting for?  Let's get cutting," he said.

"You steal all of the time."  She bristled with anger.  "You steal the coppice.  You killed the willows.  You ate up the water lilies.  You take all of everything that's rich so there's no more, not for us, not even for you."

"It's what our leaders want," said the newcomer.

"You exploit everyone and everything.  You're thugs and fools."

"Another clan resisted us, cousin, with more than words," he told her.  "They fought.  Are you too young to remember them?  Our leaders had us destroy their homes.  We laid them open to the bears."

"And when my clan is gone, too, what will you do?  When you've taken our homes and pushed us out to die, then what?  You'll have no one to steal from.  This has become your livelihood.  You spend your time plundering resources needed by all and thieving from others' hard work."

"Our orders come from our grandfathers.  You act like we're to blame.  But we're not.  There's nothing we can do.  Our elders demand more and more, even if there's no more to be had."

"Orders or not, this is not a right way for you to live.  I mean for you, personally.  You do evil things and accept rewards for your deeds.  And you can't pass that off onto anyone else."

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Not Zen 114: Property

A tribal leader took a visitor to the edge of the river. On a cloudy day, it was too far for them to see across to the other side but they could observe an island in the middle of the brown water, a rocky outcropping with mud and silt flowing downstream from it.

"That was our place for picnics," the chief said, pointing. "It was a forest. It had hills and meadows. People could farm there if they wished. On the south slope was a spring that our ancestors turned into a well. Now it is destroyed."

"The loggers cut down all of the trees, I see." His guest nodded.

"They stripped everything of value." The tribal leader jabbed his finger at it. "They destroyed the rookery. Now there are no more shorebirds They poisoned the well with the bodies of dead log men. No one can drink. They let all of the island's soil wash into the river. They made the place into a bare rock with a few stumps."

"How did they decide they could do this?" The visitor removed his hat for a moment, rubbed his balding head, and put the hat back on.

"I want you to tell me that."

"All I said was that the island had to belong to someone. If you declared it as no one's property, others would feel free to use it." He looked at his feet as he spoke.

"We made it property, as you instructed. It was common property before, according to our customs. But you said that bad things happen to common property so we made it the sole property of one man, my nephew. And it was registered with you."

"I don't understand."

"Your men got him drunk and paid him money for the island."

"So your nephew sold it?" The guest smiled with relief. An instant later, he tried to hide his emotion. He gave a solemn frown. "Then the men he sold it to can do what they want."

"That is a child's view of property. I thought your people were more sophisticated than that."

"We are very sophisticated," said the guest.

"A child is self-centered. He thinks, I will do what I please, destroy things that belong to my family, and not consider the consequences. A grown man or woman knows better. Adults consider the consequences for others."

"I think I see what you mean." He sighed at the greedy destruction of the island.

"Declaring that something is your property does not give you the right to destroy it for generations on end. Every adult knows this. You have friends, relatives, and neighbors to consider. If your concept of property lets grown men act like greedy children, then your culture's concept of property is flawed. It will lead to deaths. My nephew is ashamed. Already, he has killed one of the log men. He was wounded and has gone into hiding but next, they will kill him."

"That's wrong. But our society lives by a system of property protection. We can't simply do away with the idea."

"Then you must fix it. No one can be allowed to destroy resources that everyone needs. Every society but yours seems to know this. If your idea of property allows owners to create deserts out of gardens, it is time for that idea to grow up. It must become as sophisticated as the earth."

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Not Even Not Zen 3: About Essays and Stories

For the most part, these 'Not Even' entries will be essays but they won't be limited to that form.  Aside from the original story each week, it may sometimes be fun to include a real-life story, a poem, or a traditional story re-told along with an essay or an explanation.

Occasionally, I write stories or poems that seem worth sharing but they don't have a place in Not Zen.  The entry below is one of those.  I heard it or read it long ago, then told it again at the office.  (It's an office sort of story.)  Of course, I told it again at a party, at a different office, and on a few other occasions.  I searched online for it but I could never find a version of the story that matched the one I told.  So here's my version, possibly changed quite a bit over the years from the original.

Not Even 3: The King's Counselors (A Traditional Tale)

Long ago, there lived a huge lion, a king of beasts who ruled his land with courage and ferocity.  Even the pack leaders of other predators bowed down to him.  The migratory herd leaders stood in awe.  So the lion became an emperor.  He had many counselors and many wives.  He ruled for so many years that only elephants could remember when he had not ruled them.  But at the late end of his maturity, he contracted halitosis.  His breath smelled so bad that his wives revolted against him.

"Leave us until you're better," said his chief mate.  "We can't stand it any longer."

The king was angry.  Lions can't rule without the consent of their wives.  He understood how serious his problem had become.  He called his counselors together.  Three came quickly: the sheep, the wolf, and and fox.

"Tell me truthfully," he roared at them.  "Does my breath stink?"

"Wow," said the sheep, knocked back by the odor.  "Yes, sire.  It's awful.  I've never smelled anything like it."

"Liar!" screamed the lion.  He fell upon the sheep and tore him to bits.

"What about you?" he said when he was done.  He turned to the wolf.  "Do you think my breath is bad?"

"Oh no, sire," said the wolf, who could hardly keep his eyes off the bloody remains of the sheep.  He bowed his head and simpered.  "Perhaps your mate's nose isn't working right.  Your breath smells fresh like daisies."

"Coward!" screamed the lion.  He fell upon the wolf and tore him to shreds as easily as he did the sheep.  Then he turned to the fox.

"Well?" he said to the wisest of his counselors.  "Do you think my breath stinks?"
The fox had been waiting for the question.  He'd given his answer some thought.

"To tell the truth, sire," replied the fox patiently.  "I have a terrible cold and I can't smell a thing."

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Not Zen 113: Feeling Better

They waited in the lobby of the doctor's office, three children in the midst of another dozen. Around them, pictures of farm animals decorated the beige walls. Yellow-shaded lamps and bright, fluorescent lights cast a cheerful glow. The youngest child, a toddler, grabbed a toy truck from the floor and hit his sister in the knee with it. In retaliation, she kicked him in the stomach. He fell. They both cried. 

Their mother shouted for them to stop. She grabbed the toys and threw them into the office toy basket. Their older brother sighed and put down his book.

Just then, a door opened between the office hall and the lobby. A doctor leaned out.

"Can I see you alone for a moment?" he asked the mother. 

She nodded. After ordering her children not to move, she marched out. The older brother waited for the door to close. He turned to his sister.

"The doctor doesn't want to give you medicine, I think," he said.

His sister forgot about her knee. She nodded.

"But mommy wants it for me," she said. "So she'll get it. She wants me to stop feeling sad."

"You're sad a lot."


They watched their younger brother stop crying and start looking around for something more to do. A physician's assistant glanced up to observe the three of them from her seat at the front desk. After a few seconds, she returned to her work. The older boy leaned over the arm of his sister's chair.

"I know a way to feel better," he whispered.

Her eyelids narrowed a little. "No you don't."

"It works for me." He settled back in his seat.


"Do something nice."

"I don't want to help someone, dummy. I want someone to help me."

He shook his head as he tried to think of how to explain. Then their eyes turned to the youngest child. He had located the toy basket. Now he was turning it over and dumping out the toys.

"You want a grown-up to help you feel better?" he asked with a wary eye on the toddler.


"I don't know that that works. Anyway, the doctor said no medicine."

A few feet from them, the youngest child sifted through the toys on the floor. He pushed aside a pile of wooden blocks. A soft, plastic truck seemed to meet his approval. He grabbed it. But when he tapped it against the floor, it made no noise. He dropped it. A moment later, among other plastic cars and trucks, he found the big one.

He slammed it against the floor. It made a solid sound. Then he ran up to his sister.

As he swung it, his older brother took the truck out of his hand. The toddler yelped, startled, and burst into tears.

"There's no one who needs help except an annoying little brother," the girl said as she watched the toddler cry. "And he's a brat."

"It works even with annoying brats."

He got down on the floor. After a moment's consideration, he handed the toddler the heavy toy truck. His brother stopped crying. His sister joined them on the floor. 

The girl built a tower out of blocks. Then she knocked it down. Her little brother smiled at that. Then she built a bridge out of the blocks.

"Go ahead," she said.

Her younger brother hesitated. When no one moved to stop him, he set his truck down on the floor. He drove it almost to the bridge, backed up, and swerved into the side to knock it down. Blocks tumbled. He squealed so loud with delight that his sister laughed, too.

Still smiling, she picked up a block to build the bridge again.