Sunday, July 6, 2014

Not Zen 118: Correctness and Gentle Words

Part 1: Correctness

During his release from prison, a former monk was questioned by his warden.

"It says here that you were arrested by order our previous administration.  That was for attempting to incite riots.  Is it something you may do again?"

"Since I never incited a riot, I think it is unlikely."  The monk nodded as he spoke.

"You have been excommunicated by your former religious order.  A few years ago, they provided your home.  Where will you go?"

"I will go someplace where I'm needed to do good works."  He put his chin in his hand for a moment and considered his prospect of release.  "Warden, may I return to my hometown?"

"Your parole board has not placed any restrictions on your return.  You are to be free travel to your home."  The warden frowned. "In my experience, people who speak out are trouble makers.  They tend to speak out again.  You were condemned by your own religious leaders for it.  That's pretty bad."

"They condemned me when I revealed secrets of our former administration."

"That's right."

"When I spoke, I knew that many others would not, out of fear.  In fact, they said bad things about me each time I pointed out injustices, saying 'this is not the way of peace' or 'he has concerned himself with something that is not a religious matter.'  They wanted me to stop talking about injustice.  But I think it is a narrow view, this idea that cruelties and thefts are fine to tolerate."

"You had some influence at the time.  What about using your words for peace instead?  Did you consider that?"

"We need to peacefully work to make the world better.  Sometimes that means saying what is wrong so it can be fixed.  Wrongdoers may feel offended.  But we must not be fooled by the umbrage they take at having their deeds exposed.  To speak about the injustice is the way forward.  It is the beginning of our social health."

Part 2: Gentle Words

When the man returned to his home town, he discovered that his government had approved construction for a new highway. Officials had designed the road to cut through grassy burial sites, hundreds of years old, on the east side of town. The approved path also leveled the earthen mounds that had been left by an ancient civilization a thousand years before.

The government had held bids on the work. A construction company had won. Already, there had been violence between the construction crews and the townspeople over desecration of graves. The former monk went to confront the company managers about it.

With him came the former caretaker of the town's park, a fellow who had recently retired. Although he cared more about the mounds and ruins than the recent graves, he had useful experience with bureaucracies. Together they located the office of the supervisor of the highway project. They camped outside the door for a few hours until that fellow agreed to see them.

"I think I know why you've come," the project manager explained. "But I can only give you a few minutes. There's no point in more because I'm sure I can't do anything for you."

The former monk had grown impatient during his wait. He spoke directly to the violence, its consequences, and its causes. The road had been planned without consulting locals. The government had treated his friends and neighbors as if they didn't exist. The project destroyed graves without a permit, which was illegal, and would butcher the archeology of the ancient site northeast of town, which might not be illegal but surely it was some kind of higher crime as it wiped out the heritage of the town.

"None of the officials who approved the project knew about these things," said the highway project manager. "And it doesn't matter to the bureaucracy. The time for objections has passed."

"You have to change the project."

"I can't." When his visitors refused to leave his office, the project manager called his security guards and had them thrown out of the building.

At they stood outside the doors, the one-time park manager turned to the former monk.

"Did you see the troops sent to protect the construction crews?" he asked. "They were gathering around the town armory this morning."

"I did. Between those troops and the panicking project manager, we know that the town has them worried."

"Well, those troops worry me right back. But I find the manager encouraging."

"How so?" asked the former monk.

"He's young. He thinks he has no power. On paper, that's true. But he doesn't understand that what's on paper is unimportant. He can do a lot for us. His company is taking the concept to reality. We can work with him."

"I thought your plan was to take him to court."

"That's how I'll work with him. I've done that part before. You, though, will need a different way. You're in the right position for it. But it will be new to you. It is not a protest."

"Why not?"

"You need to help the company. Do field work for the young manager."

"That's impossible." He considered further. "Or it is immoral."

"Right now, the road builders are angry that the townsfolk place more value on the land than the highway project. After all, the workmen build roads. That's all they do. If the road is stopped, many of them will be out jobs. Businesses that want the road in order to grow will fail to benefit, so they will complain, too. Yet the town is right is right to protest. You presented it correctly. The road was planned without concern for our ancestral homes or our businesses or our way of life, all of which will be destroyed by the road if it's made wrong."

"Or if it's made at all."

"The manager with whom you spoke employs foremen. After the fighting in town a few days back, those foremen are afraid to show themselves on the streets. They would welcome the chance to hire someone who can mediate between their crews and the locals."

"Will the manager let them hire me now that we've argued?"

The older man shrugged. "Does he even know your name?"

Not only were the foremen willing to hire a mediator, in less than a week they were willing to bring in local labor. Thanks to a lawsuit filed by the park supervisor, the construction company leaders overcame their fears of local sabotage. They saw financial benefit to enlisting the natives. They felt they could put an end to the hiring discrimination lawsuit before it reached trial. They hoped, too, that use of native labor would overcome environmental resistance.

Between the candidates sent by the former park supervisor and the interviews conducted by the former monk, now the project mediator, the road construction team collected a work crew who were all opposed to the desecration of the graves and the mounds.

Over the course of weeks, they made small decisions, trivial ones, each of which changed the course of the road. One worker noticed a problem with the grading of the asphalt and so brought in fill dirt to angle the road and to lift it above the herd migration paths. Another dug the edges of the road to the west in order to avoid a mound to the east. Later, they noticed a water buildup problem and laid a large pipe underneath a rise in the earth.

Although all of the decisions seemed ordinary, their effect was large. The surveyor noticed. But after he talked with the locals, he filed an exception for the road near the mounds so it could "go around an obstacle at need." The foremen understood, too. At first, they tried to change the road back to match their charts but their local laborers refused. The head foreman asked the mediator to step in.

The mediator found a compromise and the work resumed. As part of the compromise,the local workers paved their access road to the project. That sped up their arrival to the work site every morning. Now the highway, which had been designed without a local access ramp, had one.

Eventually, the project manager noticed. Even from his office, he could tell the highway construction had deviated from the original plans. When he visited the site, he saw that the road would avoid the graveyard and therefore another pending lawsuit. So he deducted the deviation expense from the budget he'd been granted to handle the attorney fees.
When he saw the gradation difference, his only question was about the tunnel beneath it.

"This is a very wide and tall water pipe," he remarked. "It has animal tracks in it."

"Yes," said the former monk. "The local shepherds and the migrating deer come through the pipe."

"I'm pretty sure there was another lawsuit from the shepherds. How much did the solution cost?"

"It wasn't much. The foremen say we're under budget."

The project manager wrote up the solution to make it official. Since he'd saved another set of attorney fees, his superiors sent him a written commendation.

Over the course of a few months, the highway meandered between the mounds. It passed next to the graveyard but not over it. Construction continued outside of town, to the south. Some local workers stayed on the job and became permanent construction employees. The former monk was not one of them. He attempted to resign. But the foremen pleaded with him to stay. He had, they said, enabled them to build the road.

The local news reported that the project was a victory for the forces of progress. The officials who designed the road agreed. As a consequence, the monk's former friends reviled him. They called him a traitor to the town. Each time he heard from them, he thought of the soldiers arming themselves to ride against his neighbors. He thought of the detours the road had taken, which showed on no official map, the gravesites left intact, the ancient mounds never plowed down.

He agreed to stay on the job.

Years later, he visited the grassy footbridge underneath the road. The shepherds planted sod in it every spring. It didn't look like a water pipe although that was still how it appeared in the blueprints. The migrating deer, wolves, and farm animals treated it as a shaded lane.
A local man who lived near the road came out of his home. He brought the former monk a chair. He carried one for himself, too.

"You've visited here before," said the old fellow.

"I have." He bowed his head and accepted the seat.

"Are you sad for the life you've chosen? I remember you growing up here. Do you miss your old neighbors?"

"My job is hard for me. It's not what I would have chosen for myself. But aren't all jobs hard? The reward for me is that I've made a few places like this, refuges for people and nature. What about you? You worked on this, too. Do you regret the bargain you made?"

"No one asked me before. But no, not really. The road made some people rich. Not me, but that wasn't what I needed. I had to save my old town. That was enough then and it's enough when I look back on it now."


"You were such an ass when you were a boy. Smart, yes, and usually right. But it was only when you worked to fix this road that you settled down."

"An older fellow, I suppose he was about our age now, gave me good advice."

"What happened to him?"

"Long gone. But he had it right. I'm saying the same things that I was before. Only my tone is different. I'm not shouting. My meaning is the same. But my results are better."

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