Sunday, August 31, 2014

Not Zen 125: Thoughtless Competition

"You nurture these plants as if they were children." She did not say this with approval. 

He nodded. As her neighbor, he had known her for fifteen years. He was sympathetic to how she'd recently gone through divorce. Her tone was often hostile for no apparent reason but he didn't mind. He could see that she was trying to be social, to make small talk, and to break out of her old habit of keeping to herself.

His garden lay a few feet inside the gate to his back yard. Anyone passing by could see him. He'd left the latch of the gate open as an invitation. She was the first neighbor to drop in.

In his cultivated plot, the center consisted of his food plants: corn, tomatoes, melons, and beans. He'd surrounded them with spice plants that the local rodents didn't like to eat. It seemed to keep them away fairly well, although it had taken years of trial and error to find spices they really didn't like.

He surrounded the garden with a border of flowers and butterfly bushes since the neighbors seemed to like seeing those.

"I do nurture," he agreed. "Except when I am harsh and cull the plants."

She laughed.

"All things cooperate and compete." With a gesture, his hand trowel swept the air over the garden. "Mostly, different species compete."

"Plants just grow. They are innocent. It's not real competition at all."

He frowned. "When a person doesn't realize that all things compete, I would hope it's because they are removed from nature."

"Why would you hope that?"

"Because otherwise it would mean that the person was in a position to see how life is and yet deny it." 

Last weekend, she had also come to visit, and she'd sat in the grass for a talk. She seemed to regard him as a refuge from her social strife. The woman's husband had grown critical of her habits near the end of their relationship. Her mother and her sisters had always been harsh, even more than her husband had been. Perhaps she was comfortable with being reprimanded, too, because he noticed that his gentle rebuke made her shoulders relax. She folded her arms and leaned back in thought.

"I don't see plants as having rivalries," she finally said, "if you know what I mean."

"I do know what you mean. But when I look around, I see that plants, animals, and people are not so different. We are all social. We cooperate and compete. Even solitary animals, creatures who travel alone for much of their lives, are interdependent with others."

"Now that everyone's gone from my home, I get out a little and I see that." Her husband had left her the house. That had seemed to her like a great blessing at first. But her children had also decided they wanted to leave. Now they stayed with their father in an apartment on the other side of town while she roamed around her four-bedroom house on her own.

"If you stay out more, you'll notice more." He liked the idea of her getting outside. He was sure that she would discover the park, the pond, the public pool, and her other neighbors, the ones she'd never talked to before. She could witness more of everyone else's joys and struggles in life. "Herbivores eat meat sometimes and carnivores eat plants. Every day, I see that plants battle underground, consume one another at the roots, and even eat animals."

"I've never noticed any of that. Plants are dumb, to me. No brains."

"There's a fight going on right now between some plants. It has a clear winner and loser. Come."

He walked her across the grass. The woods brushed against the western border of his yard. There, he found the scene to illustrate his point. A half-dozen kinds of vines grew at the border with the great trees. Two kinds of them he let flourish because they fed him, the blackberries and the raspberries.

"See how the raspberry vine tries to flee the blackberries?" he said. In this thicket, the blackberries had strangled out everything else. No flower or weed had withstood the snarl of spiked stems and leaves. The raspberry bush had, in reaction, stretched out tendrils along the treeline. "It has lost the competition. But even though it is rooted to the ground, a vine like this can try to escape. Not all plants have that option. They stay and fight or, if they feel they are outmatched, they make babies fast before the oak tree growing above them crowds out the light and eats up the water."
She studied the vines for a while, arms crossed. Tears began to well up in her eyes.

"Poor dumb bush," she said. "I didn't realize I was in a competition either."

"Yes. I never knew your family well but I've seen you on occasion for years. I talked with your husband. I would say that he, too, didn't understand that competition always goes on. It's the nature of life."

"We were lazy together. Isn't that how it's supposed to be?"

"Perhaps. But social cooperation and rivalries go on all the time. They never stop, not even if you pretend they do. The precursors to life act this way, so even our chemicals are like this. Our partnerships are helped, I think, by recognizing the need to cooperate and compete."

"Sounds like vigilance. I thought that didn't apply to me, not with his attitude." She turned away from the scene with the competing vines. Her right arm swept out to indicate his house. "Your wife keeps herself beautiful. How come you don't get jealous? How come you don't have attitude? If I dressed nice or lost weight, my husband always got a jealous."

"Jealousy is a form of possessiveness. I think maybe it comes from a concern that we haven't kept an eye on cooperation and competition." He looked to his home. His wife, working at the kitchen table, noticed. She waved, smiled, and returned to her work before he could wave back. "There's more involved, too, but I think jealousy is sometimes a leap to hyper-vigilance spurred by the recognition that we haven't been paying attention."

"Attention to what?"

"To other people. To important relationships. To the rest of world. Everything."

"Paying that much attention sounds exhausting."

"If you keep an eye on how things really are, it's not too hard. If you stop observing and re-start, then I suppose each re-start could seem tedious. It would be like the way our seldom-used muscles grow tired fast."

"No," she said after a while. "I think you're wrong. Competition doesn't go on all the time. It can't."

He sighed. He turned around and pointed at the vines they'd left at the edge of the woods.

"Do these plants know they are in competition?" he asked.

"I doubt it."

"Maybe not. As you say, they might not be aware. But they're in competition regardless. All of us are, always, even if when competition is hidden from our view or even when we try to hide ourselves from it."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Not Zen 124: Good and Evil

"I've heard that you teach an understanding that goes beyond good and evil," said a visitor to the meditation class.  "So you ignore morality altogether.  You teach novices this powerful way of life even if they are cruel.  I hope you'll say it isn't true.  Why should evil people benefit from your instruction?"

The meditation teacher stood and rapped this visitor on the head.  The visitor was not hurt but he covered his head, shocked by the blow.  He rose to his feet.  As he turned to leave, the students pleaded with him to stay.  They tried to explain that this was a traditional way of unasking a wrong question.

"Why are you preoccupied with good and evil?" the teacher asked him.  "Maybe you should stay.  You should listen and learn what you can."

But the visitor was in no mood to learn.  After the first meditation session, he approached other students about preventing evil people from attending the class.  After the next session, he asked others about sins they may have committed.  After the last session, he asked about past actions that students had regretted.

The visitor returned to the next week's session.  He didn't approach the teacher.  Instead, he whispered to other students about the power of meditation.  It was a gift, he said, and should not be given to the violent or the criminally minded.  The teacher endured hearing this during the breaks.  But before the last meditation session, he announced that he would give a lecture.

"I hear students worrying,” he allowed with a nod.  “I know some of you fear that evil people will learn of our practice and gain power from it.  I find it necessary to dispel this fear.

"First, I ask, 'What is an evil person?'  Is he one who sees to kill his brother or rob him?  If so, why would this person seek to understand the way of all things, the flow of life, the illusion of the self, the immediacy of animal love in every breath?  Such an understanding would only get in the way of  murder.

"Secondly, I say, 'What good is it to call a person evil?'  Would you not stop a good person from committing an evil act?  If you saw a bad person doing a good deed, would you stop him?

"Knowing justice from injustice is a easy thing.  Children know it.  So there is no need to teach it here.  Our meditations do not ignore morality but our studies do not focus on it.  When I became the group leader, I assumed you at least had the understanding of children."

With this, the teacher hit himself on the head.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Not Zen 123: Army of Generals

“Your article takes an intellectual stance again.” She tossed down the magazine. Her fingers wrapped around her coffee cup.  “All of your stuff is too hard to think about, no mass appeal.”

“That's okay.” He nodded in acknowledgement of her point. “For now, it might seem that way. Soon it won't.”

“People aren't getting smarter.” She glanced around at the customers in the coffee shop. A couple of men argued about sports. Another dozed in his chair. A group of young women pointed at other women leaving the shop.

“No, but we are getting more educated.” His eyes stayed on his editor. “Consider this. Reading and writing were once regarded as technical skills. Some people could figure them out. Some couldn't. Those who could learn were said to be intellectuals, servants to the upper class or better. Now most people can read and write. It's not intellectual.”

“Pfah.” She waved away the example. “We're literate now. That's not a trend.”

“But it is. The trend isn't limited to literacy. Think about what armies were like a hundred and fifty years ago.” He pointed to a pair of flags, reminders of the civil war. “There were no professional soldiers in our country. When war broke out, men volunteered and brought the guns they had. If you wanted to be an officer, you recruited your own troops, supplied them with weapons and maybe with horses. That's what it took to be an officer. There was no training. There was no reading Clausewitz's 'On War' or the 'Book of Five Rings' or anything like that.”

“Those were terrible officers.” She scowled at the flags.

“Some of them.” He had to agree. A moment later, he shrugged. “Death separated the brave and stupid from the bold and clever. Teddy Roosevelt was an officer who got his start that way.”


“He had no formal training, only a good sense of timing. Nowadays, even the lowest soldier has more military skill than our former commander in chief.  They know more battlefield tactics than the greatest generals of history. If any of the old officers were brought into these times, they would say that we have an army of generals.”

“My brother was in the army. I know you're right about their cross training. It seems to work. Everyone knows to stick to their roles but they can take on other duties as needed. Soldiers can act as officers in an emergency. And do it competently.”

“So I'm passionate about things that seem intellectual to you right now. But these things won't seem intellectual in time. They're going to seem as obvious as reading and writing. Already, meditation is trendy like 'The Book of Five Rings' was a while ago.”

She sighed. “One type of meditation gets more popular than the others and drives them out. That's not progress. Plus business folks use their meditation to achieve clarity of mind and put it to immoral uses.”

“See? You're passionate about an intellectual issue. You have opinions about it.”

“Everyone else is adopting a different, easier style than you use.” She put down her cup.  “How can I tell that you're addressing topics of interest to the next, better educated generation?”

“Education will improve us all.”

“I doubt it.” She leaned back. Her arms crossed in her lap.

“In time, the army of generals will sweep all others from the field.” He smiled and gestured to the winning flag. “How can the battle end any other way?”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Not Zen 122: The Reminder

"This young man has done more than his part," he school headmaster announced from his podium.

He had called the families of his school together to witness the signing of oaths.  Each school in the agreement pledged that its students would not take part in the violence.

Their city had been divided along ethnic lines for as long as anyone could remember.  For years, each group had lived in peace, side by side with culturally unfamiliar neighbors.  Sometimes, though, a person from one group offended another.  When it came to a fight over such incidents, people swiftly sided with their own ethnic group.  The incidents escalated.  Responses to insults became injuries.  Responses to injuries became murders.  Murders grew into wars.

In the midst of such a war, a boy in a religious school reached out to the children of other religious schools.  He wrote letters asking them to establish peace among the student populations.  As he was a student leader, he wrote to the other student leaders, such as they were.  One or two wrote back.  They wrote to friends in other schools.  In a few months, the movement spread.

"It may seem like a small thing," the headmaster continued.  "But sometimes peace begins like this.  We are planting a seed of peace here and we hope it will grow."

He spoke for a while about the boy, his campaign for peace, and the promising results.  He hailed the lad as his best student, his most enlightened leader.  He gestured to the boy's family among those in attendance.

"He began this campaign when he was personally free of the violence.  He acted solely out of concern for others.  But one of his grandfathers was killed soon after.  That did not stop him.  He did not fail to reach out.  In fact, he pressed even harder with the families of the men accused of the murder.  He brought them into his peace process.  Such greatness of spirit should not go unrewarded."

The headmaster presented his student with a certificate and a signed copy of the multiple-school pledge to stay peaceful.  Local news services took their picture.  The talked to the boy for a while and asked him questions about establishing a general peace, none of which he could answer.  They seemed disappointed.

After the reporters left, his extended family approached him.  This included his grandparents, who had mixed feelings about the call for peace.

"Your other grandpa wasn't the only one in our family to die," complained the surviving grandfather.  "That first boy you reached out to, his cousin murdered your uncle, my son-in-law.  How can you say that you love him?"

"First, it wasn't him," the student answered, award still clutched in his hands.  "He hates what his cousin did.  He would never commit such a horrible act and for that, it's easy to love him.  He wants peace.  Like me.  For another thing, I wouldn't hate even his cousin if his cousin renounced the murder."

"Only if he renounced the murder?" said his oldest grandmother.  She was the wife of his dead grandfather, who had been a kind man and had played chess with members of all religious groups, a fact that apparently had made him a target.  When three young men had been arrested for the act, she met them at the police station.  She recognized their faces.  After a brief conversation, she told them that she forgave them.  They had been unrepentant until then but one broke into tears at her sincere forgiveness.

"Just for saying those words?" said the boy's other grandmother, the loud one.  "That's too easy to do."

The boy didn't quite hear his grandmothers.  His grandfather stood in front of him, so he addressed the man again.

"I remind myself every day to hate the faults of others, not the people," he said.  "We can love others and not their moral flaws."

"What a nice sentiment," proclaimed one grandmother for all to hear.  "No wonder they are calling you a prodigy of wisdom."

"How sad for you," said the gentle one.  She patted the boy on his cheek.  "To need such a reminder."

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Not Zen 121: Heartbreak

A young man left home to attend school. When he returned one evening, he declared at the door that his heart was broken and he could love no more. The family sat down to dinner. He ate enough to be polite although the stingy amounts brought comments from his mother. After the meal, he and other men of the family strolled out to the garden. They allowed a few toddlers to follow. The young man set out a stool so his grandfather could sit. He accepted none for himself. The men, as a group, talked and pulled weeds. 

He spent a long while in silence. His brothers and uncles told stories and laughed. When he turned to his father, everyone hushed to listen.

"Did you love any women before our mom?" he asked his father. "Enough to marry them, I mean."

His father had been silent, too. He glanced to the assembled brothers and uncles.

"A few." He allowed himself a gentle smile.

"Did they love you back?" 

"Not always." This brought a scowl to his face but a grin to one of the uncles.

"How did you stand it?"

"Ah." His father pulled up two more weeds. His mouth opened. But he shut it and weeded some more around his feet. "It seems to me that you loved this young woman at your school enough to marry her. But she did not love you the same."

"She didn't." The young man's fingers searched for weeds but his father had picked the ground between them clear.

"I know that there are many women who love you." His father tossed the grassy remains into the bucket next to his right foot. "I see them look at you every time you visit."

"But I do not love them the same."

"Then reach out to others or simply to anyone." The father sighed. "You will learn. You learned to speak by speaking, to study by studying, to work by working. It should come as no surprise that you learn to love by loving."

The other men had been listening. They nodded. One of the uncles grunted. But the young man's grandfather stopped weeding. He threw down the tangle of roots he'd been holding and pressed himself upright on his stool. He studied his son and grandson for a moment.

"That's reassuring advice." His gaze narrowed. "It sounds almost right. Your youngest son will get better at loving if he approaches it as something to practice. Who can doubt that? Right?"

"Right," said one of the uncles. Everyone nodded but the young man's father.

"Tell me," continued the grandfather, "how did your son learn to breathe?"

"By being born." The father raised an eyebrow. 

"That's how loving happens." The old fellow turned to his grandson. "Don't fool yourself, kid. You never stopped loving your mom, your dad, this girl you're talking about, or anyone. And you're never going to."


"Never. Get used to it."