Sunday, May 17, 2015

Not Zen 161: Illusion of Progress

The leader of the caravan, a broad-shouldered fellow whose hair was streaked with silver strands, fell sick one day. All afternoon, he clutched his stomach as he led the train of donkeys. He flapped his clothes to cool his fever. In the evening, he decided to ride his lead donkey. The beast sensed his illness and did not protest his added weight. When he dismounted and called an early halt to the march, no one was surprised. He declined to eat.

When he failed to wake the following morning, the men and donkeys began to panic. After the leader's three sons checked their father for breath, held rites, and wrapped his body for transport home, the next thing thing they did was to elect a new leader, their brother-in-law.

"You have risen far," said the oldest son. He shook the new caravan chief's hand. "You were born poor but worked your way to wealth. You've cared for our sister well. All of us sons fight over our father's money but not you. I'm sure you will take good care of the family business."

The brother-in-law, a thin man, accepted the red shawl of the caravan leader. It seemed large for him but he knew he could have it tailored. In the meantime, there was business. He went to introduce himself to the former master's donkeys.

"Hah," said the oldest, toughest beast. "You're not our master."

"I have a job. Perhaps it is a easy job, perhaps it is hard." He scooped a leather pack from the ground and opened it. Inside, he found empty water skins and a coil of rope. "We'll see how it goes."

"Do you think you're making progress in life?" said the the donkey. This one and several others had been let free during the night. They'd hovered around the body of their former master but they would need to be persuaded to rejoin the caravan train. "Your wealth is an illusion. Our freedom is real."

"Wealth is an illusion," he agreed as he prepared the rope. "But it's one that I've mastered. Perhaps freedom is an illusion, too." 

"Our previous master, our real one, left us untied. He intended to set us free."

"You are right." He hesitated, the hemp half-coiled between his hands. "I will not try to tie you to the train. Nevertheless, I urge you to come along."

He began to re-wrap the rope. His hands were deft. His decision was final.

"We can live and die on our own," said the head of the free donkeys. "We don't respect you. You're too young. You feel that all these things you have done represent progress but we know there is no such thing." 

"I have been promoted to wealth and leadership. You have been promoted to freedom and leadership. But for me, it is merely a change in title. As before, I must work. I would not call my changes in circumstances progress." He finished the coil. He knelt to the pack and tucked the rope into it. He added, "That was you."

"Existence is an illusion. Progress in our existence is also an illusion."

"Yes, yes. All things and all of our movements may be an illusion, brother donkey. But there's been very little rain this year." He gestured to the sands ahead of them on the trail. Dunes and plains alternated to the horizon, punctuated only with clusters of scrub bushes. "You see how it is."

"What of it?"

"I intend to maintain our progress to the northern stream because the last caravan to make it there this season may get no water. Without water, we will suffer. You may dismiss that as an illusion if you like, but I'll wager that you'll find it an uncomfortable one."

Their new master turned and walked back to the other trains of donkeys. He did not need to whip them forward. He tugged on the leader line and the beasts lurched into motion together.

The three brothers each with their own trains of donkeys followed. Only the youngest glanced back at the group of free donkeys behind. He threw up his arms, gave up on the idea of capturing them, and merged his train into the caravan.

One by one, the herd of free donkeys joined the rearguard of the lines. Soon, only the leader of the free donkeys remained at the campsite. His last companion marched off with a snort. He dug his hoof into the dry ground and thought about his situation.

"The illusion of suffering is only that," he said to himself. "I am free to live alone and die alone. But I seem to possess my own illusions about progress and cling to them. Perhaps it is not so bad to join the herd and work to the benefit of all."

He nodded to himself.

"How unfortunate that the man is right." He took a stride in the caravan's direction. "Back to work, donkey."


  1. It is hard to see one's own illusions sometimes. I'm reminded of a scene (or chapter) in Game of Thrones where the slaves have been freed from their masters and they do not know what to do with themselves. There is no one to feed them or clothe them and they must find their way in the world. Instead of freedom they choose to become slaves again because that is what they know. Even though they were slaves they had medical care, they were fed, they did not lack or want. They were part of the families they lived in. When they were freed they got all caught up in the idea of it...but in reality...eeking out their own life was not something they really wanted for themselves.

  2. The knowledge that progress is illusory doesn't seem to make people unhappy. The prospect of improvement, even when the improvement is for future generations, even if the improvement is debatable, is sufficient for a common cause. It can join people together.

  3. I haven't seen the Game of Thrones but certainly the prospect of freedom - like a blank page to write on - can be intimidating for many people. Only a small but important percentage seem to flourish in the role of breaking new trails.