Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not Zen 168: Unknowing Privilege

In a forest, on a high hill, there lived a bearded hermit. His home lay to the northwest of a small town. Children hiked from the valley town to visit him up on the hill. He tried to discourage their intrusions on his solitude. Their parents, however, continued to let the children roam.

The parents and the children regarded the hermit as a tolerant man. This was the case. He endured the noise and the naive questions of his visitors. He took them to the garden and encouraged them to work as they chattered about the details of their lives. The hard labor discouraged a few. He spoke to the rest about matters of spirituality. That drove away more.

A handful of visitors remained as regular callers to his home, however. One of them who returned many times was a young girl, dark-haired and small. The hermit watched her grow, over the years, into a young woman.

"When there's no other person here," she asked one day. "Do you remain quiet?"

He nodded as he tended his garden beside her.

"I think I would like to be a hermit," she said.

She didn't say anything more for hours. Instead, she worked in silence. After she straightened and took a break, she hiked farther up the hill. She seemed to be looking for sites to build her own hut. Although he liked her, he felt some alarm. He did not want her to live so close. Fortunately, she found a vantage point and surveyed different hills. She seemed to settle on one above the northeast of town. A home there would have fewer trees for shelter but it would have access to a stream. The solitude would perhaps be better because the slopes by the stream there looked steeper.

He approved. Although he did not say a word, she caught him studying the site. Her eyes glinted. She smiled as she walked back to his home.

"So would you really recommend a solitary life for me?" she asked him when she arrived.

"For anyone who wants to be alone in their contemplation of holy existence, I do recommend it," he replied.

Her decision seemed so resolute that he expected that he would not see her again. However, a few days later, she returned. In her company was a woman the hermit had never seen before.

"I am her mother," the woman said. She fluttered her robe to wave off the heat of the steep walk. Without smiling, she bowed her head politely.

The hermit bowed his head as well.

"You recommended a solitary life for her?" the mother asked.

"She may find it good."

"She may. It's not that women don't also wish to be hermits, alone in the wilderness. Clearly, you live a beautiful life." The woman expanded her arms as if to encompass not only his hut and garden but the entire wilderness.

"Then what is the problem?"

"The problem is that men cannot seem to permit women to be alone."

"I would. Many men would, I think. Most."

"Many would gladly allow women that freedom, of course, but it only takes a few to make the practice impossible. It is not the point of being a hermit to occupy oneself constantly with self-defense."

"I had not thought of that." The vision disturbed him. A young lady's hermitage would often be under threat. But it did not surprise him except in that it hadn't occurred to him before. "You are correct. I'm protected by being a man and by having nothing to steal. Otherwise I would come to harm."

"Women on their own must take pains to appear diseased or crazy. My daughter would have a difficult time with either." Her glance slipped to the young lady by her side, calm, self-assured, and glowing with health.

"She would."

"A nunnery, perhaps, or a quiet life with a quiet family on the edge of town would work. But can you see that being a hermit is not an option?"

"It would be needlessly difficult." It saddened him to agree.

"I'm surprised to hear you admit it. I thought you must be telling all of the children that the life of a hermit is best."

"This way of living is best for me." He took a deep breath of the mountain air. "Thank you for enlightening me. This is why each path must be different. When I took a vow of poverty, I had not expected to ever see myself again in a position of privilege. But I have been living with this particular privilege the whole time."

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