Sunday, July 1, 2018

Not Zen 197: One Life
Macaque in West Sumatra by Sakurai Midori
A troop of macaques lived in a forest of mahua, bael, and banyan trees. Near the edge of the forest, there stood a grove of the tallest bael. In the thickest of those, on the branches with the best fruit, a matriarch ruled.

She had been the queen of the macaques for years, the youngest daughter of the previous ruler. Her birth had given her status in the troop during the prime of her life. Her wisdom had solidified her place. She had become the mother of many and the surrogate mother to two generations of macaques. Now her youngest daughter held the status of heir in her prime. Her daughter did not try to push her out onto a lesser branch of the great tree but instead gave her a good resting spot, food, and comfort.

The queen aged gracefully as the hair around her face grayed. Nevertheless, in time she fell ill. Her family members brought her tendu leaves to numb the pain.

"For you, grandmother." One of her granddaughters scurried up the branch to the foot of the queen's nest. She placed a gift of cuscuta flowers.

"Another useful herb, I see." The queen gave her grandchild a smile. The young female nodded. "Thank you, dear. Bring your father to me. I want to talk with him before I pass."

Her granddaughter scurried off along the branches. She hopped to the next tree, then another, farther from the center, as she searched for her father.

The queen's eldest son had been the lead male for a summer but that was many years ago. His small group had lost their battle for dominance. Now he lived on the perimeter. He had been allowed to retire with as much grace as males did. He and his allies did not contest the current leadership, nor were they pushed further down the ladder of status. They stood guard against predators and against other troops of macaques. Sometimes, the son visited his mother. He was a thoughtful fellow.

In a few minutes, she saw him. His broad shoulders curved when he paused to rest. His neck crooked with the slight stiffness of middle age. When he moved, his muscles rippled beneath his fur. His body still had the strength of a veteran defender.

With a shout, he hopped onto her tree. He let out another whoop when he swung onto the base of her branch. He stood and approached her with a smile.

"You called, mother?" he said. He rested his left arm on an upper branch for support.

"It's good to see you." She smiled. He hadn't lost his sense of play. There were many reasons he had not remained in the leadership, among them his lack of planning, his forgetfulness about his own promises, and his tendency to retire from struggles. But his loyalty to his friends, his humor, and his calmness in difficult times made others respect him. He had become known as a male of wisdom. "For the past two days, I have been thinking about you."

"About me?" He waggled his head in disbelief.

"Well, you and your father. There are differences, I know, but there are similarities."

"If you say so."

"Come now, you knew your father as well as males ever do."

"Truly? He seemed distant." He sidled up to her and held her shoulder as if to illustrate the point. He was a male who stayed close to others. Usually, other macaques groomed him. But he had learned caring from his mother. He offered comfort to others, even to children.

"As I said, you knew him as well as males ever do. If you had paid more attention when you were young, you would have noticed that he had a character trait that you do not."

"He was very sure of himself." Her son started to groom her. Her fur had grown matted, she knew, but that was because the touch of others had grown painful. She was willing endure her son's attention for a while, not that it would help her health or her appearance. "That, I remember."

"Yes. So you understand a little." She reached out and stayed his hand for a moment. "And what gave him that certainty?"

"No one can know that of another." He shook his head.

"But I know." She wanted to turn to face him. Her neck stiffened. Her son understood her discomfort. He walked around so that she could see him. Her fingers went to his strong jaw and traced the line of it. "Son, you are getting older. I do not want to wait any longer for you to understand this."

"I'm a simple fellow. Just tell me what made him that way."

"He created for himself a purpose to his life."

He paused. For a moment, his gaze drifted across the tree boughs. He took in the other macaques resting, playing, and eating leaves. A glance to the ground showed him two males in plain view, friends of his. They crouched over a jasmine bush as they foraged for beetles. When his attention returned to her, he seemed calm.

"Are you thinking about death, then?" he asked. "Does the nearness of it turn your mind to the meaning of life and to eternal life?"

"There is no eternal life. That is not something I believe."

"But mother, then what do you believe?" He stood back. "There is no purpose in this life we are living, not in the muck of eating, fighting, pooping, finding water, or falling ill with disease."

"This, I've heard from you before." Although it was a truth, it was a small one, a speck on the body of truths. "It is what fools say. You do not find a cause. You make one."

"What about the afterlife?" he said.

"Your father believed in that," she sighed. "But even he saw the folly of trying to make it his cause. After all, in believing in a life after, you assert your soul's existence. So even if you are right, when you get to the afterlife you will still be looking elsewhere for purpose. You will still say, 'it is not here.' Because it is not. That is not how it is done. Purpose must be here with you, in your existence now, because it is always now in your existence."

Since he had no response, he threw his arms up in anger. He marched along the wide branch. His fist hit the trunk of the tree. Then he turned around and marched back to his mother.

For a while, he paced. He grabbed the upper branches and shook them, not deliberately but with the force of emotion. When he tired, he sat across from his mother. He rose and shook himself. He grabbed an adjacent branch, swiveled, and sat back down.

"Well," he said. "Perhaps that is how it is done. But I must aim at a goal greater than myself. I can't love this muddy world of fighting, drinking, and grooming, no matter when times are good."

"Exactly." She bowed her head, glad her son wanted to focus on something better than himself.

"How could you and my father live side by side? You had different ideas about purpose."

"Our ideas were different as each stick made for grubbing, as each leaf made by a tree, as every bed made by a mother resting in the crook of the tree. We made our causes in life to be different because our souls were different. And yet they were the same as a leaf to a leaf, as a stick to a stick."

He cocked his head to one side, considering. "What was your purpose?"

"It was this troop around us. It was the lives of those before us and those coming after, all in a big tangle of vines, everyone caught up in everyone else, everyone heading towards an unknown goal together."

"And my father?"

"He believed in a great spirit. He told me, from time to time, how there was a soul that connected us all, that touched everything there was. He could see it in the interactions between us."

"And could you see it?"

"Sometimes I felt, well, maybe."

She leaned back, satisfied that she had managed to express the main part of what she wanted to say. However, she was no longer in her safe spot near the trunk. Her left arm slipped off of the side of the branch. She lost her balance. In a moment, she started to tumble.

The queen's fingers stretched out. She knew what to do but her weakness betrayed her. Her right arm did not rise high enough for her to catch the branch above. Her grip closed on a twig and broke it. She fell. It was her son who stopped her. He put his arms on her shoulders. He did not let her feet slip. With ease, he lifted her upright.

"You are so light," he murmured with surprise.

He hugged her. She surrendered to his embrace as she shook with the thrill of fear. He trembled, too, as he held her, but only for a short while until he remembered himself and grew calm.

"You can't stay up here," he said. "Let me guide you elsewhere."

"Back to my deathbed?"

"No. Well, to someplace different, at least. To the ground. You could rest there."

"If I lie on the ground, I will never have the strength to climb back up in this tree."

"I will stay with you."

"Until you need to sleep, perhaps."

"I'll remain for as long as you need," he replied. He did not need to explain to her that he expected this to be her last day. She felt it more keenly than he realized.

With care and with help from another granddaughter, the queen climbed down. She needed breaks to rest. Her son and her granddaughter lowered her between branches. She was careful because she remembered that other macaques had died from falls. She rested on each rung, each branch, and her son supported her until the base of the trunk.

The last was the worst. The tree was too large at its base. There were no handholds. Younger macaques simply ran up or down. The queen needed to do the same but she couldn't manage it even after a rest. She tumbled and rolled. She was lucky. She broke nothing, took no injury worse than a bump on her head.

"Rest here," her son said when they reached the shade of a jasmine bush. "I will see if my friends will bring you some food."

Although she lived on the ground for two more days, her son never returned to the trees without her. He remained in the undergrowth of ferns and jasmine. Together they rested in the midst of the sweet-smelling bushes. Her granddaughters brought her tendu leaves and cuscuta flowers to chew. Her son's friends brought them bael fruits, mahua, and beetles. They wanted for nothing, not even warmth or protection from the rain.

At night, the nearest macaques came down to the lower branches of the bael trees. They watched over their former queen and her son. Two of her son's friends, veteran males, slept on either side of them at night to keep her safe from predators.

In the middle of her last day, she waited until her son's friends had gone for food.

"Have you decided yet?" she asked.

"On what?"

"Tell me," she said. The words seemed to be coming to her slowly. "What is it that makes your life worth living?"

"Friends, I suppose."

"Doing good things for them?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Can you make it a purpose or a guiding principle of your life, this love of friends?" She smiled, knowing the answer.

"If there is anything for me, it is that."

"There is no uncertainty. As I told you the day before yesterday, this is not something you discover. It is something you make." For a moment, a sense of urgency gave her the energy to shake him by the arm. "Do you wish to make your love of your friends into your reason for living?"


"Then do so. Do it now." She let him slip from her. Her body relaxed. She leaned back onto the ground and lay there, out of breath. A moment later, her son took her hand. His fingers felt so strong. "Like a leaf to a leaf, like a stick to a stick. Your cause is right for you."

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