Posts Tagged ‘foolishness’

In honor of “April Fools’ Day”, an old proverb:

“The wise learn from fools far more than fools learn from the wise.”

(Personally, I also think the wise aren’t afraid of looking a little foolish…)

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Today I snagged a random mondo (zen story) to share.  I think it’s pretty funny.  I also think it speaks to how self-improvement can be hindered if we try to judge our progress against others, and others’ against ours:

There’s a type of buddhism in Japan called Tendai, where people studied meditation before zen ever reached the country.  Four students of Tendai were very good friends, and they promised each other they’d observe seven days of complete silence together, to help each other reach their goal.
A couple days in, they were doing pretty well.  But then when night came, the lights were getting dim while they were trying to meditate, because the lamps needed to be taken care of but their servants didn’t seem to notice.  One of the students got so frustrated that he finally yelled to a servant, “Fix those lamps, I can’t even see!”  Another student gasped, and said “You talked! We promised we wouldn’t talk!”  A third one piped in, “You idiots! You broke our vow of silence!”
The fourth student looked at his friends, gravely shaking his head.  Finally, with his chin raised, he proclaimed “I’m the only one who seems to be able to keep a vow around here.”

 Though come to think of it, if that first student hadn’t gotten so frustrated that his anger was more important than his own progress… maybe there’s another lesson in there, too.  I think I understand why people study mondos in practicing zen.

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Today’s thought comes with a visual aid, a comic that I felt illustrates the danger of overly identifying with a prescribed role.  See, I was thinking this morning about titles and labels and how they can mislead somebody into thinking they know what you’re about (maybe even you!), in a way that isn’t quite accurate.  Hm.  That was a complex way of putting it.  I’ll just jump to the visual which you probably read first anyway:

Rubes comic 2/26/09

Rubes 2/26/09

THAT is what I’m talking about.  We can’t put too much weight into titles, positions, etc., because that can lead us into mistaking an ordinary everyday moment for something of eternally monumental cosmos-changing action (and vice versa).  Mistaking another ordinary person like us for someone who is supernaturally different in every way.

This is on my mind because I was thinking about how I don’t especially call myself Zen or Taoist, but I will use those as adjectives to describe my flavors of thought.  They influence me, but I don’t want to be mistaken for those being my only flavors.  Just like I don’t call myself Buddhist or Sikh or Hindu or Shinto or even Christian, even though those can be part of me from a little to a lot in very personal ways.

It seems it can be really good for people who DO use those descriptors for themselves, if they really do identify as being part of those very large and diverse groups.  That is, except where somebody thinks they know exactly what every, say, Muslim should think and do and mis-identify you and your thoughts and actions based on that prejudgement.

I’m rambling again.  I give myself only 5-7 minutes to do these, so I’d better just sum up.

One of my favorite ice creams is the Tagalong ice cream (as in the Girl Scout cookies).  I’m mostly-vegan and allergic to animal protein, but sometimes it’s exactly what brings me joy, so there you go.

Tagalong ice cream is a peanut butter chocolate vanilla ice cream.  It’s not completely peanut butter, but it has this really yum rich ribbon of it all throughout.  Same for the chocolate/fudge stripe all through it.  The main ice cream itself is vanilla, but it’s not really just vanilla because every bite has those other stripes in it.  So while it’s peanut butter chocolate vanilla ice cream, it’s not really peanut butter.  Or chocolate.  Or even vanilla.  Those are all different things, they just join together to flavor the ice cream.

And then I can put it on top of this incredibly thick and rich chocolate mud cake and drizzle chocolate and caramel sauce over it, which transforms it up to an even nummier dish entirely…

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Like any school of thought, Zen can become pretty dogmatic.  What was once a nice way for some people to try to reach their inner being can be turned into an overly rigid set of structures that help prevent generations of followers from ever learning to be their true, spontaneous selves.  And of course, this has been happening throughout the world for millenia.

Dogmatism breeds more than just stagnation, though.  It also breeds people like Ikkyu, an infamous Zen poet from Japanese history.  His life and work bucked against tradition, expressing joy and mischief as beautifully as possible.  Everywhere he turned, he saw an abundantly lovely world, and he seems to have tried to express that to whomever he could.  It turns out there’s even a cartoon out there about him, as children of course love his irreverence and how it triumphs over the stodgy teachers and shogun.

I think he’d have been great fun to meet.  Barring him actually showing up in person, though, I think he gives us a pretty good insight into what it’s like to be around him through his surviving poetry.  This one pretty well sums up, I think, what it’s like in his world:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma
And endlessly change complicated sutras.
before doing that, though, they should learn
how to read the love letters sent by the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon.

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I couldn’t find the website I was thinking of to pull out a random zen/taoist story, so I’m going to paraphrase one of my favorites.

Now, one of the main points of a zen master’s instruction to his pupils is to get them to quit getting hung up on whatever the heck it is that keeps them from speaking and acting spontaneously.  The idea is that each of us has the inner nature that is utterly in the flow of everything, and the whole trick in life is to declutter all the noise that keeps us from just going with that flow.

There’s lots of different meditations and puzzles and tasks and whatnot that can get out there as “Zen practice”, but really, they’re all just various approaches to get people to snap out of the daily daydream and connect with that flow.  Because of that, the other point of a zen master’s instruction is to test them now and then, not only to see how close they are to their true, spontaneous nature, but also as a chance to help them understand how they can get closer.

So one night it was raining, and the small country house this zen master and his three pupils lived in had a leak in the roof.  The master looked at the water drip, and then suddenly called out to his students, “The roof is leaking and the floor is getting wet.  Quick, quick, do something!”

One of the students shot up and out of the room while the other two looked at the master, looked at the floor, then started scurrying about trying to find a pot, or a bowl, or something to catch the water.  By the time those two had reached the kitchen, the first ran back in to the master to hand him what he’d grabbed… a sieve.  The other two came back in several moments later and laughed at the first student, calling him an idiot.

The master shushed them though, and admitted it was a test and only the first student passed.  Yes, what he brought back wasn’t going to stop the water, true.  But as soon as the situation called to him, he got up and acted on his first impulse and DID something about it, rather than wasting time being worried by the emergency and dithering about it.  Maybe next time he’ll even be more in tune and his first impulse could even be a helpful one, but the important thing was that he was ready to give up the mental noise and just ACT.

So, whatever you do today and this weekend, don’t waste time worrying and dithering.  Take a look at what you can do and then just do it.  Sure, take an extra moment to make sure you’re grabbing a bowl rather than a sieve, but fretting about the leak won’t stop the water.

Though really, when it stops raining, maybe it’d be possible to fix the leak…

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