Two Zen Stories
Student: I have been looking at the story of the Zen Master Hakuin. Wasn’t he the one accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and when publicly condemned by his community responded, “Is that so?”
Teacher: Yes. The story goes on to say that when it was discovered many years later that he had been wrongfully accused, and the community gathered to apologize to him, he responded the same way: “Is that so?”
Student: Yes. Well, I have been trying and failing to reach that equanimity with my new and particularly rambunctious neighbors! That family seems to have some celebration every other night. The kids scream and play loud music. And if that weren’t bad enough, they all gather in the parking lot around 10.00 p.m. and conduct their endless farewells at decibel levels that could wake the dead!
Teacher: What are you seeing about that?
Student: I am astonished at how angry I get! I feel resentful that I have to be subjected to their unconsciousness in the first place, and then be put in the position of having to say something. Why can’t they just realize the impact they’re having on everyone else? I want to go out there and yell at them.
Teacher: What stops you?
Student: Well, it isn’t polite, is it? I have to be nice. I have to live with them, after all. I can’t make them feel bad. I mean, they are just having a good time! I’m the one with the problem. No one else seems to mind! And it’s so not Zen, is it? It’s certainly not Hakuin’s, “Is that so?”
Teacher: Perhaps you have not heard this Zen story. An old woman had been supporting a monk’s practice for twenty years. Every day she would send a young girl to him to serve his food. One day she asked one of the girls to give the monk a hug and ask him how he felt. The girl reported to the woman that the monk’s response was, “An old tree on a cold cliff; Midwinter – no warmth.” The old woman was shaken when she heard this. “I’ve been supporting this monk for 20 years and he has made no progress,” she said. She then burned down his hut.
Student: Actually, I’ve heard that story, but I don’t get it! It seems to contradict the principle in the Hakuin story. And how does it apply to my neighbors?
“Is that So?”
This attitude of mind is often misinterpreted by egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to mean that Zen practitioners should aspire to be calmly unaffected by life circumstances. Au contraire. Hakuin demonstrates that equanimity stems from a supreme indifference to ego’s version of events, ego’s moral standards, ego’s code of ethics and ego’s opinions of what is socially acceptable.
Instead of getting worked up about his reputation, defending his identity, feeling humiliated and suing for libel, Hakuin accepted the child he was wrongfully accused of having fathered and loved it as his own.
Taking things personally forces us to interpret life through a narrow lens of what it means about “me.” Then “I” am hurt, upset, betrayed, humiliated, ashamed or angry and must go on the offensive to defend, protect, justify, and rationalize “my” actions against an unfriendly “you.” The payoff is that “my” identity is maintained, either as a victim, or victor, of circumstances.
When we see that it is not about “me,” we are present to what is and can ask the question, “Is that so?” From that disidentified place, we see the process of karma and make a choice for freedom. This choice confounds the ego – it can’t wrap its “head” around this choice simply because ego can never make that choice.
“Burn the hut down.”
Contrary to what conditioning says, “Is that so?” is not passive. In the absence of egocentricity, life always responds appropriately – and that can include what conditioning would judge as harsh or “not nice.”
We are deeply conditioned not to “hurt someone else’s feelings,” not to “make someone feel bad,” not to “rock the boat,” not to say anything to “upset anyone.” Many of the occasions in which Life responds with “high” energy are those in which some form of ego-unconsciousness—arrogance, injustice, ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, hatred—is acting out. Instead of acknowledging the “energy” and using it skillfully to facilitate what is compassionate for all, ego’s directives are to suppress those feelings or be beaten up for not being “nice.” Being nice from a conditioned perspective is really being nice to ego so that unconscious and conditioned behavior can reign unchecked.
Burning down the hut as a teaching might strike some as extreme, but the story allows us to see our beliefs around being polite, appropriate, and nice. In fact, the old lady burns down the hut precisely because the monk’s practice has ceased to include ALL of life – warmth, compassion, and joy. So with infinite compassion she takes away the support that is allowing him to stay stuck in ego.
Life is always kind but its teaching methods can challenge our conditioned beliefs about what is “nice,” which is why we train ourselves to be grateful for those “hard knocks” from Life. Life’s compassionate teachings shock the ego but assist us to see what we have to let go and transcend.
Two Zen Stories
At first glance the two stories seem to offer paradoxical principles that frustrate and confuse “me.” That is precisely the point of a Zen story–to confound conditioned mind. Conditioned mind is all about rules so it can parse the world into right and wrong. Zen paradox points out that there are NO rules in Life and “contradictions” exist only in the illusory reality of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. It is possible to love someone and not condone his or her unconscious behavior. It is possible to be a kind person and suggest to one’s neighbors that they might consider lowering their voices. When we buy into conditioning’s narrow definition of anything, we lose out on being able to experience ALL of Life, “paradoxes” and “contradictions” included.
Life’s sense of humor!
The student took the teacher’s advice and, from a centered place, walked down one night and with a great deal of kindness and humor suggested that the family might consider lowering their voices in the parking lot. The father apologized profusely and the children looked suitably abashed. Silence reigned for about ten minutes and then everyone started screaming again. Life never fails to remind us not to take ourselves too seriously!
For 48 hours observe how conditioning controls you with its definition of “nice,” “polite,” and “appropriate.” What aspects of Life are you not allowed to express because of that? Record and Listen to what arises.
Choose a situation in which you wish you could say something but have not done so historically, because the voices of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate say that it would be “inappropriate.” See if you can allow the heart to record what it wants to say. Work with the Mentor to hone the message. Watch for an opportunity to deliver the heart’s message with compassion. Record and Listen to what arises.
The next time you feel high energy, grab the recorder and record what you are feeling, practicing having the energy that conditioning would rob you off. Record and Listen to what arises.