Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Pure One

In a town like many other towns there was a young man named Lao. He was much like other young men grown up in a middle class home; an only son in a house full of daughters, rather spoiled, he had neglected his education, having learned already in his teens to spend the money he was given on foolish pursuits and disposable material comforts, drinking and partying to excess night after night, impressing young women with his profligacy and boasts of sexual prowess so they would sleep with him, all the while paying no attention to the needs or feelings of others nor even the most rudimentary virtues. But Lao wasn’t stupid, and by the time he was twenty he was exhausted and rather bored with this way of living, and at the same time starting to wake up to the idea that it brought no lasting satisfaction or meaning, and moreover that he was completely dependent on his parents, whose impatience with him had finally grown palpable enough to penetrate even his heavy armor of willful indifference. He began to think instead that it was time to quit wasting his life and find another path that was independent and purposeful. And so Lao left his family’s comfortable house, taking only humble clothes, a few necessities in a small satchel, a little money for emergencies, and went out into the countryside.

He spent months wandering around, randomly following unpaved roads and forest trails barely visible in the underbrush, often setting his feet down where there were no discernible paths at all through untamed wilderness. On the way he learned from other more experienced wanderers how to survive on what he could find in the forest, or acquire by begging or, when there was no alternative, stealing. Occasionally he would stop in villages much smaller than the one he had left to enquire if there might be any holy person there, or in the hills nearby, who could guide him to some form of enlightenment. Finally, at one of these villages, he was told of a monk by the name of Chu who was respected for leading a most austere contemplative life, an example of utmost holiness, living by himself in a cave on the side of a remote mountain, ignoring all human contact, all the vices and temptations of civilization. It was said that Chu had desired only to extinguish desire itself from his mind, and then to extinguish his mind—and that he had succeeded. On hearing this, Lao set off immediately to find this monk.

With some help from wellwishers who had vague ideas where Chu might be found, Lao located his cave and camped there. Not wishing to prejudice the monk against him by too forward an action, he waited patiently near the entrance for the holy man to emerge. One morning, after quite a few had passed, he saw an old man of around 60 years, clothed in simple, ragged garments, hairless except for a gray beard hanging almost to his knees, carrying a small sack slung over his shoulder, bracing himself upright with a stout oak branch carved into a walking stick. He was not leaving the cave, but returning to it, perhaps from a long excursion, or from tending a garden somewhere, or gathering food in the forest. Lao approached him with a demeanor of genuine humility.
     “Are you the monk Chu, whom they call ‘The Pure One’?” he asked, bowing slightly, directing his gaze downward.
     “Oh, piss off!” the old man exclaimed, his voice laden with disgust; but Lao was determined to ignore all obstacles on his path.
     “I’ve heard you are the most enlightened of men, the very embodiment of pure spirit in this world, and I am sincerely hoping you could take me on as your student, to teach me how to attain what you have attained.”
     “Bah! I’ve never heard anything so stupid! You must be an idiot. How can this foul piece of meat that is a physical person walking around in the world be the embodiment of pure spirit? That’s just nonsense.” But this was exactly the sort of thing Lao wanted to hear, and it made him even more ardent to have Chu as his teacher.
    “I’ll do anything to be your student and follower,” he pleaded. “I’ll make myself your humble servant, bring your water, gather and cook your food, sweep your cave every day, chop wood for your fire, tend your garden, wash your feet—everything that you need to have done, I will do for you….”
     “You idiot, if you do everything for me, what will I do?”
    “You will have lots of time to become more holy and gain more enlightenment even more quickly. And then I will learn more quickly from you!”
    At this Chu burst out laughing. “You have answers for everything, but they make no sense. If you have all the answers, how can anyone enlighten you? If I took you as my student, it would be a joke.”
     “Yes, sir,” agreed Lao, “a big joke!” At this, the monk roared even more loudly, but to Lao it sounded like a genuinely hearty laugh, the edge of hostility diminished. Maybe Chu was beginning to think the young man was part of his fate, a path chosen not by him but for him, which he must humbly accept; or perhaps he just liked jokes. It seemed that Chu had a sense of humor, and didn’t consider a joke inimical to his view of the world or his way out of it. After a while he stopped laughing and spoke to Lao sternly.
     “All right, you can stay and be my servant, but let’s get a few things straight. First, you will not speak to me again; I don’t want to hear any more of your nonsense. Second, if you dare to touch my feet, I will beat you senseless. And thirdly, I will not teach you a damn thing until I’m good and ready.”
     “It’s a deal,” said Lao.
     “Shut up,” said Chu.

So Lao became the monk’s servant and did everything for him, with neither of them speaking a word. There isn’t much sense to sweeping a cave often, but Lao did it every day. Chu showed him where his garden was, and Lao tended it; he chopped wood and made the fire; he brought water and brewed tea from wild herbs; he gathered food, cooked it simply, and ate with the old man in silence. Chu had a place carved out in the cave, something like an alcove, where he slept and kept his privacy; Lao carved another such alcove for himself and slept there. The old man spent his time in meditation, or the quiet contemplation of his garden, or taking long walks in the forest. Occasionally, for no apparent reason, he hit Lao on the back or upside the head with his heavily knotted walking stick. This really hurt, and brought Lao no exceptional realization that he could fathom; sometimes such a blow would make him consider leaving, but his determination won out and he stayed. In this way the days passed inexorably into weeks, and then into years, and the years accumulated into decades, which also passed inexorably. Eventually Lao became an old man, as old as Chu had been when Lao accosted him at the entrance to his cave; and as for Chu, well, he got a lot older. Yet still he told Lao nothing. But then, after nearly forty years of this treatment, the now deeply bent and decrepit monk came to his bald and long bearded servant as he swept the floor of the cave, and spoke to him at last once more.
     “Tomorrow morning, at dawn, come to my alcove, and I will teach you what you wanted to know of enlightenment.” Elated beyond measure, Lao went to his corner of the cave and wept. In the morning, after a sound sleep, he woke up and went to see his master, expecting to be told everything he yearned to know. But when he saw Chu lying perfectly still in his alcove, he realized that the old man wasn’t just sleeping any more. He had died in the night. And Lao saw that the lips of Chu’s corpse were bent slightly to form the wry smile of a man who had reached the end of a long and droll story.
     “You old fucker,” Lao said. He wasn’t really angry, but wondered what he should do. His own life was by now not far from being altogether spent on yet another foolish pursuit. He could appreciate the humor in that. When Chu had said their arrangement would be a joke, he had told the truth, and Lao had unthinkingly agreed to it. Soon he felt a bit weary standing there, and couldn’t think of much else except to remain where he was. Later that day he buried Chu beneath an ancient pine tree in the forest, and then continued living the only life he knew, sweeping the cave, gathering food in the wild, chopping wood and making a fire in the winter to ward off the cold. He took long walks and meditated alone. He found he had grown to prefer things this way, and saw no reason to leave or change his habits. But one day, after no more than a few months had passed, a young man came up to him as he was returning to the cave from tending his garden.
     “Are you the monk Lao, known hereabout as ‘The Pure One’?” the young man asked humbly. “I’m seeking a path to enlightenment, and I’ve heard you know the way.”
     “Get out of here!” Lao exclaimed, his voice heavily laden with disgust.

© 2013 Steven Levery

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Stone In Your Mind

Gloucester, MA, 20 August 2012
This massive object sitting in a Gloucester driveway has always reminded me of the Zen story koan, "The Stone Mind":

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves. 

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: "There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?"

One of the monks replied: "From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."

"Your head must feel very heavy," observed Hogen, "if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind."

It also reminds me of the misplaced boulders that are a recurring theme in the paintings of Rene Magritte (November 21, 1898– August 15, 1967), whom I find to be very Zen:
Rene Magritte, "Le Monde Invisible" (1954)

Happy New Year: House Republican Asshats Undaunted by Setbacks

As far back as July, Ezra Klein called the 112th Congress the worst ever; a couple of days ago, almost needless to say, his opinion hadn't changed. At best it was the worst in decades. Aside from barely managing to pass a "fiscal cliff" deal before the end of the year, they ended their session failing to act at all on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill, and failing to pass an extension of the Violence Against Women Act, both of which would have been bipartisan no-brainers in almost any year except 2012.
daily news headline, stabbed in the back with a pic of the statue of liberty, knife in back
The question is, will the 113th Congress be any better? They are off to a great start. Yes, they authorized just a small fraction of the Hurricane Sandy aid package already passed by the Senate. And yes, "[Speaker of the House] Boehner promised that they'll take up the remainder of the aid from the Senate bill, $51 billion, on January 15. By the way, Congress passed $60 billion in Katrina relief just 10 days after the hurricane struck. It's now been 10 weeks since Sandy hit" (Joan McCarter, Daily Kos, 04 January 2013). Note that Paul Ryan (R-WI) was one of the 67 voting against. Still a little butt-hurt over losing the election, with all those electoral votes in the Northeast Coastal blue states, Paul? You fucker! Keep in mind that this part of the package is not charity but funding financial obligations already in effect. "It was just $9.7 billion to let the National Flood Insurance Program borrow enough to pay out claims to people who had signed-and-sealed flood-insurance policies with paid-up premiums; in that sense, it hardly counts as “relief.” There may be all sorts of flaws with the insurance program, but this was a matter of letting a government entity meet its obligations, not a matter of charity" (Amy Davidson, The New Yorker, 04 January 2013).
Michele Bachmann, somewhat surprisingly, voted yes on the bill. It will be interesting to see how she votes on the larger package coming up ten days from now. In the meantime, she also proudly introduced the first bill of the 113th Congress--to repeal "Obamacare" in its entiretyNice try, you villainous hag! This is the 34th time such a bill has been introduced. It has no chance and is a waste of taxpayer's money every time it comes up.