August 25, 2000

1. Aphorisms

I recently met an Israeli man who dropped out of school in 10th grade, and went to work in the fields. Now he’s living in the U.S., married to an American woman, and working as a freelance computer consultant. He has two young children who stay home instead of going to school. There are some 1.5 million “home schooled” American children. But the Israeli and his wife dislike the notion of “home schooling” since it retains the notion of “schooling.” They have chosen “unschooling,” an approach taken by some 200,000 American children. Unschooling rejects the notion of schooling entirely, invites the child to live and to explore the world, and believes that the child will naturally be curious about letters, numbers, etc. Unschooling reminds me of Rousseau’s educational theory, set forth in his novel Emile. There is now a considerable body of literature on unschooling, such as John Holt’s Learning All the Time, and Mary Griffith’s The Unschooling Handbook: How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom. The Israeli said that school teaches the child to conform, not to listen to the voices within himself. When I asked him about social interaction, he said that there were plenty of opportunities for that outside school, and that he believed in quality (of social interaction), not quantity. I found his ideas original and refreshing, and I’d like to try alternative approaches to education with my own child.

Montaigne complained that education in his day had no effect on a person’s life, that it stuffed the brain without improving the person. How he would have loved Zen! Zen is practical and doesn’t try to stuff the brain with knowledge. Zen touches a person deeply, it touches every breath he takes. One facet of life to which Zen seems especially relevant is parenting. Zen teaches patience, of which a parent has great need since parenting involves a thousand little annoyances. Zen encourages perception rather than reflection, and thus develops in the parent a mental state akin to that of a child, and an appreciation of nature that can be transferred to the child. A Zen parent teaches his child not to regard the present as a preparation for the future, not to be preoccupied with himself, not to take himself too seriously, not to view life as a competition (for academic success, for wealth, for popularity, for moral virtue, etc.), and not to feel that he should be doing something at all times.

When I was giving a talk at a bookstore, a black woman pointed to the cover of my book and said, “all those people are dead white males. Is there no place for black people in philosophy?” I responded, “the native peoples of Africa — like the native peoples of North America, South America, etc. — had their own brand of philosophy, of religion, of mythology, of psychotherapy. They could guide the child into adulthood, guide the adult into old age, guide the old person into death, etc. They lived in harmony with nature. They had story-telling and oral literature. If the cover of my book has only dead white males, it’s because I live in the modern West, and I feel an affinity for Western thinkers, their predicament is my predicament. The predicament of the West may be described as an excessive development of reason, an ambition to master nature, and a loss of spiritual balance. The spirituality of non-Western peoples was shattered by contact with the West. Non-Western peoples are tempted to expel Western influence, and return to their traditional ways; this was the path taken by Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists. A better solution is to build a new spirituality that is in harmony with modern knowledge, in harmony with modern science.”

I’ve seen strange things. I’ve seen human beings cease to be human beings, I’ve seen flesh-and-blood human beings become cardboard bureaucrats.

If someone talks to you about the importance of consensus-building, remember the Roman adage, “senatores boni viri, senatus bestia” (senators are good men, the senate is a beast). Conscience is in the individual, not in the group. Instead of trying to build a consensus, instead of basing your decisions on other people’s views, base your decision on your own view of what’s right.

2. Seven Zen Stories

Our discussion group recently read Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, which was recommended to me by Steve Thompson, a Phlit subscriber from Reading, England. It’s an outstanding collection of Asian philosophical writing, and it’s one of the seminal works of Zen literature. If you want to go to the source, and drink from a genuine spring of Eastern wisdom, read Zen Flesh. The back cover says that more than 1,000,000 copies have been sold, so evidently it’s a very popular work. It’s full of beautiful poetry, as well as deep thought.

Zen Flesh consists of four sections, of which the first and the most important is “101 Zen Stories.” These Zen stories are one of the finest collections of aphorisms in world literature. Many of the stories/aphorisms don’t relate specifically to Zen, they’re just good stories, full of wisdom and poetry:

A long time ago in China there were two friends, one who played the harp skillfully and one who listened skillfully.

When the one played or sang about a mountain, the other would say: “I can see the mountain before us.”

When the one played about water, the listener would exclaim: “Here is the running stream!”

But the listener fell sick and died. The first friend cut the strings of his harp and never played again. Since that time the cutting of harp strings has always been a sign of intimate friendship.

Here’s another of my favorites:

After Bankei had passed away, a blind man who lived near the master’s temple told a friend: “Since I am blind, I cannot watch a person’s face, so I must judge his character by the sound of his voice. Ordinarily when I hear someone congratulate another upon his happiness or success, I also hear a secret tone of envy. When condolence is expressed for the misfortune of another, I hear pleasure and satisfaction, as if the one condoling was really glad there was something left to gain in his own world.

“In all my experience, however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.”

Here’s another story on the theme of sincerity:

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling.

Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”

“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”

Another story dealing with passion in the heart of a monk:

Twenty monks and one nun, who was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a certain Zen master.

Eshun was very pretty even though her head was shaved and her dress plain. Several monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them wrote her a love letter, insisting upon a private meeting.

Eshun did not reply. The following day the master gave a lecture to the group, and when it was over, Eshun arose. Addressing the one who had written her, she said: “If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

Here’s another story that touches on the theme of sincerity, and the theme of consistency between public and private conduct:

Soyen Shaku, the first Zen teacher to come to America, said: “My heart burns like fire but my eyes are as cold as dead ashes.” He made the following rules which he practiced every day of his life.

  • In the morning before dressing, light incense and meditate.
  • Retire at a regular hour. Partake of food at regular intervals. Eat with moderation and never to the point of satisfaction.
  • Receive a guest with the same attitude you have when alone. When alone, maintain the same attitude you have in receiving guests.
  • Watch what you say, and whatever you say, practice it.
  • When an opportunity comes do not let it pass by, yet always think twice before acting.
  • Do not regret the past. Look to the future.
  • Have the fearless attitude of a hero and the loving heart of a child.
  • Upon retiring, sleep as if you had entered your last sleep. Upon awakening, leave your bed behind you instantly as if you had cast away a pair of old shoes.

In this remarkable list of rules, we find once again the themes of honesty, sincerity, wholeness, courage and self-discipline.

Zen often reminds one of Western mysticism. One of the most famous mystics in the Western tradition is the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. While walking down the street, Meister Eckhart encountered a peasant and said “Good morning,” to which the peasant responded, “every morning is a good morning.” One finds the same affirmative message in the following Zen story:

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan was enlightened.

Here’s another story with a positive message:

A lord asked Takuan, a Zen teacher, to suggest how he might pass the time. He felt his days very long attending his office and sitting stiffly to receive the homage of others.

Takuan wrote eight Chinese characters and gave them to the man:

Not twice this day.
Inch time foot gem.
(This day will not come again.
Each minute is worth a priceless gem.)

© L. James Hammond 2003
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