Archive for July 2010 | Monthly archive page
As we prepare for the major undertaking of relocating the House of Bamboo, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on the fact — sometimes hard to swallow — that everything is always in a state of flux. Or as the ancient Greeks were wont to say, “Panta Rhei,” that is, everything flows. And as other philosophers have pointed out, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” The Tao, like a steady stream, is in constant motion, permanent transition.
Consider the following story, about a boy, the son of a hardworking peanut farmer in the inner Shandong province.
“The Boy and his Horse” | A Zen Parable from Bambu Batu
One autumn, at the annual harvest festival, the young lad is awarded a handsome young horse for having grown the largest peanut in all the province, some eight inches in length.
The boy gallops back to his village at top speed and shares the great news with his family and friends. Hearing the story and admiring the healthy steed, the boy’s father proclaims, “This is truly marvelous! What good fortune you’ve brought on our family.”
Overhearing this brief exchange, the local Zen master nods his head and surmises, “We’ll see.”
Over the course of weeks, the boy and his horse become inseparable companions. Productivity on the farm increases; the family is in high spirits. But one night, in a fierce storm, the horse gets spooked by thunder, breaks loose and disappears. The boy is devastated and grief stricken. “Oh, what a disaster,” his father declares.
Looking on, the Zen master scratches his chin and mutters, “We’ll see.”
Another week goes by, and one morning the horse is seen coming over the hillside, returning to the farm with a new mare at his side. The boy and his family are ecstatic. “What wonderful news, son!” “Yes, daddy, everything is awesome now!”
The Zen master, hearing the commotion, raises his eyebrows. “We’ll see.”
The boy now spends all his spare time — getting up early and staying out late — working in the stables to break in his new mare. She’s a healthy mount, but stubborn too. One evening after supper, the boy takes her on a run across the field. In the dim twilight she grazes an irrigation ditch and throws the boy from his saddle. A small crowd has gathered when the village doctor arrives. He makes a splint for the boy’s leg which has been broken. “He’ll walk again, but I’m afraid he’ll always have a limp.”
“Oh, what rotten luck,” says the father. And the Zen master sighs, “We’ll see.”
Another year passes, and kingdom is now in turmoil. Mongol hordes are raiding many of the provincial villages, and the emperor is recruiting soldiers from the countryside. When they come to the farm of the boy, now a young man, he is exempted from military service on account of his limp. “Oh, thank heavens!” his mother declares.
The Zen master, observing from a distance, just shrugs his shoulders and mumbles, “We’ll see.”
It is a fundamental tenet of far eastern philosophy that the mind is the forerunner of all things. The idea echoes in the words of the Buddha, above. Shakespeare, too, in all his Elizabethan wisdom, was well versed in this universal truth. “It is neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” From the tradition of Zen Buddhism comes a parable, much older if not as well-known as Hamlet, which illustrates this point with profound clarity.“Mind is the Forerunner of All Things”
This is the story of another young prince, traversing the countryside in search of glory, romance and adventure. Having crossed rivers, climbed mountains, and made his way through deserts and forests, the young man finds himself nearly exhausted, as he treks over the sun-baked prairies of a high plateau. In need of shade and relief, he comes to a lone elm tree under which he takes his much needed respite.
After a short nap, he wakes up feeling rested, recharged and most contented. Then he thinks to himself, “After all this hiking, I could sure use something cold to drink.” And looking over his shoulder, he sees on the rock beside him, a great pitcher of ice-cold jasmine tea.
“Oh, how wonderful,” he says, and draws a long draft from the pitcher. For a good half hour or so, he enjoys himself in the cool shade, sipping from his tea and listening to the rustle of elm trees.
“This is truly idyllic,” he reflects, “but I could really use a bite to eat.” And just as he looks down, he notices a picnic blanket all laid out with a full spread of spring rolls, noodles, sauces, tempura and rice. “Fantastic!” he marvels, and quickly dives in. “This is just what I needed. Now I’m completely satisfied.”
After a good hour of feasting away on all manner of delicacies and quenching his thirst with refreshing jasmine tea, it occurs to him that he’d be much happier if he had some company here to share in these pleasures. And just as he thinks this, a lovely young maiden strolls across the prairie and joins him under the shade of the great elm tree. He offers her a cup of tea and bowl of sustenance. Soon they are laughing and smiling, and before long they are making passionate love in the rolling grass.
By now the young man is feeling perfectly contented. His belly is full, and he wears a wide smile on his face. He and his partner rise and see that the sun is getting low. Wondering what they’ll do as it gets dark, he thinks how nice it would be to have a small cabin with some furniture and a bed and blankets. No sooner does this thought enter his mind than a small cabin appears before them. So the two walk inside and make themselves at home.
Sitting by the window watching the sun set, the young man turns to his tender companion. “There’s something very strange about all of this. Ever since I arrived under this elm, each of my thoughts has been effortlessly fulfilled. I’m beginning to worry that this tree may be cursed.”
And just as he utters these words, the majestic elm transforms into a giant goblin and swallows them both.
For more enchanted Zen Parables to tickle your mind and soothe your soul, be sure to check out Heaven and Hell, The Magician and the Prince, and Everything Flows. You might also be interested in our article on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology.