Posts Tagged ‘zen parable’
“Of Heaven and Hell”
A samurai warrior makes his way home after a long and arduous campaign against the barbarian tribes of the hinterlands. His robes are stained with the blood of enemies and allies alike, and the specter of death weighs heavy on his mind.
Before heading back to his own village, the weary soldier takes a detour into the forbidden forest to seek counsel with the wise Hermit of the woods. Making his way into an enchanted grove, penetrated only by the thinnest splinters of sunlight, the samurai swordsman comes upon the simple cabin of a solitary, old monk.
The hermit, taciturn, looks the warrior over and raises his eyebrows in expectation. “I come in search of your fabled wisdom,” says the visitor. The sage shrugs his shoulders, then nods, inviting his guest to continue.
“I’ve travelled to every corner of the kingdom, and beyond,” the warrior explains. “And I think I’ve come to know the ways of this world. But I keep hearing people speak of Heaven and Hell. Every battle I fight, I see more and more death. And with each battle it grows more senseless and more meaningless.”
“But,” he says, “I keep thinking about this business of Heaven and Hell, and I don’t understand. I can’t help thinking that Heaven and Hell are merely an empty promise and a hollow threat. Tell me, Wise One, are there truly such things?”
The wise hermit scratches his chin. Then he clears his throat. Then he looks his visitor in the eye and asks, “What kind of soldier are you? You don’t look very brave, and you certainly don’t sound very bright.”
Startled by this language, the samurai jumps to his feet and furls his eyebrows. The sage continues: “I don’t see the strength of a warrior in you. Who would possibly want the likes of you in their army?”
With his heart pounding and his blood boiling, the insulted samurai now reaches for his sword, and gripping it fiercely, begins to draw it from its scabbard. Noticing this aggression, the old man asks calmly, “And what do you intend to do with that? I doubt you even know the first thing about how to use such a weapon. You don’t frighten anyone.”
At this, the warrior raises his mighty sword over his head and drives a piercing glance into the hermit’s eyes. The wise old sage now raises his boney finger and says softly, “There, you see, you have reached the gates of Hell.”
The flummoxed warrior pauses to make sense of this. Then, finding his poise, he returns his blade carefully into its sheath and nods silently.
“And now,” the guru concludes, “you stand at the gates of Heaven.”
And so the soldier bows to the sage with gratitude and continues home.
“The Magician and the Prince”
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom there lived a bright young prince who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in volcanos, he did not believe in princesses, and he did not believe in God.
One clear summer day, under a sky as blue as corydalis, the prince took his horse on a long, long ride, beyond the boundaries of his father’s vast dominions. Near the summit of a high mountain he met a strange old man. This foreigner spoke to the prince of his own homeland, near the volcanoes, among gentlemen and beautiful princesses.
The prince did not believe these stories, so he demanded to see proof. With the old man, he traveled for another day until they passed a pair of princesses on the road, and later climbed to the rim of a volcano.
The prince hurried home on his steed, and ran straight to the king. “Father! I have seen volcanos! I have seen princesses! I have seen God!”
“But son,” the king replied, “volcanos, princesses and God do not exist.”
“I saw them!”
“Tell me what God looked like.” So the prince described the long beard and the unusual hat as he remembered them. The king sat back and laughed. “You have described a magician. You did not meet God. You were fooled. The princesses and volcanos were simply illusions.”
Disappointed, the prince hopped right back on his horse to cross the hills and find the old man. “You lied to me,” he said. “My father is the king and he has explained your tricks. There are no volcanos and there are no princesses.”
“Aha,” said the old man. “I haven’t tricked you. There are volcanos and princesses in your kingdom as well, but you can’t see them because you are under your father’s spell. For he is a magician as well.”
When the prince returned home again, he looked his father in the eyes and asked him, “Is it true, father, what they say? That you are not a real king, but just a magician?”
“Yes, son, I am only a magician.”
“So the man in the faraway land really was God.”
“No son, that man was just another magician.”
“But I must know the real truth, beyond magic.”
“But there is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.
At this the prince sunk his head in despair and declared, “I will kill myself.”
So the king used his magic and called on Death to appear. The prince trembled in fear. His thoughts then returned to the incredible volcanos, and especially to the beautiful princesses.
“Alright then,” he said. “I can bear it.”
“Very good, my son,” said the king. “You too are becoming a magician!”
(based on a story by John Fowles)
May all your holiday dreams come true this year! Best wishes from Bambu Batu, where fashion and philosophy converge.
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.
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.