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Friday, October 08, 2010

Stories from Zen

I have told many people the two following stories about how great Zen masters taught their disciples (or wannabe disciples) precious lessons.

Story one: A great master was deep in meditation. A famous samurai-aristocrat went to see him in the hope of finding esoteric wisdom. He waited for a long time, but the master did not open his eyes even to acknowledge his presence. Not used to being so ignored, the warrior cleared his throat loudly to attract attention. The master opened his bloodshot eyes and said, rather roughly, ‘What do you want?’ As humbly as he could, the visitor said, ‘O wise one, I have come to ask you what is heaven and what is hell’. The master merely said ‘I have no time to answer foolish questions from riff-raff’, and closed his eyes again. Goaded beyond endurance, the warrior unsheathed his sword and shouted ‘You presumptuous beggar! Do you have any idea who I am? Do you know I could cut off your head at once?’ Strangely, the sage opened his eyes and sneered, ‘That is hell’. It hit the samurai like a thunderclap. He sat down and thought for a long, long time. Then all of a sudden he fell at the master’s feet and said, ‘O holy one, I now realize I am a benighted fool. Please, I beg you, show me the light.’ At this the old man opened his eyes briefly, and said, with a gentle, winning smile, ‘That, my son, is heaven. Go home.’

Story two: Another very venerable sage was going on a long journey on foot with a young disciple, lecturing on all sorts of subjects as he walked. When it was almost evening, they were passing a dense forest, and they heard a female voice crying. Hurrying to see who was in trouble, the master saw a young and pretty girl weeping by the river bank, a bloody wound under her foot. On being asked, she wept still, and said she had gone to sell fish in the market, and she had been late in returning, and the ferry had gone, and she had cut her foot on the sharp rocks, and now she couldn’t get across, and she would be eaten by wild beasts. The master (who was a very strong man) simply hoisted her on his shoulder like a sack, waded across the river, deposited the girl at her parents’ threshold and resumed his journey, lecturing as though there had never been a break. But the disciple’s mind was on fire. He had actually seen his master touching a young girl, a girl in clinging wet clothes, and carrying her on his back… the same master who kept on telling him that one of the absolute prerequisites for one who wanted to walk the path of sanctity was to stay away from women like the plague! What an utter hypocrite! Why was he wasting his time with such a fraud?

Presently they pitched camp, and the student lit a fire, and cooked a meal, and they sat down to dine, and still his mind was all muddled and distracted. At long last the master broke off his harangue and took notice. When he asked what the matter was, the young man was at first too abashed to say anything, but eventually the master insisted too sternly, and then, confused, mumbling, he confessed that his mind was in a whirl. ‘Why did you behave like that with the girl?’ What girl, queried the sage, wondering. ‘Oh, the girl you lifted on your shoulder, of course.’ ‘When did I do that?’ ‘Why, at the river bank, this very evening! You took her home. Surely you can’t have forgotten all that already?’

The master stared long and hard at the disciple, and then burst out laughing. ‘My dear boy,’ he exclaimed at last, choking back tears of mirth, ‘the difference between you and me is that I left the girl at her doorstep; you, however, are still carrying her on your back!’

Last words: 1) My grandfather could talk a great deal when he told me stories, but as I grow old I suspect that he might have been something like a zen master. And 2) a young reader, in college at present, very recently wrote that I have ‘a 70’s attitude to life’. Any comments?


Shilpi said...

Suvro da,

I'll try not to ramble.

The second story made me grin. It's one of the zen stories that I get and like and even remember.

The first one - I don't get, and I never have. I can explain it this way and that - but I don't get it. It's amusing that I don't get it because I don't understand much of heaven and hell either. I was hoping for a satori here - but that didn't quite happen.

…Why do you think that your grandfather was a zen master?...I've had the sudden feeling every now and again that you're one (maybe you're not and maybe I'm delusional), and I’ve had to blink rapidly or stare unblinkingly or look at the regular world to get rid of the feeling that I may be deluded – not that it works all the time.

I don't understand what the college student meant when s/he said you have a 70's attitude to life. Was it meant as a slight or what? And what's the current attitude to life? Party all night and spend money on things one doesn't need and/or pretend that one is better than one is, among other things?...

Thank you for this cryptic and interesting post…

Take care.


Nishant Kamath said...

Dear Sir,

I'm sure I've heard both these stories from you in class. The second one is rather funny (but of course reveals a lot when one looks beyond just the comment made by the sage). I too, like Shilpi di, find the post a bit cryptic. I can only interpret the first story in a certain way. As to the '70's' attitude, I'm not sure what he intended to say. From movies and songs and incidents recounted by my parents and uncle, those times seem 'nicer' than present times, but then that's just what I feel based on nothing more substantial than specific incidents.


Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

missing the results of the Masters

this is totally off-topic, but damn cool and I hope Suvro posts it. I discovered this a few years back and follow this regularly. The directory stays up mostly but does go down for long periods from time to time.

It's the JU Results Directory - http://www.juresultdirectory.org/

Now, try this query -

Faculty = Arts
Course of Study = Under Graduate
Subject = Economics
Year of Passing = 1985

click 'Next'

check the name at First Class First in the list - someone we know ? ;)

the Post Graduate in this directory is messed up now, used to be OK before. let's hope they fix it.

Suvro and his school buddy here - we were rocking in the 80's, through the 90s and even now.

Of course, we rocked in the 70s too ;)


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Just as you said, Subhasis, this information is hardly pertinent to this post (lots of truly wise men never did well in formal exams!), but many thanks nevertheless, for being so interested in the past still if nothing else. Brought back some fine memories... did you know that Rohini was first declared first, then they discovered that they had added up wrongly! Even good things in my life haven't happened without hiccups. You won't find me on the Master's merit list on the JU website, of course - don't you remember that I quit a few months before the final exams (I took the MA degree privately from another university a decade later)? It was a foregone conclusion that I would have been first class first again if I had appeared, but that's beside the point here.

Two other things that come to mind: I can't tell you how many people claim they stood first class first, if they merely got a first class - as if nobody ever becomes first class second or third! And second, I wish somebody could come up with a link to the WBJEE 1982 merit list too. Believe it or not, there are young morons around who (encouraged by their moronic and envious parents, I'm sure) even express doubt that I ever sat for that exam, leave alone ranking pretty near the top, and that without ever going to tutors and tutorials, which is pretty nigh unthinkable these days, even among 'brilliant' students. And when I add that I spent much of my plus-2 years reading 'outside the syllabus', and writing, and helping out with my dad's business, and studying French, and having a passionate love affair, and teaching pupils my own age, they are openly incredulous...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, Shilpi and Nishant, that was just a joke. That comment-writer was your typical modern-day pinhead young man: I am sure if I gave him a 100-question impromptu quiz on the 1970s, he'd probably surprise me if he could score 10. I mentioned him just as an example of how every nitwit enjoys 'democracy' on the Net.

As for 'not understanding' the first story, coming from you two, I wonder...

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

WBJEE was quite corrupt at that time, as I found out later. Don't know how things are now. Why is it considered a big deal anyway? A standardised common entrance test has no value as a credential. If anything, it's the acceptance of the inability of making the value of credentials more universal.

As you know, Nilu and I started +2 at SXS Calcutta staying at the Christian Hostel at Park Street. +2 was very overwhelming. To complicate matters, the sudden shift from a small town Durgapur home to a Park Street environment of boozing, drugs, partying, late-night movies wasn't easy.There was a general "adult" theme of life - it was quite "confusing" but definitely an exciting and wasteful option for both of us. Parents of both took drastic steps soon - he was moved to a school in DGP and I was moved to my grandparents with parental supervision back on everything.

+2 was a forgettable grind where learning was the least enjoyable. To make my attempt at JEE as best as possible I went for some "professional" coaching and help from a Physics prof of JU who was renowned for his guaranteed results. He used to grade JEE papers as well as contribute to the pool of questions - good bang for the bucks (of my parents of course!)

I managed to get an ordinary rank at JEE which got me Civil Engineering at JU. One day during my first year, while strolling on the campus with my class-mate Subrata, I bumped into the prof who coached me. I told my friend about how he had helped me for JEE. We exchanged some pleasantries and moved on. Right then an elderly man (as in who would be dad of a student) spotted the prof and yelled at a volume that was within earshot of 50 m of everyone around - "Sir, shudhu apnar jonne amar cheleta Joint'e chance pelo". It was so obvious that the reference wasn't to the coaching that the prof immediately started looking around and his tongue came out. My friend rubbed it in on me with - "tui ei maaltar kache porechili!"

Later on in my years of studies, I came across quite a few co-students who couldn't pass on their own and had to use friends as proxy to clear their exams and get the degree. there's no way their JEE rank was clean and fair - they shouldn't have qualified for anything at all.

Suvro, maybe you get indirect shit from the "JEE experts' for inadvertently encroaching on their space.

Siddharth Saha said...

One also wonders if the Zen master in the 2nd story would have ever said: "I wish somebody could come up with a link to the WBJEE 1982 merit list too"....Maybe for a true Zen Master such things would have ceased to matter so many years down the line...if carrying young women could vanish from his memory in hours! Of course you never claimed to be a Zen master, but maybe we all should realise that we have miles to go...

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for some more reminiscing, Subhasis. But will people please get back to the subject matter of this post?

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

Both the stories are interesting but the second one really made me laugh. As for the first, was the Zen master referring to the nature of one's inner being or some sort of realization of self as true heaven or hell?


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Good that the second story raised a laugh, Vaishnavi: the old Zen masters did encourage a belly laugh now and then. But reflect, also, that I have been pondering over this story for nearly 25 years now, so surely it merits something more than just laughter...

As for the first story, you have got the idea just about right. 'The mind is its own place,' said Milton in Paradise Lost, 'and in itself/ can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.'

Shilpi said...

Ah. So those stories do change as one thinks about them over and over? I always wondered whether that was what should happen or whether they should always seem the same. They're like The Little Prince.

I still don't get the first one. If this Samurai warrior realised that this old sage could teach him something worthwhile, and so travels all the way to find the sage in the hopes of gathering some 'esoteric wisdom', wasn't it a little absurd to even think of clopping off the sage's head? Here's this sage that he's been trying to find and then finds and then because he's ignored for some moments he gets into a rage great enough to draw out his sword to clop off the sage's head? I can imagine getting angry but I can't imagine wanting to clop off the sage's head or even of harming a hair on the sage's head....that would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?

...and what does one do afterwards...If one sees and keeps seeing that one's mind is the container of heaven and hell - what does one do after that? There has to be some outward changes in what one does and how one does things...how does one maintain one's composure and still one's mind without losing hope or feeling fey?

If this sounds like a hasty comment - my apologies.

Very cryptic post this one is....sort of fitting too.