This is a true story occurring in Japan countryside during the 16th century.
An old farmer and Zen Master for many years named Takahashi was returning from the fields at dusk with his son when both realized that his single labor horse was gone!
“How unlucky you are!” shouted his friends and neighbors…. so sad…what a bad luck for you and your farm! You don’t deserve it!
“Maybe,” replied the farmer. And he went back to his home for dinner.
10 days later his horse came back to the farm with 10 young wild horses.
“Aren’t you lucky?” shouted his friends and neighbors with joy. “10 more horses for you at no cost…lot of money…fantastic! You deserve it!”
“Maybe,” replied the farmer without any excitation in his voice, going back to his home for tea.
While trying to tame one of the wild horses his single son fell off and broke his right leg very badly.
“How unlucky you are!” exclaimed his friends and neighbors with sadness. “He will not be able to work at the farm for months…this is terrible for you, your family and your crops!”
“Maybe,” replied quietly the old man without any sadness in his voice while going back to his barn.
A couple of weeks later soldiers came to the village and took all the young men to serve for war on the continent. Of course they did not take the farmer’s son because of his broken leg.
“You are so lucky?” shouted again his friends and the neighbors…you keep your son…. this is fantastic…. good for you…what a treat! “
“Maybe,” said the farmer without too much fuss. ”See you guys tomorrow. Good night.”
No one had any control on those 4 events and we may ask ourselves the following questions:
- Does Takahashi realize the various situations and their consequences?
- Does he care about anything? Horse, son, farm, and friends?
- Does he have any feelings? Why doesn’t react with joy to good news and with sadness to bad ones.
- Is he rude with his friends and neighbors?
- Is his life very boring without expressing and sharing emotions?
In others words:
- Can you explain and rationalize his somewhat strange, “who cares” attitude?
- How would you react if you were to face the same events?
Takahashi has been practicing and teaching Zen for many years and he knows very well how to differentiate realities from fictions also called illusions.
1.For example he knows that almost all circumstances, events and people that he is dealing with are what they are and not what we want them to be. What we want is pure self-centered wishful thinking even if we have good reasons such as morality, ethic, compassion and generosity.
2. He also knows that almost all circumstances, events and people are not perceived by his mind as good vs. bad, wonderful vs. dreadful, paradise vs. hell, luck vs. bad luck, etc. Such dualistic thinking common to most of us is also called opposite thinking. It is based on our own criteria, idea, opinion, judgment and expectations or those rules and standards dictated by our education, religions, media and society. Such dualistic view is not only very limited but it will trap him in a cage being the opposite of an open mind or reflecting mind his mind is frozen with no options.
3. Finally he knows that these events are all transient by definition and most of them are totally out of his control including their consequences.
Takahashi also lives in the present moment and for him living mostly on expectations is a source of possible disappointment.
- If you feel lucky now, then you are merely preparing yourself for the likelihood of being sometimes unlucky…. and vise a versa.
- If you are happy now, then you may be at some stage unhappy…. and vise a versa.
Great Japanese Zen Master Dogen use to say “Any good or bad situation that we are facing will never last: behave accordingly since we don’t master as much as we think we do …and stay cool”.
Takahashi is not depressed about the bad news (lost of his horse, fracture of his son) nor exuberant about the good news (10 new horses, no draft for his son). He sees those events as they are, reacting more as a spectator rather than an actor. Such attitude could be perceived in our Western society as a sign of passivity, lack of feelings, depression, rudeness and “don’t care attitude”. Takahashi mind is a reflecting mind.
Does that mean that he has decided a long time ago not to be proactive? Not at all…he has decided to do his best with compassion, moral behavior, generosity, etc. without being caught by his dualistic ego mind.
This Zen attitude “things are what they are” is not passive, defeatist or pessimistic but realistic since events and people are what they are independently of the opinion, judgment and expectations that we have of them. This “maybe” attitude also reflect that our old farmer is practicing “great doubt”so important in Zen teaching. Great doubt does not mean “I am confused” but rather that he is not trapped in any preconceived feelings or judgments. See topic on doubt.
Do we have the duty to improve things? Of course we do but we should not be too attached to the way we see them and expect them to be. In other words we should not trust our thinking as much as we do.
Too often we have extreme difficulty to take bad things as they come because it was not planned as we wish or despite our actions. On the opposite we have no difficulty to take good things as they come. Both attitudes are a normal ego reaction where the I, me, mime, myself is perceived as unlucky, weak, a failure for the bad news or “ I may deserve it, I am lucky”.
These opposite attitudes will bring ongoing yoyo emotional reactions day after day.
Thank you. Ven. Ji Gong October 12th 2015