Sunday, July 31, 2016

Tansen's Teacher

Once the ruler Akbar called Tansen before him to sing. Akbar listened and was, as usual, amazed at the talent of this singer. He praised Tansen. But Tansen said to Akbar, “My singing is little compared to that of my teacher.” “Then I must meet your teacher,” said Akbar. But Tansen explained that his teacher agreed to meet few people. There was no guarantee that he would meet Akbar. However, if Akbar were to travel on foot wearing only ordinary clothing there was a possibility that Tansen’s teacher might agree to meet him. Akbar did as Tansen suggested and they set out on the journey together. They approached the mountain range where Tansen’s teacher lived. The teacher saw that Akbar approached on foot and wearing ordinary clothes. He welcomed them and Akbar and Tansen sat before the teacher. Tansen’s teacher began to sing. The music made the plants and the trees vibrate. All creatures paused and listened. Akbar and Tansen went into a trance and were transported beyond the world they knew. Akbar did not know how long he was in that trance but when he came out of it Tansen’s teacher was nowhere to be seen. Tansen explained that once his teacher sang for someone it was unlikely that they would ever see him again. Akbar was satisfied and returned to his palace. Some weeks later he called Tansen before him and asked him to sing the raga that his teacher had sung for them. Tansen obliged and sang. When the song was over Akbar looked long at Tansen and said, “It is true that that is the raga your teacher sang. But it is different. How is that?” “Ah,” sighed Tansen. “You see, while I stand here and sing before you, the emperor, my teacher sings before God.”

One thing i love about storytelling is the searching for stories. I love pouring through books, reading websites, browsing libraries and bookstores, observing the world around me. And, of course, listening, always listening. The 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling is one of the greatest places to listen in the world. It was in a Barnes and Noble somewhere north of San Francisco that i found a copy of Hazrat Inayat Khan's Tales (Omega Publications, 1980). A book with that title will always catch my attention. And, indeed, opening it to see it filled with short tales clinched it. The book is a collection of Sufi "teaching tales" and anecdotes of Khan's experience. Hazrat Inayat Khan was, amongst other things, a musician and the founder of the International Sufi Movement now known as the Sufi Order Inayati. Sufi stories are amongst my favourite in the world. Often enigmatic riddles, they move around one's consciousness like beautiful birds catching one's attention one minute and flitting away the next. I think i've come to understand that one of the essential characteristics of a "teaching story" is that they continue to teach long after they have been first encountered. For these stories, unlike a riddles, don't have just "one answer" but countless answers. Every context in which i recall a story changes the meaning of that story, adding to it, refracting it, making it new again.

ImageAkbar and Tansen visit Swami Haridas in Vrindavan. Swami Haridas is to the right, playing the lute; Akbar is to the left, dressed as a common man; Tansen is in the middle, listening to Haridas. Jaipur-Kishangarh mixed style, ca. 1750

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Turtle's Request

Once upon a time, a turtle walking along a path was stopped by a leopard that jumped in front of him. The turtle, realizing his doom, said, “Sir Leopard, would you allow me a moment to prepare myself before you kill and eat me?” The leopard thought this an odd request, but saw no reason not to agree for, he thought, he was hardly in danger of losing his meal. “Prepare yourself,” said the leopard. The turtle scurried back and forth across the path, scuffing the dirt, raising the dust, and making a mess of the path. After doing this for a few minutes he stopped, caught his breath, and looked at the leopard and said, “I am ready.” The leopard looked at the turtle and asked “Why did you do this?” The turtle answered, “So that when others come by and see what is left of my body, they will say, ‘a great battle happened here.'”

I first learned this story from Dan Yashinsky who learned it from Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah which i have since read twice. While i hope that this isn't the eventual story of my life and though it is the story of many a life, it certainly feels often that this is the story i am living.


Monday, July 25, 2016

The Search

One day Nasruddin was on his hands and knees when a friend came by who asked, “Nasruddin, what are you looking for?” Nasruddin smiled at his friend and said, “My keys.” The friend joined Nasruddin and searched for a while but after finding nothing, turned to Nasruddin and asked, “Where did you lose your keys?” “In my house,” answered Nasruddin. “Then why are you out here on the street if you lost your keys in the house?” Nasruddin answered, “There’s more light out here on the street.”

This s a beloved tale. Wickedly wise. I have told it many times and it never fails simultaneously to delight and confound audiences. Some people love it immediately while others scratch their heads in consternation if not, in a few cases, irritation. I'm especially fond of telling this story in university settings where the conceits of dominant (if not hegemonic) practices of knowledge-making are so deeply fortified. I've often thought of telling this tale in the contexts of organizational change work that i've done for many non-profits and social justice groups but i am more careful. Universities, as sites of hegemonic power don't deserve much sympathy. And, as much as i have often felt like applying this story in community-based contexts, i am not usually contracted to wage my philosophies against the various conceits and received understandings of organizations that see themselves as resisting dominant and unjust uses of power.

This story also reminds me of a delightful episode of the Spanish animation Pocoyo - translated into English and narrated by the wonderful Stephen Fry:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Filling a Shed

There once lived a farmer who worked hard to till his land and feed his three children. His wife had died some years before and he realized that he was getting on in years and should think about how he would one day pass on the land to his children. Should he die suddenly he didn’t want there to be any fighting over who would get what. So he called his two sons and his daughter together and told them that he had designed a contest. Each would have a turn at filling the shed beside the barn as full as they could. The one to fill it the most would be the winner and would get to have the first choice of land to inherit. The children agreed and the father turned to his oldest child, his son, and nodded.

The first boy went all over the land and gathered every stone and boulder and pebble and brought them back to the shed where he piled them all in. He pushed and shoved and carried until he closed the shed door with difficulty. The shed’s walls and door bulged with the weight of the stones inside. The boy, knees and elbows scraped and bloodied, turned to his father.

The father nodded and smiled and said, “That is a very good effort. I am most impressed.” Then he bent down and picked up a handful of dirt which he threw into the shed through cracks in the wall. The sand disappeared inside. “A very good effort,” repeated the father. “Now let us see how your brother can do.”

The shed was cleaned out and the second child, taking a wheelbarrow, gathered as much sand and dirt as he could from all over the farm. Load after load, he piled the sand and dirt into the shed. He pushed it in and stamped it down and packed it tight. With the door shut and bulging he still pushed sand and dirt in under the crack. He packed it into the cracks. Again the walls of the shed bulged from the weight of the sand inside. The boy turned to his father.

“Very impressive. A mighty feat. I congratulate you.” Then the father went over to a bucket of water and filled a cup which he brought back to the shed and poured the water in through a crack in the roof. The water disappeared inside. “A good and noble effort, my son. Now let us see what your sister can do.”

The shed was emptied once again but when the father and boys looked for the girl, she was nowhere to be seen. They called out, looked around, and then heard the door of the house open. The girl was carrying something cupped in her hands. She walked past her father and her brothers into the shed and placed something down in the middle. She stepped back and her brothers and father saw that it was a candle. And the light from that candle filled that shed to every corner. The girl turned and faced her father and brothers and they smiled at her.

I love this story and most often tell it as a riddle, asking listeners to guess at what it was the girl placed in the shed to win the contest. I told this last week in the park to my son (who has heard the story several times) and his friends (who have heard the story at least a couple of times - on one of my storytelling visits to their class) and still, they loved the story and loved the riddle. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Thirty-Six Righteous Souls

There was once a young boy who lived alone with his grandfather. Every day the boy would wake and take care of their two goats, Rachel and Leah. One day the boy noticed that Rachel no longer bounced around and walked much slower than she used. He mentioned this to his grandfather who nodded slowly and said, “Yes, Rachel is an old goat and sometime in the months or year ahead she will die.”

“What does it mean to die, grandfather?” asked the boy.

The grandfather explained about life and death, birth and growth and how all things had their time on earth. We each had a lifetime, long or short, deep or wide – we each had a time that would one day come to an end at which time we would journey into the mysterious realms beyond life. Such was the fate of the boy’s parents, his grandfather explained.

The boy thought he understood and went back to tending the goats. As he sat in the sun watching the goats and shooing away flies he pondered what his grandfather had said. Suddenly a thought occurred to him and, in a panic, he ran into the house. “Grandfather, Grandfather, are you going to die?” the boy shouted as he ran.

The boy found his grandfather in the kitchen laughing. “Of course I will die,” he said gently. “We will all someday die. But I will not die just yet.” This calmed the boy and once again he returned to tending the goats.

One night not long after speaking with his grandfather about death and dying, the boy woke to strange sounds in the house. He followed the noise to its source where he was shocked to see his grandfather sitting at the table in the middle of the kitchen surrounded by a chaos of swirling pots, pans, dishes. Every object in the kitchen save the table and chairs was flying crazily about the room. The boy was afraid and managed to dodge his way to his grandfather’s side. There, in the centre, all was calm. “What is happening, grandfather,” the boy asked.

“One of the Thirty-Six Just Men has died,” the grandfather said.

“Who are they?” the boy asked.

“Once, long ago,” the grandfather explained, “after God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He made a promise not to do it again as long as there were thirty-six just men alive on earth. You see, at any one time there live amongst us thirty-six just men and these people carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They live anonymously and commit acts of kindness and compassion. Some say that even they do not know who they are. And now one of them has died and, until a new one comes forth, the world is out of balance. Now, off to bed with you. All will be well soon enough.”

“Are you one of the Just Men, grandfather,” asked the boy.

“No, I am not. Now, to bed with you.”

The next day the boy was sitting on the doorstep watching over the goats when a fly came buzzing near. And, as little children often do, he caught the fly in his hand. He held it tightly and could hear its buzzing. He shook it beside his ear. But suddenly the buzzing changed. The boy could hear the panic and fear of the fly. He let it go. But it was too late. In that moment, the fear of the fly cracked open the boy’s heart. And into that heart poured all the suffering and sorrow and loss of the world. And in that moment that boy became the new thirty-sixth righteous soul.

I learned this story from Alec Gelcer with whom I shared a loved of stories of the Hassidim as well as Jewish wisdom stories more generally. Since learning this story i have had an intense curiosity about this legend. But the stories of these people are few and far between. Nonetheless, i have found many pieces to this legend. Called the Lamed Vav Tzadikim (meaning 36 righteous souls) or Tzadikim Nistarim (meaning hidden righteous ones) they are also referred to as lamedvavniks (applying the yiddish diminutive). I assume that the sexism in calling them 36 Just "Men" comes of the patriarchal history that all the major world religions share. And i use the term in this story given that that is how i learned it from Alec. Nonetheless, i changed the title of the story to reflect a more just rendering of this legend. In all the stories i've found there is nothing to suggest that a woman couldn't also be one of these righteous souls. An intriguing part of this legend is whether or not these lamedvavniks are aware that they are such. Some stories say that they do not know and that while they feel all the suffering of the world they do not know why. Other stories say they do know and that they spend their lives committing anonymous acts of kindness. All the stories agree that these people are hidden and never known (at least during their life) that they are one of the "36 Pillars" of the world on whose shoulders exist the continuation of the world. As i've mentioned before (in the Ten Just Men story), i am also intrigued by the number 36. Why 36? For it is not just any number but is one of a set of numbers that recur in stories from many different cultures. It is part of precessional mathematics which is the math of the earth's 26,000 year wobble - something that we know that ancient cultures had observed, calculated, and encoded into their stories. The suggestion in the story of the world being "out of balance" should one of these 36 hidden saints be no more is a fascinating recapitulation of this math. For, indeed, should there be a change in this numerical value it would imply that the earth's wobble and spin had changed and, truly, things would be "out of balance."

But, math aside, we do, indeed, live in a world out of balance. And the sorrow and loss that afflict us daily, is more than enough to overflow many souls open to that suffering. Our need for kindness in this world has never been greater as so much of daily life pushes people to hate and violence. May our souls always be open to the suffering of others so that we may know better how to practice love and compassion.

Saturday, June 04, 2016


There was once a general of war who was tired of fighting. He had spent his whole life perfecting his skills in all the arts of war with one exception: archery. Now he was weary and wished to end his career as a fighter. And in doing so, he decided that he would spend the rest of his days studying archery. He began to search far and wide for a master for he had heard that there monks who did nothing but practice and perfect their craft of archery.

After much journeying he found a monastery where they taught archery - he entered the monastery and asked if he could live there and study. He thought that his life was now over and the remainder of his days would be spent in study and meditation behind these monastery walls.

One day, after he had been studying for ten years, the abbot of the monastery came to him and told the former-general of war that he must leave. “You are now a Master Archer,” said the abbot. The former-general protested saying that his life in the world outside the monastery was over and that all he wished was to spend the rest of his days here. But the abbot insisted, saying that the Master Archer must now leave and go into the world and teach what he had learned.

The Master Archer had to do as he was told. Having nowhere to go when he left the monastery he decided to return to the village of his birth. It was a long journey and as he neared the village he noticed a target on a tree with an arrow dead-centre – right in the bulls-eye He was surprised by this only to notice more targets on trees and, in the centre of each, an arrow. Then, on the barns and the buildings of the town he saw dozens, hundreds of targets with arrows in the bulls-eye of each one.

The peace he had attained in ten years of monastic life had left him and he approached the elders of the town, indignant that after ten years of devoted study he should return to his own home and find an archer more skilled than he. He demanded of the elders that the master archer meet him by the edge of town in one hour and he turned and strode away without looking back, expecting, like the general of war he had once been, to be obeyed. Waiting by the mill the Master Archer saw no one coming to meet him but he noticed a young girl skipping along the road. The girl noticed him and came over.

"Are you waiting for someone," asked the girl looking up at the Master Archer.

"Go away," he said.

"No, no," said the girl, "you look like you're waiting for someone and I was told to come and meet someone here."

The Master Archer looked unbelievingly at the little girl and said, "I'm waiting for the master archer responsible for the hundreds of perfect shots I see around here."

The girl looked pleased and said, "Then it is you I was sent to meet. I made all those shots.”

The Master Archer looked even more skeptical, convinced that this girl was trying to humiliate him. But he said to the girl, "If you're telling the truth, then explain to me how you can get a perfect shot every single time you shoot your arrow."

"That's easy," said the girl. "I take my arrow and I draw it back in the bow and point it very, very straight. Then I let it go and wherever it lands I draw a bulls-eye."

This is an old favourite. I first learned it from dian marino who would, like the trickster she was, use it to introduce the Plan of Study to the new class of students in the Master of Environmental Studies program at the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. Given the self-directed nature of the program and the primary task being the crafting and writing of one's own curriculum, this story had pointed fairly obvious relevance. I've come across other versions and, while they are all good, this is the only version i know in which the child is a girl. I honestly have no recall if that was dian's doing or mine. But as many young girls are can be found in folk tales who are active agents, we could use more. I have a particular interest in stories in which there is bow-and-arrow and attention paid to hitting a target. And old and powerful metaphor, of course. There is a quote from the Sufi teacher Saadi of Shiraz (13 C) which for me has been somewhat of a mantra in my popular education work: " None learned the art of archery from me who, in the end, did not make me the target." There is a very complex pedagogical ethic in these words that i reflect on all the time.  Finally, for nerd points: for some time now, i've seen the girl in this story as a version of the girl who goes to bat in the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer who, having felt fear for a moment, finds her resolve and grins with the confidence with which she is about to swing that bat. This image has meant a lot to me as a parent of a daughter.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Just Two Words

There was once a woman who entered an order of holy sisters that practiced a vow of silence. The nuns were only allowed to utter two words every ten years. At the end of ten years in the abbey, the sister met with the Abbess and uttered her two words: “bed hard.” Another ten years passed and once again the sister met with the Abbess to utter her two words: “Food stinks.”  After yet another ten years the sister met once again with the Abbess to utter her two words: “I quit.” To which the Abbess responded with, “I am not surprised seeing as all you do is complain.”

My dad told me this joke last week. For him it was one of many catholic jokes that we have shared over the years. And, having been raised catholic (despite that the whole religious part didn't quite stick) catholic jokes can still make me laugh more than jokes from other cultural/religious traditions. What i didn't realize growing up with catholic jokes is that they are mostly cleverly disguised wisdom tales and/or wry (even diabolical) acts of resistance against any number of pieces of church dogma. The latter purpose is the more obvious and certainly what i came to appreciate first about such jokes. Learning to see the wisdom in these stories took more time. As well as having the vantage of revisiting many of these jokes with my always-growing knowledge of stories from around the world. One of the great delights of storytelling research is finding similar stories in different traditions. The shock of recognition is always a pleasing experience. And this certainly fuelled my search for many years. But as i studied anthropology and comparative mythology/religion, i grew suspicious of this "shock of recognition" and the easy (even facile) conclusion that all stories are similar, that all cultures have the "same" stories. I read a good deal of Joseph Campbell's  work (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The 4-volume Masks of God, The Flight of the Wild Gander, The Power of Myth) and i was greatly moved by his work. But as enthused as i was to learn of the the story pattern of the "hero's journey" which Campbell researched and analyzed so well, i grew increasingly discontent with his notion of the "monomyth." 

Having opened myself to the influence of feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism and more, the idea of a "monomyth" seemed suspiciously aligned with the global domination of western culture. It was only when i came across the work of Wendy Doniger (Other Peoples' Myths: The Cave of Echoes) that i was finally able to articulate my discontent. Briefly, Doniger made the point that Campbell never moved beyond the thrill of the similarity of all stories. Such similarity is what, perhaps for most of us, is first noticed. But, as Doniger points out, where things really get interesting is how the stories are different.

This wee story about two words is one i first came across as a Buddhist tale. And it's pretty much the exact same story - just swap the nun for a monk and the Abbess for the head monk of a monastery and you've got the version that i have been most familiar with. But seeing this story cast in the context of a catholic joke and it takes on a fantastic array of other resonances. Their similarity is, indeed, pleasing. But their difference is wondrous.

The Cracked Pot

A water-bearer made the journey from the stream to the master’s house each day. The water-bearer did this with two large pots hung on opposites ends of a pole which she carried across her shoulders. One of the pots had a crack and, while the other pot was intact and always delivered all that was put in it, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For years the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water to the master’s house.

One day, another water-bearer noticed the cracked pot and asked, “do you not realize that you lose much of your water from that pot as you walk?”

“Yes, I am aware of this,” said the water-bearer.

“You are foolish to waste such effort. Why do you not repair that pot or get a new one?” asked the other water-bearer.

“Walk with me tomorrow,” said the water-bearer, “if you want an answer.”

The next day the two water-bearers began their journey from the well to their masters’ houses. The water-bearer with the cracked pot asked her companion to notice the surroundings. After a while the other water-bearer noticed that one side of the path was abundant with flowers of all kinds while the other had few.

The water-bearer said, “I spread flower seeds on one side of the path, and every day while I walk from stream to house the cracked pot has  watered them. For years I have picked these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table, my own home, and to share with friends. My cracked pot brings beauty into the world."

I haven't the foggiest idea where i first heard or read this story. In fact, all i remembered of it was the cracked pot watering flowers and the walk back and forth from the stream. So i've spun it up into more of a tale.