Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Without Fear

Once there was a general leading an army in a campaign to conquer Japan. After some months of war, such was the fear of this general and his army, that entire villages would simply evacuate before the army arrived. And so, the general, who was now accustomed to abandoned villages, was surprised when one of his captains came to report that the village was evacuated with the exception of an old monk who refused to leave the village’s small temple. The general was intrigued and walked into the village to find this monk. The general found the monk, who was a Zen master, sitting outside the humble temple. The monk stood but did not otherwise acknowledge the general. The general walked up to the monk and said, “Do you not realize that you stand before a man who could run you through with a sword without blinking an eye.” The monk looked calmly at the general and said, "And do you not realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?"

Now, while i don't play favourites, this story has been a favourite for several years now. I know... i'm just full of contradictions.... And while i think that the stories i tell continue to be interesting (and even delightful) to me because they communicate something that i am still learning or have yet to learn, this story occupies a lot of my mind and heart space. I have told this story many times in the past few years and, unlike many stories i choose which are relatively easy for people to understand (at least at one level, for the stories i choose tend to have multiple dimensions to them) this one tends to number amongst the more enigmatic. I learned from both Sufi storytelling tradition and indigenous (specifically Mohawk) storytellers that one shouldn't interpret stories for the listener. The story, as is, is the gift. To explain it begins to diminish it. And, while i'm not a fundamentalist about such things - i will engage in interpretive talk if i feel it is called for by whatever context in which i find myself - i do resist a bit. I find with this story more than any other story i tell, that resistance to getting drawn into interpretive talk is hard. I'm used to different reactions to the stories i tell - delight is always nice to see; the pleasure of inspiration and wonder is always satisfying; bemusement also is satisfying as it feels like a seed is planted that will grow with attention given it. 
And there are some, not so often, but often enough, who are offended by the story. A reaction i find fascinating but also a tad stressful. I always find it hard to respond to such an emotion as i am never certain about just what is the nature of the feeling of offence. I'm sure it's different for different people. But this story, more than any other, evokes this feeling of offence from people. It is common with this reaction for the offended person to demand an interpretation of the story. Though i suspect strongly that that's not really what they want nor, certainly, need. I react in different ways, depending on context. In some cases i stand by the ethic of not interpreting. In others i will relent and explain a little of what i was getting at (which presumes that i'm aware of what i was getting at, but which is not always the case). 
And in still others i will redirect the energy the way i have learned in aikido - a martial arts discipline that i have been studying on and off since 1978 and at which i still suck (i'm still learning to fall down properly). One of the key things that attracted me to aikido was its commitment to nonviolence and peace. I had come to understand this as embodying an ethic in which the goal is both to avoid harm to oneself as well as to avoid harming the attacker. Aikido thus teaches whole sets of defensive gestures and responses to attack that redirect the energy away from oneself.  But i developed a new level of understanding thanks to my friends Matt and Sally and the Toronto aikido sensei Henry Kono. Henry had unique insight into O Sensei's (the founder Morihei Ueshiba) philosophy and practice of aikido. Matt and Sally told me this story as well as getting Henry to tell it to us one evening in a café. While i can't remember many of the details that he recounted that evening, i do recall the central insight about yin and yang. I believe he experienced this epiphany on a beach where he had been drawing the yin and yang symbol in the sand. And what i recall is that he realized that the defender and attacker were the two forces of yin and yang and that the goal of aikido had, perhaps less to do with the avoiding harm that i mention above than about preserving the harmony of yin and yang which, if achieved, would have, in a sense, the result of peace. You can read Henry's account for yourself right here.) 
I learned a complementary lesson from Judy Rebick who explained to me how she responded to people giving her complements when she was in public speaking mode. Judy is a wonderful public speaker - always provocative and articulate and impassioned. It is common for people to want to come up and complement her. But Judy explained to me that she was careful about how she let those complements in i.e. not letting them inflate her opinion of herself. For, as she explained, if you let the complements do so, then you are more vulnerable to being deflated (and hurt) by the attacks which, in Judy's public life as activist, advocate, and leader, is part of the hazard.
Putting this all together, i suppose i've learned to practice storytelling with an aikido ethic of maintaining a (yin-yang) balance of energies which, i theorize, are the optimal conditions for learning. And, thinking about those people who are offended by a story and who speak to me about this, i realize that they are giving me a gift of energy that challenges my capacities to respond and, in so doing, giving me the opportunity to improve.
above image: Reading Sutra by Moonlight,  The Metropolitain Museum of Art, The Collection Online

Life's Greatest Burden

Once there was an old woman and a young woman who would walk each day through the shtetl. One day the old woman would carry turnips from the field and young woman would carry two buckets of water. On another day, the old woman would carry grains to make kasha and the young woman would carry cucumbers to make pickles. On another day, the old woman would carry her grandchild and the young woman would carry the clean clothes from the drying line. One day the young woman asked the old woman, “what is life’s greatest burden?” The old woman answered, “to have nothing to carry.”
There's another story I tell about zen monks and carrying that carries a seemingly opposite message (about not carrying) but that i would say is complementary. What does it mean "to carry?" This story reminds me of another context for the use of carry (insofar as we say carrying a child to mean pregnancy) that can be found hidden in the word "difference" and the scottish word for children "bairn." The word "different" comes from “dis” meaning “not” and “ferre” meaning “to bear” as in “to bear a child.” Thus different, etymologically speaking, means "not to be able to bear a child." This sense of "to bear" survives in the Scottish word "bairn", i.e. to have been borne. I have often thought about how patriarchy and racism have constructed "normal" as male (and white, amongst other things), while female (and black, brown, etc.) are “different.” But hidden in the history of this word is the notion that “woman” is the baseline and those who do not bear children are the ones who depart from that baseline – who are different. Thus when i hear the old woman say, "to have nothing to carry," i hear many meanings, resonances within resonances.
The image above is from http://riniart.org/?s=4&di=307 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

My Heart Is Already There

An old man was making a pilgrimage to a monastery deep inside the Himalayan Mountains. Bitterly cold winter winds, rain and snow lashed him at all hours of the day and night. One evening, having accepted the hospitality of woman who had seen the man trudging along the road, his host asked him, “How do you expect to reach your destination in this weather? At this time of year the weather will only get worse the further you journey along that road into the mountains.” The old man smiled, saying, “It is easy. You see, my heart has already arrived there. All I need do is to let the rest of me follow.”
I find myself in the midst of several daunting journeys - parenting and maintaining a good, stable, and healthy home, the job i'm doing and the job for which i am applying, the ambition of crafting a theory of trickster pedagogy, and more. This story fortifies me in these days of overwhelm and exhaustion.
The photograph is one i shot in 2006 in Calatañazor, Soria, Spain. 

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Telling Day from Night

Once an old rabbi asked his students how they could tell that the night had ended and the day begun.

One student said, “I know the day is begun when I see an animal in the distance and can tell if it is a sheep or a goat.”

Another student said, “I know the day has begun when I see a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a fig tree or an olive tree.”

A third student asked, “Rabbi, how do you tell day from night?”

The rabbi said, “when you can look on the face of any person and see in them your sister or brother. If you cannot do this, it is still night.” 

I came across this story in the mid-80s while working on a youth leadership project (The International Youth for Peace and Justice Project) that i co-founded in 1985. The project was about giving the opportunity to young survivors of violence (who had, by virtue of their resistance to violence, become activists for peace) to tell their stories of suffering and resistance to young Canadians. It was a remarkable project with many unforgettable moments of moving and compassionate encounter between young and young and between young and old. This story hit me like a ray of light from the darkness. I was both dazzled and inspired. But i forgot the story for many years while i hope that i internalized some of the ethic it represented. Many, many years later i grappled with the philosophies of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others. And i found in each something that struck me powerfully as truth. Buber wrote about I/Thou as an ethic of being that guides me still. Lévinas wrote of the face-to-face encounter as calling forth our ethical responsibility to one another. And Bakhtin wrote of "art and answerability" by which he was describing our ethical obligation to communicate with each other. It is no easy walk to read and come to understand these philosophies and Lévinas is a particular challenge. I love Buber's and Bakhtin's writing. I can't say i love Lévinas though i have deep admiration for him. In remembering this wee Hasidic folktale, i can see that it contains so much of the truth that i found also in the philosophies of these luminaries. I know that Buber knew this story since it is apparently in one of his Tales of the Hasidim collections (i've not been able to find in amongst the over 1,000 tales found therein). And given Lévinas familiarity with Buber and Jewish literatire in general, it's very likely this story influenced him as well. And, once again, i am astonished at how a story can both condense and transmit across generations, the complex knowledge that human cultures create.

Friday, February 05, 2016


A young monk who had noticed that some of their fellow aspirants nodded off to sleep during prayer asked the abbot if they should perhaps pinch them to keep them awake. The abbot responded, “If I saw someone sleeping at prayer I would put their head on my knees and let them rest.”

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Publishing the Sutras

Hundreds of years ago, Tetsugen, a zen monk, chose to devote himself to publishing the sutras, the Buddhist teachings that had been brought to Japan from China but that were only published, at that time, in Chinese. He wanted to publish them in Japanese. Printing books at that time required carving wood blocks which would have to be purchased. So Tetsugen set out to collect the money he needed. He asked for donations and got a few here and few there. And whether the donation was large or small gave each donor with equal thanks. Ten years passed and Tetsugen finally had enough to purchase the wood to carve the blocks to print the sutras. Just at that time the Uji River overflowed and the land was decimated. Crops were lost and the people went hungry. Tetsugen took the money he had collected and gave it to the people to relieve their suffering and enable them to recover their livelihoods. Then once again Tetsugen began to collect money. Another ten years passed and once again he had enough. But before he could complete his mission an epidemic swept across the country and it took the lives of countless animals and people. Once again Tetsugen gave his money to the people so they could recover and rebuild their lives. The, once again, Tetsugen began collecting money.  After twenty years he had enough, bought the wood, carved the blocks and printed the sutras in Japanese. These blocks can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto. And of Tetsugen they say that in his life he published three sets of the sutras, the first two being invisible and far superior to the third.
I came across this story over 20 years ago and have been especially fond of it from my first encounter. About ten years ago i recounted this story in the popular education graduate class I teach and that year there were two Japanese international students. One approached me after class and expressed curiosity that I was telling what was, according to him, a story they only tell children. I expressed my own curiosity that a story of such profound import should be classified a children's story and not a story for all ages. Many times i've told this story with a coda in which i ask listeners to let me know if they ever manage to get to Obaku Monastery in Kyoto and see the reputed blocks. I've been ready to discover that that part of the story is mere fancy. So, it was with utter delight this week that i came across the blog The Computer Cheats and a post Kyoto Zen that includes images of Obaku Monastery and the legendary carved blocks (see above). Check out the post for other zen stories and some other remarkable images. 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

dian's T's

I had a wonderful friend and teacher who taught me in only a few brief encounters to unleash my creativity. dian marino gave me the gift of granting myself radical permission to play. And I’ve been playing ever since.

dian was attending her first Organizational Development conference and had dressed as conservatively as she was able. She’s told me several times that she had a strong desire to be included, not to stick out – I wasn’t really persuaded. Her first conference session was Designing Learning Instruments with a fellow from University Associates, a well-known “human resources development” publisher. The session leader began with a one-minute exercise and dian prepared herself with gusto. She rocked such exercises. “Draw as many T’s as you can in one minute,” the session leader said.

dian grabs her pencil and a blue-lined sheet of paper and, looking neither to left nor right, starts drawing T’s. Noticing the blue lines on the page, the first thing dian does is to draw a whole bunch of vertical lines the length of the page. dian looks at her paper, reorients it sideways, sees that her drawn lines are new horizontals which she proceeds to intersect with a new set of perpendicular lines. With lots of white space left on the page she turns the page to an angle and draws a new set of intersecting lines. And again. And again. With time remaining in her one minute she flips the page over and begins to make lists: T-shirts, T-junction, T-bar, T-bone; Darjeeling, mint, orange pekoe. The instructor yells, “Stop!”

The instructor begins to poll the participants: “how many people drew ten T’s or fewer?” One hand goes up and dian thinks, “Whoa. Anal compulsive?” The instructor continues, “How many got 50 or fewer?” Many hands go up and dian begins to wonder just how long it will be before he reaches her. dian guesstimates that she’s draw 10,472 T’s. Maybe 15,000. And she notes with trepidation that everyone else maxes out around 150, leaving only dian. The instructor asks how many people got more than 150 and dian, sheepishly, raises her hand. “How many T’s did you draw?” the instructor asks. “About 15,000,” dian says with her nervousness doubling on every syllable. Everyone in the room is staring at dian. “How did you draw 15,000?” the instructor asks. dian’s nervousness is now verging on terror. She wanted to blend in, fit, not be noticed.

“I thought it was a creativity exercise,” dian explains. “You know, quantity, flexibility. That’s what I do: teach creativity.”

The instructor laughed and explained that he had been trying to prove how people distribute across a bell curve and it included somebody who would be way off. dian felt relieved and included. And while dian most often concluded her story on this point, I think the story continues. For not only was the instructor being rather sneaky in manipulating an audience to make his point for him, he was also promoting a mathematical model of human behavior that is, arguably, flawed, but which has held sway for many decades despite a long history of critique. Sure he was able to seize on dian as an “outlier” and actually use her “misunderstanding” to strengthen if not even validate his point, but one of the things that I loved about dian was her inability NOT to break rules. She couldn’t help herself. She was a kind of chaos engine. Creativity exploded out of her despite herself. Her T’s defied categorization – they were abundant, explosive, defiant, and whimsical. My son and daughter each have names that begin with T which always, lovingly, remind me of dian’s T’s.

Monday, February 01, 2016

By Example

Once, a gambler who had fallen on hard times visited a sage who lived in the forest. The gambler described their misfortune and asked the sage what to do. The sage said that much could be learned from observing animals and told the gambler that not far from where they sat lived a fox that had lost its legs. “Go and watch the fox,” counseled the sage. The gambler found where the fox lived and was curious to see how it managed to get by. Taking a position in a tree, the gambler waited and watched. After some time a tiger came walking amidst the trees with game in its jaws. The tiger walked towards the fox, dropped the meat, ate some, and then left the rest for the fox. The next day and the day after that the gambler witnessed the same thing, as the tiger brought its catch to the fox, ate its fill, and left the remainder for the fox.

The gambler now understood what the sage had been getting at and thought: clearly the fox is as unfortunate as I, so all I need do is to trust in the beneficence of the Divine who will provide me with all I need. So, for many days, the gambler sat in the forest awaiting the providence of the Divine but nothing happened. The sage came upon the gambler almost dead from lack of food and water. The sage understood what had happened and said, “Why do you follow the example of the fox and not that of the tiger?”