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.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Rogue Who Conquered a Village

Once there was a clever rogue who plagued a village and who, after some time, was caught. He was tied to a tree with a sack put over his head while the villagers went off to deliberate his fate. A simple shepherd came along, saw the hooded man tied to the tree, and asked, “why are you tied to the tree?”

The rogue replied, “I refused to take money that these people were forcing upon me.”

“But why would you not take their money,” asked the shepherd.

“I am a holy man and exist only to serve the divine. I would not let these godless people corrupt me!”

The shepherd, much moved by this stranger’s predicament, suggested they switch places and that the rogue should flee for his safety. And so it was. The villagers returned after dusk having decided the throw the rogue into the sea which they did straightaway. The next morning the villagers were astonished to see the rogue walking into the village with a flock of sheep.

“How is this possible,” a villager asked. “Where did you get those sheep?”

The rogue explained, “there are kindly spirits in the sea who take pity on those who drown in the sea. Their reward was to revive me and return me safely to the land with this flock of sheep.”

The villagers wasted no time. They turned, ran to the sea and threw themselves in.

And thus the rogue had conquered the village.

I learned this Sufi story from Idries Shah's The Way of the Sufi and i can remember being bothered by it. It was a familiar and persistent bother that reminded me of a story that i learned from my friend dian marino. It was a story she had learned from sociologist and writer Philip Slater: a man who was blinded and who lost his legs in an accident became a wonderful musician. So impressed were people that some of them had themselves blinded and their legs amputated. When i first heard dian tell this story when i was studying with her in 1991, it sent a chill down my spine. My immediate reaction was to hate the story which i quickly learned was a shoot-the-messenger ploy to tame this wild tale. The image of people blinding and maiming themselves has stuck with me all these years - it is seared into me. dian used this story, in her essay Landscape for an Easily Influenced Mind: Reflections on My Experiences as an Artist and Educator  (in Wild Garden: Art, Education, and the Culture of Resistance, Between the Lines, 1997) to discuss the political theory of hegemony and how it allowed her to examine her own ideas as a woman and artist and connect this to how society bends and shapes people to its needs. dian writes:
"This parable shocks us. "Certainly none of us would be so stupid as to blind or maim ourselves," we respond. Yet, frequently, to interpret our experience we have been persuaded to use categories (names) that are self-destructive or distracting. When I was thirty I was still using the category "girl" to organize how I thought about myself. No one had to come and point a gun at my head and say, "dian, don't take yourself seriously." The attitude came with the name (category) that I was using to think about myself. Where did I learn to interpret myself in this less than empowering way? All those everyday spots - the family, school, media, work, even play - persuaded me to see the world from someone else's point of view, without questioning how it might work differently for me." (p.20)
 It seems like my whole life so far has been about learning to see (and resist) these limiting"categories" acting on and in me. And i'm still working at undoing the "maiming and blinding" that, for me, started so young. Once again i am struck by the power of story - this Sufi tale - to bear such profound and powerful truth. All stories reveal the world in surprising ways but Sufi stories are, perhaps, unique in their practice of revealing the multiple levels/truths of our life and world - simultaneously corporeal, political, spiritual, pedagogical, emotional, wondrous.

image: Rasmus Landgreen

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Fox and the Raven

A raven seized a piece of cheese and flew onto a tree branch when a fox came along. The fox, looking up at the raven, said, “such a beautiful black sheen to your feathers, my friend raven. They glisten midnight blue at the right angle to the sun. Why, your plumage is that of a king of birds. I am sure you have a voice to match it. Would that I could hear such a voice and then I would surely know that you are, indeed, a king amongst birds. I would proclaim this to all I met.” At that that raven let out a loud squawk and promptly dropped the cheese. The fox grabbed the cheese and, walking away, said, “You have quite the voice, my friend. Too bad you haven’t the brains to go with it.”

A well-worn fable from Aesop's Fables. Ive been revisiting many of these stories which i find i take far too much for granted. I think our familiarity with such stories tends to let us think we've "gotten the message" and, having done so, the story loses any novelty and appeal. But i think it is a mistake to allow ourselves to overlook these stories. They are, after all, thousands of years old, perhaps much older than we tend to think given that we often point to a date of publication as the origin of such tales. However, these tales no doubt preceded publication by a considerable amount of time - existing within oral tradition, certainly for many generations and possibly for millennia. I've read scholarship about Aesop for some time and have seen it suggested that Aesop, often described as an ugly Greek slave, was actually from Ethiopia which suggests an African origin to the tales. Across the India Ocean in those long ago days there was another collection of animal tales assembled for the purposes of instruction:  The Panchatantra (attributed to Indian scholar Vishnu Sharma, 300 BCE). These collections share some stories in common which implies that the trans-Indian Ocean-Mesopotamian traffic of the ancient world was a transmission route not only for goods but, as is the way of human culture, stories as well.

Thinking of this story in today's context i am reminded of a friend's advice about receiving complements and insults. My friend is an in-demand public speaker and is certainly one of the best i have ever seen. Her talks draw a great deal of praise and also, as is the case with public figures who speak their mind, scorn. My friend says that it is important to let neither praise nor scorn sway you. She says that she's learned that if you let yourself be pumped up by the praise it makes you more vulnerable to be hurt by the scorn. And i appreciate this reminder of how such scorn can be the flip-side of flattery. Which also reminds me of a story from Aikido, a martial art that puts great emphasis on staying "centred" and balanced. Terry Dobson, a great aikido teacher who passed away some time ago, describes one of the most difficult lessons he had to endure in learning aikido. It began with him being surrounded by other students for a round of randori in which several people attack one person. However the style of attack was verbal and students hurled insults at Terry. He found it easy to remain calm and centred. Then the "attack" changed to a round of praise and expressions of love and respect. Dobson was reduced to tears within seconds. When i combine my friend's advice and Dobson's story and this fable from Aesop, i see a wonderful dialogue about the ethics of communication and interconnection. I wonder about the ancient dialogues from which such stories as Aesop's Fables come down to us. And again, i question just how "advanced" we think our oh-so-modern world to be. When we look at the ancient collections of tales and texts such as the Rig Veda and how they continue hold relevance and powerful meaning for us today, i'm not sure we've "advanced" at all.

Taking Aim

Nasruddin’s students were gathered to watch their teacher compete in an archery contest. Nasruddin, assuming a soldier’s stance, aimed and fired and missed the target entirely. The crowd roared with laughter and the students watched to see what their teacher would do next. Nasruddin held his bow shakily, nocked his arrow and let fly a shot that barely made it halfway to the target. The crowd laughed harder than before. Nasruddin looked at the crowd, looked at his students, then quickly turned to face the target and had let loose a shot before anyone knew it. The arrow landed with a thud in the bullseye. It was a perfect shot. The crowd, ready to laugh a third time, had to choke their laughter and a stunned silence fell over the assembled. Nasruddin grabbed his prize and strolled away from the crowd. The astonished students and the silenced crowd demanded an explanation. Nasruddin paused, turned, and faced everyone and said, “Well, for the first shot, I took the stance of a soldier who was face-to-face with an enemy. Fear made the shot go astray. For the second shot, I was like the man who, having failed, was timid, anxious, and so eager to please that he cannot concentrate. The shot had no power.” “And the third shot?” asked a voice from the crowd. “Who shot that one?” “The third shot?” said Nasruddin, “ That was me!”

Pedlar of Swaffham

Hundreds of years ago in Swaffham in Norfolk, England, there lived a poor pedlar by the name of John Chapman. He worked hard to sell his wares and was always about with a pack on his back and his dog at his heels. One night he had the most peculiar dream. In the dream he stood beside London Bridge and a voice said that if he did this he would hear good news. He ignored the dream as nothing but a passing fancy. But when the dream repeated the next night and the next night after that, he resolved to make the trip to London town.

He found London Bridge easy enough as well as the place he had been standing in his dream. He took up the station with his dog ever-so-faithfully beside him. But by the end of that first day, though he had heard many things from the passers-by, nothing sounded like the good news prophesied by his dream. And the second day was much the same. Now, on the third day, just as he was contemplating his journey home, a shopkeeper came over to speak with the pedlar. “Good fellow, though I am not sure you aren’t a fool, I’ve watched you from my hat shop for three days. You sell nothing, you beg for nothing. What are you doing here?”

“To tell you the truth, I have come here because of a dream in which I stood by London Bridge and heard good news,” the pedlar explained.

“Then you are, indeed, the fool I took you for. Why I had a dream three nights running, in which I stood in an orchard behind the house of a pedlar who lives in Swaffham, a place, I daresay, I’ve never heard of and probably doesn’t exist. In my dream I stood beside an old oak tree and thought that if I digged I should find a treasure. Anyone can dream of treasure. And fancy me travelling to a place I’ve never heard of for a dream of a treasure beneath a tree? What a fool I would be! And I would deserve it if I should lose my hat shop. Take my advice and be off with you, go home, mind your own business.”

The pedlar thanked the shopkeeper for his advice and made his way home. He digged beneath the old oak tree and found a large box with an inscription carved into the lid that he could not read. The box was filled with treasure. He placed the lid with its inscription in his window and after some time some school children came by who could read Latin and they said, “look, that writing says,

Under me doth lie
Another much richer than I”

The pedlar, hearing this, dug more deeply beneath his old oak tree and found a treasure much greater than the first. Thus made rich, he hired men to repair Swaffham church. And today in Swaffham you can see statues and images in windows and on signs of the pedlar and his faithful dog. 

I first came across this story in Joseph Jacob's More English Fairy Tales, a book i learned about from Joan Bodger, my first ever storytelling teacher. This was the first book from which i formally learned stories to tell and after which i dared to call myself a storyteller. I remain especially fond of several stories in this collection, Tamlane, The Buried Moon, Tattercoats, and several others and, of course, The Pedlar of Swaffham. But it was only when i heard my friend Alec Gelcer tell a version of this story that it lodged in my heart. Alec, who died many years ago now and whose voice is still sorely missed, told a version about a poor jew in a polish town who, in standing beside the bridge of his dream, is mocked by a soldier who notices the man and, of course, tells him of his own foolish dream. I can still hear and feel the derision with which Alec imbued the soldier. Though i forget most of the details, Alec's version remains my favourite. The tale, in the Aarne-Thompson-Uther classification system, is type 1645 "The Man Who Became Rich Through a Dream," and of which there are numerous versions around the world. Many years after learning this story, i read Paulo Coehlo's The Alchemist. I enjoyed this novel immensely and recall the pleasant shock of recognition as i realized, only towards the end of the novel, that it was a retelling of this ancient tale.

image: from "The history and antiquities of the parish of Lambeth, and the archiepiscopal palace .." (1827)

Riding Bicycles

An old monk who was a Zen master, walking in front of the monastery, saw five young monks returning from the market on their bicycles. When they had dismounted, the old monk asked, “Why are you riding your bicycles?”

The first monk said, “The sack of potatoes is heavy so I let the bicycle carry them.” The old monk said, “You are smart. And when you are old you will not walk hunched over as I do.

The second monk said, “I love to watch the trees, fields and sky pass by as I ride along.” The old monk said, “Your eyes are open. You see the world.”

The third monk said, “When I ride my bike, I like to chant Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō.” The old monk said, “Your mind will roll with the ease of a newly aligned wheel.”

The fourth monk said, “While riding my bicycle, I live in harmony with all sentient beings.” The old monk said, “You are riding on the golden path of non-harming.”

The fifth monk said, “I ride my bicycle to ride my bicycle.”

The old monk bowed and said, “I am your student.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Wishing Ring

Once upon a time, a poor farmer was making his way to market when he came across an old woman who was sitting by the road wheezing. He asked if she needed help and he offered to share his meagre food and drink with her. When she had rested and eaten a bit and was refreshed with the farmer’s water, she stood up to continue her journey. The farmer, seeing that she was going in the same direction, suggested they travel together. And so they walked and talked until they came to a crossroads and parted ways. Before they parted the old woman said, “let me give you something for your kindness.” And she handed the farmer a small ring. “This ring will grant the wearer one wish. Use it wisely,” she said. The farmer accepted the gift and the two travellers bid farewell. The farmer didn’t think much about the ring to begin with. He wasn’t sure it was real. But he had a good day at the market and, it being too late to make the journey home, he stopped at an inn for the evening. As he ate a small meal, the innkeeper sat and they chatted about the day. The farmer mentioned his encounter with the old woman and the strange gift of the wishing ring. The innkeeper asked him what he planned to do and the farmer said that he would take it home to his family and discuss it with his wife. The innkeeper eyed the ring closely as the farmer tucked it away in his shirt pocket. 

That evening, once the farmer lay sleeping, the innkeeper snuck over to where the farmer had lain down. Slowly and carefully he found the shirt pocket, slipped out the farmer’s ring and replaced it with one that was almost identical. When the farmer woke, he was none the wiser even after taking the ring out for a look. The farmer continued his journey home. Meanwhile the innkeeper closed up the inn for the day and put up signs on the road so no one would come near. When he was certain he would not be disturbed, he sat at a table and said, “I wish for one million gold coins.” Instantly, a gold coin appeared and fell onto the table before him. He was overjoyed. As he examined the coin, two coins appeared and fell to the table and then four and then eight and before long hundreds and thousands of coins were raining down upon him. Before he knew it his legs were trapped by the weight of the coins which, of course, continued to pile up. Before long he was buried and very soon suffocated and crushed to death. After many days his relatives came to see what had happened and discovered the innkeeper’s gruesome fate. They collected all the gold and divided it amongst themselves.

Now, when the farmer returned home, he told his wife what had happened. They discussed what they should do and how, if the ring was actually a wishing ring, they should make their wish very carefully. The wife suggested that they wish for additional land which would help them be more prosperous. But as they pondered this, they agreed that if they worked hard and were lucky enough to have a good growing season, they might have enough to buy the land for the following growing season. And so it was. After some time, they spoke again about the wishing ring and thought about buying a cow and a horse. Again they decided instead to work hard and trust in the weather for a good crop and indeed, with good weather and the additional land that they had bought, they were able to acquire both horse and cow. And so it was that year after year they considered making their one wish and always decided on a different course. Always preferring to save the wish for when they thought they really needed it. When their great-great-grandchildren were going through their great-great-grandparents’ things they came across an old ring that looked like it was made of gold. No one knew the story of the ring though everyone in the family knew that it had been a favourite of their great-great-grandparents.

I came across this story many years ago while researching stories for some popular economics curriculum me and the Catalyst Centre were developing. One of my many sub-interests in storytelling is stories about economics, its ethics and practices. As many of my friends know, i have a particular interest in the economics of the gift. I find that when we recognize gift-giving as an economic practice, we see it in many places in our lives (though it tends to be seriously crowded out by the dominant capitalist economy) and we see it in abundance in folktales.

image: Ring Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220 CE

The Field and the Brothers

Once upon a time two brothers farmed the land on which they lived. They each worked the land and divided equally between them all that the land produced. One brother lived with a wife and two children while the other lived alone. One evening the married brother’s wife said, “your brother works the land as hard as you. But with no family, what is he to do if he should fall ill or, when growing old, he cannot provide for himself?” Together they agreed that they should share some of their bounty. So that evening the married brother took part of his harvest and snuck it into his brother’s barn. It so happened that the single brother had been thinking about his married brother. He thought about how his brother had to support a family while he had merely to support himself. He decided secretly to take some of his harvest and put it in his brother’s barn. Now , for some time, each brother after their harvesting, would secretly bring part of his harvest to the other’s barn. And each was puzzled that their grains and vegetables never seemed to diminish. One evening, the brother’s bumped into each other as they were about their secret sharing. The brothers stood in silence, looking at each other. Then they embraced. Many years later when the people were choosing a site on which to build a temple to their god they chose the fields on which the bothers had lived.

image: Wheatfield Under Thunderclouds, van Gogh

Monday, May 23, 2016

Heaven and Hell

A man died and found himself before the gates of heaven. He was relieved. But curious. So he asked the gatekeeper, “I was just wondering if it would be possible to see Hell before entering Heaven?” “Well, no one has ever asked such a thing before. But why not? Let’s go,” said the gatekeeper and in a flash they stood before the gates of Hell. The gates opened and there before their eyes was an endless table. On it was piled the most amazing and abundant array of food, drink, dessert. Every imaginable delicacy was to be seen. As soon as the man thought of a food he noticed it somewhere on the table. And along both sides of the table were seated people as far as the eye could see. He turned to the gatekeeper asking, “This is Hell?” “Look again,” he was told. He did so and saw that each person had four-foot wooden spoons attached to their wrists and elbows. So no matter how hard they tried they could not bring the food to their mouths. “Ah, yes,” said the man. “This is Hell. I am ready to enter heaven.” In a flash he was once again before the gates of heaven. They opened and he was surprised to see an endless table heaped with the same abundance of wonderful food and drink he had just seen in Hell. On each side of the table for as far as the eye could see were seated people with four-foot wooden spoons attached to their wrists and elbows just as he had seen only moments before in Hell. “This is Heaven?” asked the man of the gatekeeper. “Look again,” said the gatekeeper. And he did. Now he saw that all the people seated at one side of the table were using their four-foot spoons to feed everyone on the other side of the table. “Ah, now I see,” said the man. “This is heaven.”

This story has been making the rounds for quite a while and i have come across many versions including, recently, an animated version you can probably find on YouTube. As always, these stories that i have known for many years continue to reveal new meanings. Having recently re-read Victor Frankl's work and having just read several memoirs (Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy If You Could Be Normal; Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle); and re-read several others (Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby and Mary Karr's The Liar's Club) i am reminded of our power (and responsibility?) to make meaning out of whatever we confront.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

How Sweet

A man was walking across a field when he noticed a tiger stalking him. He ran, the tiger chasing after him. He came to a cliff, looked over the edge and saw a tree root jutting out from the cliff face. He climbed over the edge and caught hold of the root.

The tiger sniffed at him from above but could not reach the man.  The man looked down and saw, far below, another tiger prowling the forest and anticipating a meal.

Two mice, one white and one black, began to gnaw at the root. It would be only a matter of minutes before the root was chewed through.

Just then, the man noticed a fat and ripe strawberry dangling from cliff wall. He knew if he grabbed the strawberry his grip would not last long.

He plucked the strawberry and ate it. It tasted so sweet.

This story has been an enduring favourite for so long that i have no recall of my first encounter. It may seem strange but this story holds powerful consolation for me when i am, as at the moment, most stressed about life. It is, like so many tales, ancient. And i found a version in the Gesta Romanorum (a 13th C Latin collection of tales). That version ends with the the doomed man falling into hell which, in that version is only the beginning of the tale. But i have also read reference to other versions of this tale which end with, "and the strawberry was poisoned." Perhaps not as consoling as the version i prefer.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

One Wish

In a small cottage beside a stormy sea there once lived an aging couple who lived a hard life. The man’s blind mother lived with them. They were poor but they were kind. No matter how little they had they were always willing to share with those who were in need. They asked little enough for themselves. Though there was one sorrow in their life they wished dearly to end, and that was their lack of a child. One day the man went down to the seaside where he cast a line absent-mindedly into the surf. He wasn’t trying very hard to catch anything so he was quite surprised to feel a strong tug on the line. He pulled it in and saw that he had hooked the largest and most colourful fish he had ever seen. He walked into the surf to grab the fish and remove the hook. The fish spoke: “Kind sir, please release me and I will give thee a wish.” The man had heard of many strange things in his life, but a talking fish was surely a stranger sight than he ever imagined seeing. “Surely, I will release thee, magical creature. But I cannot make a wish without asking my family. Might I ask that I return here tomorrow to tell you my wish?” “I will be here tomorrow,” said the fish. And the man freed the fish, made his way home and told his wife and mother of his strange encounter. They spoke about what they would wish for. The man suggested riches, saying that they could live better, have more to share, that life need not be as hard as it had been. The woman reminded the man that his mother was blind and that he could use his wish to make her see once more. But the mother said that she knew their fondest desire was to have a child. And, beside, she would dearly love to have a grandchild. The wife said to the husband, “go to sleep, trust in the divine, the morning is wiser than the evening.” The next morning the woman woke her husband, leaned over him saying, “This is what you will wish for.” And she leaned closer and whispered. The man nodded and smiled and said, “You are the wisest woman in the world.” He made his way down to the sea and sure enough, the magical, colourful fish awaited him. They greeted each other cheerfully and the man told the fish how hard it had been to decide on one wish. “And what would be your wish, kind sir?” asked the fish. The man looked calmly at the fish and said, “I wish that my mother lives long enough to see her grandchildren eat from golden plates.” And it was so.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Work Ethic?

A captain of industry was taking a stroll along a beach one day when he came upon someone sitting under a tree, chewing a piece of grass, and occasionally tugging a fishing line that ran from a fishing rod into the sea. 

The captain of industry was both amused and intrigued to see this lazy fisher doing so little in the middle of the workday. “Good-day. Do you expect to catch much with so little effort?”

“Why? Is there a better way,” the fisher asked.

"Well, if you were to work harder, you’d certainly have more success than you’re having simply lying here on the beach.”

The fisher smiled at the captain of industry and asked, “And should I have more of this success you mention, what’ll that get me?”

"Why, you’ll be able to replace your fishing line with nets and catch even more fish.”

"So, I catch more fish. Then what?”

The captain of industry seemed excited by the learning he was imparting. He was already imagining the business plan he could help this fisher to write. "You’ll increase your profit, invest some of it, buy a boat, and bring in even larger catches of fish!"

"And then?" asked the fisher again. 

"Why, buy a bigger boat, of course. Hire others to work for you!" 

"And then?"

The captain of industry couldn’t tell if he was more bewildered than angry. "Don't you see? You could build a fleet of fishing boats and let your workers catch fish for you!"

"And then?"

The captain of industry was now certain his anger exceeded his bewilderment. He shouted, "Don't you see that you can become so rich that you’ll never have to work again! You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach without a care in the world!"

The fisher pulled on the fishing line, smiled at the captain of industry and said, "And what does it look like I’m doing right now?"

My friend Tanya recently flattered me by comparing me to one of my great teachers, Pooh Bear, as described by Benjamin Hoff in a book i've read many times, The Tao of Pooh (Penguin, 1982). The passage that inspired Tanya to make this comparison is:
"Say, Pooh, why aren't you busy?" I said. "Because it's a nice day," said Pooh. "Yes, but ---""Why ruin it?" he said. "But you could be doing something Important," I said. "I am, " said Pooh. "Oh? Doing what?""Listening," he said. "Listening to what?""To the birds. And that squirrel over there.""What are they saying?" I asked. "That it's a nice day," said Pooh. "But you know that already," I said. "Yes, but it's always good to hear that somebody else thinks so, too," he replied. (p. 101)
This all reminded me of the above story i have found from several cultures around the world including Mexico, The Seychelles, Sierra Leone.  I'll be reading The Tao of Pooh again shortly.


What Are You Carrying?

An old monk and a young monk were walking through the forest from one monastery to another when they came upon a woman standing beside a river. Finely dressed in delicate fabrics, she was clearly afraid to attempt crossing the river however shallow it might be. The old monk approached the woman and offered the woman his back. She climbed on and the old monk carried her to the other side of the river. The young monk was shocked. Once on the other side the old monk put the woman down and, together with his young companion, continued through the forest. Many hours later, as the day was drawing to a close the young monk said, “Master, I do not understand. It is strictly forbidden in our order to touch women and yet you didn’t hesitate to pick up that woman and carry her across the river.” “Ah,” said the old monk. “You must very tired. I put her down many hours ago. While you have been carrying her all day.”

photo from:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Old Man and the Scorpion

One Spring day there was an old man who was walking along the banks of the Ganges River. The river waters were running fast and high. The old man noticed some tree branches and roots floating along in the swift current and saw that one bunch of roots had been hooked by a low-hanging branch of a tree next to the river. As the floating roots bobbed up and down and swayed in the water the old man saw a scorpion entangled in the roots and trying to free itself. It seemed only a matter of minutes before the tree root would be pulled into the river again ensuring the scorpion’s doom. The old man reached out for the tree root and held it as best he could in place. He then reached out to rescue the scorpion. As soon as his hand was within reach the scorpion lashed its tale and stung the old man. He drew back his hand, shook it and reached out again. Again the scorpion stung him. Again and again he reached out and again and again the scorpion stung. The old man’s hand was swollen and purple when a traveller wandered by and, watching this strange sight, shouted, "Hey, you old fool, can’t you see that that worthless creature will kill you before it lets itself be saved. Why not let it be?” The old man looked back at the traveller and said, "Ah, my friend, just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I give up my own nature to save?”

I was reminded of this story while listening to the CBC Sunday Edition special on Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl has always amazed me and my amazement has only grown over the years. I remember first reading Frankl's most famous book when i was 17 in CEGEP in Montreal. Free of the limits of highschool reading i took up residence in the library at Selby campus and fund remarkable treasures. I was captivated by readings in psychology, psychotherapy, and memory. I'm fairly sure i was not really aware what it was i was looking for. But i must have had some feeling that such work would help me understand my world and the anguish and torment that i had felt for all my teen years to that point. Highschool had been unrelenting misery and i consider myself lucky that in Quebec at that time i only had to bear it for four years. CEGEP felt like freedom. And with that freedom i binged on learning reading Freud, Jung, Reich, Rank, Adler and, of course, Frankl. I learned a little bit from each author, but while most of the ideas i learned of fascinated me and stretched my mind, it was only Frankl's work that touched my heart and truly bewildered me. I was deeply moved by his account of surviving the Holocaust but it would be many years before i would understand what he was describing. Nonetheless, his message about the power of the "last freedom" one has even in the most dire circumstances to choose one's disposition towards things allowed me to reframe my entire life to that point. It was perhaps in that moment of encountering Frankl's work that i chose to take hold of my life and consciously take responsibility for educating myself further. Until that moment i had felt very much the victim of circumstances, helpless to do anything but endure the misery through which i had waded for many years. But Frankl's words and example inspired me to begin to imagine something more than mere endurance. Perhaps it was in that moment that i began truly to live.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Stream and the Desert

Once there was a stream that began high in a mountain range where it was a mere trickle. As it travelled down the mountain it grew and grew until it was a lovely cascade which coursed on down into a valley to become a rushing river. It widened as it crossed the land and it flowed strongly until it reached a vast expanse of sand. The stream that had become a river tried to cross this desert. But as fast as the waters poured forth, equally as fast the waters disappeared into the sand. The river was discouraged. It could see no way to continue its journey.

Just then a voice on the wind said, “you must let go. The harder you try the more water you’ll lose to the sands.” 

“But if I let go,” said the river, “how will I know where I am to go, what I am to become?”

“Let go and see,” said the voice on the wind.

The stream that had become a river let go. It gave itself up to the sun and sky and wind where it became clouds. The clouds were carried high over the desert by the winds. Now, having crossed the desert, the stream poured down from the sky. It poured down with the power of storms.

A friend reminded me of this story a few weeks ago in response to some kvetching i was, no doubt doing. It's good to be reminded of my own stories.

Photo: Jerry Adney, Unsplash

Monday, March 21, 2016

Tea Combat

Once, hundreds of years ago in Japan, there was a master of the tea ceremony whose reputation was so widespread that he received an invitation from the emperor to visit. The master of the tea ceremony gathered his things and dressed appropriately which meant he had to wear ceremonial swords. He had never used swords, barely knew how to hold them, but was accustomed to having to wear them for the proper occasions. And so he made his way to the capitol. As he entered the bustling city, he was looking around at the crowds and the buildings when he came to a bridge. As he was crossing the bridge and admiring the scenery, a drunken samurai, a ronin or masterless samurai, actually, was stepping onto the bridge from the opposite direction. The master of the tea ceremony did not notice the approaching ronin who took umbrage that this stranger would ignore him. The ronin shouted drunkenly at the master of the tea ceremony saying, “Am I beneath your notice that you do not even acknowledge me with a glance.” The master of the tea ceremony did not know what to do and before he could even utter an apology the ronin challenged him to a duel. The master had no choice but to accept lest he lose honour. He bowed before the ronin and said, “I consent to this duel but have one request. Will you allow me an hour to prepare?” The ronin agreed and the master bowed and hurried across the bridge into the city. He knew there were many martial arts schools in the capitol and he quickly found a dojo where they taught sword fighting. He entered the school and asked the master swordsman if he could ask a favour. The swordmaster listened gravely as the master of the tea ceremony explained his situation and then asked, “but I cannot teach you to fight with a sword in less than an hour.” “No, no,” said the master of the tea ceremony, “I only want you to show me how I am to hold my sword so that I may die with as much dignity and honour as possible.” The swordmaster nodded and said, “then first show me your own practice.” The master of the tea ceremony was dismayed for time was short. But he unpacked his box while the swordmaster went for water. The master of the tea ceremony prepared the brazier to heat the water and with the methodical calm for which he was famous, he prepared tea for the swordmaster. As the swordmaster sipped the tea, he said, “you are, indeed, a master. I have never seen finer. And there is little that I can teach you. I will tell you only this: when you confront the ronin, hold your sword before you and raise it. Then close your eyes and imagine that you are performing the tea ceremony.” The master of the tea ceremony thanked the swordmaster and hurried back to the bridge where the ronin was waiting. The two men faced each other and the master of the tea ceremony did as the swordmaster had instructed: he raised his sword and, holding it steadily before him, closed his eyes and imagined performing the tea ceremony. He waited for the sound of the ronin swinging his blade. He waited for the blow that would end his life. But after some time nothing had happened. He opened his eyes to see the ronin on his knees, his sword laid before him. The ronin bowed and apologized for his arrogance. For what the ronin had seen was the master of the tea ceremony so profoundly centred and balanced that there was no possibility of attack that would not end in his own death.

I have told this story for over 25 years, first learning it from Dan Yashinsky's The Storyteller at Fault, and later coming across many versions in zen literature. The first time I told this story was to a friend and two four-year old boys, one of them my friend's son. It was the only story that came to mind in a pinch and i wasn't at all sure it would hold the attention of two young rambunctious boys. But afterwards, my friend noted with astonishment how deeply the boys had paid attention. And i did feel that, indeed, despite my reservations, they really got the story well. And i wasn't sure at that time if i even got the story that well. But over the years this story has grown in import for me. I recall a story told of the founder of aikido Morihei Ueshiba who once faced an opponent who chose not to attack, for once he had seen the poise of the aikido master he realized that there was no possible entry for attack. The fight was won without a blow being made. Another story of the same master is about his reputed ability to dodge bullets. He once confronted a hunter famous for never missing his target and the two faced each other in a contest. But before the hunter could fire, the aikido master told the master hunter not to shoot for his bullet would, indeed, hit him. The aikido master had seen the perfect mastery of the hunter and knew that he could not win. I've often wondered if these sikido stories are about things that actually happened or if they are versions of the master of the tea ceremony story. Either way, the truth within this story endures.

Lately, i've been thinking of this story apropos of my many years struggle to teach people to facilitate meetings the way i do. There are many things i can tell people about how to facilitate, countless tricks of the trade as well as numerous conceptual frameworks. But i'm always left with feeling that there are only two things that matter - watching what i do (and being critical of it) and finding some way to be centred in themself - connecting with what is most true about themselves, with what they are most passionate about, with their uniqueness as well as their sense of connection with everything around them, and to channel that energy into what they do. Or, possibly, simply reflect on the story of the master of the tea ceremony.

image: Opening the Brazier for Tea Ceremony, Ogata Gekkō 尾形月耕 (1859-1920), Meiji Era, 1909

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Heaven and Hell

There was once a samurai who wanted to learn the difference between heaven and hell. He searched until he found a master from whom he thought he could learn. He stood before the Master and asked, “ what is the difference between heaven and hell?” The Master pointed to the samurai’s sword. The samurai removed the sword from its scabbard and handed it to the Master. Turning the sword to the flat of the blade, the Master struck the samurai on the forehead. The samurai was surprised at this but chose to ignore it. He thought that the Master had failed to understand his question. He once again asked the Master about the difference between heaven and hell. Again the Master struck the samurai on the head. The samurai staggered back and puzzled over this. He knew such teachers were eccentric and the Master was very old and possibly hard of hearing. The samurai began asking his question for a third time and, before he could finish his question, the Master struck him a third time. Enraged at this behavior, the samurai grabbed his sword from the Master, raised it up and was prepared to bring it down on the Master’s head when the Master raised one finger and the samurai paused.

“That is hell,” said the Master.

The samurai was instantly overcome by the courage of this frail old man - to have risked his life for the sake of a stranger’s question - that he fell to his knees and bowed before the Master.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Parable About Dissent

Civil rights lawyer Arthur Kinoy and his partner were working late one evening in June of 1953 when they received a phone call from the distraught chief counsel for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs had been found guilty of treason (for acting as spies for the Soviet Union) and had been sentenced to death. A stay-of-execution had been granted and the Rosenbergs’ team of lawyers breathed a sigh of relief for the summer they now believed they could use to mount a new defense. The Supreme Court (the only body that could overturn the stay) had adjourned for the season. But such was the climate of fear of communism at that time that the Supreme Court justices were called back from their holidays for the sole purpose of overturning the stay. The Rosenbergs were to be executed the next day. At their wits end the Rosenbergs’ lawyers turned to Arthur Kinoy. There was only one thing to do and that was to get a new stay. But most courts were adjourned for the summer. Nonetheless, Kinoy found a judge willing to meet with him: the highly respected conservative Chief Judge Thomas Swan. It was a long-shot. They expected to fail. But they had to try. Judge Swan listened to their case and agreed that a stay was in order. But they needed one other judge to agree in order for the new stay to be granted. Judge Swan sent them to see Jerome Frank, the leading liberal judge on that court, the architect of the New Deal and much progressive legislation. Judge Frank had been an idol to Kinoy and his peers when they were law students. They felt they couldn’t fail. Kinoy repeated the appeal he had just successfully delivered to Judge Swan. And, having made their case to the best of their ability, Judge Frank said: “If I were as young as you are, I would be sitting where you are now, and saying and arguing what you are arguing. You are right to do so. But when you are as old as I am, you will understand why I … why I cannot do what you ask. I cannot do it.” That evening, at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were electrocuted.

Kinoy writes:

“Jerome Frank might, in a profound sense, have changed the course of American history that afternoon. He could not do it. He was a prisoner of the system he served. As a liberal, as a progressive, he had risen to a position of leadership in society. He would jeopardize the usefulness of those labels and, accordingly, the position they afforded him if he participated in the act of courage that Judge Swan, the conservative, was prepared to take. The labels themselves, Frank’s “liberal” past, imprisoned him – kept him from the course he would have taken if he were “as young as” we were. When we were “as old as” he was, he was telling us, we would understand that to preserve our position in society, we must compromise with those in control.

“… [Frank] was afraid – afraid of threatening the already shaky position of himself, of all the liberals, of the progressives, and even of the Jews – although that was a thought which I, as a young Jewish person, was most reluctant to face. It simply was not prudent for a “liberal Jew” to be the one to save the two “Jewish atom spies.” This was what we would understand only when we were “as old as” he.””
(Arthur Kinoy, Rights On Trial: The Odyssey of a People’s Lawyer, Lexington, MA, 1983: Bernel Books, pp. 125-126)

Kinoy concludes this hard-won lesson: “However, Mike Perlin and I came through the experience with the inner hope that at least never in our lives would we become “as old as” Jerome Frank was that afternoon.”

I wrote this piece many years ago now. And it was long before that (in 1984) that I learned about Arthur Kinoy. Living at that time in Northampton, Massachusetts, I went to a book launch and was both introduced to American civil rights law and utterly captivated by the passionate Kinoy whose book I had soon read cover to cover. And a stunning read it was with his accounts of the Rosenbergs and an enigmatic brush with the Watergate conspiracy (and about which he drops a rather shattering implication of corruption that I believe remains uninvestigated and is perhaps uninvestigatable). But it was his account of his encounter with Judges Swan and Frank that was seared onto my soul. I have carried this story with me for over 30 years now and it remains a “parable” that challenges me daily. I have long wondered if, given the choice between reputation and principle, which I would find myself choosing. And while I have chosen to live a life of principle over reputation, I cannot make any claims. I believe we all face such tests as Jerome Frank did – perhaps several times in a life, perhaps many. But not all these choices are as grand and consequential as what Frank failed at. In fact, such consequential choices are perhaps the less complicated to engage. What of all the many moments in our work and family lives when our principles come up against the limitations of our egos, our desires and fears regarding our physical needs and comforts, our reputation in our communities? How do we choose? Do we even notice when we make such choices? Perhaps the more subtle (but nonetheless crucial) challenge is precisely to learn to see when those choices are before us. For it is the witnessing of ourselves making those choices wherein lies the hope of our learning always to make better choices. And Kinoy’s experience helps me to see.