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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Word came to the Jews of a small Russian town that a much beloved and very wise rabbi was to pay them a visit. The village was off the beaten track and rarely had visitors of any kind. So excitement was high in anticipation of the visit of this well-known rabbi. The whole town prepared. The wise men and the talmudic students polished their questions. Foods were prepared for a feast.

On the day the rabbi was expected, people waited at the edge of the village watching the road. As soon as someone spotted the dust of an approaching cart, children ran out to greet it. And as the rabbi neared the village he was surrounded by more and more people. The rabbi and the growing crowd walked to the village centre. Now all the townspeople gathered. And some, noticing the large number of people, were so eager and worried that their questions might go unasked that they simply blurted them out. Very quickly there was a clamour of voices directed at the rabbi.

The rabbi raised a hand and many people fell silent. He held his hand steady and all listened. The breeze stirred the leaves of trees. Birds chirped in the warm sunlight. The rabbi began to hum a tune. He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth. First the children followed suit, humming the gentle melody and swaying on their feet. Now everyone was silent. And one after another the villagers joined the rabbi and children in humming and swaying. The rabbi picked up one foot and took a slow step, followed by another and another. Slowly he turned, still taking slow and measured steps. The children followed suit as did all the villagers. Then quicker and quicker the rabbi stepped and hopped until he was spinning around the square. The villagers all joined in until the square was a mass of dancing and spinning and singing people. The joy of the dance and the song reached out and touched the trees and the birds, the sunlight and the clouds in the sky. The entire earth seemed to be vibrating in time with the dancers.

Hours passed before the dance was done. One by one the villagers rested and when the last dancer was still and all sat in the square, tired and at peace, they looked to the rabbi who said, “I trust that I have answered all of your questions.”

image: drawing by Marc Chagall from Chagall: Burning Lights by Bella Chagall, Schocken Book, 1946, p.188.

Monday, March 14, 2016

And A Horse Came Back

Once upon a time there lived a poor farmer who lived with his one son. It was a hard life on he farm and they had only one horse to help. One day their only horse ran away. All the villagers came by to offer their sympathies saying, “What will you do now? That was your only horse. How will you farm your land. You are so unlucky."

To this the poor farmer said, “We’ll see.”

A few days later the farmer’s horse came back bringing with it two wild horses. And the villagers came by to offer their congratulations saying, “Now you have two horses to work your land. You’re so lucky!”

And the farmer said, “We’ll see.”

A couple of days later the farmer’s son was training the wild horses when one of them threw him off its back and the boy broke his leg. And the villagers said, “Now who will help you work your land? That is your only son. How unlucky.”

And the farmer said, “We’ll see.”

A few days later the army came through town. They were drafting all the able-bodied young men to fight in a distant war for their emperor. All the young men of the village, except for the poor farmer’s injured boy, were taken away. The villagers watched as their children were taken away, knowing that many would never be seen again. They looked at the poor farmer whose boy had been left behind and said, “You’re so lucky.”

And the farmer said, “We’ll see.”

This is currently Taliesen's favourite story. And he loves to tell it, which he did last week in his class. And i recall that his cousin Renée also liked to tell this story when she was his age. It's a relatively well-known story that exists in many versions and which i first learned from my friend dian marino. I'm always fascinated by how the very young like this story. It carries such profound truth and, while the structure of the story is part of its appeal and which makes it very easy to learn, i can tell that the young "get it" in a way that most adults no not.

image: Two Horses Under a Tree, Ming Dynasty 

Biology of Story

Biology of Story website

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Ten Just Men

I was at a popular education conference in Tucson, Arizona in the late 90s when, as I was leaving, a fellow participant approached me and motioned me aside. Her demeanor suggested she had a secret to share. I had noticed her at the conference but had not spoken with her. She looked to be about 80ish, had always appeared cheerful, wore thick glasses and had a smile with noticeably missing teeth. I had told a number of stories during the conference and it was this she first mentioned to me. “You like to tell stories, don’t you?” she asked. I agreed that I did, indeed, like to tell stories. She said she had one she wanted me to know.
When she was a little girl in the 30s she lived in Chicago with her mother and grandmother. Occasionally hobos would come by their house and her mother was always kind to them, always giving them something to eat. But she never let them in the house. One day her mother was away when a hobo came to the door. Her grandmother welcomed the fellow in, showed him to the bathroom and told him to wash up if he liked. When he came out of the bathroom, there were some clean clothes waiting for him and a hot meal on the table. The fellow ate while her grandmother packed food in a bag. All this the young girl watched with interest, knowing that her mother would be upset to find out a hobo had been in her house. The grandmother kindly sent the hobo on his way. The young girl looked at her grandmother and asked, “Why did you let him in and give him food and clothes like that. Mother never does that and will be upset.” The grandmother put her finger to her lips saying conspiratorially, “Don’t tell your mother. He might be one of the Ten Just Men.”
I had learned of these anonymous and righteous saints from my friend Alec Gelcer and I knew there to be 36 of them known variously as the Lamed Vav Tzadikim, lamedvavniks, Tzadikim Nistarim (this last meaning “hidden righteous ones). I’ve searched out many stories of these hidden saints and some say that these righteous souls spend their life living in anonymity and committing acts of kindness. I recall one story about a person who was known to be cranky and even misanthropic who was, after their death, discovered to have committed countless acts of generosity and aid to their fellow villagers. Another account I recall said that even the lamedvavniks did not know themselves as such but were merely people of surpassing kindness and generosity. I like this latter explanation as it, of course, implies that any of us could be such and I like the ethical challenge that this lays before us. But all the stories make the point that it is on account of these 36 hidden saints that the earth endures; and should one die, the earth would be out of balance until a new one is identified. One legend says that these 36 souls exist as part of a compact with God who, after destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, promised never again to destroy the world as long as 36 righteous souls existed at any one time.

But why 36? Numbers in stories always catch my attention. And 36 is an interesting case for it is a number that is one of set that includes 72, 108, 540, 1,080, 2,160, and others. These are numbers that appear in many very ancient stories from Finland to Egypt to Cambodia. They are known as “Osiris numbers” as they are part of the mathematics of precession (the phenomenon caused by the earth’s almost-26,000 year wobble). Precession and its mathematics is something that was known by ancient civilizations (and which is a whole other rather fascinating discussion). But here in this story of the 36 righteous souls I see a strange correspondence. For if this number finds its way into jewish mysticism on account of ancient astronomical knowledge, then the idea that the world would be out of balance should one of the 36 die is an affirmation of the unchanging mathematics of the earth’s movement. For should this number change, astronomically-speaking, it would spell disaster for our spinning ball of mud.

Some people write of the lamedvavniks as a metaphor. Perhaps that is all that it is. Perhaps it’s an encoding of ancient astronomy as well. 

But I know that I met one person who believed they walk amongst us. And I wasn’t about to “correct” this woman who made such a special gift to me of this story. Legends still do walk the world and I am made glad by this.


One day a storm raged on the ocean and washed up onto the beach thousands of starfish. The next morning a man was walking down the beach marveling at all the starfish on the sand. He noticed a figure in the distance bending down, picking something up, and throwing something into the sea. As he got closer he could see that it was a young girl who would bend down, pick up a starfish and fling it into the water. He saw her do this several times by the time he reached her. He watched as she did it again and then said, “surely you don’t think you can save all these starfish before the sun hits the beach and kills them?” The girl looked at the man, bent down, picked up a starfish and flung it into the sea. Then she looked up at the man and said, “Saved that one.”

I've been visiting my son's grade 1/2 class both to tell stories and teach storytelling. And for this i've been telling really, really short stories. It's fascinating to see what stories appeal to them and to particular students. And the reaction to this one surprised me. It was a favourite of the group and it clearly struck home with a few kids. One boy was able to retell the story instantly and he clearly liked it. It was also clear that the kids really appreciated the little girl's response. My daughter was going to the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling this week and asked what story she could tell. I reminded her of the starfish story and told her the version published here. She said that this wasn't the version she remembered and thought the girl's response sassy and possibly inappropriate. Her comment made me realize that i like the sassiness of the response and i think this was what some of the kids in my son's class connected with as well. Of course, there are many ways to tell a story and this is my preferred form of this starfish tale.

photo by Logan Popoff from Unsplash