Prompts from "Shoun and His Mother" from 101 Zen Stories*
. . . One day Shoun left for a distant temple to deliver a lecture. A few months afterwards he returned home to find his mother dead. Friends had not known where to reach him, so the funeral was then in progress.
Shoun walked up and hit the coffin with his staff. “Mother, your son has returned,” he said.
“I am glad to see you have returned, son,” he answered for his mother.
“Yes, I am glad too," Shoun responded. Then he announced to the people about him: "The funeral ceremony is over. You may bury the body.”. . .
and another story: “The Voice of Happiness” from 101 Zen Stories*: “In all my experience, however, Bankei’s voice was always sincere. Whenever he expressed happiness, I heard nothing but happiness, and whenever he expressed sorrow, sorrow was all I heard.”
The stories from the prompt are from a small book of stories and koans compiled by Paul Reps and named Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. I know because I have owned the book I was eighteen, in 1968.
I was in my senior year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas. Integration had just started, the Russians had the bomb, and the Vietnam war was escalating, sucking up young men and spitting them out into body bags.
I was facing graduation and would be going to Texas Tech in Lubbock because it was where I could get in and it was far from my parents. I was raised in a church home and my father worked for a Methodist church. I had spent my youth in school and church and found both to be shallow and presumptuous. I carried a feeling of “Is this really all there is?”
One spring afternoon I came into my Civics class taught by a woman we used to call “The Ogre of the East Wing.” I moved to a desk in the back for safety. It was the traditional school desk of those days—a metal frame with laminated wood for the seat and desktop. It also had an open compartment below to store the books you weren’t using.
I had my stack of textbooks with me—history, geometry (for the second time around), and biology. I sat down and shoved them into what I thought was empty space below me.
I heard a “plop!” and looked down to my right. On the floor was a small paperback. It was yellow and brown and a little beat up. I picked it up and saw an old man in a robe riding a water buffalo down a trail. I saw the title: Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps. I opened it not knowing anything about Zen.
I read the first story. It was about a learned scholar visiting a Zen master who served him tea. The scholar was very full of himself. The master placed the cup in front of the scholar and began to pour. The cup filled quickly and began running freely over the table and into the man’s lap. He jumped up and yelled, “Can’t you see the cup is full!” The master smiled and said, ”You, like the cup, are already full. How can I impart anything to you if you are already full?”
I closed the book with reverence and put it away. I had found a true friend. I still have that book.
Shoun said he lived the best that he could. He couldn't live in the monastery, he bought fish for his mother, he played music and he visited a woman of the streets. He didn't follow the rules that the other monks followed.
But he was doing what was required in each situation. He wasn't embarrased about visiting a woman of the streets. He was a man of much personal integrity.
It seems easier to defend one's actions when those actions are according to some law. But that is not what Shoun did. He was true to his own heart and did what the moment demanded.
At the end of his life, all was perfect. “The rain had ended, the clouds were clearing, and the blue sky had a full moon.”
But Shoun was perfect in another sense. He had responded to each challenge in his life with a open hand and gave to it what was demanded. He went against the rules because this allowed him to give what was needed of him.
I have a sister who, like Shoun, is not seduced by authority. She broke most of the rules in the book, and probably some laws along the way. But she was always there for her friends, and now is a helpful and loving psychoanalyst. She shunned most if not all the good advice that her parents were so willing to give to her.
The other day I compared myself to my ideal self. I came out with a flunking grade. I wonder if the ideal self was what one would look like if they followed the rules, and if what I was now was closer to Shoan's statement, “I did what I could.”
How do we navigate the rules of society and the rules of our institutions and still walk proud? What was it in Shoun and my sister that allowed them, as they heard “the beat of a different drummer” to walk so confidently down the street. “Without shame,” my sister would add.
*101 Zen Stories is a 1919 compilation of Zen koans including 19th and early 20th century anecdotes compiled by Nyogen Senzaki, and a translation of Shasekishū, written in the 13th century by Japanese Zen master Mujū (無住) (literally, "non-dweller"). The book was reprinted by Paul Reps as part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Well-known koans in the collection include “A Cup of Tea” (1), “The Sound of One Hand” (21), “No Water, No Moon” (29), and “Everything is Best” (31). (From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/101_Zen_Stories.