The Old Woman and The Stool

As often seems to happen in life, the anticipation of delivering an introductory dharma talk was far more excruciating than the actual event itself, and I began my talk by touching on this theme, namely, the disconnection between my imagination and reality. Like most, if not all, people, I tend not to experience reality directly. Instead, I experience my perception of reality, my individual interpretation of things as filtered by assumptions and prejudices based on past experience. This is not unusual. What is a bit unusual, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that I’ve identified this as a top-priority problem that is best addressed through the daily practices of Zen Buddhism and 12-Step Recovery. These are ultimately, of course, the same practice, two inflections of a single ego-deflating teaching that doesn’t offer an answer to the problem so much as an illumination of the source of the problem: my own mind, moment to moment.

I’ve come to notice that the gap between my perceptions and the actual reality of any given moment is where my suffering lies, and that this suffering can be visited upon others when I’m unavailable to respond spontaneously, appropriately, and selflessly to each situation as it arises. To illustrate this point to those attending the dharma talk, I recounted an episode that took place during sitting practice about a year ago.

At the time, a woman of about seventy had been attending practice regularly, and she would bring her own stool with her to the dharma room, a great, heavy wooden thing. On the night in question, I was acting as Head Dharma Teacher, the person who times meditation sessions with a wooden clapper called a chukpi, and allegedly oversees everything that’s going on in the room. I was asleep at the cushion, so to speak, and when she came struggling into the room a few minutes into the session, I had no idea what to do… Is it proper for me to break form and stand up to help her? Does she even want my help? Considering that older or disabled people often prefer to be as independent as possible, is it arrogant of me to assume that she needs my help?

As this whole Cirque du Soleil of speculation was going on in my head, the zen master, Bon Haeng, simply stood up, walked over, took the meditation mat and cushion from the floor and handed them to another student to take out of the room, and helped the woman sit on the stool. Simple as that. Spontaneous and appropriate action in the moment. That’s the hallmark of zen.

My mind wasn’t done with the situation, however. Not by a long shot. Feeling like a bad zen student, I decided to use my koan interview time to “get out in front” of the situation and do some damage control, to let the zen master know that I was at least paying attention a little bit. I’ve used this strategy with bosses in the past, explaining my rationale for making a bad decision in order to let them in on the fact that there was, despite appearances, some sort of thought process going on.

Entering the interview room, I immediately confessed. “I should have helped that women with her stool.” Bon Haeng simply replied (the word “simply” seems to keep cropping up here) with an answer that any zen master, or, indeed, any sane person would have given: “Than was half an hour ago. Let it go.” Mistake number two.

He then told me an old zen story that most have heard, but that I continually forget. Two monks are walking through the woods when they come upon a woman at the edge of a stream. She can’t cross without getting her dress wet, so one of the monks picks her up, carries her across, and sets her down on the other side. The second monk is so dumbfounded by this that he’s speechless. They walk in silence for a mile, and then another. After the third mile, he turns to the first monk shouting, “How could you forget your vows? We’re not supposed to look at a woman, much less touch one, and here you are taking a woman in your arms and carrying her across a stream!” Monk number one looks at monk number two and says, “I put her down three miles back. Why are you still carrying her?”

There are a few important points here regarding my “mistake” with The Old Woman and The Stool. Zen practice is strict, but not rigid. Forms, rules and vows can be broken as required by the dictates of whatever situation arises. Also, mental clinging to past moments renders me unavailable to the moment at hand. Most importantly, however, none of it has anything to do with me. As diligently as I pursue the habit of making everything about My Drama, the practice of zen in daily life is simply (there’s that word again) about acting spontaneously, appropriately, and with complete commitment, in each situation as it arises. And it’s about doing so for the sake of others. If someone’s hungry, give them food. If someone’s in despair, offer some comfort. And if someone’s struggling with a 40 pound wooden stool, give her a hand.

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