A Zen Parable

Zen is sort of strangely appealing to me. It has a spiritual component and a practical component. Yoga, for example, is part of Zen teachings. Yoga can either be spiritual or practical, depending on the person practicing it. But one of the things I like best about Zen itself are the parables, most of which come from China and Japan.

There is a nice little compilation of some of the best Zen parables in the book Zen Flesh Zen Zen Bones compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki.

A lot of the stories have a practical or moral lesson at the heart, and that's why I like them. I'm going to share with you one of my favorites from the book.


A Buddha
In Tokyo in the Meiji era there lived two prominent teachers of opposite characteristics. One, Unsho, an instructor in Shingon, kept Buddha's precepts scrupulously. He never drank intoxicants, nor did he eat after eleven o'clock in the morning. The other teacher, Tanzan, a professor of philosophy at the Imperial University, never observed the precepts. When he felt like eating he ate, and when he felt like sleeping in the daytime he slept. 

One day Unsho visited Tanzan, who was drinking wine at the time, not even a drop of which is supposed to touch the tongue of a Buddhist.  

"Hello, brother," Tanzan greeted him. "Won't you have a drink?"

"I never drink!" exclaimed Unsho solemnly. 

"One who does not drink is not even human," said Tanzan.

"Do you mean to call me inhuman just because I do not indulge in intoxicating liquids!" exclaimed Unsho in anger. "Then if I am not human, what am I?"

"A Buddha," answered Tanzan.

This story shows an interesting dichotomy between intellectual and spiritual forms of faith. 

Unsho's style of faith is one that is to be practiced, as a personal choice, a way of life. Tanzan's style is one in which he reflects upon his faith, he studies it, but he does not practice it. In other words, in Tanzan's mind, there is more to life than just faith. This is the first lesson.

Tanzan, a worldly man, who drinks wine whenever he wants and acts according to his own will, shows Unsho there is more to life than just mere religious practice by questioning--or rather, testing--Unsho's convictions in his beliefs. Unsho, having been put to Tanzan's little test, becomes angered and demands to know what he is about, and if he is not to be considered human then what? Tanzan, being sly, pays Unsho a rather large compliment by stating that Unsho is more than just a man, he is "A Buddha."

Tanzan, the Socrates of Zen parables, is famous for his style of lessons. He often teaches two or three things at once. In this loaded parable,  Tanzan is not only teaching there is more to life than religious observance, but he is also teaching that both choices are perfectly okay choices for a Buddhist to make. 

A Buddhist can be either spiritual or secular. This is the second lesson.

Tanzan, being a scholar, chooses the secular life. Unsho, being a religious monk, chooses the spiritual life. Both choices are viewed as perfectly okay.

This is a teaching I find lacking in Western religions. With Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism, and a host of other monotheisms, many of which have spawned off from these, the mentality is EITHER OR, but never both.

This sort of thinking creates conflict between the religious and the secular minded. Anything that is not religious--or more specifically, that brand of religion--is forced to the fringe of society as the OTHER. It's this other mentality that is dangerous, because it's a form of alienation. It sets up two sides as diametrically opposed--and it almost always guarantees that the minority side is the one to be ostracized  demonized, and/or oppressed. 

But within Buddhism, such conflict is surprisingly lacking (of course, there are militant forms of Buddhism in the world, but for different reasons). Here we find that dispute between the religious and the secular point of view is seen as needless, mainly because, well, it is.

Buddhism allows for both. 

To me, this has always given Buddhism a strong edge over the Western religions in terms of how it can benefit one's life. Buddhism actually seeks to open up your mind--it wants you to think. Christianity and Islam, and all the offshoots of these, on the other hand, want you to be obedient.  Within Western religious belief, thinking can only exist in a limited form, because the moment one's thoughts take them outside of what Orthodoxy demands one's beliefs conform to, then one engages in the ever so dangerous practice of heresy. Heresy is dangerous for only one reason--it challenges the religious status quo. But Buddhism wants you to challenge the religious status quo. 

This is the third lesson we find tucked inside Tanzan's little test. He shows that if you didn't challenge the status quo, if you didn't challenge orthodoxy, as he does, then you would never be able to recognize who is righteous, or in this case, who is a true Buddha. 

Only by having contrasted the two types of religious identities, which we might describe as the differences of opinion highlighting one another, can one gain a fuller understanding of their own personal journey. The corollary lesson being equally as important: you can only come into a true understanding of your own choices by learning to understand the choices of others. It's deep--but rings truer to me than anything I ever learned in my years as a Christian.

Unsho comes to see that Tanzan is the wiser Buddhist of the two, even though he is also the more worldly (heretical?) of the two. This realization justifies Tanzan's form of Buddhism, who Unsho initially questioned and looked down upon. Tanzan simply reminds his friend he is human, unlike Unsho, who is aspiring to be more than human. He is trying to be righteous.

So the wise Tanzan teaches us three important lessons.

1. There is more to life than one's (religious) faith.

2. Both the spiritual path and the secular path are equally valid choices. Neither one is wrong.

3. Your faith only has meaning if you learn to question it.

I suppose that this is why I have always found it easy to be an atheist living in Japan. I have never had any tension with any of the natives--most of whom are either Buddhist or Shinto. Simply put, there isn't an either/or/other mentality to worry about. 

It's an open mindedness that I have come to appreciate having lived for some time in Japan. Additionally, it's a lesson I think many Westerners would do well to reflect upon. 


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