Monday, January 13, 2014

The Zen of Fools


Photo credit: Karpati Gabor from morguefile.com

If a wayfarer fails to find
one better or equal,
steadfast he should fare alone
for a fool offers no fellowship.

Verse 61 from the Dhammapada

Sometimes, you have deal with fools. And sometimes, maybe you're the fool being dealt with. Might be helpful to recognize that you land on both sides of that coin, even if less so than some others do.

Anyway, one thing I've noticed over the years about Buddhists, yogis, and the like is that have a strong desire to "be compassionate." Or perhaps for some it's more to be seen as compassionate. I know I have. Desiring either the "be" or the "be seen as," sometimes at the same time.

So, there's this wanting to help, wanting to offer some wise words or in some other way, be the person who sparks a turn around for another. The one being a fool somehow.

On the flip side, though, I've also noticed a corresponding desire to keep the damned fools away. To be "pure" somehow, least you get contaminated somehow.

It's easy to read this verse from the Dhammapada in that way. To hear it as a justification to stay far away - at ALL times - from anyone you deem a fool or messed up or not spiritual or whatever it is you label others. In fact, the verse might actually aim slightly in that direction, which makes it all the more easy to mistake it's message for cutting yourself off from this muddy world of sangha, community, and/or society.

Notice, then, the tension. Maybe you've seen this in your own life. The compassionate side leaning heavily towards caring and trying to help everyone, while the other side seeks to disengage from, and/or keep far away, from anyone, or anything that has even a whiff of dysfunction.

I see our path as learning to remain upright and balanced, allowing these sides to come and go without leaning hard in either direction. Another way to look at it is allowing the dualisms of life to reconcile themselves.

For example, I think one of the best ways to respect people is to let them take care of their own thoughts and reactions. Maybe someone feels a little hurt that you don't want to spend time with them. Or maybe they could care less. Maybe someone is terribly unskillful in their speech, for example, and you can see that nothing you say will help shift that, so you remain silent or walk away. Or maybe you say what you need to say, and then let it go. The way I see it, the way of the bodhisattva includes knowing when to intervene (not so often) and when to just be.

It's good to have a nose for fools, but your nose needs to point both ways, otherwise you'll miss the fool in you.


8 comments:

Mumon K said...


Nathan you're right in what you're writing, but sometimes, ...sometimes... you have to stand alone.

Humbly.

But resolutely.

OTOH, it's important to be open.

Because yeah, we're all fools - or to get Mahayana about it, there's no fundamental difference between a fool and me...and there may be no difference between a fool and me.

JiHyang Padma said...

Here is a story on the nonduality of friendship from our lineage:
Zen Master Man Gong was Seung Sahn Soen Sa’s Dharma grandfather. As a thirteen year old child, he was studying sutras at the temple Donghaksa in Korea. The day before vacation, everyone gathered to listen to some lectures.
The lecturer said, “All of you must study hard, learn Buddhism, and become as big trees, with which great temples are built, and as large bowls, able to hold many things. The verse says:
“Water becomes square or round according to the shape of the container in which it is placed. Likewise, people become good or bad according to the company they keep. Always keep your minds set on holiness and remain in good company. In this way, you will become great trees and containers of Wisdom. This I most sincerely wish.”
Everyone was greatly inspired by this lecture. At this point, the Sutra Master turned to Zen Master Kyong-Ho, who was visiting the temple, and said, “Please speak, Master Kyong Ho; everyone would like to hear your words of wisdom.”
The Master was quite a sight. He was always unshaven and wore robes that were tattered and worn. Although he at first refused, after being asked again and again, he reluctantly consented to speak.
“All of you are monks. You are to be great teachers, free of ego; you must live only to serve all people. Desiring to become a big tree or a great container of Wisdom prevents you from being a true teacher. Big trees have big uses; small trees have small uses. Good and bad bowls both have their uses. Nothing is to be discarded. Keep both good and bad friends; this is your responsibility. You must not reject any element; this is true Buddhism. My only wish is for you to be free from discriminating thoughts.

Nathan said...

Yep, I agree. Sometimes you have to stand alone.

And thank you for the story JiHyang. Excellent.

n. yeti said...

What I find as I go on in buddhism is less feeling of being caught up in mundane ( worldly affairs). This includes the dramas and turmoil that surround people's lives. If we follow Buddha's example ( and I personally don't think it's the only one that applies to this idea of coming to the aid of others) practice doesn't mean being a savior, martyr, or whatever other form of idealized archetype of good behavior burned into our western minds through conditioning. I think it means to follow our hearts' inspiration to a level of truth that goes beyond any and all appearances. If some is closer to this finding, this seeking which seems itself a form of truth and humility, perhaps their presence will help illuminate the path of others who are not seeking. But one life, one being, is plenty to be responsible for. I don't think we should try to bargain our good karma around like carbon credits to those who need it. But we can be open, sincere, kind, helpful, as a mental posture to all people. And we can likewise remain faithful, disciplined, focused and humble toward our own seeking, and to shelter that flame of awakening from all crosswinds.

Nathan said...

"If we follow Buddha's example ( and I personally don't think it's the only one that applies to this idea of coming to the aid of others) practice doesn't mean being a savior, martyr, or whatever other form of idealized archetype of good behavior burned into our western minds through conditioning."

This is an important issue to explore. I've been digging into it for years, and still feel a need to burn through a few more layers. Because it's easy to fall into conditioned responses which appear to be helpful or "good," but actually aren't.

n. yeti said...

Not long ago on my way home a responsibly subcompact car, dharma bumper sticker-festooned, colorfully painted, benevolent mandala-carrying, etc., suddenly slammed on the brakes in front of me, coming to a complete stop in mid traffic, in order to allow someone else to enter.

Now, I can applaud anyone being cordial in traffic, letting someone through, but a situation like this, where coming to a complete stop in moving traffic, means literally creating a hazard for everybody else, just to be "nice" does not seem like a skillful action.

Of course I'm the kind of person who felt guilty back in the day for slamming the newspaper vending machine shut when there was someone behind me waiting to buy one, so I am not exactly the right person to criticize anyone else for doing something foolish just to be nice.

It's like catching flies in the house and putting them outside instead of swatting them, only to get dirty looks from the spiders with mouths to feed.

rectalcancermyass said...

I find myself more often than not preferring to be alone. I do have a husband and pets to keep me company. I mean engaging with the outside world. I do engage in small talk with my neighbors but when someone (a female) wants to spend more time with me, she usually wants to talk about dare I say it? "chick" stuff...you know -- Endless complicated relationship stuff or complaining they are victims of bosses, spouses, boyfriends, etc. especially when they are participants in their problems. That talk makes me crazy. So I stay away. I don't know anyone nearby who studies Buddhism so that subject doesn't come up...so I choose to be anti-social...except via social media, like reading your thoughts. When it comes to helping someone, I do that except I also point out when that person made their situation worse by seeing themselves as a victim. Otherwise, hearing someone complain about their problems just to hear themselves talk, sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

Nathan said...

I agree that the victim mentality is a tough one to handle.

There's a lot of actual oppression and victimization in the world. It's important to acknowledge this. But that's not really what you're speaking about here I'm guessing. It's more the average problems that people choose to turn into vendettas against them.

Sometimes, it's not always clear whether what's happening is oppressive or just playing the victim. And sometimes, there is both an actual oppression element and victim role mentality at play.

I think all you can do is do your best. Sometimes, I choose to not engage, or if I do, to shift conversations away from such stuff. Sometimes, I attempt to offer some point or question that might shake up the other person's stuckness. And sometimes, I end up going along, and maybe even reinforcing the victim stance.

I try to remember that we all get stuck in the mud sometimes. And also that I don't know for sure what it is that will help someone else.

But there's also the element of self preservation at play. I've let a lot of old friendships go because of the exhaustion of the victim mentality and other destructive ways of life. There are varying degrees of "fools" in other words.