Sunday, November 13, 2016

Turn Back When You Need To

There is a parable of the Emperor’s Zen Master and the Man that Never Turned Back that seeks to explain how enlightenment can change a man. It is a dangerous and easily misinterpreted story in my opinion. To preface, I understand the metaphor, I can see what is intended. Many others will not see the subtle nuances that I perceive. I am no Zen Master, only a student of observation.

Gudo was the Emperor’s Zen Master of the time. He wandered around the countryside as a beggar from time to time, as was his will. Once, when he was on his way back to Edo, he approached he village of Takenaka. It would not be so normally, but a squall had encompassed his traveling route. Gudo’s straw sandals were falling apart and he was drenched. At a farmhouse near the village, Gudo noticed several pairs of dry and complete sandals in the window and approached the house in order purchase a pair.

The mistress of the house, seeing how wet he was from the storm, offered the sandals and invited him to remain the night in her home. Gudo accepted, thanking her for the accommodations and kindness. He entered the house and recited a sutra before the family shrine. He was then introduced the woman’s family and noticed the distress the all carried. He asked what was wrong.

“It is my husband,” the woman said. “He is a gambler and a drunkard. When he is winning, he drinks and becomes abusive. When he is losing, he borrows money from others. There are times he does not come home at all.” Through dry eyes and a downward cast face, she asked, “What can I do?”

To this, Gudo put some thought.

“I will help him,” he said. “Here is some money. With it, buy me a gallon of fine wine and something to eat. You may then retire. I will meditate by the shrine.”

By the time the Master of the House had returned, the storm had stopped and it was quite late. He was quite drunk and called to his wife, “Wife! Wife! I am home. Have you something for me to eat?”

“I have something for you,” Gudo said quietly. “I happened to be caught in the rain earlier and your wife kindly asked me to remain here for the night. In return, I have bought some wine and fish, so you might as well eat.”

The Master of the House was delighted. He drank the wine at once and laid himself down on the floor. Gudo remained beside him in meditation.

In the morning, memory tainted from the previous night’s drinking, the Master of the House woke with a start upon seeing Gudo. “Who are you?” the Master bellowed. “Where do you come from?”

Gudo, still meditating responded quietly, “I am Gudo of Kyoto.” The Master of the House immediately found himself embarrassed and apologized to the Zen Master.

“Everything in this life is impermanent,” Gudo smiled. “Life is very brief. If you keep gambling and drinking, you will have no time left to accomplish anything else. You and your family will suffer.”

The Master of the House found the simple phrase touching him as if waking from a dream. “You are right!” he declared. “How ever can I repay you for this wonderful teaching? Let me see you off and carry your things for a time.”

“As you wish.” Gudo agreed.

They started out when they were ready. After the pair had gone three miles, Gudo told the Master of the House to return. “Another five miles,” he begged.

“As you wish.” Gudo agreed.

When the two reached the agreed-upon five more miles, Gudo announced, “you may return now.”

“Another ten miles,” the Master of the House pleaded.

“As you wish.” Gudo agreed.

Ten more miles passed and Gudo turned to the man, “Return now.”

“I am going to follow you all the rest of my life,” the man declared.


As I said, I understand the point of this story. It is to show the dedication of the Man who Never Turned Back once he had found the point of his enlightenment. He was following Gudo (and his teaching) for the rest of his life because, as he was told, life is impermanent and fluid.

Yes, it is a metaphor.

Yes, I know that.

Some, not understanding the meaning, may view the message of the story in a different light. I fear that some may find their enlightenment and roll off of the rails in an attempt to follow this new bliss.

What of the farmer’s family? What happened to the farm? Did the husband, the Man that Never Turned Back, ever return to his family? What of the wife and children?

We cannot, in truth, just leave our responsibilities in pursuit of the latest philosophical revelation. We cannot be of the world without taking part in it, without taking responsibility for it. There are consequences to our actions. We cannot just throw ourselves and our lives away because of a new insight. We need to incorporate what is best and leave the rest behind.

Being present in the now is the lesson. Life is fluid and can take us in many different directions. We all have the capability to be the drunkard, the gambler, the abuser, but it is a choice that we make.

We choose to be the rioter.

We choose to be the bigot.

We choose to be the xenophobe.

We choose.

Now that you know it is a choice, make the right one for the world you want to create.

-E

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