Understanding Virtue – Zen Koan

Mitsuo-san was very troubled that particular September morning. He didn’t know it was September (though he did notice the trees wear a different colour) but he knew it was morning because he set out for a walk wearing a warm tunic. His favourite nephew had returned from the war and he was rather disturbed. Mitsuo-san went to meet him two mornings ago and saw his nephew slouched in a corner playing with a reed. He tried to cheer him up and took him to the market to eat something spicy and fried. The prawns were fresh and in special chili sauce they tasted juicy and crunchy. He knew how much Hachiro loved prawns and he had paid an extra amount to the fat lady behind the stall to add some extra ginger flakes to the plate. Hachiro ate one of them and smiled. He returned the plate to the lady and thanked her for a wonderful dish. He sat down beside Mitsuo-san waited till he finished. Then they went to the gambler’s square but even that didn’t stoke an interest in Hachiro. They went to the lady’s den and Hachiro walked through it all and returned to where Mitsuo-san was waiting (the teacher would not enter the streets of vice). Nothing had cheered Hachiro-san. Finally they stopped by a farm fresh with an eager crop.
“Son, what is it that bothers you? Was it something about the war? All your friends have returned to a normal life with gusto save you. What is it that ails you?”
Hachiro-san was quiet and he listened to the music of green waves. He continued to play with the reed, occasionally looking into the distance as if expecting something to run out of the woods. Mitsuo-san waited patiently because a question pressed often doesn’t provide the right answer. Hachiro eventually respected that patience and spoke out.
“Dear uncle, it is perhaps the war and perhaps not. What happened, could have happened anywhere but it happened in the war, so it is not due to the war.”
He paused to check the skirts of the forests.
“A soldier was wounded in the fight. He belonged to the Tagasaki army, not ours. He asked me to give him some water and I did. He asked me to pull him to a spot away from the fight, and I did. I tended his wounds and took care of him because that is what one does when a man lies wounded in front of you, is it not?”
“A noble act, indeed.”
“When he felt better, he took his sword and attacked me. I defeated him and killed him.”
“A just act, indeed.”
“I was unable to fight the war anymore thereafter.”
“Why, Hachiro-san?”
“I don’t understand people, uncle.”
“Were that to be required to wage a war, the world would be the most peaceful place.”
“Why did he attack me?”
“Because you belonged to the opposing army.”
“But had I not taken care of him as his own?”
“That does not win the favour of his sword.”
“Not even of his conscience?”
“Apparently, no.”
“Then what is it that you wise men talk about love and that love conquers all? It is all a lie, isn’t it? It is just a convenient call to the hopeful and the believer, isn’t it? And those who benefit from it, will still continue to be their petty selves.”
Thus had ended that day with no discussion further extending it. Mitsuo-san was disturbed because he had no answer and he felt miserable being a teacher when he couldn’t instill in his own blood the strength of what he taught and preached. What use was it to talk of love and forgiveness when his own blood was left unconvinced. Other teachers would have taught to use love to their convenience or cut ties when no advantage was to be gained, but he didn’t believe in that. But he had no answers either. He knew that he had to consult Master Nobuyuki before his nephew be mis-guided.
He found Nobuyuki-san practicing Tai-Chi with his rake in the rock garden. They are but different dimensions...It was a pleasure to watch him move the rake as one would move a desultory arm over the boat’s side. There was not the glisten of sweat on him nor the breathlessness of patterning gravel. A brush at the blunt end of the rake might have painted beautiful scrolls. Mitsuo-san stood by the fence and watched the great Master calmly complete his moves. The gravel was now drawn into perfect concentric circles rippling into sinuous lines and immovable rock. Lines were perfectly straight and framed various parts of the entire creation in their stoic sense of purpose. Nowhere were Nobuyuki-san’s footsteps visible except under his feet.
“Mitsuo-san, you bring the morning to me?”
“Good morning, Nobuyuki-san. My feeble mind met the beautiful morning in your garden.”
“So you do bring the day to me, after all. Do come in. The tea is still delicate.”
Mitsuo-san loved the tea Nobuyuki-san prepared. He used the same leaves that most others did and the water from his well but something about the kettle, the fire and his melodious inspection of the contents created a tea like he had never had at any other ceremony. They sipped tea peacefully, pursing the golden fluid in their mouth and cooling it with the air they breathed in.
“Your nephew is back from the war, I gather.”
“Yes, it his trouble that is now mine.”
“Since when did trouble have kith or kin?”
“You speak wise words, Master, but his concern needs more than words.”
“I am sure wordless meditation could be of some use, or tea.”
“In wordless chambers his mind conjures pictures and they speak louder than syllables.”
“Such an unfortunate thing, this mind. Always has to create something and never happy in nothingness. Like a swan that knows its vitality from its reflection in the lake, the mind must inhabit chattering mirrors.”
“True, Master Nobuyuki-san. But what the mind creates is not always illusions.”
“No? Then you must tell me what disturbs you.”
Mitsuo-san spoke all that happened two mornings ago. Nobuyuki-san swayed to the music of the last sip he took.
“Beautiful! Wasn’t it?”
Mitsuo-san was shocked and then looked down at his cup with cold tea in it and felt ashamed.
“Never mind, Mitsuo-san, have another. Ferns grow well when fed tea water. Here, give it to me.”
He emptied it in a pot nearby and re-filled it with tea. Mitsuo-san drank the tea slowly but couldn’t savour it much.
“Come, Mitsuo-san. We shall go for a walk.”
And soon they were down the path that led to the lake. Nobuyuki-san realised that he was teasing the distressed teacher too much and decided to speak.
“Well, love is not as absolute as people believe it to be, my friend. It has its worth and it has its inefficacy. Young Hachiro seems more distressed that the man he cared for bared his fangs at him than from a teaching gone wrong. Had that teaching never been made, he would probably still be distressed. Now, he simply has a wagon on which he can cart his dead belief. Let me tell you a story of Hakuin. He was my friend and we had studied together at the Kyoto Monastery. He was the true embodiment of love. Once,…”
“Dear Master, do forgive the interruption, but every child in Japan knows the story of Hakuin and the pretty girl.”
“No, not quite. Listen carefully. Once, there was a pretty girl who knew that she could have her way with men. She would pick her man and get him to crawl at her feet. One such man she picked for a night and he left her pregnant. He wasn’t willing to accept that child because he wasn’t sure how many men had bedded her before. She too was not aware of the real father. Her parents pestered her about the identity of the father and she unashamedly pointed at Hakuin-san who was then busy weeding his garden. The whole village was shocked. How could the noble Hakuin-san be such a vulgar commoner? Not one person in the entire village suspected the vicious wickedness of the girl. Her parents found it convenient to have such a respected man as their son-in-law and their anger was not doubted. When the villagers rushed to Hakuin-san and accused him of fathering the child of the pretty girl in such an irresponsible manner, Hakuin-san simply dropped the weeds in a bag and said, “Is that so?”. The villagers who were only used to cunning words knew not what to say in response to this simple admission. When the child was born, the petty girl would have nothing to do with it. She had her parents drop the child at Hakuin’s place. They said to him, “He is your bastard” to which Hakuin responded, “Is that so?”. Many years passed and the pretty girl grew stale. Her guilt bit into her and she could hold it no longer within. She confessed all to her parents who rushed to Hakuin’s cottage and apologised. They requested him to return the child that was burdened on him after informing him that the child was actually not his. Hakuin-san handed over the child and said, “Is that so?” It is till here that everyone knows the story and not beyond, dear friend. Now listen to what Hakuin-san shared with me as one shares the same air for a breath. The villagers thought that Hakuin-san accepted the child because of some guilt. They thought that he had probably played with a womb in his youth and hence, was atoning for it. Hence, they still refused him entry into the village. The pretty girl on the other hand got married to a rich old landlord who didn’t care how much of a liar the girl was as long as she could fondle him at night.”
Nobuyuki-san paused under the shade of an oak tree. He smiled and asked, “Do you understand, my friend? Hakuin-san didn’t love because he should but was just himself and the purity of that couldn’t touch the corrupt souls of the people in the village. What use then is such purity, Hachiro-san might ask.”
Mitsuo-san was quiet and followed Nobuyuki-san when he proceeded on the walk. He understood what Nobuyuki-san was saying but he didn’t understand what use was love if it was like a seed dropped in a bottomless well. Even if there was no use for love, shouldn’t it be transformative, else why would all the seers suggest that man should love everyone around him?
As they walked on, they saw the village idiot under a tree. He held cow dung in his hand and was mumbling something with his eyes clenched tight. Nobuyuki-san stopped beside him and went on his haunches.
“Koji-san is busy with his lessons?”
Koji-san’s eyes burst open to stare at Nobuyuki-san and then Mitsuo-san before returning to the dung in his hands.
“Oh God! It is still not a rose.”
“What is not?”
“This”, and he stretched his hand out to Nobuyuki-san.
“I am becoming dull with age, Koji-san, and can’t keep pace with your riddles. Why should this be a rose?”
“My Master said that if you focus enough with a single mind and put in all your effort and intent, then you can make anything out of anything. You can make a wise man of an idiot”, and in pointing at his heart, he smeared his tunic with the dung,”and a rose of a thorn. So I decided to make a rose out of this ball of dung and”, he looked down at his tunic, “I will have to start all over again.”
“Why do you want to make a rose of dung when there are so many roses around you, Koji-san?”
“Because Master said it is possible.”
“You are very sincere, Koji-san. May you get what you deserve.”
Nobuyuki-san walked on and when he realised that he was alone in his walk, he turned around to see Mitsuo-san bow low to Koji-san. He heard the teacher whisper, “Thank you.”


2 thoughts on “Understanding Virtue – Zen Koan

  1. More superficial than the other zen koans you have written. Because, I believe that early in life, we learn that human beings are not trustworthy even to behave with a modicum of minimum decency, even to those that have been right towards them, and you have just reiterated that common fact here. And, I personally think that just even WANTING to change another person according to our ideas of rightness is vulgar. The village idiot seems to be trying to do just that. You have focussed on a failed such attempt. But my view is that the desire to attempt that effort is itself a disrespect to the natural pace of evolution and phase in evolution that every human being has for himself or herself.Let each of us know ourselves. Be ourselves naturally. And let things follow their natural consequences. And let the objectivity of combined work to be done determine a collaboration, and in the personal life, let spontaneous natural harmony and comfort for each determine a collaboration or discarding the association.

  2. Dear P,That is exactly what thi koan demonstrates… You say that early in life people learn not to trust? Hmmm. Maybe my early days have just recently got over 😉

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