Zen Koan – Fame

The sun glowed gently, tip-toeing over leaves sleeping alongside the dew on them. A ladybird whirled in confusion as every dew drop yawned a golden sun of its own. One of the suns joined another, stretching lazily towards yet another, little suns merging into bigger ones before they all dragged them to the tip of a leaf and threatened to drop the sun to the earth where it would be lost forever in a puddle of slush. The leaf arched its spine to let these ephemeral playmates negotiate deals.
A little more, and Shushu would be happy. Shushu watches the drop buoy in mid-air before raising her well-licked paw to catch it. She runs her tongue over her paw and flutters her neck to warm herself. Her erect tail strikes a branch and the tree punishes her with a torrent of cold wetness. Shushu meows sharply and runs into the kitchen.
The students had already risen before the first rays touched the peak of Mount Sukai. They rushed to prepare the water for the teachers. They threw twigs at Shushu to drive her away from their path of early morning scurry.
Yasuhiro-san watched the sun scrape himself against the back of Mount Sukai and emerge well-polished. He smiled and had his tea when he heard someone’s geta click lightly on the lowest step to his house. Such are the virtues of being the lowest that music is created only there, thought the great master to himself. The footsteps brought no threat to his doorstep so he continued sipping his tea.
Young Takayuki wasn’t certain whether his intrusion would be entertained. After all, he had graduated from the school several years ago and one only returned to donate, teach or admit one’s son for studies. He had made enough money, but a donation wouldn’t help him now. He was not willing to teach as to become a teacher was to accept that one couldn’t be successful in the vast world outside. He had no offspring to nudge along the path to any school.
The master turned around slowly and watched Takayuki-san hesitate at the threshold.
“Takayuki-san? It has been years now! Please do come in.”
“Good morning, Yasuhiro-sensei! I am extremely sorry for arriving unannounced and as little benefit to the school.”
“Can a rose ever lend its red to the plant?”
“And thus a plant lives on, while roses are crushed in vain love!”
“Bravo! You haven’t lost your touch. Such delight is sufficient wealth for this school’s coffers. Come in and have tea with me. It is still warm and the chamomile has still not become translucent.”
Takayuki-san bowed low and neatly folded his hakama under his knees before sitting in seiza. Yasuhiro-san noticed that the hakama extended the prescribed “exact two-fingers’ length” from the knee. He smiled through unmoving lips at the effortlessness with which Takayuki-san achieved that position. They slowly sipped their tea allowing it to slide along the roof while the vapours hit the heavens of their head. Tea was not merely a beverage – it was the blood of refined souls. Yasuhiro-san was known throughout Gunma prefecture as “a man so fine, you could cut him to find silver-tip tea flowing through him”.
“What ails you, Takayuki-san?”
The suddenness of the question forced him to gulp more tea than allowed.
“Nothing trivial could have brought you here and nothing mundane could force you to forget that one doesn’t gulp tea! What is it?”
Takayuki-san carefully replaced the cup. He extracted a book from within his kimono.
“Yasuhiro-sensei, perhaps this is not worth your esteemed taste, but…”
“Your book? Aah! I have read it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommended it to some of my friends too.”
“Then you might like to keep this as a small gift from my side.”
“You are very kind. Thank you!”
Yasuhiro-san opened it to the first page, read a little and then paginated randomly, reading a little more before shutting the book and placing it by his side.
“Last week, I had performed at the Kyoto concert. I had played the koto.”
“You did? Wonderful! Many congratulations.”
“As you know, I am working with Jurou-san in his textile mill. Here, I thought this fabric might suit your needs for an elegant kimono. Please do accept it.”
Yasuhiro-san smiled and accepted the gift. He ran a finger through the layers and liked what he felt.
“Thank you. You are very generous.”
“Sensei, please don’t mistake me, but these were few things I genuinely wished to give you.”
“I do not doubt your sincerity. Please go on.”
“I am not sure what is wrong with my life!”
“You are rather strict, Takayuki-san. Another man, might consider himself gifted. Is your health not keeping you happy?”
“No, no. My health is fine and so is my digestion.”
“You sleep well?”
“Fairly well, with dreams.”
“Aah! You can make most of Japan envious. Why would you cast your life as wretched? Is there something you would like to do, which you aren’t able to?”
“That is the source of all my pains! There is nothing that I am called upon to do, and that I have failed at.”
“But you want something more?”
“No. I mean, yes. Why am I not famous?”
“Why?”
“Yes, why am I not famous? Children in my lane look at me with awe, but children here haven’t even heard of me. My aunt wants to name her new born Takayuki but no guild names me as their president. I dance, I sing, I write, I paint, I have a vast garden, I make enough money, I am young, I can play 3 instruments, I am strong and can ride a horse, I can hold my sword well and for long in a duel, what more does one need to be famous?”
“And you still debate well, but to answer your question, I don’t know, Takayuki-san. I haven’t been famous and now I am too old to plan on becoming that.”
“But you are famous, Yasuhiro-sensei. Everyone loves you and respects you.”
“But I do nothing of what you do, how could I be famous?”
“You are wise and you teach in a manner which is unique. Hence, you are famous.”
“Aah! If I remember that, I can never teach! Tell me, my boy, what really is the form of thorn that twists in your heart?”
“All that I create, sensei, seems to go waste.”
“And when would it not?”
“When people recognise it, appreciate it, reward it, lift it up and place it on tall golden pedestals. When I become famous and I am known throughout lands far and wide and emperors invite me to their courts.”
“Oh my! You are a creator. The only thing I create is tea, though I would give it up any day only if Kumiko-san would graciously move her house into the school. But jokes apart, your pains are less familiar to me. Perhaps we should meet Teruo-san and seek his help.”
“Teruo-san? But he is mere myth.”
“He is myth to those who’d rather wear myths as armours. Please have lunch with us. We shall leave thereafter.”
Takayuki-san spent the rest of the morning worrying over whether he had done the right thing by coming to the school. He decided that he would be polite and live through his teacher’s plan before consulting someone more experienced and successful than his teacher. Yasuhiro-san instructed a student on preparing luggage for two travellers with a light trek to be anticipated.
“And do not forget to pack 2 bundles of fine paper.”
“And a brush and ink?”
“No, just paper.”
After a filling lunch, they walked in the direction of the forests that covered Mount Sukai. They spoke about various matters and soon Takayuki-san forgot about his pressing concerns and spoke deeply and widely about nearly everything that lent itself to a conversation. The master didn’t spare him a wicked minute which might return him to his earlier melancholy and introduced various topics and thoughts, goading Takayuki-san to continue his well-educated discussions. By the time they reached the wall of the mountain, Takayuki-san realised that his master probably knew all that he was speaking about and perhaps more. He suddenly became silent.
“Let us sleep here, by this wall, Takayuki-san. Tomorrow is another day.”
“But do you know where Teruo-san lives?”
“Yes, I do. Very few know the way to his place.”
They spread their rudimentary bed and stretched themselves on it.
“Isn’t the night sky beautiful?”
“Yes, it is, sensei.”
“A star wherever I look or a star’s closed window.”
“Ha ha ha. You could be poet, sensei. A quiet summer night – A star.. no… not like that,

A quiet summer night
Blowing on smouldering stars –
Some glow white, some black.”

“Beautiful!”
“It is, isn’t it? Oh! I have to write it down. Do you have a sheet of paper, sensei?”
“I have two bundles of paper.”
“And brush?”
“No!”
“Nevermind, I can use the sap of a twig. Please allow me to borrow a sheet.”
“No!”
Takayuki-san was taken aback.
“I am sorry, sensei. Did I offend you? Perhaps I have spoiled your sleep with my incessant talk.”
“Not at all. I loved it and your haiku.”
“But…”
“The paper is not for you. It is for Teruo-san. He needs it more than you.”
“The ritual offering of paper to Teruo-san?”
“No, that is what people do. I give him sheets of paper occasionally so that he can create beauty.”
“How come if he is the greatest writer in the world, no one has ever read anything of him?”
“Because he is the greatest creator amongst men.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You might, later. For now, enjoy the stars and cool breeze.”
Takayuki-san kept chanting his haiku. He simply had to remember it. He was sure this would win the Emperor’s summer haiku competition. Yasuhiro-san smiled at the neighbouring drone of haiku and fell asleep.
Takayuki-san dreamt of white gazelles leaping through the bushes. Each one of them was a poem and fell on a harp which played them differently. He was seated in a swing and rose with the notes into the air to kiss clouds shying away from him. When he woke up, he remembered that he had called out to the birds and said “Come to me, for this is life. Let us all sing a rainbow and be happy.”
“Slept well, Takayuki-san?”
Takayuki-san noticed that his teacher was already ready. He rose quickly and greeted his master. He went about his ablutions and returned to the spot where they slept. The wall of the mountain was no longer there, but now before him was a sinuous path.
“Master, what happened? Where is the wall of the mountain against which we slept?”
“This is the path to Teruo-san.”
“But… how?”
“Well, if your soul feels that it should sing a rainbow and be happy, then the path to Teruo-san must emerge. After all, Teruo-san is only available when the soul seeks him.”
Takayuki-san stared at his master and quietly collected his belongings. They trudged on silently before arriving at a cave. The cave glowed a sanguine warmth and Takayuki-san could hear someone recite poems inside. They stepped in to find an old man sitting behind a fire, reading from sheets of paper.
How you burn
“Welcome, welcome, Yasuhiro-san. What a pleasure it is to have you here! I see you bring your student along.”
“How are you, Teruo-san? You look more alive every time I meet you. And how did you guess he was my student?”
“You jest, don’t you? Has anyone to think why it is always a rose that emerges from a rose bush? Please sit down. Please have some water.”
He pointed to the stream flowing beside him and out of the cave. He returned to reading from his sheets of paper and when he was done, he tossed the papers into the fire.
“My name is Takayuki.”
“Hello, I am Teruo.”
“It is an honour to meet the greatest artist in person.”
“How do you know I am the greatest when you haven’t read a word of what I have created?”
Takayuki-san stared at his toes. Somehow he thought all of this to be a trick and the man in front of him to be some friend of his master. But, how did he know about his earlier comment about Teruo-san?
Teruo-san read another page and tossed it into the fire.
“That was a beautiful poem, don’t you think so?” asked Takayuki-san.
“You tell me.”
“I think it was very well structured and its form was just right. You don’t approve of the author’s works?”
Teruo-san and Yasuhiro-san smiled at each other.
“What is there to approve or disapprove of the author? I am interested in the poem. I like it, if you must know.”
“But you threw it into the fire.”
“Oh! That was because I have to keep the fire alive. There is no wood here and if I descend to collect wood, it would take so much time that I will return to a pile of cold ash. So I toss the papers in.”
“But the author might complain.”
“He doesn’t.”
It was then that it dawned on Takayuki-san.
“They are your poems!”
“Yes, indeed. Would you like to listen to another?”
“Most certainly.”
Teruo-san spread a sheet between his fingers and proceeded to recite:

“The nightingale sings
To the gently dropping beats
Of falling flowers.”

“Splendid! Splendid!”
“You like it?”
“This is most amazing. I love it.”
“Thank you”, said Teruo-san and dropped the sheet of paper into the fire.
“What!? Why did you throw it away?”
“Because the fire was dying. Without it, I will most certainly die. I have to keep feeding the fire else it will kill me. Which fire is more important? The one in front of me or the one that I imagine?”
“But the poem!?”
“Oh! I finished reciting it.”
Yasuhiro-san stepped forward and said, “Teruo-san, we bring you a small gift.”
The master handed over one bundle to Takayuki-san who was still staring aghast as the flames ate up the poem. It was then that he noticed the burning paper was blank. He slowly looked up at Teruo-san and bowed down before offering the bundle of paper.
“Please accept this gift, oh greatest of creators.”

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4 thoughts on “Zen Koan – Fame

  1. I read your blog and found it very informative. The event blogs are striking enough to have a feel of the event, so, I would like to have a little chit-chat on your blogging interests. And even we are coming up with an event on startups on June 6th. So, can I have your contact details? Looking forward to hear from you.
    Contact me at ojas@siliconindia.com

  2. The free flow into a silent mind of inspiration and creativity from another realm of origin, which was always a given in your zen koans is lacking here – more of a mental product than spiritual.

    # Having said that it is extremely beautifully written, especially the actual haikus that are strewn all over the post.

    # Always the difficulty is in connecting IN RIGHTNESS with the world – be it my creations engendered in solitude or destroyed in solitude. So it doesn't teach me anything, this attitude of the great man who creates and destroys for himself. The second the world is and its innumerable components, the zig zag of relationships is what throws one into a tizzy. To renounce it all in a self sufficiency is the easiest death like solution, but not a solution in light, love and relating from myself to others.

    So I disagree with the koan in its quite blatant idolising and idealising of seclusion, reclusivity visavis creativity and actual manifestation in this world and on this objective earth.

  3. Dear O,
    Glad you found it so… Wonder what event blogs you are referring to.

    Dear P,
    Really? You have apparently not understood the koan. Teruo-san was not prescribing seclusion and reclusivity. Teruo-san simply portrays the end in creation. Marketing it or not is inconsequential to creativity per se. People who are creative (or consider themselves to be so) waste time by focusing on marketing themselves and their produce as against true creativity. Teruo-san seems to be clearly marking the distinction…

  4. My point is that beyond creativity, there is connecting that creation to the rest of the world; and this can be done without vanity or craving for recognition as is usual and what you call marketing.

    Making beauty available to all, and leaving it to them to exalt it or denounce it.

    I am speaking about the next step to creativity. All beautiful creations deserve the frame of eternity on earth, not to be burnt away as invisible inked haikus in a far away cave.

    I am commenting independent of the scope of your koan.

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