Tag Archive | parables

The Parable Series: My Kingdom for…

Wang_Zhaojun

My student recently reminded me of one of my favorite of the Tao parables:

An old man had built up a very wealthy life, owning many fine horses, and one very fine son. One day the latch on the horse corral was left open–quite possibly by the very fine son, but we’ll let that go–and the horses all ran away. The townspeople were all so sad for the man and cried “on, how awful for you.” The old man simply said “maybe.”

A few days later, the horses suddenly reappeared and not only did they return, they brought a bunch of wild horse friends with them (you know how horses party). This meant that the man now had even more wealth because more horses, more wealth, right, not accounting for oats, etc. Now the townspeople were so happy for him: “Look how lucky you are! Not only did your horses return, you have so many more. You are such a lucky man.” And the old man simply said “maybe.”

Wild horses need to be tamed so the very fine son took on the job of teaching the wild horses to play nice. As he was trying to ride one of them, the horse reared up, throwing the very fine son off and to the ground, breaking the son’s leg in several places–a very bad break in seemingly so many ways. Once again, the townspeople cried out “oh, we are so sorry for you, old man. What terrible luck this is to have your son so injured. How terribly bad and unlucky.” And once again the old man (I wonder whether he was getting tired of the nosy townspeople by now) simply replied “maybe.”

The very next day, while the son lay incapacitated in his bed, the soldiers of the king strode into town: “The king has decided he isn’t all that pleased with the country next door and is declaring war. All able bodied young men, especially very fine ones, must report immediately for duty.”

Except for the old man’s son who was, although still very fine, not at all able bodied and was not taken off to die in the not very fine war.

My Ukrainian Jewish grandmother when asked about her health or her children or her very fine husband who was a diamond auctioneer (which meant she had a couple very fine trinkets) always just responded “eh. So-so.” Because one shouldn’t ever brag about one’s luck. What might seem a piece of good fortune one day might be a piece of dreck the next. Just ask a Mega Lottery winner. Maybe.

The Parable Series: Let It Go

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And so the parable goes:

A master and his disciple are walking along the bank of a river (there’s a lot of walking goes on in parables: second of the parable series and we’ve already walked twice) when they come upon a lovely young gentlewoman, standing on the bank and crying because she cannot get to the other side. Don’t ask; who knows why she wanted to be there, doesn’t affect the parable. She sees the two men and begs them to carry her across the shallow river to the other side. The disciple, knowing that the teachings allow no contact with women, ignores her plea and assumes his master will do the same. Much to his surprise, his master hoists the young woman onto his shoulders, carries her across and returns to the bank where his student stands stunned. They continue to walk but the young man can’t get the idea out of his head that his master not only looked at a woman but, Holy Moly (I doubt that was his exact thought), actually touched one! Al lthrough the walk he stews over this until he can’t keep silent any longer: “How could you have touched a woman! Isn’t that forbidden? Don’t you feel guilty?” The master smiles, “Look at you. I left that woman on the bank of the river long ago. But, you, you are still carrying her on your shoulders.”

And so the parable ends.

For much of my life, I was a chronic “muller.” I would chew on a thought until the last crumb was gone and would then continue to chew some more. No perceived slight went by; no criticism was ever forgotten; no idiotic act I committed was ever quietly put to rest. Even a trodden on toe became a reason to dwell on the insensitivity of the foot that did the trodding or the obvious lack sincerity of apology–if there was one. I’m not sure whether flagellation would even have been satisfactory.

Ah, yes, truly my mother’s daughter. I watched her abandon a favorite restaurant because the server didn’t remember her drink order from a previous visit and years later, she would bring this up to me again, as if it had plagued her every sleepless night. And worse, she ditched a friend of decades for some perceived insensitivity on the friend’s part. As I recall, it was because her friend had lunch with someone else without inviting her. And, yes, this became a story that she would repeat over and over, in explicitly juiced-up detail, stirring the bitterness of rejection into every cup of tea.

I’m not sure what changed for me. Perhaps it was simply growing older–although that certainly didn’t help my mother–or marrying a man (third time’s the charm) who for all of his gentleness and, more important, incredibly good taste in fashion, won’t ever remember what year I was born. And why should he? What importance could that have? For that matter, what importance can a stepped-on toe have once the stepping is over?

My nights have been more restful; my self-forgiveness much easier; my relationships quieter. And it only took remembering three words: Let it go. Let it go and leave the woman on the bank, rather than carrying her on your shoulders.

 

 

The Parable Series: The Tiger Below

Electric Tiger

And so the parable says:

A man is walking through the forest thinking about his past and his future, paying little attention to the trees and birds around him, when he hears a low growl behind him. Turning, he sees a large tiger bounding through the woods toward him, images of legs of lambs reflected in his eyes like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Terrified, the man begins to run, huffing his way along just ahead of the tiger (admit it: here the parable breaks down a little–could he really outrun a tiger?). At the moment when the tiger has almost caught up to him, the man comes to a cliff. So scared he doesn’t even think, he flings himself over the edge¬† to find that there are two vines trailing down the side and he is able to snatch onto them, one in his left hand, one in his right. As he hangs, relieved to have escaped, he thinks “Cool. All I have to do now is climb down and I’m home free.” He should know better; this is a parable, after all.

At the moment he’s about to start shimmying down, he hears another low growl, this time from below. The tiger that had been chasing him is still pacing at the top of the cliff, so it can’t be him. Sheepishly (remember the leg of lamb image) peering down, he sees another tiger, even more ferocious looking as tigers go, pacing below him, licking his chops just waiting for the man to climb down. “Oh, great” sighs the man, “I can’t go up; I can’t go down. Oh, well, at least for now I’m safe on the vines and maybe the tigers will get bored and go away.” Hands tightly gripping the vines, he relaxes enough to begin to doze, feeling safe again if not comfortable, when he hears tiny gnawing noises above him. Feeling a bit piqued at his troubles by now, the man looks up to see a black mouse chewing on the left vine and a white mouse doing the same on the right, stripping away his safe hold millimeter by millimeter. “Well, that does it. I’m doomed to be the value menu for that tiger below,” the man sobs, resting his head on the cliffside awaiting his fate.

At that moment, he sees, just within reach to his left, a slender plum branch growing out of the cliff and on it hangs one perfect, shiny purple plum. Grabbing the right vine a bit tighter, he reaches out, plucks the plum and bites into it, the sweet juices rolling down his chin. And he smiles.

And so the parable ends.

Perhaps it’s not too tough to figure out that this parable represents living in the “now,” enjoying the present moment rather than worrying about the past–the tiger of birth chasing him through the woods–or the future–the tiger of death below. But I come back time and again to the mice that represent the passage of time, the night and day, that chew away our lives in tiny pieces. Nibble: a new wrinkle appears. Nip: arthritis in our fingers draws us away from our writing. Chomp: the knee that ran a month ago now berates us on every stair.

The tiger below? Yeah, he’s going to get me, maybe sooner than I would prefer or later than I can tolerably bear. But the mice. The mice are the animals I am most afraid of, the ones that send me running to my therapist, my meditation cushion–or a cosmetic surgeon. The animals whose little needle teeth, tiny as they might be, will cause me, more than the tigers, to forget the pleasure of biting the plum.