The scene is that of a man knocking on the door of an enlightened Zen Master. He had heard of this man and his abilities from the villagers he had encountered.
He knocks again.
The Zen Master answers the door.
“My apologies for disturbing you. I have heard great things about your teachings, and I am in need of help.”
The Zen Master pauses and looks him over. “I understand your concerns. My concern is that we barely have enough rice for all of the students who are currently studying here. Check back in a few years and maybe the situation will have improved.” He closes the door.
The frustrated man, who had traveled a long way, felt that he was too close to getting what he wanted, so he knocks again.
“Master, I apologize for not being clear and up-front. Life has started to get the better of me, and from what I have been told, you are my only hope.”
The Zen Master looks at the man, turns to the room to look at his students, and then turns back and looks down through his glasses at the man.
The man interjects, “I will bring you all of the rice that you require. I need to study under your guidance.”
Realizing that this man had just painted himself into a corner, and knowing that the man cannot back out now, the Zen Master says, “Fine. You must bring me 1,000 pounds of rice, or the financial equivalent before you will be allowed to enter this door. Once you have gained entry, you will stay for a minimum of one year. During this time, you will be in charge of scrubbing the floors and will be tasked with helping my students with the duties essential to our Temple.”
The man opens a brief case full of cash. The Zen Master studies the contents carefully, and tells the man, “You may enter our sacred Temple. We will sit for rice and tea, before you start cleaning the floors.”
Within an hour, the man has handed over everything, he has consumed his rice and tea, and he is on his knees scrubbing the floor.
Once his duties were completed, the man asked the Zen Master if he could submit his Question of Life. The Zen Master informed him that the evening was for rest, and that they would be talking in the morning after breakfast and group exercises.
The next morning, the man is anxiously awaiting his moment with the Zen Master. He almost cannot contain himself as he sees his moment coming.
“Master, I desire to be happy. I desire to be free.”
The Zen Master pauses, strikes a thoughtful pose, and slowly replies to the man, “Ah, I now see your dilemma. A most serious one, at that. What you need to do is desire less.”
The man thanked him, and thought to himself, “Okay. Desire less. I’ve got this. I can do it. Just desire less.”
The man continues his daily practice and work. At the end of the week, the Zen Master asks him how his efforts are going. The man replies, “I have struggled so hard to desire less, but I don’t feel like it’s really working at all.”
The Zen Master pondered the dilemma. “Hmmmm. Your desire to desire less is very strong. In fact, you desire to desire less way too much. You must have less of a desire to desire less.”
That story is roughly based on a story that I heard in an Alan Watts talk long ago.
My first impression was that the guy who wanted the guidance painted himself into a corner and became a sucker. Don’t ever do that. It’s a fair enough of an evaluation of the story, although it hangs on the beginning and goes no further.
There is a depth to the story, as well as an ultimate Truth.
THE DEPTH OF WANTING
I entered into a relationship in late 2019 with a woman whom I had dated back in 1982. We were teenagers and spent a few months during the summer going out, hanging out, and having a great time.
It all came to a rather abrupt end when her father tried to kill me with a wrench. As it turns out, she had never told him that we were dating, and he found out the hard way when I showed up.
We re-connected on Facebook after 37 years of no contact at all, and it seemed that there were some sparks. However, the sparks were part of an illusion, and I must take partial responsibility for allowing that illusion to exist.
Over time, some strong feelings began to develop. There were warning signs all along, and I failed to heed any and all of them.
The reason why it happened, and the cause of my failure, was that I really, truly wanted it to happen. I was so invested in wanting it to happen that I viewed the entire situation through rose-colored lenses.
And when you view a situation through rose-colored lenses, every red flag looks like nothing more than a regular flag.
When we ended up together, it felt good enough. I had effectively fooled myself into believing that the red flags had faded away because we were together and we were both better for it. That’s a foolish thought.
What we had felt so real. I didn’t want it to ever end. Acknowledging these problems would kill off what we had.
So we both pretended and carried on as if there were no problems at all.
Over time, these red flags caught up with us. They started to beat us up. They were trying to kill us.
We are both imperfect people. Everyone is imperfect. That’s not the problem. The real problem was that she had a great number of issues, and she had done absolutely nothing in the way of self-work to resolve those issues. This meant that the issues still existed, in spite of her efforts to tell the world that everyone she had ever known had abused her, and that she was merely a victim looking for true love.
In other words, she did not take responsibility for her personal issues that would impact any attempts at a relationship.
What made this worse is that I have taken responsibility for my personal issues, and I have been actively working on coping and dealing with those issues for a very long time.
When one person strives to be healthy, and the other does nothing but point fingers and declare OTHERS to be unhealthy, there’s a problem.
The truth of her story was eye-opening. Without getting into too much detail, she and her younger brother suffered abuse from their parents, mainly because she and her younger brother were “accidents” and the family couldn’t afford to care for them.
An older sister was watching her when she was three years old. There is a high possibility that her older sister threw the ball into the street in front of an oncoming car, on purpose.
She claimed that her dad and at least one of her brothers did bad things to her regularly.
Most telling was that all five of her marriages were abusive. She was married five times to four different men. The one who supposedly abused her the most viciously was the one she divorced and then married a second time.
But one of the biggest red flags that I totally ignored was when we were talking on the phone. We were talking about something that was so unimportant that I cannot remember the topic. All I can recall was that it was a case of us having a VERY minor disagreement.
While I cannot remember the details, the disagreement was about as small as her telling me that she loved pizza with everything on it, and I said that I can do without the onions.
Oh no! A disagreement! An imperfection!
I could hear the recoil in her panicked voice as she screamed, “Please don’t hit me!!!”
Even if I were the type of man who would hit someone, there were a few problems here. One problem is that I’d not hit anyone [except in self-defense] over such a minor disagreement.
The other problem was that we were on the phone, 2,000 miles apart. I have long arms, but not that long.
Some say that this is where I should have drawn the line. But, as one friend wisely told me, the big red flag was back in 1982 when her father tried to kill me with a wrench, because that’s a sign of the type of upbringing she had.
I am not one to write off people for a past that they cannot control. However, I have an actual duty to myself to generate great distance between myself and people who have done nothing to work on their issues. Responsibility is essential.
THE LESSON AND THE ULTIMATE TRUTH
We’ve gone through the story of the man and the Zen Master, and we just went through a personal anecdote that provided additional depth.
The lesson is that, when we really want something, we may engage in hyper-focus on that something, and this leaves us blinded to the warnings and dangers.
Just as the man in the Zen Master story desires to desire less, I want to want less.
So maybe, just don’t?
It’s a position that I am trying out.
With that relationship over, I neither want a new relationship, nor want to remain alone. By not wanting either situation, I am free to actually be in either. I can be me alone, or be me with someone else. It doesn’t matter.
Without wanting, I am free to be.
As for the “Ultimate Truth” of the story, the man is seeking guidance from the Zen Master. In this regard, he is searching outward to find an answer.
Whether it’s a friend, a lover, a therapist, or even a Zen Master, what they all have in common is that they are external sources of reflection. They don’t live inside of you.
Even a lover who lives with you for an extended period of time may not have a full picture of your inside story. Most definitely, your own parents have absolutely NO idea of your inner workings.
That’s all you. Only YOU have access to your own depths. If you do not access your own depths out of fear, then it is unreasonable to expect anyone else to have any inkling of what is going on.
But if you are honest with yourself and refuse to fear the darkness, the depth, the ugliness, and the act of learning who you truly are, then you will be on your way to healing, at the very least.
No matter how broken you may appear based on your life’s story, being in touch with your own darkness and taking responsibility for your own issues can help you to feel a sense of being whole.
This is what opens the door for all kinds of relationships and connections.
The outward “source” that is sought by most people is merely a reflecting pool. This reflecting pool will give the viewer the wrong impression, especially if that person is ignorant to their own issues, rejects self-exploration, and puts the blame solely upon others.
In our failed relationship, she pointed her finger at everyone else and took no responsibility for her role in any of her situations. Meanwhile, I am willing to accept my role completely, learning from it, and hoping to become a better person as a result of this work.
IN THE END
But the Ultimate Truth is that Zen Masters are full of shit. Alan Watts admitted it to the faces of his followers. They laughed and continued on.
That is not to say that he wasn’t helping them, for he was a very reliable sounding board. His job is one that was typically filled by people called “friends.” Today, we also have therapists, who are actually trained in the art of being a reflective sounding board, so that you can figure out yourself.
You are the master of you.