When I was researching religions for skyfisher, one of the most intriguing concepts I came across was in the Zen Buddhist koans, where they occasionally described how certain persons received enlightenment in one crystalline flash of ultimate realization, known as satori.
Admittedly, many of these masters first devoted decades of meditation and study in their pursuit, but the final moment of illumination was reportedly often triggered by some single cryptic, if not outright absurd, incident.
Here’s one example:
One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, “Give me the best piece of meat you have.”
“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best.”
At these words, Banzan was enlightened.
It’s actually the writer in me, not the supplicant, who found these stories so appealing. (If I’ve come to believe anything in my own spiritual wanderings it’s that enlightenment comes iteratively and slowly, not in some great, dramatic flash of light.) But, as literature, the koans are great. Banzan’s has beautiful irony (not the least of which is that he was almost certainly a vegetarian) and a dramatic dénouement with a profound message at its core, wrapped in a simple but elegant metaphorical layer.
This sort of rhetorical power is why all religious traditions rely on parables to get their point across. In Jewish Hasidic tradition they have the mashal. The famous parable of The Six Blind Men and the Elephant is of Hindu origin. Christ was, of course, a master of the parable. The Sacred Text of the Phasmatians, which is just a mash-up of other religious traditions, also relies heavily on parables.
In the Qur’an, it says:
Allah sets forth parables for mankind in order that they may remember.
The good word is like a good tree, with firm roots and branches reaching to the sky, and constantly giving fruit.
And the parable of an evil word is like an evil tree, uprooted from the surface of earth, having no stability.
It’s the latter, by the way, sprung from the lips of hateful fanatics, that gives Islam a bad name these days. Judging all Muslims by the actions of these warped extremists is like judging all Christianity on the basis of pedophile priests – or Rev. Jim Jones.
Here’s another parable I’m quite fond of:
An old man was teaching his grandson about life.
“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”
He pointed at his grandson. “This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
“The one you feed,” the old man replied.
That parable hails from the Cherokees (who, speaking of irony, were looked at as savages and heathens and nearly exterminated). It pretty much sums up the entire spiritual experience for every one of us. If you were ever going to have an “aha” satori moment, that parable is a great candidate for inducing it.
Here in North America, especially in the cities, atheism seems to be the prevalent religion these days … and that’s perfectly fine. Each unto their own, I say, especially since I have no more supporting proof of a greater force at play in the universe than the atheists do to bolster their own spiritual nihilism.
Still, it got me wondering. If so many people don’t believe in any divine retribution and assume that death is the absolute end of their existence, what keeps them from running off the reservation, so to speak, and breaking all the rules. Sure, we have cops and courts, but it’s not just the fear of going to jail that stops people from behaving like mad sociopaths.
Part of the answers lies in how we’ve all been socially programmed, partially by the telling of parables by parents, teachers, and contemporary media. For example, the nth annual re-showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, and A Miracle on 34th Street will soon have people sobbing into their hankies again this Yuletide season … and learning some morality in the process.
Of course, as the saying goes, the Devil is fond of quoting scripture. Words can be twisted, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – which may be one of Newton’s Laws of Motion, but makes for a great parable in its own right.
One Zen koan I’ve heard regurgitated in several movies, most notably Reservoir Dogs, is of the scorpion that stung the rabbit that was graciously ferrying it across a river.
“Why did you do that?” the rabbit asks in dismay. “Now we will both drown.”
“I can’t help it,” the scorpion replies, “it’s in my nature.”
That parable is one sometimes cited as an excuse by people wanting to justify their destructive behaviour. In fact, if you read further in the koan collection, you will find its equal and opposite reaction.
A Zen master was sitting by a campfire. A scorpion, disoriented by the light, kept trying to walk into the flames. The master reached down each time and rescued the scorpion, even though the arachnid would inevitably sting him.
As he repeated this behavior, getting stung anew each time, one of the master’s students asked him, “Sensei, why do you keep doing that? You know you’re just going to get stung.”
“I can’t help it,” the Zen master replied, “it’s in my nature.”