Reflections in the Parabolic Mirror

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.”

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Don’t Let Bullies Kick Sand In Your Faith

Celebrate life. Seek the light. Church of Phasmatia.Excluding the fact that some faiths (I’m not mentioning names here because I don’t want to get killed) take themselves so seriously you wouldn’t dare ridicule them in public, one possible measure of whether a religion has hit the mainstream might be when people start telling jokes about it. So, the other day I heard my first Phasmatian joke, and that’s when I realized that the Church of Phasmatia has finally arrived.

The joke goes like this:

A Phasmatian priestess, a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar. After a few drinks, the Catholic observes, “Celibacy is the cornerstone of our priesthood. I’ve been celibate for thirty years.”

“That’s nothing,” says the Buddhist monk, sipping on a mocktail, “I entered the lamasery when I was only a boy. Not only have I been celibate my entire life, but I was also celibate in my previous two lifetimes.”

“Oy vey,” says the rabbi, shaking his head. “Celibacy is not desirable for a cleric. Marriage is important, and not just to resist temptation, for how else can you truly understand the workings of a family. I have been married for forty years, and although my wife’s nagging gives me a constant headache, never have I even so much as looked at another woman, for lust and adultery are sins.”

The Phasmatian priestess finishes her drink and looks at her companions. “We Phasmatians not only believe that sex is not a sin, but we teach that it’s a celebration of life to be embraced. In moments of sexual ecstasy we approach communion with The Universal Spirit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been celibate for almost two hours, and I’ve got to be getting back to the orgy.”

Four Phasmatians walk out of the bar.

It’s no surprise that it is the Phasmatians’ liberal-minded attitude towards sex that generated this humor, given that dirty jokes are universally one of humankind’s favorite pastimes. It would be easy to start complaining about all the positive and deeply spiritual aspects of the religion that are being glossed over by this stereotyping, but I’ll focus on the positive and let it slide. I guess it fits in the “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” department. Anything that brings Phasmatia to people’s attention is a good thing, and once they have a chance to explore the religion further, they may be converted.

Now, perhaps some of you are wondering why I’m standing up for Phasmatia, given the way I’ve been vilified by them, and the threats that have been issued against me. Well, I guess that falls under the category of tolerance. Every religion has its deplorable fanatics, but we should learn to separate the fundamentals of a faith from its fundamentalists. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be on our guard, or resist those that attack us, but at the same time we need to be careful not to prejudge others of that faith. And that’s no joke.

Phasmatian Indignation

I want you all to know I have nothing against the Phasmatian religion. If you read their Sacred Text, you’ll see that it is an inspiring credo that would go a long way towards bettering  both the individual, and the human collective. 

Phasmatian indignation for Dan Dowhal, author of skyfisherOf course, if you’ve ever red … oops, sorry, Freudian slip … if you’ve ever read the original Soviet constitution, that would make you weep too with its poetic vision of a just Utopian society. The problem is when a corrupt clique of ruthless dictators hijack the movement, and warp it to their own evil ways. And that was the fictional point I was making with skyfisher.

So to those Phasmatians who have been harassing me, and spitting on me, and threatening me (and to that priestess who is now giving me the cold shoulder) I emphasize that I have nothing against Phasmatians. Spiritually and ethically I consider myself a Phasmatian too (among other things). I do not deserve the indignation the Phasmatian nation has been showering upon me.

Remember, when you lose your perspective and your sense of humour, you are only a streetcar ride away from fanaticism.