Three Zen Stories

Stay on the Path

As with all old stories, Zen stories have spawned very many variations. I’ve chosen to take many liberties, recounting the stories in less “dated” (i.e.. “… a samurai entered a tea house …”) fashion. These three Zen stories are the foundation of Fishnu’s teaching. They are extremely powerful, and at first sound simply like “Ah, that’s a nice way to see it” stories.

My intent is that your perception of these stories will change along with you as you become better at being Now. They are also presented in the order by which one encounters them, in a highly iterative way, on the path of Enlightenment:

  1. The Empty Cup – Before we can transform, we must let go of all our clinging, our dukkha.
  2. Is That So – Enlightenment is 100% acceptance of what is.
  3. The Man with the Bag – This Universe is driven by change. We become Enlightened so we can move on without Dukkha.

The Empty Cup

An expert C# programmer needed to update his skillset to that of the new functional programming paradigm. He found a master Haskell programmer who invited him over for coffee. After filling the C# programmer’s cup with coffee the master Haskell programmer asked if he would like to try yerba mate. The C# programmer enthusiastically said yes, to which the master Haskell programmer began filling the coffee cup, beyond full, with a mix of coffee and yerba mate spilling out all over.

The C# programmer shouted, “Are you crazy? The cup is already full! And the coffee is mixed up with the yerba mate!”

The master Haskell programmer replied, “Before you can enjoy yerba mate, you must first empty your cup of the coffee.”

Is That so?

A junior IT worker found the root cause of a security leak coming from a new graph database. Being new to graph databases, he failed to secure one part correctly. He reported to the executives that it was the fault of this new graph database technology which was championed by this master programmer named Hakuin.

The executives stormed Hakuin’s cubicle, chastising him for getting them to adopt this newfangled technology. “What were you thinking?! No one was ever fired for going with SQL Server! Idiot!” They demoted him to an entry-level developer in one of the most troubled departments, with absolutely no visibility to the executives. When they asked him to sign a paper agreeing to the demotion, Hakuin simply replied, “Is that so?”, and signed the paper.

Over the next two years Hakuin implemented his graph technology and that once troubled department now became the most integral department, the focal point of strategic intelligence. The company, once “David”, was on its way to becoming “Goliath”. Hakuin himself became a highlight recruiting tool for top programmer talent at that company.

But rather than recognize Hakuin’s achievement, the executives placed their own team there, taking it from Hakuin. All he had to say was, “Is that so?”

The Man with the Bag

A newly-minted IT engineer grew weary of the stress of two-week delivery cycles, one immediately after another. But there was a senior IT engineer in full concentration working away, fully focused yet somehow unstressed.

The younger IT engineer approached the cubicle of the senior engineer and asked, “How is it that you are still so focused on this work after years at this sweatshop pace? I can see peace but full attention in your eyes.”

The senior engineer simply turned away from his monitor towards the young engineer, with his calm smile.

“I see!!”, the young engineer cried. “What comes after?!”

The senior engineer, turned back to his monitor and continued his work.

The Beginner’s Mind – Listen

These natural sand sculptures on the Oregon Coast listened carefully to the wind.

There are three modes for using our brain:

1. Learning – The ability to assimilate knowledge and obtain skills.
2. Thinking – The ability to use learned knowledge to design strategies or optimize a skill.
3. Doing – Executing a strategy or skill.

All of us excel at those three brain modes to different degrees. I tend to think I’m best at (or at least favor) thinking, then doing, and least at learning. I don’t think I’m bad at any of those three modes, but perhaps unbalanced, tending to favor thinking. And balance of the three is the key. Imagine someone good at only one:

1. Only Learning – The perpetual academic who never comes up with profound original work. Knows a lot of facts, but can’t put it to good use.
2. Only thinking – The over analyzer with original thought but doesn’t leverage the knowledge of others through learning, and therefore always misses the wave. Very often too much thinking makes you talk yourself out of doing something.
3. Only doing – The video game player or factory worker who is eventually replaced by a robot. Or the software developer who leans to doing and doesn’t think through better, newer ways, doing things the way it’s always been done, the familiar, comfortable way. Eventually, the doer spends more time protecting the familiar, comfortable way as the world relentlessly changes.

For knowledge workers, that is, anyone who heavily relies on information during the normal course of the day (analysts, executives, detectives, plumbers, doctors, wait staff, etc – that is, just about every hard working person) execute all three modes in many iterations. For example, a doctor learns of the symptoms, thinks of a diagnosis and treatment plan, then executes and monitors the treatment plan.

It’s also important to note that these modes are not mutually exclusive to a given activity. For example, as I study a book on say R, I’m not just learning. I’m also thinking in the background ensuring I do comprehend the gist of what I’m reading, and I may even have an instance of R Studio open to try out what I just learned.

Just my opinion, I think that I’m typical of many adult Westerners, not as good at listening as thinking and doing. Listening is less like thinking and doing in that listening is passive as opposed to thinking and doing which is about imposing our will, our opinions. Thinking is really Doing, but in the safety of the virtual world in your brain, not the irreversible real world.

Improving listening, balancing it with thinking and doing, requires emptying your cup and listening to your customer, boss, neighbor, or spouse, with no judgement, no dogma to protect, no resentments, no fear. Otherwise, encounters are a Dukkha breeding ground. Instead you will be a Dukkha parachute bringing the situation safely to the ground. Until you empty your cup, you cannot fill it with anything new. This is the first step towards enlightenment.

Remember that “no Dukkha” does not equate to passivity. This Universe is not passive and exists because of that “ono kine” stuff that happens where opposing forces meet – Yin and Yang. But like a beautiful dance versus a barroom brawl, conflict doesn’t need to be ugly and full of angst, Dukkha.

Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku
Ordained Zen Priest of the Order of the Common Area Ponds