Archive for ‘Parables’

February 21, 2015

The fickle mountain

When Master Chuang was young, he fluttered back and forth on every decision, exhausting himself. One day, after mounting frustration at his own fickleness, he sat pouting by the roadside as a portly old monk passed by.
— Why are you crying, child, asked the expansive holy man.
— I am a butterfly in the wind. The minute i want something, i begin to want something else, replied the sad, precocious child.
The monk plopped his massive frame on a nearby rock and thought in silence for a good long while.
— You must pray to the God of Stubbornness, he finally declared, and waddled away.
Young Master Chuang had never heard of such a silly god, but wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so on the spot he began pestering the makeshift deity for just a little more stubbornness. Lo and behold, the butterfly was soon pinned down! In time it completely petrified, then morphed into a stone, a hill, and finally became an infinitely large mountain. Even now old Master Chuang will say a little prayer on windy mornings, lest he forget to be stubborn that day.

January 31, 2015

The window pane

J’entendais, oiseau,
mais n’écoutais pas;
tu t’envolas.

[I could hear you, dear bird,
but wasn’t listening;
so you took off.]

[I’d heard the crows cawing, perhaps for hours, as they wintered on a neighbor’s tree, but only noticed when, passing a window, i saw their harsh tones blacken the sky and vanish.]

November 22, 2014

La future monnaie

Perhaps, when Elijah returns as promised, he will stand outside our stores with a handful of pebbles and pay us to buy nothing. When we object that a pebble is worthless, he might well answer: “I brought them from the future. Each one will buy you a little bit of time.” Would that be just enough to save us?

September 13, 2014

Analogies: walled cities

A walled city — be it Jericho, Athens, Rome or Florence — allows those who live in violent lands to pool their defensive efforts by agreeing to labor (or taxes) and laws that will afford the construction of a rampart and then man and maintain it thereafter. This reduces enemy raids on inhabitants’ homes; they do not die as often by the sword, are not sold into slavery, and needn’t watch their houses and possessions burn. They are hence freer, wealthier, and perhaps even happier.

A pollyty is like a walled city, only the marauding it abates is now but financial, and the barbarian at its gate incorporated.

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May 25, 2014

Bright shiny words

Master Chuang was quietly resting at a lakeside with some friends when someone started praising the age-old tree that shaded them from the sun.
— Do not be deceived by bright words, replied Master Chuang. This is not a tree.
After a baffled silence, everyone broke out at once. So the wise old man raised his voice and asked his neighbor:
— What is that soft fur you’re leaning against, my friend? Is it tree?
— It is moss and some lichen.
— And those spots scurrying all about, are they tree, too?
— No, Master, they are caterpillars and ants.
— And do you hear that sound trickling down from above? Surely trees do not chirrup and tweet?
— No, they do not. Those are hungry birdlings calling out from their nests.
After a while, Master Chuang continued: Now see how my own words grow upon your mind and scurry through your thoughts. Soon you, too, will be singing them.

April 13, 2014

Budding hopes

I met a rose-fingered elm this morning; we smiled.

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January 1, 2014

Fait divers

Earlier this week a woman was found hanged in a bedroom at her home, a presumed suicide. Her husband had been killed during a mugging many years earlier, but she had remarried and was living with her second husband and their only child. Neither father nor daughter have yet been located by the police, though at least one of them is thought to have fled the scene wounded, as traces of blood were found in the kitchen and out the back door. The official investigation has uncovered an earlier child from the first marriage which had been given up for adoption at birth. A medical report at the time had identified genetic markers for anti-social behavior, and since the mother was depressive and the father had once killed a man in a brawl, they feared they might foster the child’s criminal tendencies. Unfortunately the adoption process was never completed, and the boy became a ward of the state. He was arrested for a number of petty crimes and a presumed murder but was never convicted. After training as an auto mechanic, he eventually settled down and married one of his clients, a widow….

December 26, 2013

An eager disciple approached the Buddha one night in a dream: Master, i have meditated for 10 years; i take five breaths an hour, i contemplate the flow of my emotion unperturbed, and my desires i direct whichever way is best. But now i must let go of even this, must i not?

That is my teaching, replied the Buddha. But you mustn’t abandon your self as i did—continue climbing instead and find that which made you find your self.

What is this higher realm you speak of? asked the disciple, amazed.
I do not know, replied the Enlightened one.

Then the Buddha woke up, and the dream vanished.

September 30, 2013

One day the Buddha fell in love; then he stood back up and painstakingly climbed out of it.

Why would he do that? asked the wallowing pig.
I couldn’t say, shrugged the flower.

February 14, 2013

An extended simile

A famous myrmecologist was delivering a paper on new developments in his study of leaf-cutter ants at some convention:

A few years ago, one of my good friends re-directed my attention toward large colonies of leaf-cutter ants. He had heard that at least one such colony had recently developed a new means of olfactory communication and wanted to understand exactly what purpose it served. Upon investigation, we discovered that the youngest ants, those just emerging out of larval stage, were apparently being trained by their elders to recognize certain sets of new chemicals and to produce others in return. It was, frankly, as if they were learning some kind of primitive language. But to what end?

As we started to examine this new behavior more closely, we noticed the ants were now experimenting with various new leaves which they fed to the fungi; they were also attempting new architectural forms and even modifying their social structures, etc. It appeared as if they were thinking! Of course, no individual ant was really thinking — or at least that was not the most interesting kind of thinking going on. More importantly, it seemed the colony as a whole had somehow acquired this ability.

We believe three essential ingredients made this new development possible: First, through sheer evolutionary luck the ants had developed a slightly more complex means of communication. Then they systematically inculcated this new “languaging” to their young, forcefully “injecting” the new skill into passive but receptive “brains”. And finally, each individual functioned as a simple gateway, receiving chemical communications from other ants, processing them according to basic formicine logic, and responding as that logic required.

It is important again to recognize that no ant had any control over any of these stages: each individual ant could only “think” in the “language” it had been taught, could only use the “logic” it had assimilated, and could only process whatever information other ants passed on to it. If any ant had felt it was free to think as it wished, it was profoundly mistaken: another intelligence far superior to its own was (merely) “using” this ant to think for itself — admirably and creatively so at that.

Here the scientist paused to reshuffle his papers. He then concluded his talk without further glancing at them:

It is a great pity this new myrmecine intelligence has not yet come to self-awareness. Individual human beings like us might have been able to communicate with it. What feats it could then accomplish! How much more quickly it would evolve! But such a leap would require the colony to start thinking about itself, that is, individual ants would have to become capable of “comprehending” (passively processing) the idea of an infinitely more intelligent and powerful being that nevertheless encompassed them. However, we shall simply have to wait until some few lucky individuals blindly stumble upon this very idea.

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