August 1, 2009

Hansel and Gretel - a Buddhist version

I wrote this after Mike Luetchford's talk a few days ago in Brno on the law of cause and effect. After the talk, suddenly I decided to rewrite this famous fairy tale. It may be totally off the mark, totally useless, crazy, boring and whatever. But I just did it. It was fun to write it. It is based on a version I found on the internet, but I only left very few words intact, otherwise used my own language and added different things and changed the plot a bit.

Here it is

Simply Gretel

A woodcutter lived in a tiny cottage in the forest with his two children, Hansel and Gretel. Although he was quite poor, he often felt calm and happy. He enjoyed chopping wood or playing with his kids. But his second wife yelled at the children and bitched about this and that and nagged the woodcutter.
"There isn’t enough food. It’s high time we got rid of the two brats," she said. Then she told her husband to leave the children in the forest. Despite his love for them, he was unable to resist. He felt weak when he heard his wife’s commanding voice.
"Take them miles away from here so they never find their way back home!"
Hansel had overheard his parents' talk.
"If they do leave us in the forest, we'll find the way home," he said to his sister.
“Maybe”, she said. “But is this still our home? Dad loves us, for sure, but this lady will always give us a hard time and chase us away.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see how things unfold.”

The next morning the woodcutter took Hansel and Gretel away into the forest. He didn’t think much, just kept walking. “This must be a strange dream. Only a dream,” he thought. After walking several miles he had to stop. He almost fainted.
Soon the kids realized they were lost and without their father. But Gretel did not panic.
"I know we’re lost and hungry and it is pitch-dark now. Anyway, this can’t last forever. We’ll find out what to do!"
Gretel tried to encourage her brother, but she too shivered when she saw shadows and strange shapes around them in the darkness. All night the two children sat at the foot of a large tree. They couldn’t fall asleep.
At dawn they started to wander around the forest, seeking a path, a path to a friendly world. At last they came upon a cottage in the middle of a glade.
"This is chocolate!" said Hansel and broke a bit of chocolate from the wall.
"And this is icing!" said Gretel, putting another piece of wall in her mouth.
It seemed the friendly world was found. But then Gretel said:
“Wait a minute. We can’t just eat something that isn’t ours.”
“So what,” said Hansel. ”I’m hungry.”
“Nobody should eat other people’s houses. Maybe someone will come out and offer real food.”
"I haven’t eaten the house anyway, just a bit of wall," Hansel said, munching on another piece of something delicious. Then the door quietly opened.
"Well, well!" said a strange, old woman. "And haven't you children a sweet tooth?"
They looked at her but said nothing.
"Come in!” said the old woman. “You’ve got nothing to fear!”

The candy cottage belonged to a witch.

After a few more friendly and kind words, she said:
"You kids are nothing but skin and bones!"
All of a sudden, she grabbed Hansel and locked him into an old, rotten cage.
“I shall fatten you up and eat you!"
“Strange English”, thought Gretel.
Hansel was frightened but his sister just shook her head. It seemed they were dreaming. Was this a fairy tale? Was this reality? Gretel wasn’t sure. She loved fairy tales. But not in real life.
“Not now,” she sighed. “We don’t want fairy tales now. Sometimes fairy tales are horrible, just like reality.”

"You can do the housework," the woman told Gretel, "then I'll make a meal of you too!"
“I was right, “Gretel thought. “This is real life. Real life and a horror. Both. ”

The witch checked Hansel’s finger every day to see if he had gained weight.
"You're still much too thin!" she said after a month.
One day she had enough of waiting.
"Light the oven," she told the girl. "We're going to roast him!"
Gretel didn’t move. She was thinking about something, paying little attention to the old woman.
The witch screamed at the little girl: "Useless child! All right, I'll do it myself."
Later the witch wanted to see if the oven was hot enough.
“Now I could just push her inside,” Gretel thought. “Push her and slam the door. But that…” the girl shook her head, “that would be too much.”
She looked at her brother who was trembling. As the woman was about to stick her head into the door, Gretel said:
“Hold on. I know you’re starving. But let me ask you something before you roast my poor brother.”
The witch was shocked.
“How dare you… you…” she gasped.
“We both know that if you roast Hansel, you can eat him.”
“What,” said the witch and felt as if she was falling asleep.
“This is the law of cause and effect. When you push me hard, I fall down.”
“What,” sighed the witch. ”I must be dreaming,” she thought and then said: “What on earth…heaven…”
“Let me explain. If you roast Hansel, you eat. If you don’t roast Hansel, you don’t eat.”
Suddenly the witch could see shadows coming out from the darkness. It was more and more clear that she was facing something she had already experienced in the past. In the past she would try to find the meaning of life and death but found nothing, only frustration and anger. This girl was talking about philosophy.
“Philosophy,” the witch whispered.
“Madam,” said Gretel. “What is the situation where there is no room for a process of cause and effect?”
“I don’t know,” puffed the witch.
Gretel grabbed a shovel and hit her. The witch shivered a bit but stayed quiet.
“This is the real situation where there is no room for a process of cause and effect,” said Gretel.
The woman said in a calm voice:
“Now I see that you have found the meaning of life and death. I had been looking for it almost all my life but recently I gave up and became a child-eater. I am a criminal. Nobody likes me. I like nobody. I just eat poor little kids. I would like to ask you to teach me to see what the meaning of life and death is.”
“For now,” said the girl, “we’ve had enough theories. I hit you, which was an action, not a theory, not something you only imagine in your fairy tales. Now let me and Hansel get some food in the nearest village so we can all have dinner. Then we can discuss philosophy again.”

The witch couldn’t wait to listen to Gretel’s teaching. She didn’t want to eat, just discuss philosophy. She felt as if only talking to the girl would fill her stomach. But Gretel grabbed her brother and left the cottage.

On the way to the nearest village Hansel asked:
“How can I become as wise as you?”
“I’m not very wise. I just asked the old woman a question. She got stuck in her thoughts about this and that so I hit her. Anyway, we were lucky. If it hadn’t been for her interest in philosophy, she would’ve killed us. There are plenty of mad people, not just fairy tales characters. Some adults don’t believe in witches but I do.”
"I still don’t know what you said to her about effects and meanings. Could you explain it to me?”
“We came across that candy house, so we got into trouble. But as we ate the sweet chocolate, we were free. We didn’t know about our past or future problems. So I wanted to show her that beside her life that’s full of causes and effects, there’s also freedom within a simple action here and now. This simple action here and now provides a point where we can overcome the burden of our past actions and stop worrying about the future. Although we have to count on the law of cause and effect and can never escape it, not even in our dreams, not even in fairy tales, we can also enjoy freedom of the present. I wanted to show her that her life can become more balanced if she appreciates what she simply does here and now, be it washing clothes or just looking out of the window.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about. But I’ll try to… I’ll study…”
“Yes. As you wish. But now don’t worry. Let’s just do the shopping.”

As they were walking down the forest path, they ran into their father who was desperately looking for them. They were all overjoyed.
“Your stepmother has died. It was a virus. Come home with me now, my beloved children!"
“Dad!” said Gretel. “Let’s first do some shopping. We’ve met this lady and we promised we would bring her some food from the nearest village. She’s starving! She almost ate Hansel. Really. Just like in the fairy tale. We did survive. Now let’s just buy some food, eat dinner with the lady and then go home.”
"Let’s do that!" said the father. “By the way, is the lady attractive?”
“Arrgh,” said Hansel, “she looks like a big old witch, Dad!”
"I hope,” Hansel said when they came to the village at last. “I hope that sometime we’ll find gold in the woods and become rich and there’ll be no more work for us. Just fun. “
“Just fun,” the father shook his head and smiled. “I quite like chopping wood.”

May 10, 2009

No Profit for You or Me

Kodo Sawaki, a Japanese Buddhist teacher who lived in the 20th century and taught Nishijima Roshi, often stressed that there is nothing to gain in practicing zazen or studying Buddhism. He taught that someone who tries to achieve something in Buddhism, be it through zazen or studying the Buddhist philosophy or discussing it or burning incense, makes a mistake if they believe Buddhism gives one a personal profit. According to Sawaki, satori or peaceful mind has nothing to do with Buddhism, if it limited to one person only. In other words, if you believe you can boast a satori or boast peaceful mind, you have misunderstood what Buddhism is.

Most people expect Buddhist practice to give them something they could personally profit from. If they don't believe they can attain enlightenment, they at least believe they can achieve some kind of peaceful mind. As soon as I came across books about Zen, I wanted to attain satori and become a fantastic person without any problems. And a lot of Buddhist teachers are considered enlightened and having a peaceful mind and no problems in their lives and people look up to them and follow them as if they were some kind of Gods. But according to Sawaki, it is ridiculous to brag and say, hey I am enlightened and I have no problems and am detached from the world. For Sawaki, satori is something you don't even realize happening - as you are practicing zazen without trying to attain anything special, satori comes in abundance, over and over again. Kodo Sawaki said: "It’s satori that pulls our practice. We practice, being dragged all over by satori." So there is no reason to make a difference between enlightened and unenlightened people. The only thing that matters is whether you practice zazen or not. Everyone is enlightened, but in Buddhism we learn to realize what we are ( what this enlightenment is ) as we practice zazen over and over again, never coming to an end of this practice.

But is it humanly possible to practice zazen without expecting at least a little bit of difference? Don't we realize we are more balanced, more content after zazen? Yes, I have almost always felt more balanced and more content after zazen, but only because I just practiced without looking for a personal benefit. I remember times when I practiced zazen in order to attain something special and it was almost unbearably difficult to continue like that. Such practice is like nurturing one's personal frustration. YOu practice only to find out that you have not made any progress. But when you give up and only practice in order to practice, immediately you can calm down and sit peacefully. But it is not your personal peace, it is the universal peace that has captured you completely. So to me, zazen itself, practicing zazen here and now is enough, satisfying enough. Also in everyday life, if we hope to feel excellent all the time, energetic all the time, our mind clear all the time and if we compare our ideals about some kind of Buddhist life with our actual life, we will be very frustrated. It is much better to give up these ideals and just act here and now. When there is a gap between me and the present moment, this place, then we can never be satisfied.

What most Buddhists hope for is some kind of great feeling or great mind after practicing for some time, but they can only attain - and it's wonderful to attain it - this place and this moment beyond the duality of myself and the world. So no matter how long you have practiced or how many times you have experienced something you may call satori, you can only be here and now and be the person you have always been - just yourself, content doing something concrete here and now. So what kind of personal profit is it? Once you call it personal profit, my satori, my peace, you already break the whole thing into peaces and become the same ordinary person who only sees the world as something outer.

There is something one can achieve in Buddhism, but that something is not limited to one person only, but is spread throughout the universe. "The universe" sounds too abstract maybe, but I just mean something that is immeasurable and limitless. Something we experience now and cannot see its limits and cannot call it any names. So the thing you realize in Buddhism through practice and philosophy is not something you can measure and say this is mine, not yours. What you realize practicing zazen and studying Buddhist teaching is something that has come from all beings, all things, it is something that has come from you, too. When you wash the dishes and feel balanced, it is not you only, the whole world is balanced. And when you look at a countryside and the countryside looks beautiful, it is not something separate from you, it is beauty that is yours. So whatever we do, whatever we see, it is always originally something complete. And this completeness is satisfying, but once you say I am satisfied by this completeness, you make the completness something incomplete, something objective. It is the same with satori, once you say I have "satori", what kind of satori is it that you can point to and say you have it? Of course, to attain the truth is possible in Buddhism, but the truth is beyond something objective that one can possess while the others cannot. So a person of the truth, someone who has realized the truth has no special qualities or something to show off.

A person of the truth may talk about feeling balanced and peaceful but he or she does not keep that state for himself or herself, but freely gives it up for the others. He or she shares his satori or Buddhist state with others, not "Here, this is my Buddhist state", but "Here, look, this is your Buddhist state. " Everyone experiences the Buddhist state many times a day, but most of us don't realize this. Buddhism teaches us to realize what Buddhist state is and enjoy it when it happens. But whenever it happens, you give it up freely, share it with the whole world. If you don't give it up, it is not a Buddhist state. If you give it up, there is no profit. No profit for me, no profit for you, just the whole world benefits from the state that is beyond personal limits.