Monday, June 13, 2016

Burnin' Down the House

A while back I posted a reflection on sex, using as a jumping-off point for the discussion the well-known  Zen koan about  a widow who burns down a monk’s hut.1 The story, basically, goes like this: 

            A widow decided to support the practice of a monk. So she set up for him a hut on her property where he could live and do his holy work undisturbed.  She provided him food and supplied his needs for twenty years, at which point she had an impulse to check the level of his realization:  She instructed her beautiful serving girl to linger a bit the next time she brought the monk his meal, to sit on his lap, embrace him, and see what happened. The girl did as she was told. Seated on the surprised monk’s lap with her arms around him, she asked provocatively, according to the widow’s instructions, “What now?”
            The monk replied, poetically:

An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter
Nowhere is there any warmth

            On hearing the report of this, the widow kicked the monk out of his hut and burned it down.

            As one of my assertions in that essay was that hardly anyone escapes or tests out of sexual desire, this koan seemed a good way to frame my reflection:  the monk’s seeming claim to have gone beyond sex, and the widow’s recognition that he was deluded for thinking so.    But as with many koan stories, this one can be turned around in one’s head over a long period of time--maybe even a lifetime—often yielding things that might not have at first been expected. Some readers of that piece provided other interesting takes on the story.2
            One reader in particular was critical of the widow’s action.  The better response, he thought, would have been for the widow to avoid judging the monk at all, in acknowledgement of the fact that one can’t really completely know someone else’s inner reality.  Did the widow miss the fact that the ability to see one’s own sins is superior to the ability to see angels, as the saying goes?   It’s a good point, and one can read the koan in a way that emphasizes that:   The widow, more concerned with the sins of others than her own, becomes a symbol of that classic way of missing the mark.  And perhaps the suddenly homeless monk then understands that the point of salvation wasn’t comfort or the esteem of his fellows.  Maybe he rejoices in the hut-burning, with gratitude toward his benefactor for inadvertently opening his eyes to that. And so forth. That seems a reasonable way to read it.
             But as the story did its work on me in the ensuing months, I found my curiosity more and more directed toward the figure of the widow, and the koan began to morph for me into a story that, while tangentially about sex, was also about something else.  To understand what that something else might be, some reasonable speculation about the widow is required, based on the sparse details the koan gives—because the details of every koan are sparse, which serves to highlight the fact that every detail is usually very important.
             Though no specific details of the widow’s circumstances are given, a few assumptions can be made.  As she seems to have retained at least one servant and had the means to support a monk, she likely shouldn’t be thought of as poor. We have no indication of her age, but doing the math, she can’t have been terribly young at the time of her hut-burning, even if she lost her husband at an early age.  And since she’s willing to support a monk’s practice, we can take her to be a pious person, at least someone who seeks merit from supporting holy activity.  Or perhaps even a practitioner of the way herself--as would have been plausible for a woman of means in the Chan Buddhist culture of the Tang dynasty  from which this story comes. Maybe we can imagine that she aspired to be a nun at some point but got married instead, and that her support of the monk demonstrates her concern with ultimate things:  that she’s someone who uses her wealth to contribute to spiritual practice rather than spending it on frivolous things, perhaps with gratitude for being able to make such a contribution.
            But say that after a few years, she begins to get little hint of something not quite right about the monk’s direction. Maybe it’s something small, an odd vibe that she can’t really put her finger on and that she wouldn’t have noticed if he didn’t live right in her back yard like that.  She puts it aside,  wisely not trusting her own impressions, which have proven unreliable in the past (She recalls that, as a girl,  thought the sun stopped existing at night!), and she puts her faith in the monk’s good aspiration and in the greater tradition within which his practice fits. 
            Say that after some time though, the impression doesn’t go away, and she can’t shake it. More evidence arises, subtle but undeniable instances of repeated behaviors, and it gets to the point where she must practice actively ignoring it in order to go on.  So she dutifully practices active ignorance, by the elements of her own spiritual maturity recognizing that no one is completely holy, that everyone is a work in progress.  She continues her grateful support.
            But more time passes, and the negative vibe continues to the point where ignoring it would be dishonest.  What’s more, she sees fruits of the wrong direction in the disciples of the monk who visit him in his hut:  unkindness, not the ordinary kind, but something systemic, a feeling that their practice sets them above supposedly ordinary people less spiritual.  At first she thinks this may be a function of what usually happens to young zealots, but, after a number of years, it doesn’t seem to go away.  She’s troubled, but it’s not her place to instruct others.  She continues with her devoted support.
            Say she gives it a few more years, but there’s no improvement, and it becomes impossible for her to ignore the genuine damage that’s being done to the world beyond the hut. The non-kenotic energy coming from the hermitage is having its effect in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. But it’s still another couple years before the impulse arises in her to actually do something about it.
            She then spends another few years questioning that impulse.  Maybe she just doesn’t understand, she reasons.  Perhaps this is a wisdom beyond her ken, something she’ll get in time.  But ultimately she must come to terms with the realization that sustained, systemic unkindness can never be a sign of wisdom.
            She struggles with whether she can or should do anything about it. It’s not her place to correct a monk. And if she did, the result would most likely be her humiliation. She may get flak from institutional religion.  She may suffer ridicule not only from the authorities, but from friends and neighbors—how dare this widow criticize someone of such status and in doing so cast aspersions on the revered Chan lineage?  And no one may believe her anyway. After all, who is she compared to a person of spiritual authority?  She could very well end up looking like a fool, and her efforts might have no effect anyway.
            But ultimately it becomes clear that the only honest thing she can do is to bear witness in any way she can, for the sake of the monk and for all other beings, and without attachment to results, because a good result doesn’t seem too likely.  It’s not a moment of glorious triumph, this realization, for it’s going to mean taking on the identity of Scary Old Lady. But any other path is dishonest.  She sighs, and figures out a way to manifest the monk’s wrong direction in a clear way by testing him. She knows a radical act will be required, because if the guy is bought into his delusion to the point of reciting spontaneous poetry about it, just telling him will likely have no effect.  She sends in the pretty servant girl, trembling at what she knows will happen, the box of matches already in hand.
            Think of the widow’s process like this and the image of the crazed old hag falls away. She becomes instead a symbol of discernment.  She didn’t come to the decision to torch the hut lightly. It took twenty years, and I think that period of time is a critically important detail--probably the most important detail of the whole story. Discernment isn’t often easy or quick. Even if it is, it bears spending some time doubting one’s motives and resisting judgment of one’s brother in exactly the way one of my critics suggested.  And discernment doesn’t come from a place of self-confidence.  It’s discovered by a process of the kind of questioning that doesn’t land one in a place of total certainty, even as action becomes imperative.  And it isn’t easy.  One resists it like Jeremiah resisted his prophetic calling.  There’s no delight in acting on it.  But action, when required, becomes inevitable, as the discernment becomes a kind of anointing to act. The consequences aren’t fun or necessarily satisfying. They do nothing to build up one’s self-esteem. But bearing witness to one’s discernment is ultimately about radical honesty and compassion, and shirking that witness goes in the other direction.
            The widow becomes for me a great symbol of the process of discernment and its consequences, and a model that anyone might use to check himself or herself against whenever  the impulse arises to speak the truth to power. To see one’s own sins is indeed superior to seeing angels. But sometimes, even when you understand that,  you have to burn down a house.


2. Another friend opined that perhaps the monk indeed actually had transcended sexual desire, but that in doing so, he’d missed the point, which may have been the cause of the widow’s anger. That’s an interesting variant that I’m going to be considering from now on.

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