The flavor of a parable

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An ephemeral pond in the Scotia Barrens, near State College, PA

From The Christian Century, April 5, 2005, “Century Marks” feature:

Thieves broke into an agency in Fostoria, Ohio, and made off with the safe. It turned out the safe was empty. And it turned out the director of the agency was pleased: she had been wanting to get rid of the safe, but it was too heavy to move (AP, March 9).

For those who are unfamiliar with it, the Century is a good, liberal publication aimed mainly at Protestant clergy. The inclusion of this news item in a column otherwise concerned with news about politics and religion indicates to me that the editors recognized it for what it was: a found parable. Sermon fodder!

Imagine the thief, struggling with the thing, finally getting it to a safe place (pun intended) and prying or cutting it open: empty! Imagine the director going into her office expecting to see the safe in its usual spot: empty! The one expects to be rewarded and is frustrated; the other expects to be frustrated and is delighted. In both cases, says the Buddhist, isn’t it the same emptiness? And the monotheist wonders: who the heck is writing this script?

But actually the temptation to expound on stories such as this should probably be resisted. Or so claimed Idries Shah, who said about the teaching stories used heavily in his tradition (Naqshbandi Sufism) that they work best upon the unconscious if they are left as unsolved or insoluble puzzles for the conscious mind.

What the student can’t know – what none of us can know, barring enlightenment – is what we need to know in what order. This varies from one individual to the next; Shah was always full of scorn for religious institutions that promulgate a uniform course of study aimed primarily at enforcing orthodoxy. In terms of spiritual development, he said, what is necessary for one person to do or think might be downright harmful for the next.

It strikes me that there may be something almost universal about this insight into the pitfalls of universalism, however. The classic Chan (Zen) koans had to be recorded surreptitiously, without the knowledge or permission of the Tang and Song Dynasty teachers, who felt that more harm than good would come of preserving these spontaneous exchanges between teacher and student. Many of the Chan teachers spoke non-standard “dialects” of Chinese and frequently employed slang. Even the process of turning their exchanges into literary Chinese involved translation, and they probably anticipated the additional problems of interpretation that would arise as the centuries intervened and the language changed.

More than that, Chan teaching stories and conversations grew out of a cultural milieu that was, if not anti-intellectual, at least profoundly skeptical about the pretensions of literate culture. This may seem like a radical stance for an educated Chinese person to take, but it’s a reaction that goes back at least as far as the 4th century BCE and the teachings of the original Daoists. For highly literate people, words point to other words in an ever-spreading net of associations. One cannot contemplate the full moon without a host of preconceptions and allusions shaping what one sees – “the finger pointing at the moon,” in the well-worn Chan analogy.

Beyond that is the whole question of applicability touched on above.

Tradition has it that the Buddha, faced with questions of a metaphysical nature, once used a parable to explain his view: such questions, he said, were like those of a person wounded by an arrow who would like to know where the arrow came from, etc., rather than to seek to have it removed and the wound healed. His teaching, he said, was designed to heal, not to answer such questions. . . . [In Chan Buddhism] the content and methods of teaching are as strictly adapted to the particular circumstances and audience as a medicine to the illness it must remove.

Urs App, Master Yunmen (Kodansha, 1994)

Of course, the same could easily be said about the teaching of Yeshua ben Yosef, or any number of other inspired teachers.

For those of us lacking in such inspiration, and without inspired teachers, is it still possible to advance in knowledge? Let’s remember that in fact most physical healing does occur more or less on its own – if the mind gets out of the way, or if the consciousness can be somehow transformed, the body can heal itself. The difficulty of that “if,” however, means that doctors, shamans, therapists and the like do perform vital roles; the whole mysterious business of faith comes into play. Some doctors now prescribe placebos, recognizing that they are virtually as effective as expensive drugs. That in itself has the flavor of a parable, e.g.:

A man went to the doctor complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath. A series of tests pointed to the beginning stages of heart disease. The doctor prescribed a new diet and exercise regimen, and asked him if he’d like to participate in a clinical trial of a promising new therapy. “Whatever you recommend, doc,” the man said.

The doctor handed him a large, unmarked bottle full of off-white tablets. “Take only one a week,” he said. “They’re very powerful.”

The man was a conscientious sort and he followed the doctor’s orders, riding his bicycle to work, going for walks on his lunch hour, eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. And every time he took one of the pills, he felt especially invigorated.

In a few months’ time, he was already showing signs of improvement. A year later, the doctor gave him a clean bill of health, conditional on his continuing to exercise and eat well. “But you can stop taking the pills, now,” the doctor said.

“What were they? Will they be approved by the FDA, do you think?”

“Oh, they don’t need approval,” the doctor said carelessly. “They’re nothing new. It’s only their use in healing that is slightly controversial, especially among my more scientifically inclined colleagues.” He hesitated, seeing the trusting look in his erstwhile patient’s eyes. “You see, they’re sugar pills.”

The man grew angry. “I trusted you, doc! I was sick, and all you did was give me a placebo! I could’ve died!”

“I knew you trusted me, ” said the doctor. “That’s why the placebo worked. If you’d been a more cynical person, I might’ve had to prescribe some drug or another, but who knows if that would’ve helped you? Cynics tend to be fatalists, defeatists. And of all organs, the heart is the most impervious to outside intervention. A doctor can only do so much. All I did was perceive that your heart was fundamentally sound, and simply needed to be exercised a bit more.

“Besides,” he said, seeing that the cloud had still not lifted from the man’s face, “Just between you and me – I am not entirely convinced that sugar pills have no therapeutic properties of their own. Sure, sugar’s bad for you in some ways, but all drugs have side effects of some kind. People have been eating sugar in one form or another for thousands of years, and going to great lengths to get it. And most people are healthy most of the time, aren’t they?

“You see,” he said, his voice falling to a conspiratorial whisper, “These aren’t just any sugar pills. They’re a well-balanced mixture of sucrose, glucose, dextrose and fructose, derived from all-natural, organic ingredients. The flavonids were extracted through a special process that preserves the natural goodness of sugar in its purest form. As I said last year, this a brand-new treatment.

The man brightened up. “Well, it certainly worked on me!” he said.


Is any kind of spiritual advancement/healing really possible without the intervention of a teacher/doctor/guardian spirit? It seems as if the same thing that makes a placebo effective against disease – the mind’s amazing ability to outwit itself – perpetuates the division of mind against body, self against other, humans against nature – all things that appear to stand in the way of authentic healing or wholeness.

I would like to suggest that we are all students or disciples whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Imperfect ones, to be sure. But then, it is only when a student finally learns how to be a real student that she becomes fully qualified to teach, at least in any intentional manner. In the meantime, I think we’re all just blundering along here, whether we belong to an established tradition or not.

That’s why I believe so strongly in serendipity. Whether you ascribe it to divinity or random chance, coincidence can be a powerful reminder to pay attention, to listen up. Teachers are everywhere, but we have to listen in such a way that we are able to let go of all our pretensions, preconceptions and prejudices. This can make even otherwise secure people feel naked and exposed.

If I say this with some apparent authority, it’s merely because this very morning I opened a book of poems at random and found the following:

On the Path


not the white flame of wheat
nor the needles nailed to the pupils of birds
will tell you the word

Do not question do not ask
between reason and the turbulence of snow
there is no difference

Don’t gather slops your destiny is you

Take your clothes off
there is no other path

– Eugénio de Andrade, Forbidden Words: Selected Poetry, translated by Alexis Levitin (New Directions, 2003)

And last night, shortly after reading the note about the stolen safe in The Christian Century and beginning to wonder about “found parables,” I clicked on 3rd House Party and read the following, brief story. (It helps to know that the woman in question suffers from Alzheimer’s.)

Not gone but forgotten

Today she got up and saw lying on the spare bed the suitcase that she packed last night when she was going to leave him. She asked him if he was going somewhere.

“I’ve been like that,” I thought. “Or at least, I think I have – how would I know?”

After a few moments of puzzlement, I bowed deeply toward my computer monitor and got up to get a drink of water. It was delicious. “Tomorrow,” I said to myself, “I should write an entire post describing the taste of water, how good it is when you’re thirsty, how bland when you’re not.”

This is that post.

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