Teaching and learning is rooted in transmission of experience and interpreting it. In my years of learning movement I was always fascinated by the power of stories as supportive and essential building blocks to my progress. Stories also contain risk though. We tend to lower down our ethical or logical guard when hearing about something that supposedly is not 100% real and does not try to sell or convince us of anything. This can allow a change of perspective that is many times fundamental for further development of skill and deeper learning. But stories can also contain ideology and hidden demagogy. They are wonderful ways to manipulate masses and insert ideas without the filter of day to day life and personal context.
When studying Zen I often get a bit defensive of the stories I hear, mostly from scholars and experts that have little experience in actual zen training though. The main problems I have with them often come down to 2 main problems:
1) The western tendency to wrap up any eastern story with a 'woke' agenda. Zen had nothing to do with many softer interpretations of accessible practice that arrived to the west.
2) Zen deals a lot with the abandonment of self which encapsulates some serious moral issues. Let us not forget that Kamikaze pilots used to read D.T. Suzuki to release some of the ethical setbacks they could experience before sending themselves on suicidal missions. Similarly, Bahagvad Gita was used by the Nazis as a philosophical back bone. Or in the words of Slavoj Zizek "no - self is the type of vision that enables you to do horrors''.
So after laying out my disclaimer I present to you one of my favorite Zen Stories. At the end of it I will also present a few possible readings and as you can already guess, nothing is what it seems...
The Painter and the Emperor
"There was once a famous emperor in China who wanted to decorate his Kitchen wall with a huge painting of a rooster.
"The Rooster is loud, glorious and proud, it reminds me of myself in young and old age and it will be a symbol of my royalty every time I sit to dine a delicious meal served by my loyal chefs". The King sent messages all throughout China to find him the best painter in the country, after endless scouting and testing, a mysterious man from a distant and unknown village was brought over to the palace. The man had a humble posture, gentle hands and piercing eyes. He spoke and stepped softly but his gaze was sharp as a razor. He came without any belongings but the rumors in the country were that his hand was touched by god and that his skill with a brush was divine.
"I have heard you are the best of the best when it comes to painting roosters" Said the emperor.
"I can not promise anything, but I will do my best" said the guest.
"Well, you better.. because if I am not satisfied with the work I will decorate my kitchen with your head.
But if I will, you will never have to work a single day in your life".
And so the work began, the painter positioned himself in a small cabin where he was provided with the best painting equipment and endless amount of canvas. His routine transitioned between the royal kitchen and solitary time in his cabin. He often took long and early morning night walks in the forest around the castle but most of his daytime was spent observing the empty wall where the painting was intended to be made. Since he had to make the masterpiece on the wall of the kitchen, he was appropriately served and dined by the royal kitchen staff. Nothing short of the best products and chefs of the country were serving him. His presence was quiet, pleasant and never bothered any of the palace residents and workers.
A few months passed and the king was growing anxious about the vision of his kitchen. He would occasionally ask the artist if he can see progress and the artist would respond "all in due time" or "it is not ready for your majesty's eyes just yet". More months passed and the spring was already blooming. It seemed like the artist was growing fond of his long days in the castle and the walks in the forest nearby. The king has already had sculptures made in other rooms and the whole roof repainted and replaced by master roofmakers. Yet, no sign of even a beak of a rooster.
"With all the respect to your creative process," Said the king one evening, "I remind you that meanwhile you eat my food and drink my wine but there is no sign of your skillful gesture in my kitchen. I will await your last step in the process but if I lose my patience, your head will be a wonderful souvenir of the time you've spent here".
The painter listened carefully and replied with a low and respectful tone; "Your majesty please remember that the eye tends to miss the things that are most valuable, I am working day and night and promise you that my final expression will not disappoint you"...
There was something about his answer that intimidated the king. What is he missing? And if he kills the artist and later will be revealed as a fool. And what if he is just playing with the king to buy more time for his nihilist enjoyment of the royal lifestyle?
The relationship between the two grew colder and the end of the summer was near. One day the king decided to put an end to this ambitious project, he called his bodyguards and they went downstairs to the cabin to find the artist. "We are heading to the kitchen my friend, and if the rooster is not on the wall it will be your blood that will paint the walls!!!". The painter sighed and followed the two. Obviously, the wall was still empty.
"So you tricked me you bastard, nothing is on the wall and you just used this past year to live off of my fortune, prepare to die you worthless parasite!"
The painter calmly stepped towards the wall, took a deep breath and looked one more time at the abyss that accompanied him for the past year. Then, with just the perfect amount of force he thrusted a series of 1000 quick strokes that gave birth to a beautiful rooster. The mural was glorious in form and composition and presented a rooster larger than a human's size with a brave but mischievous gaze. Undoubtedly this was the most beautiful rooster that the king has ever seen, a mythical painting. And it all took no more than 5 minutes.
Puzzled and in awe the king mumbled... "I congratulate you, this is the best artwork I have ever seen in my life. But if all it took you was a few minutes why did you have to pull all this time and risk your head being cut off".
The artist calmly replied "follow me".
They went out and the king followed the painter into his cabin. There, he showed him a big wooden wardrobe. The artist opened the doors and an enormous pile of papers immediately sled out of the wardrobe. It was astonishing how many pieces of papers and canvases were stored in such a wardrobe. Through the open doors all the papers poured out like a waterfall and spread all over the room. There must have been 10,000 papers there and all had been used for drawing, sketching and painting, well... roosters.
The king stared at the man with admiration and left the cabin silently. He fulfilled his promise and the artist became a rich man. However, rumors are that the artist continued to paint every single day of his life.
Context and Conclusion(?)
So now dear reader the question is pointed at you. What do you take away from this story?
In a way when we use the story as a metaphor for meditation the take away is clear and supportive. Meditate daily and rigorously. The moment when it all comes in hand will never look like an accumulation of thousands of hours. Indeed the painter as a meditator didn't benefit from the rich lifestyle or changed because of this major event. He carried on with his skillful presence progressing one step at a time and ready anytime for pulling out a masterful stroke. And indeed, the hope that the mind can be as soft daily and sharp in the moment of action can give a back wind of motivation in moments that the last thing we want is to sit quietly for 30 minutes.
However, there is also a strange undercurrent of obedience and the role of the artist in the class structure. The initiation of the story and its resolution is the caprice of the childish king. Isn't Zen training in essence a tool to live peacefully in a world where we are doomed to dance around the emotional operations of those in power. And in Zen like Zen this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Which means, if this is the nature of our human lives and the serenity to outwit or outskill can all be gained under extreme levels of discipline. In a way, neither movement nor arts are paths of life that tend to accompany life of aristocracy or royalty. Not in the old days but also not nowadays. Great skill is often the compensation but never something is being developed amongst the richest or the most powerful. From time to time one manages to go beyond and achieve some fame, but this fame is like the fame of the palace jester. And maybe just because of this, the only way to live fully in the hopeless pursuit of betterment is appreciating the little things. Not because they have more value, but simply because we can appreciate only that is accessible to us and accessibility is never equal.
The fun thing about stories is also the possibility of interpretations, knowing there is always more than one. If you have your own reading that is totally different to mine and you feel you must share it please go ahead and send it to me. Also, as I do my best to keep this newsletter close to both my heart and the interest of the readers, if you have any specific requests for articles, tutorials, playlists or anything else feel free to send away your feedback and requests.