So Sahn stories

Two stories by 16th-century Korean Zen master So Sahn capture the compelling sense of ahimsa or nonviolence that ought to be the ground of the mind and heart.

Here is the first story:

A monk was traveling alone along a deserted highway when robbers fell upon him and stole his bowl, beads, and robe. They tied him up at the roadside with the thick grasses there and fled. The monk did not wish to harm the living grasses by struggling to unbind himself. He lay alone into the cold night and into the hot day that followed, when it happened that the king and his retinue passed on horseback on their way to a hunt. They stopped when they saw the monk, and understood what had happened. The king himself dismounted from his horse and unbound the monk. So impressed was the king (especially given that he was on his way to hunt) that at that very moment he declared himself a Buddhist.

Here is the second story:

A monk was traveling alone when he reached a village. He presented his begging bowl at each door, arriving at last at the door of a jewel-maker, who was in his workshop fashioning a jewel for a wealthy client. A goose wandered about the place. The jewel-maker went into the house to get some food for the monk. In his absence the goose came to the workshop table and swallowed the gem. When the jewel-maker returned and discovered the jewel gone, he screamed angrily at the monk, throttling him and beating him, all the more because the monk would say nothing. The monk knew that if he said what had happened, the jewel-maker would kill the goose. At last, the jewel-maker bound the monk and threw him into a corner, waiting for his confession. After a few hours, the monk noticed the goose excreting. Then he said to the jewel-maker that he could find his gem there in the pile of excrement.

Among other things, these stories are simple conveyances of the idea of nonviolence being not merely passive but even to the point of suffering while upholding the principle. The monks in the stories could well be Hindu sadhus or forest hermits, or Jains, or Buddhists. The concept of ahimsa was the common inheritance of these Eastern religions.

The continuity of this virtue shames the proponents of a lax or flexible, circumstantial attitude towards sentience. So Sahn notes the extreme character of the first monk, who did not even want to injury the grass — which technically is not sentient in the sense that it does not have the mechanism for sensing pain — as contemporary science can now confirm. The story-teller knows this but wants to emphasize a point, one which Jains especially, sensitive to the reality of interconnectedness — the grasses harbor insects, for example — would appreciate.

Extending non-violence to common objects, even inanimate ones, simply reflects an inner disposition towards the entire hierarchy of beings, a recognition of the mingling of life force in all matter of objects. Shinto also appreciates the life presence within rocks, trees, rivers. Whether literally or figuratively, what we do externally molds the inner heart, and our physical actions record a pattern that brings feedback to our vital selves, however subtly and unconsciously. As most people know, psychologists see a child’s abuse of insects as a danger sign. But they would probably also have to see a child pounding angrily on rocks or trees or even grasses as equally suggestive.

The first story is also about change in the human heart. Here the highest potentate of the land still regards himself as open to compassionate action, and can be brought to shame by the example of one of his subjects. The Buddhist King Asoka is suggested, whose short-lived reign attempted in naive fashion to institute virtues without force or violence. Asoka’s brief reign (and the brief reign of nonviolence as a public institution) was like the monk’s day and night, a voluntary witnessing to the effects of nonviolence on others.

In the second story, the jewel-maker is king of his household, and he binds the begging monk until he will confess, that is, until he will kill the goose. The king of this household is ignorant of the truth because he is ignorant of his actions, blindingly lashing out at the monk, imagining him to have “slain” the gem. The monk is willing to suffer not so much on behalf of the goose but on behalf of the truth of his principles. Such courage and stamina must accompany principles if they are to make their way to light — if the truth of the situation with the gem is to be revealed. Who can refrain from a knowing nod to the monk who points to the pile of excrement to identify the gem. What, indeed is the difference between them?

The Western world has never perceived the compelling nature of ahimsa, always viewing itself as privileged to dominate nature, environment, animals, trees, rivers, etc. Early in the history of religious consciousness in the West, Yahweh bids humans “fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth” (Genesis: 1,28). This ruling over and subduing commenced from that point on in animal sacrifice and war, culminating directly in our technological subordination of nature, animals, and peoples to systems of suffering and violence. These systems are always seen as necessary for human vitality, be it factory farms, war, or nuclear power. Ultimately, these systems project themselves into every capacity of human effort, a virtual civilization built on violence and suffering.

The genius of ahimsa is both philosophical and psychological. To practice is to be transformed, to confirm the rightness of its way, to feel more in harmony with nature — healthier, more tranquil, without the unconscious need to evoke a violent response if pushed too far becuse we are everywhere and nowhere. Ahimsa is without agenda, pretense, necessity, or emotion, without the need to do something to something or someone else in order to be at peace. Ahimsa is to not feel angry, resentful, passionate, or sad. It is simply to be as everything else is — the empty mind, the trees, the grasses, the sentient beings.