Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
We begin with a story:
A man once caught a bird. The bird said to him, "I am no use to you as a captive. But let me free, and I will tell you three valuable pieces of advice."
The bird promised to give the first piece of advice while still in the man's grasp, the second when he reached a branch, the third after he had gained the top of a mountain.
The man agreed, and asked for the first piece of advice.
The bird said:
"If you lose something, even if it be valued by you as much as life itself—do not regret it."
Now the man let the bird go, and it hopped to a branch.
It continued with the second piece of advice:
"Never believe anything which is contrary to sense, without proof."
Then the bird flew to the mountaintop. From here it said:
"O unfortunate one! Within me are two huge jewels, and if you had only killed me they would have been yours!"
The man was anguished at the thought of what he had lost, but he said: "At least now tell me the third piece of advice."
The bird replied:
"What a fool you are, asking for more advice when you have not given thought to the first two pieces! I told you not to worry about what had been lost, and not to believe in something contrary to sense. Now you are doing both. You are believing something ridiculous and grieving because you have lost something! I am not big enough to have inside me huge jewels.
'You are a fool. Therefore you must stay within the usual restrictions imposed on man."
(Attar of Nishapur, The Divine Book, 13th century)
I recently had the occasion to hear a piece of disturbing news. I won't go into the details, but suffice to say that the news was shocking within a small community of hearers. In reaction, each of our concerned members experienced paroxysms of astonishment and outrage, journeying through all five, if not seven, stages of grief.
And then we heard new news—the news was unfounded and not even in the least bit true.
Watching myself foolishly believe what I was told and react so precipitously, I was terribly aware of my suggestibility. I saw that I will believe almost any old thing, if it is framed in a believable way.
Suddenly everything I think I know came into question—even my own name. I have always been called Jason, I thought, but then, I wondered, is Jason really my name? Do I have another name that is closer to the truth of who I am?
And then there's the myriad assumptions comprising the matrix of known self and world, built layer upon layer in my psyche. I became aware of all these things I believe, but which I have not fully questioned or inspected.
Having recovered from the shock of seeing my suggestibility, I was reminded of a story of the Zen master, Hakuin, that suggests another way of being:
There was a monk named Hakuin who was well respected for his work among the people.
In the village, there lived a young woman, the daughter of the food sellers. The young woman became pregnant by her boyfriend who worked nearby in the fish market. When the parents found out about this, they were very angry and pressured her to reveal the name of the father. She wanted to protect the young man and blurted out the name of Hakuin as the father.
After the baby was born, the parents took the baby to Hakuin. They told Hakuin that he was responsible for the baby and left the infant with him. He responded: "Is that so?" And he simply accepted the responsibility for the child without further reaction.
The monk had no experience with babies. But he began to care for its needs, finding food, clothing, and warm shelter. The other villagers became very angry with Hakuin for his offense and his reputation was trashed. These comments did not affect Hakuin, who continued to put his effort and attention into the care of the baby.
After several years, the young woman was filled with remorse. She confessed to her parents the name of the true father. They immediately went to see Hakuin, apologized, and took the baby back with them. Hakuin watched as they returned to there home with the child he had cared for since birth and replied "Is that so?"
There is much of what we are asked to believe about ourselves and the world around that is either irrelevant to the real matter of existence, or is patently absurd. What then is the means of becoming free of the disease of suggestibility, and know, for ourselves, what is so.
This, I think, is a question worth pondering.
Story sources: Tales of the Dervishes, Idries Shah; Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Paul Reps