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What a Zen Story Can Teach Us About the Pandemic

Wisdom from Japan holds a lesson for COVID-19 responses.

A couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I tell my students a Zen mondo, commonly referred to as a parable, about tree cutting. It doesn’t matter what class I am teaching, whether Moral Development or Media Ethics. The story is a wisdom story, after all.

The enigmatic story I tell is part of a Chinese and later Japanese tradition of Buddhism in which enlightenment doesn’t come through reason or contemplation but by a sudden insight into the nature of things.

In this tradition, truth doesn’t rely upon words or scripture. Rather the initiate discovers the “Enlightenment already existing in every mind though clouded still with illusion,” writes Christmas Humphreys, in the introduction to Imgard Scholoegl’s book of translations of Zen stories and sayings, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters.

So is there a lesson regarding the pandemic to be found in an ancient parable about how to cut down a tree? I think there is.

Wisdom tales, especially those we receive in translation, are different dependent upon the teller. Just think of how the parables found in the Christian bible can depending upon the biblical translation.

However, I think I’ve kept the original spirit of the mondo in my telling it this way:

Once there was a student who sought out a teacher so he could become a tree cutter. After some searching, he found a master famous for climbing and pruning trees who agreed to take him on as a pupil.

One day the master took the disciple to the edge of a village and pointed to a tall tree. Villagers gathered around while the teacher told the student to climb the tree.

Villagers came to watch the lesson. They stood by the master as the student took a saw and shimmied up the trunk, then began to slowly climb higher and higher, pruning a branch here and cutting a limb there. All the while, the teacher stood silently. He didn’t utter a word.

The student reached the top of the tree and pruned it thoroughly. He waited a bit for the teacher to shout an instruction. But the master didn’t utter a word. So the student began to climb down, repeating the snipping, cutting and pruning. Still nothing from the teacher.

When the student reached the lowest limb, the teacher cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, ‘Watch out!’

Everyone wanted to know why the teacher remained mute while the student was climbing up and said nothing as he climbed down. Only when the disciple reached the bottom limb did he tell him to be careful.”

I usually end there. But I do give my students a hint as to the story’s meaning since they are often frustrated by the puzzling conclusion. They want to know what the story means. Of course, the point of Zen stories is that the listener already knows the meaning and needs to be awakened to that fact. So telling them the mondo’s meaning subverts the point of Zen and its methodology.

But I’m not a Zen master and these are students in a secular American university.

So I give them a hint by reminding them that the semester is over in a few weeks. And before finals begin, I will often tell them the moral of the story even if they haven’t figured it out for themselves.

I am reminded of this classroom lesson as the world enters the second half of a year of the COVID pandemic. One day the virus loosens its grip in one place but tightens it in another. When people become complacent, the virus threatens lives again.

And that’s the lesson of the Zen parable. When we enter a new and dangerous situation, we are cautious. It was when we near the end, when we are almost down from the tree, that we become careless. The student, on the last limb, is most likely to lose his balance because he is over-confident.

The novel COVID virus has turned over everyone’s lives up-side-down. This classic Zen story teaches us how to best respond to the crisis as science moves us closer to a solution.

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