Expired · 26th November 2009
The Zen literature of samurai Japan recounts the story of a young man who wanted to become a great swordsman. In his search to find a teacher, he learned of an old man who lived a solitary and frugal life in a little cottage in a remote forest. So he went to the master and begged to be accepted as an apprentice. The old man eventually agreed.
Weeks passed without any apparent instruction. The young man chopped wood, lit fires, cooked, fetched water, swept the cottage, gardened and gathered food. All this devotion was rewarded with not a mention of swordsmanship. One day, in frustration, the young man complained to his master. "Ah," said the old man, "now you are ready to begin."
Many days passed but still nothing changed. Then one morning, when the young man was fetching water at the nearby stream, he was shocked to receive a tremendous whack from a stick. These painful attacks from his teacher soon became a common but unpredictable occurrence. He would be lighting a cooking fire or weeding in the garden when the old master would silently creep up behind him and whack him. Indeed, these attacks came so often and unexpectedly that the young man found himself in a constant state of fearful anxiety. But he could never avoid the beatings.
One evening, in frustration and anger, he decided to give the old master some of his own painful teaching. When the old man was crouched quietly by the fire, the young man crept up behind him and took a mighty swing with a stick. The old master subtly but deftly moved aside and the stick crashed into the fire with a splash of sparks and ashes. "You see," said the old man, "the secret to becoming a great swordsman is to never be hit by a sword." And so the young man slowly learned to be inwardly still but outwardly aware. With steady concentration, he learned to read the language of bodies, to recognize an attack before it occurred, and to master the art of avoidance. Eventually he became a famous samurai because no one could ever strike him with a sword.
This is a teaching that pervades Eastern philosophy. In Taoism, Zen's precursor in China, avoidance is a fundamental part of the tradition and practice. Direct force is denigrated because soft and gentle strategies are more effective. War is regarded as failure because all efforts to avoid open conflict have been unsuccessful. The Way, that undefinable essence at the heart of Taoist and Zen practice, is found by avoiding whatever it isn't. A keen awareness of ongoing circumstances allows insights that bypass dangers and lead to inviting openings. Mistakes are used as refinements to hone the skill and acuity necessary to follow this peaceful course. When practiced well, this strategy is barely recognized because everything proceeds with a balanced harmony that is profoundly ordinary.
Key to achieving this balanced harmony is avoidance, the skill of recognizing and solving problems before they actually occur. This strategy is far more practical and efficient than waiting until problems are serious enough to be identified. Meeting a problem once it has occurred is akin to confronting an armed enemy after all efforts at peace have failed. Once problems present themselves, they may already be too difficult to solve. Planning is an overt form of the more intuitive process of avoiding unwanted outcomes by sensing the flow of events and then gently altering circumstances before they escalate to disastrous consequences.
This, of course, raises the uncomfortable issue of the multiple environmental challenges facing our planet these days. Have we already been too slow to recognize them and waited too long to address them? The intuitive insights and the reflexive responses that might have avoided them decades ago were numbed by a collective unawareness, indifference or denial. Now these environmental challenges are looming larger and closer, with impacts to both nature and civilization that might be catastrophic.
Is this hyperbole? Have we already reached the point of inevitability? No one knows for certain. But science, the discipline that is the hallmark and pride of our modern society, is almost unequivocal in its concern for our future. Scientists will quibble about details but their general mood of their concern is worry verging on panic.
Are we safe for now? Probably. At least for a while. But this depends on what we mean by "safe" and "now". In epochal terms, the changes our planet is undergoing are dramatic and almost instantaneous. In terms of individual humans, the changes seem slow. Affluent cultures may have a few years or decades of relative ease before the most ominous predictions are due. But we are adaptive. And we quickly forget the old balanced harmonies we once called normal and ordinary. Besides, the continual process of aging and dying means our collective experience of the present is always being reshaped by new generations.
But, for anyone who thinks beyond the present moment, this realization should raise alarms. What concern should we have for these new generations that are just embarking on their lives as young adults, are just attending schools as little learners or are just now growing in wombs of mothers-to-be? They will be living our future. And what will be our environmental bequest to them?
The future is always built on the foundations of the present. Today's children and grandchildren will be inheriting the wise or foolish decisions made by their parents and grandparents – the weight of this thought is made even more sobering when we add the ingredients of caring and love. The implications should add a serious measure of focus and urgency to everything we do today. If the sword strikes because the avoidable has become the unavoidable, what will be their judgment of us?