There is a lot of pressure on the whole New Year’s thing this year, right? I mean, the pandemic, economic turmoil; not to mention I am behind a few loads of laundry. And all of a sudden I am somehow supposed to start fresh, become a brand new, happy, healthy person, and so on.
Not happening. Sorry, readers.
And sorry to break it to you, self, so impersonally. I am not budging from this spot. After all, wherever we are, however we feel, that’s exactly where we need to be.
Or, as the 18th century Japanese Buddhist poet Issa puts it:
New Year’s Day—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.
To New Year’s credit, I guess it’s good to have these instances of renewal to remind us that we can begin again.
Or, better yet, to remind us that we are already beginning again.
the crooked tree
I love the story about the 15th century Japanese monk Ikkyu. The governor of the province where he lived selected a particular pine tree, out in a forest, that was exceptionally gnarled and crooked. He posted a large sign in front of the tree that announced–
Anyone who can see this crooked tree as straight will receive a prize from the Governor.
Lots of folks would see the sign, look at the tree, and walk around it. Some would lay down under the tree and look up at it. Some climbed it and would down at the tree from their perch.
But no one could answer the basic question of how to see the crooked tree as straight.
One day, our homeboy Ikkyu walked by, saw the sign, and looked at the tree. And immediately goes to the Governor’s pace announcing:
I have answered the riddle. Where’s my prize?
Now our Governor is startled and a bit suspicious of our homeless Buddhist monk. (Oh, did I not mention he was homeless?) So he asks Ikkyu–
How do you see this crooked tree as straight?
And Ikkyu looked at him squarely and said
That’s all he said. It’s crooked!
To truly see a crooked tree as crooked, just as it is, IS to see it as straight.
Let’s not gloss this one over as some quirky Zen thing, OK? After all, I titled this post after Ikkyu’s answer to the Governor.
We go through life seeing this person, or this interaction, or this situation as deficient. As not straight somehow. We respond to these situations the way everyone else did in our story–by looking at the situation from different angles.
But we still are dealing with a situation or circumstance we feel is somehow fundamentally deficient. Crooked.
Because in your heart of hearts you really do feel the election was stolen. Or that we shouldn’t admit so many immigrants. Or abortion is infanticide.
are we still trying to straighten a crooked tree?
But we are not seeing the question the way our homeless Zen monk saw it. We still butt our heads up against–
How do I straighten out this obviously crooked tree.
But if you make that radical drop into-
Yo, it’s crooked.
no problem to be solved
No distress. Ikkyu saw no issue to be solved, no tree that needed to be straightened. My inbox has been rife with self-improvement messages, increasing in fervor as the year draws to a close.
But I can’t help thinking about our homie Ikkyu’s tree. What if we’re not as crooked as we think we are?Sure, we have lots of issues. And the pandemic just made many of them a whole lot worse. But what’s so bad, really?
The tree didn’t seem to have any issues being crooked. Ikkyu saw that and coolness reigned supreme.
The only problem was with folks trying to change what was really not in the province of dramatic change. Like, our lives just as they are, for starters.
Ikkyu was not asserting his will on reality. Not comparing the tree to some ideal tree.Just digging reality as it unfolds, crooked, gnarly, and perfect just as it is.
Can we celebrate our imperfect lives?
My inbox would be relieved!
Wishing you a happy, albeit imperfect, New Year!