There’s a story often repeated by Zen monks. I adore this story and feel terrible because I’m probably about to butcher it. Even so, I have to do my best, because it contains a powerful moral worth sharing.
Ignore the lesson in this story at your peril. It describes one of the greatest dangers with meditation – one that, if you meditate long enough, have a good chance of blindly stumbling into.
And once you make this mistake, it’s difficult to reverse.
The story is this:
Many monks live off the charity of others. They have no money – they left all that behind when joining the monastery. And it’s not like they can hold down part-time jobs or sell information products online.
Their food and often their clothing come from the generosity of others.
An old woman had been donating food to a particular monk for decades. She would give him food and he would calmly accept it.
And when I say calmly, you can imagine what I mean. This is a monk, after all. It would have been like giving food to a statue. Maybe he bowed in gratitude or something, I don’t know.
Anyway, one day the old woman finds a young, beautiful girl. She gets the girl to hug the monk, then asked him how he felt about that.
He replied something monklike, such as, “I am a barren tree on a cold hill, as if the seasons were always in the depths of winter.”
The old woman was furious. “I can’t believe I’ve wasted food on such a vulgar fellow for so long,” she said, before burning down his monastery.
Now I’ll admit I’m missing some key cultural context here.
Still, I love this story.
The minor moral is that Zen Buddhism is cooler than you think. Admit it – that’s a wild story. A random old woman burns down a monastery… and she isn’t the villain.
Is she the hero? Maybe?
The deeper moral is this:
Meditate long enough and you can become cut off from the world and yourself. Some sects even encourage this. Most use this story as a warning. When diving deep inside your mind, you have a choice.
You can enrich your connection with the world and everything beyond. You can use it to find the bliss of nirvana and become complete.
Or, you can become a hollow void where a human used to be. Dead but still breathing.