Thursday, June 18, 2009

More's the Virtue in Worthlessness

Just mulling over my last post when I got an email from a monk, Thitadhamma, with the following story:

Zhuangzi was walking on a mountain, when he saw a great tree with huge branches and luxuriant foliage. A wood-cutter was resting by its side, but he would not touch it, and, when asked the reason, said, that it was of no use for anything, Zhuangzi then said to his disciples, 'This tree, because its wood is good for nothing, will succeed in living out its natural term of years.' Having left the mountain, the Master lodged in the house of an old friend, who was glad to see him, and ordered his waiting-lad to kill a goose and boil it. The lad said, 'One of our geese can cackle, and the other cannot - which of them shall I kill?' The host said, 'Kill the one that cannot cackle.'

Next day, his disciples asked Zhuangzi, saying, 'Yesterday the tree on the mountain (you said) would live out its years because of the uselessness of its wood, and now our host's goose has died because of its want of power (to cackle) - which of these conditions, Master, would you prefer to be in?' Zhuangzi laughed and said, '(If I said that) I would prefer to be in a position between being fit to be useful and wanting that fitness, that would seem to be the right position, but it would not be so, for it would not put me beyond being involved in trouble; whereas one who takes his seat on the Dao and its Attributes, and there finds his ease and enjoyment, is not exposed to such a contingency. He is above the reach both of praise and of detraction; now he (mounts aloft) like a dragon, now he (keeps beneath) like a snake; he is transformed with the (changing) character of the time, and is not willing to addict himself to any one thing; now in a high position and now in a low, he is in harmony with all his surroundings; he enjoys himself at ease with the Author of all things; he treats things as things, and is not a thing to them: where is his liability to be involved in trouble? This was the method of Shan Nong and Huang-Di. As to those who occupy themselves with the qualities of things, and with the teaching and practice of the human relations, it is not so with them. Union brings on separation; success, overthrow; sharp corners, the use of the file; honour, critical remarks; active exertion, failure; wisdom, scheming; inferiority, being despised: where is the possibility of unchangeableness in any of these conditions? Remember this, my disciples. Let your abode be here - in the Dao and its Attributes.'


So, the idea is that even worthlessness should not be adhered to... I think I can agree with that, except that I have an inherent belief that everything is "worthless", in the sense that any "worth" we can possibly apply to an object is merely a subjective and temporary label, worth only as much as its ephemeral resulting benefit, which, in the end, seems to be inevitably worthless as well. I suppose the only exception being nibbana and the path thereto. Certainly I, of all things, am worthless in this matter.

Anyway, here's two more stories on the matter:

First from the Vinaya (parajika), a monk steals some wood that the king had cut and left piled in the forest. When brought before the king, he claimed that the king had given permission to the monks to take whatever fallen wood they could find in the forest. The king replied that his allowance had been for monks with a sense of shame, and says: "gaccha, bhikkhu! Lomena tvaṃ muttosi!" Which means, "scram, monk! You are saved by your fleece!" The commentary gives the following explanation:

lomena tvaṃ muttosī ti ettha lomamiva lomaṃ, kiṃ pana taṃ? pabbajjāliṅgaṃ. kiṃ vuttaṃ hoti? yathā nāma dhuttā ``maṃsaṃ khādissāmā``ti mahagghalomaṃ eḷakaṃ gaṇheyyuṃ. tamenaṃ añño viññupuriso disvā ``imassa eḷakassa maṃsaṃ kahāpaṇamattaṃ agghati. lomāni pana lomavāre lomavāre aneke kahāpaṇe agghantī``ti dve alomake eḷake datvā gaṇheyya. evaṃ so eḷako viññupurisamāgamma lomena mucceyya. evameva tvaṃ imassa kammassa katattā vadhabandhanāraho. yasmā pana arahaddhajo sabbhi avajjharūpo, tvañca sāsane pabbajitattā yaṃ pabbajjāliṅgabhūtaṃ arahaddhajaṃ dhāresi. tasmā tvaṃ iminā pabbajjāliṅgalomena eḷako viya viññupurisamāgamma muttosīti.

For those of you not fluent in this tongue, the gist is that, like a sheep with a special fleece that escapes slaughter because its fleece happens to be worth more than its flesh, the monk who stole is free from the king's wrath because of his robes (the king was a devout Buddhist).

The second story comes from the Jataka (Mahajanaka), wherein the Bodhisatta, a king, is taken to a garden with two mango trees, one full of fruit and another barren. Nobody dares to touch the fruit, because the king has not yet tasted them. The king tastes the fruit and likes it very much. He thinks to himself that he will return for more later, and continues on in the garden. When he returns, though, the whole crowd of courtiers, etc, have stripped the fruitful tree bare, broken its branches and stripped its leaves. This leads the Bodhisatta to give up his kingship in favour of recluseship. He later explains:

The fruitful tree stood there forlorn, its leaves all stripped, its branches bare,
The barren tree stood green and strong, its foilage waving in the air.

We kings are like that fruitful tree, with many a fow to lay us low,
And rob us of the pleasant fruit, which for a little while we show.

The elephant for ivory, the panther for its skin is slain,
Houseless and friendless at the last, the wealthy find their wealth their bane;
That pair of trees my teachers were, - from them my lesson did I gain.

The whole sixth book of the Jataka, including this story, is available for download at Google Books: