Now and Zen.

Before coming to China, I had a rather vague, romantic sense of the place as some faraway mystic land, inhabited by meditative monks and warrior-poets, steeped in ancient philosophy and Confucian wisdom. This may well be due to my youthful fascination with the principles of Taoism, Buddhism and all manners of Oriental spiritual tutorage. As a bright young thing I even managed to somewhat crack the conjectural code of the I Ching, although I used it mostly to try and impress girls in the perfumed chambers of the West. Gone are the days.

Since our arrival, my woman and I have found little in the way of robed seers on misty mountaintops, to say the very fucking least. That does not mean, however, that there hasn’t been wisdom aplenty on offer. In the bustling, brazen, oddly patriotic surveillance state that the Middle Kingdom is today, defined by mind-bending consumerism and the stupefying appetites of the nouveau riche, we’ve been forced to gaze deep into our own souls and contemplate just what the hell it is we are doing with our lives in this extraordinary place, at this extraordinary time. The answers haven’t exactly been coming easy, but the ones worth knowing seldom do.

Don’t get me wrong: we are still thoroughly lost on The Way. Being stuck in a state of post-lockdown unemployment with nowhere to go, we’re basically just sucking in the big Tantric breaths and trying to put one foot in front of the other.

All being said, an ancient Zen anecdote from these parts has been echoing in my head of late. It hails from a different, bygone time when one could just hang out with a buddy in the great outdoors whenever you felt like it, enjoying the fresh air and shooting the breeze, without the cops harassing you for failing to practice social distancing or wearing a germ-infested muzzle on your chops.
You may have heard it. It goes like this.

Two novice monks were standing in front of a temple, watching a flag on the spire flutter in the wind.
The first monk said, “It is the flag that moves.”
The second monk countered, “It is the wind that moves.”
A wise old master, passing by and overhearing the debate, interrupted them. “It is not the flag that moves, nor is it the wind,” he quipped. “It is the mind that moves.”

After all these years, I still don’t know exactly what this means. It just sounds oh-so wonderfully profound. (Perhaps this bite-sized brand of mystic wit would have done more for my luck with the ladies of yore.) At a glance, though, I’d say it implies that the world is not black-and-white, and that truth is subjective. With reality being open-ended, things are ultimately what we believe them to be. Given the nature of the godforsaken mess the whole of humanity is currently finding itself in, this may well be a perspective worth pondering.

At this very moment, with most of us forcibly stuck at home and glued more than ever to our blazing screen of choice, we are, quite literally, living in a make-believe world where nothing can be verified by the senses. Amidst the heated chaos and clamour of contradicting opinions, arguments, facts and figures in this perplexing digitized reality, no one in their right mind can be blamed for wondering just what the hell is really going on in the actual world. With simpler and kinder times now well and truly behind us, it would be safe to suggest that most of us are frozen like deer in the headlights on the information superhighway. And then some.

Now, to those who claim to have found the singular, shining beacon of truth in the stupefying darkness, I can only wish the best of luck. Honestly. Just don’t get too comfy on that fickle high horse, pardner, and remember to allow others to find their own, partisan path out of the gloom. In this brave new world of ones and zeroes, where it may well turn out that we all, to some extent, hold a piece of the puzzle, we can ill afford to be fighting among ourselves.

For, as it’s becoming disturbingly clear, there lurks a common enemy in our virtual midst.
Beware, brothers and sisters, of the wolves in shepherd’s clothing who’ve always held themselves above natural law and are now silencing the voices that challenge the official version of the truth by simply offering an alternative view. Although we’re all desperate for answers in these times, censoring those who ask uncomfortable questions will not lead us to salvation. It will simply plunge us deeper into hell.

From where I’m wincing behind a searing online firewall, and with the rest of the plague-ridden world continually looking at China as its supposedly post-pandemic model, you don’t need to be sitting on a misty mountaintop to be able to figure out where this kind of nonsense could easily lead. The gap between nanny state and tyranny is precariously small, and God only knows it’s closing fast.

With the winds of change now ripping the globe apart, no matter if you are proud, ashamed or afraid of the flag you are destined to stand under, remember that you are always free to make up your own mind. This is a right, not a privilege. And it’s sure as fuck worth fighting for. Confucius says: “The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute. The man who does not ask is a fool for life.”

While we can hardly be counted on to be warrior-poets these days, try slapping down the ol’ ego and get back in touch with your heart. The rest will follow. Now, more than ever, it’s not only about being right, but also about doing right by others. Lift your eyes from the meandering maze. There is still a mystifying power and beauty in all of reality, and it should still belong to all of us. Masters and questioning fools alike.

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© Jac Kritzinger.
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