Zen and The Art of No Security

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A dear friend and mentor gave me a book called Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth. Here’s one of the stories.

My Uncle Ry lived alone in a small house up in the hills. He didn’t own many things. He lived a simple life. One evening, he discovered he had a visitor. A robber had broken into the house and was rummaging through my Uncle’s few belongings.

The robber didn’t notice Uncle Ry, and when my uncle said “hello”, the robber was so startled he nearly fell down. My uncle smiled at the robber and shook his hand.

“Welcome! Welcome! How nice of you to visit!” The robber opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t think of anything to say.

Because Ry never lets anyone leave empty-handed, he looked around the tiny hut for a gift for the robber. But there was nothing to give. The robber began to back toward the door. He wanted to leave. At last, Uncle Ry knew what to do.

He took off his only robe, which was old and tattered. “Here”, he said. “Please take this”. The robber thought my uncle was crazy. He took the robe, dashed out the door, and escaped into the night.

My uncle sat and looked at the moon, it’s silvery light spilling over the mountains, making all things quietly beautiful. “Poor man”, lamented my uncle. “All I had to give him was my tattered robe. If only I could have given him this wonderful moon”.

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My chance to put the story’s message to use occurred last Fall, when I arrived to our urban farm to find a similar visitor bent over in our garden. I said “Hello” and the visitor straightened up with big, surprised eyes. She was startled to see me standing there with a group of about 17 students behind me, all of us wondering who she was. When I noticed the grocery bags full of fresh vegetables that she had apparently picked from our garden, I bristled.

Still giving her the benefit of the doubt, I asked her what she was up to. “I’m picking vegetables from the community garden”, she said. “I’ve been using them all Summer in my kitchen and they are delicious!”.

I agreed with the stranger. It was a good year for peppers – starting with highly nutrient-rich soil (boosted with compost from the previous Summer) that my students mixed by hand many snowy weeks before the first official day of Spring transplanting, followed by lots of rain early on and then just enough heat to plump them up but not enough to dry out the soil too fast. She nodded and smiled and for a moment we exchanged an unspoken appreciation for hard work that created such culinary treats.

The good vibes vanished however when I calmly explained that our garden was not, in fact, a community garden. For effect, I glanced at the bags of loot sitting at her feet.

The woman, who was dressed well and didn’t seem to be the sort of person who couldn’t afford to buy her own food, said with some testiness “Well you should put up a sign that explains that”.

I told her that I agreed. We stood and looked at each other for a long time.

Then she asked, “What do you want me to do with the vegetables?” This question was so strange to me because the answer seemed obvious. So I answered with another question of sorts.

I reminded her that the children listening to our conversation were the very same that had planted the seeds from which her newly harvested vegetables grew, and that it was their hard work watering, weeding, and nurturing that helped those vegetables become the tasty ingredients to her kitchen creations.

“I’m going to leave it up to you to do the right thing”, I finished.

I then led my kids to the other side of the farm to start our day’s work. As I did, the woman picked up her full bags of food from our garden, and quickly left with them under her arms. The students were understandably upset. One kid asked me why I would let her take all of our food.

“Well. I guess she decided what the right thing was for her”, was all that I said on the matter.

Later that night I was still fuming over her decision, and my ego was bruised believing that the students might view me as weak or unable to protect them. I surely did not wish that I could give her the moon, or anything else for that matter. I scripted elaborate, explosive arguments that could have happened, all ending in me tearing the produce from her hands and loudly shaming her. In each imaginary scenario she left in disgrace. Some of the children would pat me on the back for being a winner. Other students would shake their heads frowning. Others would laugh.

I was stuck in samsara of the mind. An endless cycle of guilt, confusion, and agitation. 

A very long, and harsh winter followed. The most expensive tool at the farm, a brand new propane-powered electric generator, was easily stolen by a couple of thieves who plucked it from its lock and walked it over the chain-link fence via a natural bridge made of drifted snow.

A few months later, our school’s building staff welded a 5 foot, sturdy wrought-iron fence with a locked gate. Our fortress was secure, I was sure.

That is until our security was breached yet again – this time by a parent volunteer who came to put the chickens to bed one evening.  The parent had forgotten the lock combination, so he bravely lifted himself, and his two-year old, over the black iron and safely into our little publicly private oasis.  

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Speaking of fences, the third part of this post is courtesy of an excellent documentary called Urban Roots, which gives voice to the inspiring farming revolution that is taking place within the city limits of Detroit, Michigan. In the film, an urban farmer at Earth Works Farms is giving a tour of their beautifully expansive rows of crops.

When one of the tourists notices the lack of fences, he asks, “Won’t someone will steal the produce?”

The guide doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh absolutely”, he replies. He waits for a dramatic pause and then says “But what business are we in? Food distribution. I just cut out the middle man".

And with that single quip, Earth Works Farms transformed from a symbol of vulnerability and isolation, to one of compassion and openness. Transforms robbers to guests. Transforms the shirt on your back to a humble offering. Suddenly the moon isn’t something only within the eye of the beholder, but a pool of silver to be shared.

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