One very powerful way to court luck is to consider with some specificity just how lucky you already are. As I continue to do just that, here’s another early essay, from my days as a stay-at-home dad when our first son was still just a baby and this country was gearing up for our ill-fated invasion of Iraq.
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The Zen Master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store, lived near him. Suddenly without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master, "Is that so?" was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth—that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and the father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"
— from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
It is the koan-like nature of even the simplest—especially the simplest—zen stories to keep haunting you until you crack them or, perhaps more accurately, until they crack you.
I was a teenager when I first came across this story, quoted in my sister’s college textbook Religions of the World (a book that so fascinated me that I've kept it to this day.) What struck me most back then is this bizarrely unflappable "Zen Master" and how he simply takes a baby into his care based on accusations he knows to be false. One can only imagine he is completely unprepared for parenthood (something any teenage boy can sympathize with); and the fact that he greets the challenge without seeming to blink an eye was truly astounding to me then, and now. It definitely fanned the flames of my interest in Zen. These guys, it seemed, could face anything, at a moment's notice.
Now, 15 years later, having practiced Zen for twelve years and having been a dad for one, and a stay-at-home Dad for half of that time, what strikes me as most astounding isn't the first part of the story, Hakuin taking the baby into his care, but the second: Hakuin willingly giving up the child when these frighteningly fickle grandparents came round to retrieve the kid. To me, this utterly unfathomable. No way could I do it: not with my own baby boy, not with any child with whom I had spent the first year of life. You become so invested, so attached—indeed, so in love—with a baby that it is hard to be away from them for more than a couple of days.
But here’s Hakuin, a year later, doing what must be the right thing, again merely on the word of some not-so-likeable people. What's the lesson here? I'm not completely sure. I'm still learning it. I think it has to do with the profound choices we're inevitably faced with, often spur of the moment, and how it is incumbent on us to stay as even-keeled as we can when facing them.
By all commonly accepted standards, Hakuin has every right to react with moral outrage, both at the initial accusation, and again when the family came round later to collect the baby like so much forgotten baggage. So why doesn't he? Well, the easy answer is: he's a Zen Master. Such fellows don't truck much with moral outrage. But I think the question is worth a little more digging than that.
In the West, not really knowing any better, we tend to equate "Zen Master" with "wizard" or "ascended being", or perhaps more pejoratively, "empty shell", or even worse, as a fundamentalist family member of mine once called anyone claiming to be Buddhist: "amoral idol worshipper". But what if, when you've stripped away the ritualistic trimmings specific to Zen practice, all "Zen Master" really means is "complete human being"? Then Hakuin's actions make a perfect sort of sense. He saw the truth in front of him—a child that needed care—and he cared for the child. Then later, when he saw a family who recognized their error and wanted to become whole again, he gave the kid up. I cannot think that, just because Hakuin was a Zen Master, he felt no pain at parting with the child. I infer that his practice allowed him the equanimity to face the pain with courage and without adding more suffering to the world through outrage.
The world is suffering right now, arguably more so than usual. Many of us on the Left are perhaps rightfully outraged at the ignorance, self-righteousness and high-handed hypocritical moralism that has brought us to this pass. Maybe we should ask ourselves, though, how far our outrage will get us in solving the problem. I seek counseling from a man who is the abbot of a Zen temple, and may some day achieve the official rank of "Roshi" or "Master" in the Rinzai Dharma lineage. (Hakuin is an extremely important reformist link in this patriarchy.) When I expressed to him my anger and frustration over the current political situation, he told me the best thing I could do for the political future is bring my son up well. Talk about long-term solutions to short-term problems!
So those are some of my thoughts on Hakuin and his baby. I feel like there's more to say, but... I have to go take care of my boy. He's turning one in a week. And you can call me a hypocrite, but I thank the lord I ain't no Zen Master, and ain't nobody taking him away from me.
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My son turns 10! at the end of May. Being his dad is easily one of the top three things I have ever done in my life. That will never change nor can anyone ever take that away from me. In that, I have it over on even Hakuin.
I understand that my current hunt for luck has a facetiousness about it, like a billionaire arguing that he’s not as rich as everyone thinks he is. I’m the Mitt Romney of being blessed. I have so much I don’t even know how much I have. Like Hakuin, I’ll take it, knowing that in a year, or at any moment, it can be taken back. True luck doesn’t rest in the having, but the being. And being cannot be done anywhere but here or any when but now.