A student asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond the Buddhas and Ancestors?’ Men replied, “Cake”.

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 77

Most of the Zen folk I know are pretty smart, thoughtful types. It is in our nature ~ in fact, in the nature of most curious humans ~ to look for life truths in complicated rather than mundane explanations. I myself don’t always show good impulse control in that regard, and when I over-indulge my fascination with the erudite, I find it helpful to return to enjoying a simple piece of cake.

Yesterday, using a link that a friend had sent, I pushed aside a stack of papers on my desk, put up my feet and for 2 ½ hours listened to Sam Harris (The End of Faith) discuss with Paul Bloom (Against Empathy) the evils of empathy (Shoot! I had thought I was just getting the hang of it!) and the goods of rational compassion (Rational? Now that’s a cold word!).

In a wonderfully melodious, intellectually seductive and well-reasoned voice, Bloom argues that contrary to popular belief, research shows that empathy ~ emotionally putting yourself into someone else’s shoes ~ often results in poor decisions that hurt the health and well being of all involved. Better, he believes, is cultivating rational compassion, which allows for more distanced but concerned feelings, and ultimately more moral, decision making. Buddhist compassion, he suggests, is a good example of rational compassion.

The discussion was a fascinating and edgy search on how to be good person in our complex society. But afterward, with a bit of a cognitive hangover, the discussion made me think of a recent conversation I had had with another friend, who once carried a copy of her favorite Krishnamurti book into an interview with a Zen teacher, in hopes of coming to some sort of shared synthesis of the two teachings. The discussion, she said, did not go well.

Yunmen might have suggested: rather than carrying in the book, bring in a piece of cake.

,Sam Harris’ podcast Waking Up ,with Paul Bloom here