A student asked Zhaozhou, ‘‘’The greatest way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose. As soon as someone speaks, we think that’s picking and choosing.” So, how do you save the people, Teacher?

Zhao said, “Why don’t you quote the saying in full?”

The monk responded, “I only remember up to there.”

Zhao said, “Only this: ‘The greatest way is not difficult if you just don’t pick and choose.’”

~ The Blue Cliff Record, Case 59

This is the last of four appearances by Zhaozhou’s “Picking and Choosing” koan in The Blue Cliff Record, Zen’s most important collection of koans and verse. The question for me, in these times, is: How do I save the people?

In helping, and even saving, the people, in saving the rivers and forests, the birds and animals, we most often think there is a directional flow of effort: energy comes from us and goes to someone or something else. Through that action, we save them. In Zen, however, there is no “self” and “other”, so while we may help them, just as importantly, they are helping ourselves. In saving them, we save us.

Decades ago, just out of high school, I was working as a janitor and dishwasher at the local Elks Club. Outside of recently joining a Zen group and harboring vague plans of moving to the wilds of British Columbia, I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was drifting, and lost. But I had some time, so I decided to volunteer at a place I randomly picked out of the phone book: The Las Trampas School, which was a residential and learning facility for intellectually disabled children, most of whom had severe autism or Down syndrome. I called them up, and soon found myself bicycling there every day to serve as a teacher’s aide and later as a dorm parent. I thought I could help the people; what I found is they saved me.

Robbie McCrea was a tall and thin 12-year old, with a shock of thick red hair and perpetually smudged glasses. He had a behavioral habit of coming up to me, and making a sound “Doo!, doo!” while striking toward my face cobra-like with his forearm and bunched up fingers. After he struck several times, I would say, “Robbie, please don’t do that.” He would then drop his hand, throw his arms about my neck, and give me the warmest, most tender hug. It was pretty much the best hug I had ever had; it was a soothing balm for my anxious young soul. I came from a house of six kids, and though my parents were not cold, there was not a lot of physical warmth to go around ~ if you wanted a snuggle, you most likely had to trap one the several dogs or cats wandering by. The physical and emotional warmth the kids at Las Trampas shared with all of us was a whole new experience for me. The teacher was not just helping the residents, Robbie, and Bobbie, and Victor were saving him. Where is the picking and choosing in that?

Art: Thank you Nora Reza! ,norareza@gmail.com