A teacher asked her student, “With your throat, mouth and lips shut, how will you speak?”
The student said, “Teacher, you too should shut up.”
~ The Blue Cliff Record, case 71
It was Socrates who famously said that a life un-examined is not one worth living. But what does it mean to examine life? In ancient Greece, “examination” was inquiry by working through rational, philosophical ideas. In Zen koan work, inquiry is embodiment rather than consideration. With Zen koans we don’t “tell” with our throat, mouth and lips, we “show” with them. In the end, for me, it was a family of brown garden snails who provided more clarity on a life well examined than a learned ancient philosopher.
Last week, I picked up a copy of the Stoic classic, Dialogs by Epictetus, and went into my spring garden in the brilliant afternoon to read. Born a slave in present-day Turkey, Epictetus was shipped off to Rome as a child, where he was given an education and eventually, his freedom. When philosophers were banned for a time from Rome, he went to the Adriatic coast of Greece and founded a school for young Roman men.
Here is his bit of Zen: Epictetus taught his students to make a clean break from popular patterns of thought, to put behind them previously-held notions of good and evil. He argued that misery and happiness in life do not fundamentally result from things or events, but from how we interpret them. He used an example: One day a thief entered Epictetus’ home and stole an expensive metal lamp. He resolved the next day to buy a cheap pottery lamp. “We have no power over external things,” he wrote, “and the good that ought to be the object of our earnest pursuit, is to be found only within ourselves.” That kind of made sense.
As spring quickens its pace, young green shoots are appearing in my garden for tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. A big snail got into my green-house, and mowed down a couple of pots of Amish Paste tomato seedlings and some small cucumbers. And here is the snail’s bit of its Zen: Later that night, I found a big beautiful pulmonate gastropod mollusk in the bright beam of my flashlight. Saying very little, the snail spoke volumes in its own philosophical way. It was showing rather than telling. I spotted two others later that night, crawling in parallel across a wide expanse of stone walkway, looking like two sailboats coursing across the rolling main. The brown snails not just beautiful, they were easy to understand.
Unfortunately, with the snails I had a philosophical dilemma: telling them about the richness of Stoic philosophy did not increase my happiness. So, unfortunately, as I do every spring, I had to do my own little bit of Zen and show them the way to the god of the underworld, Hades. Admittedly, it was a little bit of a Greek tragedy.