The Coming Depression and the Actualization of Zen

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Those who have visited Chinatown, any Chinatown, will observe statues of a stout fellow carrying a linen sack. Chinese merchants call him Happy Chinaman or Laughing Buddha. This Hotei lived in the T’ang Dynasty and he had no desire to gather disciples around him. Instead, he would carry around the sack filled with gifts of candy, fruit, or doughnuts. These he would give to the children of the streets who gathered around him in play.

Whenever he met a Zen devotee, he would say, “Give me one penny.” If any asked him to return to the temple to teach others or pray, he would say, “Give me one penny.”

Once, as he was about his play-work, another Zen master happened along and inquired, “What is the significance of Zen?”

Hotei slouched and immediately dropped his sack down to the ground in silent answer.

Then, another Zen master asked, “What is the actualization of Zen?”

At once the Happy Chinaman swung the sack over his shoulder and continued on his merry way.

~ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

It’s been decided; the US economy is crashing… or it isn’t. The Great Depression is quickly coming upon us… or it’s not. We’ll all soon be poor, out of work, with no money or food… or we won’t.

To me, it seems pretty clear what’s going on, what’s happening, and what’s going to happen… I think it will really matter to all of us and be very painful, or it won’t.

Actually, what difference does it make what words the government uses to describe what’s going on? The only thing that matters is what we think and what we do about it. We can panic and worry all we want; it won’t change anything.

I know, upon reading this next part, most might consider me crazy but I ask you to consider the coming events in a positive light. Look forward to that which we cannot change. Of course I don’t mean to allow yourself to be like a leaf on the ocean being blown every which way by the whim of the wind or currents; of course you must prepare as best you can. But once you have made preparations, then look for the positive things.

Things I look forward to is spending more time with my children, not spending money, but thinking of more ways that we can grow closer together in a sort-of “old fashioned way.” Aren’t people always saying that, especially when it comes to family, “things used to be better.” They were. Long ago, people didn’t have to spend money to bring their families closer together. Nowadays, people don’t know what to do with their leisure time if they don’t spend money.

Why do I need to pack the family up in a car and drive them to Disneyland, spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, to be entertained when I can pack a picnic basket and take them to a park and come closer together by entertaining them with reading a book or stories from my youth, conversing, or playing catch? What family wouldn’t this type of activity benefit? It would benefit all families both psychologically as well as economically.

And speaking of psychological benefits, I wondered the other day what it would be like to have to walk around all day, go to work (thankfully still having a job), with absolutely no money in my pocket when I left my home? Up until recently, I would spend about $25 a day on food and at convenience stores. On July 1st, I stopped. I didn’t have to. I just wanted to see what it would be like.

I told my wife to put no money in my wallet everyday. I couldn’t spend money I didn’t have in my pocket. I would get up 10 minutes early and eat leftovers; I would buy no coffee at Starbucks; I would drink tap water at work, then go home to eat leftovers. If I were fortunate, my wife would have cooked something new by then. I’ve done this now for almost one month.

You know what? It wasn’t so hard. In fact, when I changed my thinking and began to calculate that the money I saved was going to feed my children, it was easy. I’m fortunate; I still have a job. But I might not next month. Why should we wait to prepare for what might be coming when we can get ready now? Why shouldn’t I walk before I am forced to run?

Since I started this, I’ve saved about $250 dollars. Not a lot of money, but $250 dollars is $250 dollars. One year of doing this will have saved one month’s of mortgage payments. Think about that.

Perhaps we have come to live too accustomed to the so-called “Good Life.” When we want something, we buy it. But do I really need that new gadget or game soft? Do I really need to eat lunch out at a restaurant 250 days a year? No, I don’t think so. Living this way makes me appreciate more the simple things. In fact, I used to eat dinner out about 350 nights a year. Now I don’t. When I ate out every night, I didn’t look forward to it. Now, I do. It has become special again.

Now I look forward to coming up with new ideas and ways that I can spend time with my kids and not spend money. I feel, in a way, like I live in a Time-Machine and I am taking them back in time to when life was simpler and families actually spent time together and a kid’s best friend was actually his own dad.

What’s changed, actually? Nothing. Just my way of thinking changed.

The economy is ruined and things are becoming scarce… What can I do about it? I’ve prepared as best I can so now I’m going to pick up the sack, swing it over my shoulder, and continue on my merry way.

Finally, consider this:

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, a thief visited the hut only to discover that there was nothing to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

~ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Mike (in Tokyo) Rogers [send him mail] was born and raised in the USA and moved to Japan in 1984. He is the president of a mass-media production company and also runs a talent agency in Japan. He is now the Producer/Director/Co-host of Good Morning Garage, the most popular FM radio morning show in Tokyo. His book, Schizophrenic in Japan, went on sale in 2005.

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