Don’t be a vulgar tree on a cold hill

Don’t be a vulgar tree on a cold hill

There’s a story often repeated by Zen monks. I adore this story and feel terrible because I’m probably about to butcher it. Even so, I have to do my best, because it contains a powerful moral worth sharing.

Ignore the lesson in this story at your peril. It describes one of the greatest dangers with meditation – one that, if you meditate long enough, have a good chance of blindly stumbling into.

And once you make this mistake, it’s difficult to reverse.

The story is this:

Many monks live off the charity of others. They have no money – they left all that behind when joining the monastery. And it’s not like they can hold down part-time jobs or sell information products online.

Their food and often their clothing come from the generosity of others.

An old woman had been donating food to a particular monk for decades. She would give him food and he would calmly accept it.

And when I say calmly, you can imagine what I mean. This is a monk, after all. It would have been like giving food to a statue. Maybe he bowed in gratitude or something, I don’t know.

Anyway, one day the old woman finds a young, beautiful girl. She gets the girl to hug the monk, then asked him how he felt about that.

He replied something monklike, such as, “I am a barren tree on a cold hill, as if the seasons were always in the depths of winter.”

The old woman was furious. “I can’t believe I’ve wasted food on such a vulgar fellow for so long,” she said, before burning down his monastery.

Now I’ll admit I’m missing some key cultural context here.

Still, I love this story.

The minor moral is that Zen Buddhism is cooler than you think. Admit it – that’s a wild story. A random old woman burns down a monastery… and she isn’t the villain.

Is she the hero? Maybe?

The deeper moral is this:

Meditate long enough and you can become cut off from the world and yourself. Some sects even encourage this. Most use this story as a warning. When diving deep inside your mind, you have a choice.

You can enrich your connection with the world and everything beyond. You can use it to find the bliss of nirvana and become complete.

Or, you can become a hollow void where a human used to be. Dead but still breathing.

You’d think it’d be an easy choice. Pleasure over nihilism, right?

Mind training is perilous. You always need a guide, or at least, an instruction manual.

Some people lose themselves within themselves. Others find there ways to better connect with everything around them.

To simply be better.

If you want meditation that guides towards the greater of those two paths, then get your unvulgar, warm as summer hands on this:

Photo by Fabrice Villard on Unsplash

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