Category Archives: perspective

Itsy & The Infinite Web 7: Hands In The Palm Of The Head

The three walked silently down the long reflective hall past many, many indistinguishable doors for what seemed like an overlong time.  Finally one of the doors flew open and out stumbled a giraffe in a long lab coat. He saw them and stopped in his tracks, bewildered.

“Oh!  Hello!  I didn’t know we had visitors.  I’m the division head here. Did you know that six hundred and seventy two orangutans in seven piles would put precisely ninety six apes in each?  I thought you would not. Allow me to show you around or two,” he said, chuckling at his little joke as he continued across the hall to the door opposite the other, which he opened, revealing another giraffe in a lab coat.  “This is my disassociate.”

No I’m not!  I’ve never seen this giraffe before in my life!  This isn’t the time or the place!  I’m not here right now, but you can leave me a message after the beep,” stammered the second giraffe, clearly surprised and upset.

“On second thought,” the division head said, carefully closing the door in the disassociate’s face, “let’s go over here, instead,” and he walked back across the hall to a third door and opened it.

The silence of the hall was filled by a sea of sounds.  The giraffe ushered them into a gigantic factory full of humming and buzzing machines, swarming with attendants in white hazard suits and thick yellow gloves.  They worked away in all shapes and sizes, with little way to distinguish their species. The division head led the tripartite tour group through the room and between the machines, clasping his hooves together as if he had a firm grasp of the situation, and gazing upward from the top of his long neck as if the ceiling held secret answers no one else could see.  He began to lecture the three, presumably to guide the tour.

“Have you ever wondered to yourself: Who are all these fools and jerks?  Where do they find them all?  Is there some sort of competition to be this stupid, or can anybody do it if they know the right people?  Clearly it takes all kinds, and not just the kind kind of kinds.  We know our world is full of fools and jerks, yet many important questions remain unanswered.  Are jerks merely fools of a certain feather? Are fools always fooled by jerks?  Can fools or jerks be contained or counteracted through the proper use of institutions, or is it always a losing battle?  Here at Establishment Labs, we are first and foremost in these fundamental studies.

Sometimes we say things, others agree, we put them in practice, and things work out, but there are also times that all this happens and not a single thing works out, sometimes because of fools, sometimes because of jerks, and sometimes just because.  Then there are times when we say things and nobody agrees, times we can’t do anything right, and times when we say things as if we don’t mean them, sometimes because of fools and jerks, and sometimes just because.  Because of all that, we haven’t completely extracted fools or jerks from anything yet.

We now know, after extensive, objective analysis, that fools and jerks are sub-composed of solids, liquids and gases: food, water and air, irrespectively.  Unfortunately this does nothing to isolate them from or contain them within the general population.  There are even those who theorize that fools and jerks are indistinguishable from ordinary folks like us, but that could mean…” and here he trailed off, bit his lip, and motioned for them to huddle together, his eyes darting nervously around the room, lowering his higher head carefully down to their level.  “We could be surrounded by fools and jerks, right now,” he whispered, “ IN THIS VERY ROOM!

HELLO MARSHMALLOW!” sang Joy to one of the suited attendants, who fell backwards in fear and curled up into a ball on the floor, covering masked head in massive gloves.

“Oh, you don’t want to talk to the hands,” said the division head.  “They aren’t trained to communicate. We carefully breed them to have no life outside the lab.  They live and work in arranged pairs, taking turns working and sleeping. One hand washes the other, feeds the other, sends the other up here to work, and then they rotate.  They don’t interact with others, other than that.  You should really only speak to me, or any of the other division heads.  We divide people and things, and speak for them.”

“Typically, things can’t speak,” said Itsy with a questioning gaze.

“Actually, science, religion, politics, philosophy, history, art and all sorts of things say all sorts of things, but they have to say them through us, the analysts.  We specialize in everything.  We envision how things are, and put the tune to words.”

Zen Speaks by Tsai Chih Chung

Zen Speaks is a modern collection of Zen stories and koans by the author and artist Tsai Chih Chung that I highly recommend which contains wonderful cartoon renderings of many of the koans and stories we’ve already covered.  I just found out that you can watch the entire work as a cartoon in Cantonese with English subtitles on YouTube.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan and Jittoku zen


In the Zen koan collection The Gateless Gate, Zhaozhou found the sages Kanzan and Jittoju while wandering on Mount Tiantai and said, “For a long time I have heard about Kanzan and Jittoju, but having come here I just see two water buffalo.”  The sages put their fingers on their heads like horns.  The master waved his arms at them and said, “Shoo!  Shoo!”  The sages gnashed their teeth and glared at each other, happy to become water buffalos when accused but reluctant to leave when shooed.  When asked about this later, Zhaozhou laughed heartily and said nothing.  When Linji compared Pahua to a donkey Pahua brayed at him, and Linji called a monk who mooed at him, “This beast!”  If you asked these masters an educated, scholarly question you would likely be ridiculed, but if you acted like an untamed animal you just might meet their approval.

Two Water Buffalo

Kanzan jittoku screen japan

This gong-an is very simple and short, but like the rest it contains meanings that sprout up when you look them over carefully and consider that for thousands of years these particular cases were preserved as teaching devices.  We typically pick humans over water buffalos, so calling two sages water buffalos is insulting, even if it is innocent and playful, like the sages response to effortlessly take up the role of water buffalo, a muddy and supposedly dimwitted beast.  If we are all somewhat water buffalo, why not embrace it?  It is very easy to miss that after Zhaozhou shoos them, they refuse, which is moving from obeying Zhaozhou to disobeying Zhaozhou.  However, once this thought occurs, it then opens up to the next thought that a disobedient water buffalo is a ‘good’ water buffalo in that it is more true to life, so when Kanzan and Jittoju disobey, are they obeying Zhaozhou or not?  Zhaozhou simply laughs.  Is it more obedient to the universe to be a crazy beast or a polite and proper person?

broken vase

It is quite human to be inhumane.  Is a broken, unusable vase still a vase?  If not, why call it such?  How can our minds share these negative forms, what Hegel could call determinate negation, so easily and fluidly?  Consider this mere image, two blind men on a log bridge, by the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin:

Hakuin two blind men crossing log bridge

zen teachings of hakuin

Now consider this cover art here, with only the first blind man .  You would think of the second only if you were familiar with the first image, which anyone familiar with the image would know, just as effortlessly.  However, in looking into these things, and looking specifically for an image that has the end of the log hanging in space as it is on this cover, it turns out that the image on this cover is actually one of three blind men crossing a bridge, a cropped portion of a completely different painting by Hakuin of the same theme, blind men crossing a log bridge.  Here is the third image below:

blind men crossing a log bridge hakuin

Hakuin might ask us:  What does the blindness of these men look like?  Perhaps it looks like the slippery feeling of being blindfolded on a wet, algae-covered log suspended over a rushing stream that cannot be seen, either by us or by these blind images.


Zen Cake

zen garden birthday cakeIn Zen Buddhism, the 77th case of the Blue Cliff Record is cake.  A monk asked Yunmen, “What is talk that goes beyond buddhas and patriarchs?”  Yunmen said, “Cake.”  He makes us think of cake, imagining it’s sweetness, texture and satisfaction, a strange ghost that can be raised with a single word, somewhat like the ghosts of ancestors.  The thought of a cake is both a cake and not a cake, much as a rock is sometimes a rock and sometimes the thought of a rock, and thus not a rock.  Whether or not this has anything to do with the buddhas and patriarchs, it certainly has to do with cake.


One Didn’t Get Wet

rain bridge japanese printA Zen master posed his monks with a problem: “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Why?”  The monks suggested that one had an umbrella, that the rain was scattered in places, that one walked under the cover of awnings, but the master said that the students were too focused on the words.  When the monks finally gave up, the master told them that both got wet.  “Two monks went walking in the rain.  One didn’t get wet.  Two got wet.”

The joke works just as well in ancient Chinese as it does in modern English because language has grey areas and ambiguities.  When the master said, “One didn’t get wet”, he could mean that it is the case that one didn’t get wet, such that one remained dry, or he could mean that it isn’t the case that one got wet, rather two got wet.  All of the solutions proposed by the monks assumed that one didn’t get wet, the first case, making them blind to the second.  It isn’t that the first case is the literal meaning of the words and the second metaphorical or derivative, but rather that we do not expect to hear about one monk and not the other if both got wet or both stayed dry.  The joke would also work if the master said both stayed dry, as one didn’t get wet, and the other didn’t get wet either.