Three In The Morning

Zhuang Zi

There once lived an old man in the state of Song. He was very fond of monkeys and fed many of them behind his home. He could communicate with the monkeys and they could also understand him. 

The old man fed each monkey eight chestnuts every day, four at dawn and four at dusk. However, hard times came and was not enough food for both the monkeys and his family, so the old man was forced to decrease the amount of food he fed his monkeys from eight chestnuts each per day to seven.

He gathered the monkeys together and informed them: “We are short on food, so from now on, I will give you each three chestnuts in the morning and four chestnuts in the evening. I hope you can accept this.” Hearing this, the monkeys were upset. They screamed and howled and ran around. 

So the farmer said, "Ok, ok, how about this instead? 
from now on, I will give you each four chestnuts in the morning and three chestnuts in the evening.” Hearing this, the monkeys were appeased.

Solstice Rest and Reflection

Like many of you, I consider it my duty to stay well-informed, and often times that desire to be informed conflicts with the desire to.... remain hopeful about the world, and humanity.  Almost daily it seems, a new video of another person, usually black, being killed by police bullets.  On the one hand, the terrorist attacks of ISIL, on the other, xenophobic attacks against Muslims.  Desperate refugees being turned away at borders. Murders of transgender people. Attacks against women's health care providers. New laws to further burden the homeless. Poisons in our water, earth, and air.  Overwhelmed, my instinct is to withdraw –  to contract into the protective cocoon of my home and closest loved ones.  And then berate myself for exercising the privilege of being able to do that.  The question always is, is it ok to withdraw occasionally, and for how long?

Many of you may know that the traditional Chinese calendar is lunar, because Chinese New Year falls on a different day each year with respect to the Gregorian solar calendar.  In fact, almost all the major Chinese holidays are lunar – they're seasonal but don't fall on solar dates – with two major exceptions, one of which is Winter Solstice, or Dong Zhi. Historically the second most important holiday in the Chinese calendar after New Years, Dongzhi is a time of family reunions, feasting, and making offerings to our ancestors and to heaven.  In ancient times, winter solstice was the start of the new calendar year (which frankly is the only starting point that makes sense to me).  And even tho solstice marks the darkest time of year, we all know that the coldest time usually happens afterward, in January and February.  In an age before electricity and central heating and cars, winter was a time to rest and to reflect.  Not just for our Mother Earth but for her people as well.

The longest night of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere) will be Monday night, and the shortest day Tuesday.  After that, the nights will shorten, the days will lengthen, as yin recedes and yang advances, until we get to summer solstice and the directions reverse.  The Taoist yin/yang symbol is a representation of this yearly cycle.  In Taoist cosmology, yang is male/heaven/light/warmth/active/activity/expansion/summer, and yin is female/earth/darkness/cold/passive/rest/contraction/winter.

It may be that our very earliest ancestors feared the sun might disappear. But logically, by the time people had a concept of what the winter solstice was, they clearly already knew by definition that the sun would be returning.  At least by 1000 BCE, which is the earliest known record of the yin/yang symbol, people understood the annual cycle of light and dark, and winter solstice rituals were a celebration of the resurgence of yang, of light.

I want to be careful here.  It would be unreasonable to deny that we, being diurnal creatures, have an instinctive fear of the dark.  We need light to see, to be able to move around our environments safely.  Moreover, we need light to live – for plants to grow, which provide both our food and energy. And many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder during the shorter days of weaker sunlight. So it makes sense to celebrate the return of light.  Yet I do not want to perpetuate the idea that light is “good” and darkness is “bad.”  Knowing that yin and darkness is seen as feminine in Taoism.  Knowing that many of us – whether consciously or subconsciously – see darker skin as less “good,” and how that results in the devaluing of black lives.  There is already too much of that theology out there.   We need light to live, yes, but we also need darkness.  To rest.  To dream.  One form of torture is to keep people in constant bright light so that they cannot sleep.  LIFE thrives in the balance of light and dark, yang and yin.  It isn't darkness but imbalance that is destructive.

So I want to return to the practices of my ancestors, our ancestors.  After the frenzied activities required to celebrate solstice (and other winter holidays), I want to take the following winter days to rest and reflect, trusting that the period is both temporary, and necessary.


Two Students

Confucius with students

A student of Confucius named Tsze-lu asked whether he should immediately carry into practice what he had learned. The Master answered, "There are your father and elder brothers to be consulted. How can you act immediately on what you've learned?"

Another student named Zan Yu asked the same question, whether he  should immediately carry into practice what he had learned.  And the Master answered, "Yes, you must carry what you've learned into practice immediately."

Kung-hsi Hwa said, "Tsze-lu asked whether he should carry immediately into practice what he heard, and you said, 'There are your father and elder brothers to be consulted.' Zan Yu asked whether he should immediately carry into practice what he heard, and you said, 'Carry it immediately into practice.' I am perplexed, and venture to ask for an explanation."

The Master said, "Zan Yu is hesitant and slow; therefore I urged him forward. Tsze-lu rushes into things; therefore I bade him to step back."

The Farmer and the Lost Horse

running horse - janzaremba.com

On the northern frontier of China there lived a poor old farmer named Sei Weng. This farmer had only one horse, upon whom he greatly depended. One day the horse ran away across the northern border. His neighbors came to offer their condolences. “What a shame. How will you work the land and make your living? Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. "Bad, good, who is to say?" said the farmer.

Not long after, the horse returned home, bringing with her a magnificent wild stallion. Word got out in the village and it wasn't long before people stopped by to congratulate the farmer. "What a strong and healthy horse. Such good fortune for you!" they exclaimed. "Good, bad, who is to say?" said the farmer.

The following morning, Sei Weng's only son tried to tame the stallion and was thrown to the ground, breaking his leg. One by one the neighbors came again to offer their sympathy on the farmer's latest misfortune. "Your son won't be able to help you farm with a broken leg. Such bad luck!" they exclaimed. "Bad, good, who is to say?" said the farmer.

Not long after, war broke out with the north and the Emperor's army came to the village to conscript every able-bodied young man into battle. Only Sei Weng's son, because he had a broken leg, was deemed unfit to fight and allowed to remain. The neighbors came to offer their congratulations. "Wow, it all turned out to be good luck after all!" they surmised. "Good, bad, who is to say?" said the farmer as he headed off to work his field.

The Kitchen God and Grace

Zhao Jun the Kitchen God and his wife

Today is the fourth day of the first lunar month, the day that Zao Jun the Kitchen God returns from heaven. In Chinese tradition Zao Jun the Kitchen God hangs out in the kitchen of each home, because the kitchen is the heart of the home where all the juiciest gossip can be overheard. There he observes the family's good and bad doings throughout the year, with the faithful help of his wife who records them. Ten days ago, a week before the New Year, Zao Jun ascended to heaven to file his report with the Jade Emperor. Before his departure (via burning of his effigy) his lips were smeared with honey. Some say that the honey is a bribe. Some say that it sticks his mouth shut. Either way, the hope is that only sweet things about the family make it to the Jade Emperor's ears. Now, ten days later, Zao Jun returns. Each year I wonder, what about the ten days while he is gone? Are they a time when folks can do whatever they want? Or does the Kitchen God's wife keep an eye on things in his absence?

Funny story about how Zao Jun the Kitchen God got his job. He was not always a god. Once he was a human being named Zhang Lang. He was a handsome and wealthy man and rather full of himself. Zhang Lang was married to a devoted wife. In typical Chinese patriarchal fashion, even though people praise her for her virtue no one ever bothered to record her name. But she was dutiful, we know that. Nonetheless, Zhang Lang's roaming eyes landed on a pretty, younger woman from whom he left his dutiful wife. As punishment, the gods struck him blind, and the younger woman left him. Zhang Lang was reduced to begging door to door. One day he happened to knock on the door of his abandoned wife; only he didn't realize it was her because he was blind. She, on the other hand, recognized him immediately and saw his condition. Taking pity, she invited him in and fed him. Warmed by the roaring kitchen fire and with a belly full of food, Zhang Lang began to relate his story, tearfully regretting the poor choices that he had made. When his wife heard his remorse she said, “Zhang Lang, open your eyes. I am your wife whom you wronged, and I forgive you.” At that moment, Zhang Lang opened his eyes and he could see again. He saw that it was his wife, whom he had abandoned, who was his benefactor. And he was overcome with shame. Unable to face her, he flung himself into the kitchen fire and perished.

As the story goes, the gods took pity on him and made him into the Kitchen God, with his (again unnamed) wife as his aid. Together again, forever. I'm not entirely sure that this was a mercy though... always having to listen to the petty foibles of families, year after year, being smeared with honey and then burned, only to return and do it all over again. And his poor wife – what did she do to deserve her fate? Secretary to the man who twice did her wrong due to his pride. Yes, I said twice. Once, when he left her for the younger woman. And once again, when he could not accept her forgiveness and instead punished himself, and her by extension. Zhang Lang felt shame. And shame comes from pride, not humility. Shame comes when you are caught not being as great as you think you are. If Zhang Lang had truly learned his lesson he would have gratefully accepted his wife's forgiveness.

But I am not writing this to condemn Zao Jun the Kitchen God. I'm writing this because I know how he feels. I too have felt shame for hurting others with my bad behavior. And I too have been unable to accept forgiveness. In fact, I remember once telling my minister that I knew that God loved me because I could feel that love, but I could not accept it. I did not feel worthy. That may on surface sound humble but talk about arrogance! It is arrogant to think that you are the one who can decide. Forgiveness, like love, isn't based on merit, and you can neither decide that you deserve it nor decide that you don't.  Forgiveness is a gift, a blessing, grace.  I know that, I do, and yet at times there is part of me just can't let go.  So pity poor Zao Jun.

Maybe the Kitchen God is doing penance even now. Caught in a purgatory of sorts in which he'll stay, condemned to be burned again every year, until he learns true humility and accepts his wife's forgiveness. Maybe the Kitchen God's wife isn't his secretary, but rather just patiently waiting for that day to come.

dongzhi - peak winter

dongzhi - peak winter

Sunday, December 21, 2014 (All day)

daxue - major snow

daxue - major snow

Sunday, December 7, 2014 (All day)

xiaoxue - minor snow

xiaoxue - minor snow

Saturday, November 22, 2014 (All day)

lidong - begin winter

lidong - begin winter

Friday, November 7, 2014 (All day)

shuangjiang - frost descends

shuangjiang - frost descends

Thursday, October 23, 2014 (All day)


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