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Oct 3, 2010

Zero Ego

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from Half-Baked.  Thurgood describes himself as "a master of the custodial arts, or a janitor if you want to be a dick about it."  I always found it inspiring that Thurgood could create a sense of pride in such a demeaning occupation.   After reading the excerpts from Zen Bones, Zen Flesh, however, this quote took on a new meaning.   It seems to illustrate the value our western society places on titles.  We, as a society, show a ridiculous amount of favoritism to individuals who have been given a title of some sort.  For instance, when a senator walks into a room they immediately become everyone's priority.  Even those who aren't familiar with the politician will inevitably begin to patronize them as soon as they are informed of the individual's status.  Naturally, when we see the response these entitled individuals receive, even when we are among the enamored, we begin to covet their appearance of importance and power, and strive to acquire our own title of significance.  We even go so far as to create titles like "master of the custodial arts" in order to make a seemingly degrading job feel more important to us or sound more important to others.  In truth a master of the custodial arts will be cleaning the same toilets as a janitor.  Titles do little more than fuel the ego of the title holder, and create a false sense of importance in our social circles.  We would rather people assume we are respectable because of our title, than for them to know we are respectable because of our words.  However, the Zen parables “Is That So?,” “Calling Card,” and “Kasan Sweat” illustrate a different, and much more admirable way of thinking.  These parables describe three different Zen teachers that seem to deny the existence of their positions of superiority.  They are unconcerned with reputation.  They refuse to cater to the egos of those with power, and they are humble enough to recognize and acknowledge their own shortcomings.  If we could follow their example and live our lives with zero ego, perhaps we too could find inner peace.   If nothing else, we would have a true respect for ourselves rather than an ego-driven curtain of words.

The first parable, “Is That So?” begins by noting that the Zen master Hakuin had a reputation for living a pure life.  As the parable continues, however, Hakuin is identified as the father of a young girl’s unborn child.  In our society, similar accusations made towards people in positions of power or notoriety would be followed by months of denial, hearings, DNA testing, endless media coverage, and would most likely get swept under the rug after a large monetary settlement.  Hakuin didn’t even argue against the accusations.  When informed of his paternal obligations, he simply asked, “Is that so?”  With no regard for reputation or personal gain, he willingly took the child and provided excellent care.  His reputation of living a pure life, of course, flew out the window, but the parable tells us it didn’t bother him.  It is amazing what individuals will go through in order to preserve a reputation, which will more than likely be damaged from the accusations alone.  Many times they make themselves look worse than if they had just accepted the situation as an opportunity.  I learned a long time ago that people are quick to pass judgment and thoroughly enjoy doing so.  You can defend yourself until the day you die, but nine times out of ten, people have already formed their opinion.  Hakuin seemed to realize how frivolous argument would be, and decided to simply accept the situation life had thrown his way.  Reputations can be damaged in less time than it takes to develop.  They are simply illusions used by others to prejudge.  When we realize this, and stop concerning ourselves with the preservation of our image, we can focus on living life, rather than defending it.

In the second parable, “Calling Card,” Keichu is visited by the governor of Kyoto.  When he receives the calling card of the governor, he replies “I have no business with such a fellow.”  However, after the governor scratches out his official title, leaving only his name on the card, the Zen teacher eagerly accepts his visit.  The reason titles bear so much power is because we acknowledge them as powerful.  Keichu had no interest in associating with someone who identified themselves as “Governor of Kyoto” because it offers no description of the person.  Instead, it is an announcement of, if not a demand for respect, not yet earned.  However, Keichu was eager to meet the individual named Kitagaki.  We automatically feel obligated to cater to the whims of senators, doctors, professors, etc. simply because they identify themselves as superior to us.  A friend of mine recently got his Ph.D..  I’ve been drunk so many times with the guy, he’ll never be more than Warren to me, but when he introduces himself as Dr. Jahn, people seem to bend over backwards trying to accommodate him.  When we are given the opportunity to throw out a fancy-pancy title that will make us sound more important we are quick to do so.  These titles are intended to act as a shortcut to respect.  Instead of earning it, we demand it.  By patronizing the use of position and title, we pave the way for corruption, manipulation, and demagogues.  Just because Ted Haggard was labeled a pastor didn’t make him any less likely to take part in homosexual activity and methamphetamines.  If we quit catering to people that tell us they are important, and begin catering to people who show us they are important, titles will no longer have power.  Conversely, we must prove our own worthiness rather than

The third parable, “Kasan Sweat,” was quite short, but spoke volumes about the humility we should strive for.  We often become so concerned with our reputation and title we have a hard time accepting mistakes and shortcomings.  When Kasan was asked to officiate at a funeral he found himself getting nervous at the thought of the important people who he would be speaking in front of.  He even began to sweat during the ceremony.  Realizing he had let the title of supposedly important people intimidate him, he resigned as a Zen teacher.  According to the parable, “he lacked the sameness of bearing in the world of fame that he possessed in the secluded temple.  Many times, people are so eager to gain their status they accept their responsibilities without being fully prepared.  Even when they realize their mistake, the idea of power and influence have become so important to them they simply cannot acknowledge their lack of worthiness.  Instead they cling to their position, resulting in poor decisions that often have dangerous outcomes.  We must be willing to accept our faults, and if necessary, demote ourselves in order to ensure our qualifications and worthiness.  Kasan returned after eight years of further study as a student.

If we as a society continue to deny reality by adding titles to our names in order to feel better about what we do, how will we ever be able to accept what we do.  In my opinion, I’d rather associate with someone who was comfortable being a janitor.  Master of the custodial arts sounds a bit arrogant.  Furthermore, if we are going to continue to kiss the asses of senators, doctors, and professors just because we are expected to , we may as well go ahead and scratch out the part of The Declaration of Independence that says “all men are created equal” because every time the red carpet rolls out for some dignitary that has absolutely nothing to offer but a fancy outfit and a title, we are merely put more power in their hands, and encouraging their arrogant expectations of respect.  Life would inevitably be better with zero ego.

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