Sunday, February 01, 2009

The Bear Truth

In Shobogenzo Sanji Gō (On Karmic Retribution in the Three Temporal Periods), Zen Master Dogen tells the following, very entertaining story:

There was once a woodcutter who had gone off into the mountains when he encountered a blizzard and completely lost his way. It was at that time when the day was coming to an end. The snow was so deep and it was so freezing cold that he knew he would certainly be dead before long. He made his way onwards and had just entered a dense, dark patch of woods when he saw a bear. There it was, right before him in the woods. Its body was a deep blue-black, and its eyes were like two glowing coals. The man was filled with terror, certain that he would lose his life.

But the creature was, in truth, a bodhisattva who had manifested in the form of a bear. Seeing the man’s dreadful fear, it then spoke in a consoling manner, counseling him, “Now you must not be afraid. Though one’s parents may sometimes harbor wrong intentions towards their child, I do not harbor evil thoughts towards you.” It then came forward, lifted the man onto its back, and carried him into a cave where it warmed him with its own body until it completely resuscitated him. Gathering some roots and berries, it encouraged him to eat what he could.

Fearing lest the woodcutter should die, it lay down and held him in its arms. In this way it kindly tended him until six days had passed. On the seventh day, the sky cleared and the pathway became visible. The bear, having realized that the man desired to return home, again gathered sweet berries to satisfy his hunger and sustain him. It accompanied him out of the woods, and ever so politely bade him farewell. The man fell to his knees and said, “How can I ever repay you?” The bear replied, “I seek no recompense now. I only pray that, just as I protected your body these past days, you will also do the same with my life.” The man respectfully agreed.

As the man was coming down the mountain shouldering his firewood, he encountered two hunters, who asked him, “What kind of game have you encountered on the mountain?” The woodcutter replied, “I haven’t seen anything apart from just one bear.” The hunters begged him, “Can you show us where?” The woodcutter replied, “If I can have two-thirds of your prey, I will gladly show you.” The hunters agreed and they all went off together, ultimately slaying the bear. They divided the meat into three parts. As the woodcutter was just about to pick up the bear’s flesh with his two hands, he lost the use of his arms, as if they were a string of pearls that had been cut or a lotus root that had been sliced off. The hunters were startled by this and, in their concern, asked him what had happened.

The woodcutter, feeling deeply ashamed, gave a detailed account of what he had done. The two hunters upbraided the woodcutter, saying, “That bear had such great compassion for you! How could you possibly have carried out such a wicked act of betrayal now? It is truly a wonder that your whole body hasn’t rotted away!” Thereupon the hunters, in company with the man, gave the meat in charity to a monastery

The moral of this story is: Zen monks did, in fact, eat meat.

1 comment:

Uku said...

Thank you! Great post! Eating meat, oh yes. ;)

With palms together,