Feb 18 2016

The Empty Crypt

A long time ago, a young man who had heard legends of a magic crypt that contained the secret of immortality decided to search for it. After searching for many years, he found it. It was in the Holy Land, hidden underground among some old Roman ruins. He entered the crypt, but it was empty. He saw no secrets written inside about immortality, and no magic elixir or fountain of youth. There was not even a coffin or a sarcophagus. The underground crypt just had an empty recessed area cut into the stone wall where a corpse or a coffin would have been placed. He lay down in the bare alcove, confused.

Suddenly, he felt like he was outside of himself, looking at where he sat. Time seemed to pass swiftly. Watching helplessly, he saw himself quickly age and die. He witnessed his corpse and clothes rot away until there was nothing left. The crypt was empty again.

Time continued to race by for him—years seemed to pass in minutes. Eventually, he saw a husband and wife approach the crypt. They build an enclosure over the crypt’s entrance, then entered and carved on the wall their names and a short account of their discovery of the crypt. They lay down in the same alcove. In nearly an instant their bodies aged and rotted away, just as his had. After a few years, their children came to the crypt looking for their parents. They found the enclosure built by their parents and their writings carved on the wall. Every few years, the children returned to visit the crypt. Their numbers grew over time as they brought their spouses and children, then grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Each time they came, they would build onto the protective enclosure at the crypt’s entrance, gradually turning it into a grand building. They would also add to their ancestors’ writings on the stone wall, turning them into a grand epic.

The man awoke from his vision, young again, lying on the bare alcove of the crypt. He urgently made the long journey back home. He married; had children; lived well; built; and wrote. For, in the crypt that day, he learned the secret of immortality.


Nov 20 2014

The Banquet and the Spider

One day a hardened and greedy man was walking through the forest when a poisonous spider bit him. He fell to the ground, unconscious and dreaming. He felt as if transported to hell. He saw a banquet room, with an endlessly long table piled high with delicious foods. The people sitting at the table, however, groaned in misery. Their arms were tied with splints so that they could not bend their elbows, and they thus could not lift food to their mouths. Worse still, they were tied to their chairs and the food was piled in the middle of the table, so they could not bend forward to eat with their mouths. They would try over and over to feed themselves by picking up food, throwing it into the air, and catching whatever they could in their mouths. Without being able to bend their arms, though, their throws were clumsy, and most of the food landed elsewhere. The banquet hall was a chaotic mess, with food flying in the air and food spilled and rotting all over the ground and the diners. The hall was filled with the diners’ moans of hunger and angry shouts at one another.

The man was suddenly carried away into heav­en. He was puzzled, though, for heaven was set up identically to hell. Once again, there was an endless­ly long banquet table, with guests tied to their chairs, their arms tied to splints. But here, the banquet room was clean. The only sounds were the sounds of happy conversation between the guests. One thing caused this marked difference: in heaven, since it was not pos­sible to feed oneself, each person would pick up food and feed it to that person’s neighbors. Invariably, the person receiving food would thank the one feeding, and then offer food back to that person in return.

The man found himself again back in hell. Puzz­led that those in hell had not figured out how to feed each other, the man approached the nearest suffering diner, leaned down and whispered, “You fool! There is no need for you to go hungry. Feed one of your neighbors, and certainly he will return your kindness and feed you.

“You expect me to feed him?” the diner said, looking with disapproval at his neighbor. “I’d rather starve than give him the satisfaction of eating!”

The man returned to himself, laying on the ground in the forest, but he soon everything faded again and he found himself in a hell nearly identical to that of his first dream, except that now there was no ceiling to the room. Far off in the distance, he could see heaven up above him. He now believed he was truly dead, in hell. Somehow a thread from a spider web hung down from heaven, extending all the way to him in hell. He figured that the thread must be compensation to him for his untimely death from the spider’s bite.

The man had not yet been strapped to a chair. Not wanting to spend eternity in hunger with such selfish companions, he began climbing the thread, eager to reach the banquets of heaven.

The climb out of hell is a long one, and the man eventually grew tired. He stopped halfway up the thread to rest. He saw how far he had come, and laughed lightheartedly as he realized that he might escape. To his dismay, however, he saw others climbing up after him. They were also new arrivals to hell who had not yet been tied down and had seen him escaping. They had begun climbing to escape as well. Fearing that the thread may break from the weight of so many other climbers, he shouted down to the others, demanding that they get off the thread, that it was his and his alone. At that moment, the thread broke. The man fell down into hell, and was strapped into a chair for all eternity. His table companions were those who had also been climbing the thread. He was so angry with them for breaking the thread that he refused to feed them.

With regret he called out to heaven, “please warn those who are still living—I did not learn, but if I had seen what I see now, I would have learned.”

A voice replied, “you did see when you were still living, unconscious on the forest floor, and many times before that, yet you never learned. Even now, you still refuse to learn. The living have teachers enough. Those with ears to hear and hearts that feel have what they need to learn and do to become worthy of heaven. Those without ears to hear and hearts that feel will never learn, no matter how many times they are taught, unless they choose to open their ears and hearts.” With that, the man’s dream ended and he died from the effects of the spider bite.

Now, to you reading this story, this man like­ly seems foolish and selfish. But, it is easy to see the fool­ishness and selfishness of others, to correct them and offer advice. It is much harder to see your own foolish­ness and selfishness. Focus on shedding your own fool­ishness and selfishness, and you will build heaven a­round you.

**Inspired by an old story, known as “The Allegory of the Long Spoons,” “The Par­able of the Long Chopsticks,” or “The Parable of the Banquet,” attributed as an old Buddhist, Chinese, Chri­stian, Hindu, or Jewish parable, also attributed to Rab­bi Haim of Romshishok; Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, “The Spider’s Thread,” 1918; Luke 16:19-31.


Nov 13 2014

The Teacher

A wise healer came among a community of the blind. She taught the people what they needed to do to cure their own blindness. The people whom she taught were so in awe of her wisdom and compassion that they wanted to know more about who she was. Being blind, they used their hands to feel her to understand her features. Each person touched a differ­ent part of her. Only being able to become acquainted with a small part of the healer, they each concluded different things about her nature and traits. Each person was so self-assured about his or her limited perception of the healer, though, that each presum­ed to understand the full truth about her.

The healer was only with the people a short time. Almost as soon as she left, the people began ar­guing about who and what she was. News of her vi­sit, as well as news of the disagreements about her nature, passed quickly through the community. Each person who had encountered her in person told a di­f­ferent story about her visit and gave a different interpretation of her nature. As the stories spread, the details were slightly changed with each re­tell­ing, and each person formed an opinion about the healer based on which story they had first heard or based on which story made them feel best. None of them acknowledged her imperfections—they could not idolize an im­perfect being.

The people began to divide into groups based on which opinions about the healer they believed. There was great disagreement between the different groups, and the people spent much time debating the mi­nute details of all aspects of the healer’s superficial na­ture. Almost all of their opinions were either wrong or misleading because they were taken out of context. The people were so obsessed with validating their faulty perceptions and opinions about the healer that they ended up ignoring her teachings about how to heal their blindness. They lived out their lives in un­necessary darkness, clinging to false, misleading, tri­vial, and petty beliefs about the healer, rather than applying her words to heal themselves.


Oct 30 2014

The Cities’ Bridges

Three cities, each some distance from the other, were spread out along one side of a great river. The river was wide and deep, with a powerful and fast current. Lumber was in short supply, and boats were scarce. Crossing the river was dangerous and rarely accomplished. There were legends that across the river lay an undiscovered country, where could be found great wealth and knowledge. Occasionally, someone with an adventurous and seeking spirit would would search out that wealth and knowledge. They would diligently save their resources to be able to build a boat, and then carefully practice their boating skills to be able to make the crossing. When they finally made the crossing and then returned, they spoke of marvelous wonders that could only be understood by going there and experiencing them. Each city had skilled engineers and builders capable of building a bridge, and materials necessary to do so. Intrigued and excited by the stories of the undiscovered country, the people of each city decided to build a bridge from each of their cities to connect itself to the other side.

In the first city, the citizens were concerned with the trivialities of life, such as sporting contests, entertainment, and personal gossip. They could not be bothered with the details of such things as bridge-building. They left these sorts of problems to their leaders to solve, blindly giving them power over such matters. No one monitored the leaders or held them accountable for their actions. Because of this, the evil and corrupt were most attracted to leadership positions. Those few leaders who did not start out corrupt were quickly corrupted by the system—by the lack of accountability and by the influence of already-corrupt leaders who preceded them. The corrupt leaders used their power to benefit themselves and not the people. The leaders discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone tried to challenge their leadership, the leaders would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power. The leaders cared about money, not about wisdom or knowledge. When the city decided to build a bridge, the leaders craftily drew out the process so they could run up the expenses and divert as much money from the project to themselves and their cronies. Eventually, new corrupt would-be leaders were able to seize power and, seeing that much of the ongoing project expenses would still go to the old leaders’ cronies who had secured the building contracts, they canceled the old bridge project, making excuses about the bridge’s quality and safety, and started a new one they could control. This process repeated yet again. The first city never completed a bridge, having only the eyesore of three incomplete bridges jutting out partially into the river, only half finished. The townspeople found utility in the unfinished bridges—they used them for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but they never served the purpose for which they were built, and the meager uses to which they were put could not justify the expense of building them.

In the second city, the wealthy and powerful cared about little beyond their own social standing and wealth. There was less personal corruption among the city’s leaders, but they were controlled by the elite citizens, and the leaders managed the city’s affairs to further the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The wealthy and powerful did not like to think of themselves as being only concerned about their own interests, so they pretended to make shows of their concern for the interests of the poor. But really such shows were just status competitions amongst themselves to prove which of them could appear more concerned and charitable. When it came down to a conflict between charity and their own interests, they always supported the city policies that would promote their interests. They discouraged questioning and independent thinking, and when anyone outside of the elite tried to challenge the leadership of the elite, they would demonize and ostracize that person to neutralize that person’s potential ability to threaten their power and position. None of the elite wanted to have a new road to the river and a bridge built near their homes. They were worried about all the extra traffic on the road, the unsavory characters whom it might bring close to their neighborhoods, and that it might ruin their views of the river. They wanted all of the benefits of the bridge without bearing any of its costs. They were concerned with unimportant minutiae of the bridge’s construction and spent years debating unnecessary and irrelevant details of its construction. Eventually the bridge was built, but on the poor side of town. The bridge had taken so long to build that its design had been changed several times over its construction, and it had become saddled with so many unnecessary elements that it was ugly, and not entirely safe. To make sure that the new road and bridge did not facilitate travel for those they deemed undesirable, the elite imposed a toll on anyone crossing the bridge or using the road. Worse still, the wealthy citizens set up a company owned by themselves that would control and operate the road and bridge. They planned to use the profits from the tolls to pay lavish salaries to themselves and toward the upkeep of their own neighborhoods, rather than for the benefit of all townspeople. But the country on the other side used a different kind of currency than the town, and citizens from the other country were unable to pay the tolls to cross the bridge. Being offended at the wealthy townspeople’s unjust attempts to control access to their country and at being spurned by the wealthy townspeople, the citizens of the country on the other side of the river refused to allow contact between their country and the town, and they closed the bridge at their end. As in the first city, the rich townspeople were still able to find utility in the unfinished bridge, using it as a space for social gatherings, for picnics, and for fishing, but the bridge never served its real purpose and the meager uses to which it was put never justified the expense of building it.

In the third city, the poor did not let their leaders or the wealthy take advantage of them and the wealthy and powerful did not seek to abuse their power for their own gain. The residents of each neighborhood met together often, to foster a sense of community. They banded together to assist one another, to fight injustices, and ensure that wrongdoers were held accountable. They sought for unity not just within neighborhoods, but also between them. The townspeople from all walks of life strove to create friendships one with another and to be a unified people. They kept their leaders accountable and they limited how long anyone could remain in power. Because of all this, there was much less difference between income and wealth of the richest and the poorest citizens. When the townspeople decided to build a bridge, they did not delegate its construction to someone else, but each person volunteered his skills and cooperated in his field of expertise to build it. They built the road and bridge through the middle of town, to give everyone equal access, and to unify the town around the bridge. They cared more about the long-term welfare of their community than about petty concerns. All townspeople contributed their time and money to the bridge’s construction, and it was built quickly and efficiently. When it was done, it was beautiful and became the pride of the town. Access to cross the river was given to all townspeople equally, because they had all contributed what they could to its construction. There was free intercourse between the town and the country on the other side. The wealth to be found on the other side was not money, but a great library full of books teaching knowledge and wisdom. Through the greater knowledge and wisdom that they learned, along with their trade with the other country, the town grew prosperous and its people’s lives became more full of joy and meaning.

The townspeople of the first two towns continued in their ignorance and misery, unaware of the wisdom and joy that was possible. Occasionally, a few residents from the first two towns would learn of the third town’s prosperity and try to move there. The third town welcomed with open arms all those who proved they were willing to become one with the townspeople. All those who adopted its language and customs and worked to build, support, and contribute to the community, were welcomed. These things were required of the newcomers because these things had given the community the strength and unity to build its bridge. The newcomers who proved themselves became great pillars and defenders of the community, and they experience and delighted fully in the wisdom and joy to be found there. All others who came to the town and did not adopt the town’s language and customs, and all those who did not work to build, support, and contribute to the community, were cast out, and permanently forbidden from returning to the town. They were cast out because they were seeking to gain all of the benefits of living in the town, but without paying the necessary costs and undertaking the required responsibilities of becoming a townsperson, and allowing such people to remain would destroy what had made the town great.


Jun 23 2011

It’s Getting Better All the Time: Update

Category: death,Evil,goodness,optimismJames @ 10:25 pm

Returning to the subject of my previous post “It’s Getting Better All the Time,” I just wanted to share recent news about how the world is getting better:

1. Steady Decline in Major Crime Baffles Experts:

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years, a development that was considered puzzling partly because it ran counter to the prevailing expectation that crime would increase during a recession.

In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s, when violent crime peaked in the United States. Small towns, especially, are seeing far fewer murders: In cities with populations under 10,000, the number plunged by more than 25 percent last year.

2. Crime Statistics and The Village. As you can see from this chart, homicide rates in the United States have been consistently falling since the 1650s. Contrary to what you might expect from watching shows like “Little House on the Prairie”, murder rates in the 1870s were higher than in the 1970s. There was a spike in murder rates in the 1960s and 1970s, but murder rates have been declining for many years, and are approaching their pre-spike levels from the 1950s.

 

Homicide Rates, 1650 to present