A Zen Meditation on Foolish Wisdom

A Zen Meditation on Foolish Wisdom May 31, 2024

Circus Procession

I’ve been thinking about foolish wisdom.

While this is another season, it made me recall April 1st. That day marked out as many things. For one it’s the Assyrian New Year. For another it’s the feast for Mary of Egypt, a rather interesting desert mother. I also like to note it’s Edible Book day.

And, of course, it’s April Fool’s Day. The only day in the year most everyone fact checks.

(And, yes. I got confused with what first day of the month this is. Just another bit of foolishness, I suggest)

I scanned my previous postings for the 1st day of Apri, and there are a number. But a running thread appears to be an anecdote collected from those desert mothers and fathers by Thomas Merton.

Once there was a disciple of a Greek philosopher who was commanded by his Master for three years to give money to everyone who insulted him. When this period of trial was over, the Master said to him: Now you can go to Athens and learn wisdom. When the disciple was entering Athens he met a certain wise man who sat at the gate insulting everybody who came and went. He also insulted the disciple who immediately burst out laughing. Why do you laugh when I insult you? said the wise man. Because, said the disciple, for three years I have been paying for this kind of thing and now you give it to me for nothing. Enter the city, said the wise man, it is all yours. Abbot John used to tell the above story, saying: This is the door of God by which our fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.” (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers New York, New Directions, 1960: p. 39)

I can see why I would favor this.

It reminds me of a poem by Taigu Ryokan,

today’s begging is finished; at the crossroads
i wander by the side of hachiman shrine
talking with some children.
last year, a foolish monk;
this year, no change.

In my absolutely favorite collection of koans, the Wumenquan, case 4, “The master Huoan asked, ‘Why is it the Western Barbarian has no beard?”

The compiler and editor of the Wumenquan, Wumen Huikai wrote a verse commentary.

Do not discuss the dream
In front of a fool –
Barbarian without a beard!
It just obscures what is clear

The great American master of the intimate way Robert Aitken provides his own commentary on this case quoting the poet Wallace Stevens.

His question is complete because it contains
His utmost statement. It is his own array.
His own pageant and procession and display.

Another contemporary commentator the Zen teacher Guo Go reminds us, “Practice is for fools, but it is very important.” Both Wumen’s verse and Guo Go’s comment remind me of that term first coined by the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians speaking of “fools for Christ.” And after him the Desert fathers & mothers who were called holy fools. And, of course, Francis of Assisi, sometimes called God’s fool, and at other times the only Christian.

Corollaries of foolish wisdom pop up in the world’s faiths. The madzub, God-crazed saints in Sufism. And, of course, Hanshan and later Ikkyu as obvious examples within our Zen tradition.

The intimate way is a calling into a certain foolishness. The smart, the clever, see no gain in the intimate way. And, there’s truth to that. After all, beards that are not beards?

But in Zen and other variations on the intimate way we are invited into something astonishing. That beard, for one thing. That beard that is not, for another. And here in this little case, it’s all on display. The pointing. The disruption of our ideas of what are and are not. The invitation.

Touch your face.

Is there a beard there or not?

If yes, what does that mean?

If no, what does that mean?

Such a foolish project.

Dreams pile upon dreams, and we find ourselves presented with the simple truth. It contains words. It contains all the worlds. All we have to do is let go. Open our hands.

The pageant and the procession and the display.

This is the door of God by which our mothers and fathers rejoicing in many tribulations enter into the City of Heaven.

Clearly a foolish project…


About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a writer, a Zen teacher, and a Unitarian Universalist minister. His sixth book, the Intimate Way of Zen is forthcoming from Shambhala Publications at the end of July. In addition to his long running blog Monkey Mind, he also has a spiritual newsletter, Unanswered Question. jamesiford.substack.com You can read more about the author here.
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