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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chuang Tzu and the Raccoons – CREDO XXXV

Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, lived in the fourth century BC. One of his stories affected my life forever after I read it. In it, he pointed out that when two fishermen go out to fish and their lines entangle, it is common for them to get frustrated and blame each other and get mightily upset. However, if a single fisherman gets his line caught under a stone or by a root, he will sigh quietly and do his best to untangle his line and solve the problem.

About thirty-five years ago, I was living in a garage apartment on an estate on Long Island. You had to put out your trashcan the night before because the garbage truck came in the wee hours of the morning. My garbage can had a well-fitting lid, yet, try as I would, a pesky clever couple of raccoons would manage to open it and strew the whole mess over the place. In dismay, I would look down at the yucky prospect of cleaning it up in my dressing-gown or parka, depending on the weather.

Then, Chuang Tzu’s wisdom came to mind and I grinned as I proved him right. As I counted myself something of a philosopher (lover of wisdom), I cleaned up the horror and came back for a cup of coffee. As I sat drinking it, I marveled at the miracle of the transmission of a Chinese gentleman’s reflection traveling down twenty-four centuries and across almost half the world to teach and affect an unknown woman on an unknown continent! It certainly makes one think about the unseen web of time and place, and the great gift offered us by simple wisdom. I thank Chuang Tzu often and assume somehow that his conclusion came from personal experience those thousands of years ago,

As I was teaching history to a ninth grade that very morning, I couldn’t wait to share Chuang Tzu and the raccoons, realizing that alchemy was afoot, transforming the lead of exasperation to the gold of an insight that has stood me in good stead from that morning onward.

Which brings me to the wisdom of Carl Gustav Jung. Barbara Hannah, in her biography of him, relates an occasion when he was traveling in Burma. He was in a rickshaw with a bilingual friend when their vehicle collided with another rickshaw. Both drivers dismounted and started gibbering at each other wildly, but in the end, they started smiling and repeating two words over and over, and then took up the job of carrying on. Now Jung had a lifelong habit, if you have noticed, of being curious and asking what? why? or how? He asked his friend what those two magic words were. The friend answered, “No soul! No soul!” and explained that in Burma when something untoward happened, one had to decide if it was important enough to take into one’s psyche – or not.

Fast forward to 1981, when I was a co-leader of a group traveling to India. We flew in to New Delhi after a long flight from London and arrived at a dank, hot, dusty airport at about midnight. Slowly we went through customs after waiting ages for our luggage and then straggled out to a bus waiting to take us to the hotel. In the end, we sat in the hot bus waiting for the last two members to join us. The group in the bus was getting restive and fed up and starting to complain. I was sitting with my dear husband, Walter, who was visibly perspiring, beside me. And so, to entertain them, it occurred to me to tell the story of Jung in Burma. As I ended, the last two staggered onto the bus, and we were off. The remarkable thing was that during the entire trip through India and Nepal and Kashmir, whenever things went awry, and that was often, we would hear laughter and those two magic words, “No soul! No soul!”


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