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Plato & Socrates find Zen.

More and more young Americans and movie stars are becoming great fans of Zen Buddhism and their ancient practice of meditation. In sports, NBA coach Phil Jackson has made the practice popular by implementing Zen practices with his team and leading them to eleven Championship victories. Among my friends I find them in a great state of tranquil peace after they emerge from their Zen meditation class. After observing all of these Zen activities and more, I thought it would be useful to research a bit about Zen. And who better to explore the research then our good friends Plato & Socrates.

It was a warm and late summer’s day. The sun was just diving into the ocean and was turning the sky into a glowing orange. There were many tall cliffs in Greece and Athens and thousands of years ago they were well secluded from the busy everyday activity of ancient Greece. The markets were full of farmers and barterers selling to the servants of prestigious Greek families. The many athletes practicing for their next games. And the many many young students who searched the streets trying to find the legendary Socrates to pose on him their many questions. Students who gained attention were granted entrance into the academy where they would study under Plato, his bright teacher’s assistant, Aristotle. And, although he rarely attended his own class, even Socrates was a professor at the school. But today the wandering philosophers nor the patient students could locate Socrates. As we speak he was deep in thought staring at the orange glow that the sun had been creating. He was laying, rather hanging happily on a hammock between two palm trees set right on the white cliffs. Nobody knew about this hiding spot and when Socrates needed some time alone to think away from the hustle and bustle of Athens he came here.

Plato: Ah ha! There you are Socrates. I’ve been looking all over for you.

Socrates: What in Aphrodite’s name are you doing here? How did you find me?

P. I saw a drawing you had made of this spot in your study and recognized it as a part of these cliffs. There aren’t many perches as beautiful as this one you know.

S. Of course I know. That is why I come here alone you dumbfounded moron. I might as well as open a Bed and Breakfast here now knowing your blabbering mouth. Five chickens say that you have the nerve to put this spot in those silly writings of yours.

P. Come come now Socrates. You must understand, I am the headmaster of the academy and you haven’t taught or even shown up for your class three days in a row now. You can’t keep doing this! Our students are very well respected and it isn’t wise to keep abandoning them this way.

S. Non-sense. I am on a sabbatical. And besides, I gave them a riddle and they haven’t been able to solve it so I don’t even need to be there.

P. If you had shown up to your own class you would already know they solved the golden egg riddle on Tuesday.

S. You must be joking. I thought it was cleverer than that.

P. They are a bright bunch of students Socrates, you should give them more of a chance.

S. No my friend, I am afraid that I must once and for all announce my retirement from teaching.

P. What? Socrates be serious, don’t pull out your shenanigans with me!

S. No Plato I am being serious. A few days ago I received a letter from one of my students who was sent with his army to the very east of our world. Past India and into the mountains. He left me with instructions to try an eastern exercise that he has been enjoying for the last few months and told me if I can to come visit him immediately.

P. In Asia Socrates! How would we get there!

S. There is a boat that will take us close then a convoy of donkeys will pick us up.

P. Us?

S. Well I cannot go on an adventure without my closest friend to help me get around now can I?

P. Say no more Socrates. It’s been far too long since we have had an adventure together. I’ve been so focused on the academy and creating all of these tests. I will announce our Sabbatical immediately and ask that we be given military protection for this quest.
Plato was now frantically running around making preparations for the trip as Socrates remained in his peaceful state. The two had very different personalities but that helped them in challenging each other on these long trips.

Socrates sat cross-legged staring out at the sea. It was night but the moon illuminated the sky light enough for the eye to see for miles. The stars were barely visible through the bright white glow of the moon and a few clouds kept cover over the ship. Plato slowly crept up to his old mentor and sat quietly beside him. Socrates was much quieter on this trip than Plato had ever seen him. Plato didn’t understand what was going on until he remembered that Socrates had told him that the young student from the mountains had sent him a letter.

P. Socrates?

Socrates still sat cross-legged not moving and barely breathing. Though with the noise of the ship brushing against the water Plato couldn’t hear Socrates breathing at all and feared him dead.

P. Socrates wake up!
Socrates then opened one eye and focused in Plato’s direction.

S. Can’t an old man ever get peace around here?

P. Socrates, you haven’t said a word the entire time on this ship!

S. Make silence your friend and you will never be lonely Plato.

P. I appreciate silence as much as the next single and isolated philosopher but it’s been three days since we have boarded this ship and you haven’t had a bite to eat or drink either!

Socrates now opened both eyes.

S. Three days? It barely seemed more than three hours. Though I do feel a bit of a sunburn.

P. If you don’t mind me asking what have you been thinking about and what was in that letter?

S. Plato, my dear boy, that is the beauty of the entire thing, I haven’t been thinking at all, not a single thought!

Plato was so shocked he nearly fell over. All this time in silence he had seen Socrates taking he was expecting some new thought or perspective that would revolutionize the way people think about politics or science and instead, Socrates hadn’t had a single thought and seemed to be ecstatic about it.

P. I’m afraid I don’t understand. What do you mean you haven’t been thinking?

S. It is all in the letter that my student wrote. They call it meditation where he is. His instructions were to cross your legs, sit up straight and empty your mind. Any thought that tries to penetrate your state of relaxed concentration you must dismiss. It has done wonders. I feel completely at peace with myself and if I may say so, with those around me.

P. Well I suppose you could feel peace with everything if you are sitting around like a snail and not moving for days at a time.

S. Plato! Don’t be so Western! You must open your mind to these new things. We will be approaching the new land in a few days.

P. Actually Socrates it was a few days when we got on board. We should be to the docks by sunrise, which is in less than an hour.

S. Incredible!

Plato didn’t yet share in Socrates’ enthusiasm but he had enough respect and trust in the man to take his advice and approach these new things and practices with an open mind.

The ship docked and Socrates, Plato and their military escort were met by a group of men with a few dozen camels and donkeys. They rode for a few days into the mountains and through snow. Their escorts were very quiet and had reminded Plato of Socrates until he finally started laughing and being more like his Greek self. There was a soldier of royal blood with them and Socrates took great interest in talking to this young man named Alexander. Clearly he had large ambitions and Socrates suggested that Aristotle be his personal tutor for some time.

On the third day around noon the group finally made it to their destination. It had been a long journey from the shores of Greece and although Plato had been expecting some type of great city or castle all that stood in front of them were a few large wooden houses perched on the side of the mountain. Upon their arrival a young man came walking towards them at a quick pace and gave Socrates a hug when they were close enough to embrace each other. The young man had a deep red, almost crimson robe on compared to Socrates classic white.

S. Bodhidharma, it is very good to see you again, thank you for your letter and your invitation.

Bodhidharma. Yes of course Socrates, it is my pleasure and honor to have you here! And I see that you have brought your closest friend Plato.

P. Very nice to meet you Bodhidharma.

B. Oh no please, it is my pleasure, and I am a very big fan of your books!

P. Ah well thank you, it’s always nice to know that somebody actually reads them instead of using them to start fires.

B. Gentlemen, please come in. We have baths and fresh clothes for you. And I imagine you are all hungry. I am sorry Socrates but I do not have any beer here.

S. Oh that is quite all right my friend, I had far too much in Egypt.
Bodhidharma led the two philosophers and their escorts up to the buildings where they enjoyed clean bathes and food. The soldiers quickly went to sleep since they hadn’t had any in days but Socrates, Plato and Bodhidharma went to have tea next to the fire and talk.

B. So Socrates, where shall we begin?

S. Well, since I received your letter I have been practicing the art that you called mediation. I find it very peaceful and relaxing, perhaps more than anything I’ve ever done. But please, tell me, where does it come from? Is it a religion from these parts of the world? Do you have gods? How did you come to find it? And most importantly, why haven’t I seen one single woman in this town of yours?

Bodhidharma laughed and began to explain everything to Plato and Socrates.

B. Well, first off, Plato, if I know our dear friend here he has probably told you next to nothing of my letter and only asked you to travel the entire distance of the world to accompany him!

P. Ah yes but it isn’t the first time.

B. Oh very good, just stay south of Britain terrible food up in those parts. To answer your questions Socrates, the practice I told you about, mediation, is a practice that belongs mostly to the way of Zen Buddhism. Zen, in and of itself, is not a religion, more of a philosophy or way of thinking. Although many other groups or philosophies that do use mediation more resemble a religion. Anyway, Zen and meditation are not exclusive to other religions or ways of thought. We, Zen monks, use meditation to awaken our true nature, which we believe will fill us with wisdom and great compassion.

P. So you believe that we are all innately full of wisdom and compassion Bodhidharma?

B. Not quite Plato. Look at a snake and a cow. They both drink water but while the one produces poison the other produces milk. Surely we all inhale the same air that we breathe and see many of the same things each day. But the way we churn our thoughts and brew our mind produces very different actions.

P. Very interesting, please continue.

B. Well, every Zen Buddhist will probably talk about his path to enlightenment so I might as well tell you about it. Actually, like many things, if you ask different people about enlightenment you will receive very different and sometimes seemingly contrary answers. I once heard that a young boy achieved enlightenment by simply sitting and being fully aware of his existence and nothing else, putting every particle of energy and thought into nothing and yet into everything that consisted of his existence.

P. I’m not sure I am following you.

B. Please don’t worry, half the time I don’t understand what I am saying but that is a sign that you are becoming more Zen….

Bodhidharma said this with a smirk and Plato could tell he was being humorous and yet again, possibly serious.

B. To give you a short explanation, we believe that there are several lessons along the path to enlightenment and we in fact must learn them over and over again, each time appreciating a new depth of understanding for them. Perhaps I will use the story that I first heard when learning about Zen.

S. Yes, please do.

B. You may see this story depicted on the walls of this very monastery and all over in China, Korea and Japan. It is the story of a young man or boy learning to herd an ox. Forgive me because many times I will refer to us as the boy. First he is searching for his lost ox. He is frantic and anxious to find it. He will search around for it and will often feel uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Next he will find some footprints for the ox.

P. So he has decided to do something about his unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

B. Exactly Plato. It is this time that a person will begin asking questions of their religion or philosophy. Challenging things that no longer work for their way of life and worldview. Next we or he can see the ox. He will come up with a plan in order to catch the ox. In other words, we will begin finding books to read or mentors to ask questions.

The fourth step is actually catching the ox. At first we are satisfied but soon we grow tired and sit to meditate. But now we cannot meditate. The thoughts and answers flow into our mind and interrupt our peace. We have found the “answer” but do not know what to do with it. We must learn to tend to our ox. And so we try doing so. We try and try to lead the ox until finally we find some road or path that he is willing to march with us on. Our practice of mediation becomes easier as we forget the subtle rules and answers of Zen and remember to relax and listen only to our breath when we meditate.

Next we take off the leading collar or rope of the ox and walk next to him all the way home. The ox is almost leading us as we dance around singing with the nature of life. We do not resist where the road will take us. Slowly we become more and more one with nature and one with what is. We have completely forgotten about the ox who is now gone. We are now freely in and out of our meditation, not needing to sit down and concentrate in order to attain peace of mind.

P. Hold on my friend. What was the purpose of catching the Ox if we have now forgotten him?

B. Ah the question of a Western man! How I enjoy it, these are the same questions I myself struggle with and now let me tell you. The ways of thought are very different between our people in the West and these people. To this day I struggle to understand the idea of catching an ox to let it go, although we see many fishermen do this all the time for sport. But I can understand this notion with the answers to our deep philosophical questions. You see, when we are ready not to care about the answer anymore, even after we think we have found it, and then we are closer to enlightenment.

P. No offense Bodhidharma, but I think all of this high altitude has affected your thinking.
Bodhidharma only smiled in return.

B. The eighth step in this path to enlightenment is simply an empty circle. Not only is the ox gone but also the ox-herder has gone along with him! It is here that we see that nothing, no ox, riches or answers to great questions belongs to us. We are simply a part of our surroundings. A part of the questions that we pose. And we would no longer exist if an answer came along! In Zen we find a great burden released at this point. No longer are we searching for our ox, our self. We are simply who we are. And at this moment we take the ox back to its home. We return home but everything appears different. We have forgotten ourselves and act freely in this new world.

The final picture is the boy walking into a market with nothing but a small bag. While all of the other men have oxen and possessions of their own they are arguing and fighting. The boy on the other hand walks freely accepting everything with joy, compassion and understanding. The boy is not yet finished. He will return to find another ox and complete the entire cycle again, but this time he will see and understand more things about himself through the process. Many times he will go through this process until finally his master will come along seeing all that he has done and the grace, wisdom and love that he has captured in his bag. It is then that the master starts to learn from the student.

Socrates started clapping and Plato sat in deep thought. He had been introduced to a new way of thinking. The refreshing thing was that this way of thinking was not intrusive. It did not claim that any other styles of thought, philosophy or religion were “wrong”. It simply encouraged others to be one with nature and themselves as much as they could.

On the return ship home Plato and Socrates talked about the different things they had learned about Zen. Finally Plato made a deal with Socrates that he would miss teaching another class as long as he could start teaching beginners meditation class each evening. Plato had learned to not force his “ox” not to journey to places it did not wish to go but dance and celebrate around it.