There is a Zen story about a bandit who is terrorizing a village, stealing, smashing, hurting and killing the villagers. In this story a little Zen monk, half the size of the bandit, steps into his path and, without evident anger or fear, tells the bandit he must stop what he is doing, that he must stop harming the villagers. A bit taken aback, the bandit recovers himself and bellows, “Little man, you don’t seem to realize who I am. I could cut off your head and not blink an eye!” To which the monk replied with a fierce calmness, “Oh sir, it seems you are the one who does not realize who I am. I am the one whose head you could cut off and I would not blink an eye. I will not stand by while you harm these people. You will cease this instant!” Now the bandit was completely taken aback, his entire idea of courage and strength was toppled, and the villagers, witness to this display of selfless courage, stopped running away and began to step forward, standing with the monk. As the legend goes, the bandit was so stunned and disoriented by these happenings that he was stopped in his tracks, defeated. He was, in fact, so shaken by this display of true courage and strength that he forswore banditry and became a dedicated student of the little Zen monk.
Now we can look at this story strictly on its face value and marvel at the strength, courage and faith of the monk, and how this is inspirational for us to find the courage to face up to sources of harm in our world. We can also see it as an allegory for the transformation of human society, the forces of egoic violence and awakened consciousness engaged in confrontation for the fate of humanity. This struggle is as old as human civilization, the forces of enlightenment, compassion, science, humanism and democracy challenged with daunting odds in the face of cruelty and selfishness, with bigotry and dogmatism, with anti-democratic authoritarianism. What is heartening is that, just as in our monk and bandit story, in the story of human history, eventually the more enlightened view, the view that is based in truth, courage, inclusion and compassion, moves in the manner that a great and courageous “monk” of a more modern era, Martin Luther King, articulated as: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In actuality, this little story is both pertinent to the personal and the collective human experience – for we live in both the personal and the collective worlds of human evolution. The collective is driven by the personal and the personal is shaped by the collective – and each is evolving through courageous dedication to truth, compassion, and inclusion by the few who come to inspire the many. While often the boisterous, selfish, closed-minded, and callous seem to consume all the attention and seem to hold the power, there will always be that small but steady, confident and courageous voice of compassion somewhere holding the line. And this voice, if it can speak clearly and unwaveringly for peace, wisdom, inclusion, justice and expanding democracy, will eventually prevail. We know this to be true because it is exactly this balance and expanding harmony that is the way of the Universe, is the Universe, and it is the way of human history, when viewed in its entirety. Like a trickle of water on rock, over time, this unassuming yet persistent voice for justice wears down the hardened heart of cruelty in individuals and society. And sometimes, after a long period of having seemingly little effect, there will be voices that begin to be heard, and the call to rally and stand will grow. And in such moments, everything changes and evolved individuals can move the collective to stand together against the callousness, selfishness and cruelty. And so, human society evolves.
We are not faced with bandits and bloodshed, but we are faced with dishonesty and manipulation by those in pursuit of power, whether it is personal power or political power. We are faced with communities that fall under the spell of the “bandits” of manipulation, of those who promise “greatness” or “righteousness” for those who will follow blindly. And for a while, there will always be those who do follow, and the collective weight of those mesmerized by the false promises is a weight that crushes and robs as surely as any bandit. Sometimes these bandits wear the mask of the politician, sometimes of the religious leader, sometimes of the commercial dazzler, sometimes it’s just the narcissistic individual manipulating their way through life, yet they can always be known by their greed, power-lust, and lack of true empathy and compassion. Though they will make empty declarations of caring for those they exploit, their only caring is for themselves.
Our story tells us to have the courage, to have the voice that stands up to selfishness, cruelty and injustice, that though we may seem to stand alone at first, the voice of justice and compassion will always find its way to the hearts of those who need to hear it. It will be discovered that ordinary people who stand in truth, compassion and courage can be a beacon for all humanity of the vision of what can be. Over and over in the evolution of human society, the bandits threaten to rob the people of their peace, dignity and security. Yet, while the bandits may run free for a time enjoying impunity for their crimes, human history is not on the side of the oppressor, rather, it is on the side of the liberator. We must be willing to lose everything without blinking an eye so as to preserve the integrity of our souls and keep the arc of the moral Universe bending toward justice.
In the Buddhist tradition, this is known as the Path of the Bodhisattva – an enlightened person who could stand to the side, serene in their personal capacity for peace and perspective while the world unfolds in all its good and bad, justice and injustice, kindness and cruelty. Yet the enlightened know there cannot be true personal peace while there are still those who suffer. We are at times called to come out of our personal safety and peace, by circumstances and by history, to be the ones who will not stand by while the cruel do harm to the innocent, nor blink an eye in the face of threats, or even the actuality of harm. And do not be put off by the concept of “enlightened,” for enlightenment is not some exalted status. Rather, Zen makes it clear, enlightenment is any ordinary person in any moment when self-centeredness dissolves into the expression and need of the moment. As is sometimes noted, it is “nothing special,” even though it looks to be so – it is just what is true and is needed, and it is what is represented by our humble little monk.
There are times when we are called to have faith that if we serve as instruments of the moment, of compassion in action, whether we personally get to see the results or not, the arc of history will bend, and humanity will increasingly cease to quake and run when confronted with the banditry of those who only serve themselves. The spirit of the little monk is in us all, for it is our true nature. And when this spirit and nature stand for, as, and in compassionate courage, the people will lose their fear and will stand with the “monk.” And in such moments, even the “bandits” can be transformed.