As I’ve said many times, I love aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, and teaching stories—all of which contain a powerful succinct point, a certain lesson.
And of this group, I also love koans. A “koan” is a question, story, or statement that can’t be understood logically. Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment. The most famous koan is probably: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”
I collect koans—traditional Zen koans and also koans that I’ve identified myself, out in the wild. These are sayings or stories that seem to have great meaning, but I’m not exactly clear what that meaning is.
I came across a story like this recently. This story strikes me as very powerful, but I’m not sure exactly how to characterize its meaning. It’s about the nature of the salvation of souls, and about doing good for others, and virtue, but somehow I can’t quite grasp its lesson.
I came across this story in My Several Worlds, the 1954 memoir by the Nobel prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, who is probably best known for her novel The Good Earth. I’m on a bit of a Pearl S. Buck kick right now. You’ve probably noticed this if you look at my weekly “#GretchenRubinReads” posts on Facebook, where I post a photo of the books I read each week.
Pearl Buck was born in 1892 and as the daughter of two Presbyterian missionaries, spent most of the first forty years of her life in China. Here she relates a memory from her childhood:
“The Chinese attitude toward the whole business of the missionary may best be exemplified from a little incident I once saw take place in my father’s church in an interior city. He was preaching earnestly and somewhat long, and the congregation was growing restless. One by one they rose and went away. There is nothing in Chinese custom which forbids a person to leave an audience. He saunters away from the temple, the public storyteller or the theater when he feels like it and a sermon is an entirely foreign notion. My father was disturbed, however, and a kindly old lady on the front seat, seeing this, was moved to turn her head and address the people thus: ‘Do not offend this good foreigner! He is making a pilgrimage in our country so that he may acquire merit in heaven. Let us help him to save his soul!’ This reversal so astonished my father, and yet he so perfectly understood its sincerity, that he begged the pardon of the assembly and instantly stopped his sermon.”
I’ve thought about this story a lot, and I’m not sure what to make of it. But I think the crucial question is: Why did this declaration by the woman, “this reversal,” cause Pearl Buck’s father to stop his sermon? And how do we judge his decision to stop?