Why Must It Be This Way?

“It’s for your benefit, and you caused it.”

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A volcanic eruption seen at dusk

It’s 2020! There is much to be grateful for.

And there is much suffering, confusion, change, impeachment, and a possible war. Fires raging in Australia, earthquakes, and no signs of moving toward solutions or even recognizing the problem of climate change. Clearly, time for a Zen story.

A monk was walking with a Zen teacher when they came across a crow eating a dead frog. The monk asks, “Why must it be this way?” The teacher responds: 

“It’s for your benefit, and you caused it.”

I love this question. It is so direct and primal. Why? Why must it be this way? It applies so pointedly and beautifully to our politics, financial systems, health care, climate change, and everything else that appears somewhere between challenging, flawed, broken, or corrupt. The question can be applied to aging, conflict, change, death, and all of life’s pains and mysteries. 

Why must it be this way? Why are relationships, at work and outside of work, so difficult? Why are our leaders ushering in the New Year by sabre rattling and tossing out understanding and diplomacy, and threatening the world’s safety and perhaps human existence? Why are we not taking urgent action toward caring for each other and our planet? Why are there nuclear weapons, poverty, inequality, and lack of any signs of wisdom regarding finding solutions or even recognizing the problems. Why? 

The answer by the Zen teacher, in this case Dongshan, the founder of Soto Zen Buddhism in 9th century China, is surprising, paradoxical, and mysterious. The answer isn’t necessarily the right answer (or the wrong answer.) Since it’s a Zen story the answer is intended to challenge our usual thinking and is meant to wake us up from our often patterned assumptions and stories, and shallow ways of thinking.

The first part of the answer is generous, perhaps to a fault. It’s for our benefit, really? How could such insanity, confusion, and pain be for our benefit? And, how could it not be? From the widest, and perhaps wisest, perspective everything, even horrific events can be seen as for our benefit.  It’s hard to know. We can learn, grow, develop, and build character, create bonds from what looks difficult, unfair, and impossible. Hearing these words – that it’s for our benefit – definitely gets my attention, whether I agree or not. These words help me look more deeply, rather than react, and wonder, is it true: in what way is it for my benefit, our benefit?

The second part of the answer – “and you caused it” – might be more difficult to accept. It triggers reactions like anger, reeling, blaming – how could you/he/she/they! There certainly is a place for anger, for understanding causes and conditions. And, this old Zen teacher is taking the position that we are not separate from the problems. For example, in what way have we caused climate change or inequality? Through our actions or lack of them?

The second part of this answer, you caused it, reminds me of an expression from the Zen tradition that says, “it’s not your fault but it’s your responsibility.” I think this is what Dongshan is getting at when he says that we caused it. What happens when we stop looking to place blame and fault and take some (perhaps even radical*) responsibility?

Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas is a book about taking radical responsibility by looking squarely and unflinchingly at how broken and corrupt our financial system is. I highly recommend it. 

Why must it be this way, is a great question for leaders and for mindful leadership. How might it be different? In what way do you benefit from  everything, from being alive, from the wonderful things that happen, as well as the terrible things? 

I wish us all great wonder, great questions, and open hearts.  I wish us great benefit and great responsibility. 

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