Friday, December 28, 2018

Crooked Trees and New Year's Resolutions

There was an old Buddhist priest who ran a small temple at the top of a hillside.  He'd spent several decades chanting, praying, and providing spiritual support to his community, but the time had come for him to retire.  Sadly, the priest did not have any children that he could give the temple too.

So, he put together a small wooden sign, and placed it in from of a withered, crooked tree that was growing outside the gates of his temple.  The sign said, "Anyone who can tell me how to fix this tree can have my temple and the land that it resides on."

Word spread quickly about the sign, and monks came from all over the country to offer advice.  Some told the priest that he should cut the tree down.  Others suggested the use of wires and ropes to straighten its branches.  

The old priest listened patiently to each person, and when they were done he grabbed a frying pan and chased each one from the temple grounds.

Many years passed, and it started to seem like no one would be able to answer the priest's koan.  Finally, a Buddhist nun appeared at the temple.  She'd been traveling for many days, and she needed a place to rest.  She knocked on the temple gates, and after a few moments the priest came out; frying pan in hand.

"I'm very tired," the nun said, "May I sleep at your temple tonight?" 
"No, you can't sleep at my temple tonight," the priest replied, "But you can have my temple and land it resides on if you can answer one question." 
"Okay," the nun replied calmly, "What's your question? 
The priest pointed at the the crooked tree with his frying pan and said, "How do I fix this tree?"

Upon hearing this, the nun looked at the tree for a long time.  She noticed the trunk was so bent that it almost ran parallel with the ground. She saw the gnarled branches that twisted in strange directions, and the dead leaves that surrounded the tree's base.  

Eventually, the nun turned to the priest and said, "Just leave it alone, the tree is fine the way it is."  As soon as the nun finished speaking the old priest smiled broadly, and dropped his frying pan.  He bowed deeply to the nun, and said, "Follow me, this temple belongs to you."

As we approach New Year's Eve, my time line is filled with people discussing their New Year's resolutions.  Words like "New Year, New You!" and "Get beach body ready!" are filling my screen like mantras, representing the hopes of people who want to be smarter, richer, and prettier in 2020.

This is to be expected.  After all, our economy hinges on the idea that if we buy one more gym membership or add one more mindfulness app to our phone, then all of our dreams will come true.  But each time one of these messages appears I think back to the tree in the story, and I wonder, "What if we're not as broken as we think we are?"

To be sure, each of us is a "crooked tree" dealing with our own fears and insecurities.  Our bodies don't look the way we think they should, our paychecks don't have enough zeroes, and our relationships aren't what we desire.  But why is that a bad thing?  

After all, the tree in the story was gnarled and ugly.  But the tree accepted it's crooked nature.  The priest accepted its crooked nature, and everything was peaceful as a result.  The only time fear or anxiety entered the picture was when foolish monks attempted to make the crooked tree straight.  That's why the priest chased them off with a frying pan.

In contrast, the nun looked at the tree, and she saw what it was; not what she desired it to be.  She understood that what ever made it crooked and gnarled could not have happened any other way.  Thus, the tree could not exist any other way.  

She understood that the tree could not be fixed because the tree was never broken.

What would happen if we looked at ourselves like the nun looked at that tree?  What would happen if we treasured our imperfections in the same way that the priest treasured the tree's gnarled branches? Personally, I think our lives would be better as a result.  More than that, I think it's incumbent on us to see the perfection of our imperfect souls.  

Buddhism can be helpful in this regard.  When done correctly, without nonsense words like "self-improvement" or "enlightenment", the practice helps us see past our thoughts about how life should be.  

When we sit on cushions that are always either too hard or too soft, we understand the perfect nature of imperfect cushions.  When we mix-up words during chants, we understand the perfect nature of imperfect chanting.  And that understanding bleeds over into the rest of our lives.

Eventually, we step on the scale and see the perfection of our imperfect weight.  And we enjoy the perfect chaos of our imperfect home life.  And we exist in a state of peace, rejoicing in the great perfection of our messy, crooked lives.

Because crooked trees/ people are perfect in their crookedness, and we suffer when we try to make them straight.

With this in mind, I toyed with the idea of not making a resolution this year.  The idea of people spending days or even weeks combing their imperfections in order to find something to "fix" makes my heart hurt.  

But I decided that it would be best to engage with the perfect nature of this imperfect ritual.  So, my new year's resolution is this.  In 2019, I'll wake up every morning, I'll go to sleep every night, and I'll live my crooked life in between.

Happy New Year's Everyone!

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Crooked Trees and New Year's Resolutions


  1. Excellent post Alex thank you and Happy New Year.

  2. Simple, clear and direct. I like your honesty, thank you.

  3. As always you are spot on. Your wisdom is refreshing.

  4. As always, well written and thought provoking. Please indulge me a silly but serious question; the "crooked tree" is exactly as it is/should be. Agreed. How then do we reconcile the Bonsai tree? Isn't it trimmed and sculpted, roots molded to "make" it better? Surely they are beautiful and I can see how one would need patience and a certain meditative state to accomplish this, but the two, the crooked tree and the Bonsai, feel at odds to me. Thank You. Joe (USMC 1987-1992)

    1. You've presented me with a wonderful koan, friend:) I attempted to answer in a comment, but it would seem that the response will require a blog post. May I quote your question in the article that I'm writing? -Semper Fi (USMC 2004-2012)

  5. By all means, please. I hope my question didn't come across as snarky, I am genuinely curious. Thank you for taking the time to consider my question. Joe

  6. Beautiful! Loved this story and the message it entails. Thank you.