John Henry & Mushrooms

John Henry & Mushrooms:

Joe's remarks on John Henry made me recall a famous story. It was retold in the version I first encountered by Taisen Deshimaru, a Japanese zen master and martial artist who taught widely in the West. I wrote, in the comments below:

Joe just needs to come down and spend a week splitting wood with me. After that, I think he'll have a new appreciation for old John Henry. After all, he sure was a hammer-swinger.
A fair response would be for my good friend Joe to bring a pneumatic woodsplitter along with him. Actually, my neighbor has one he's offered to loan me anytime I want it, but I continue to split wood with an axe. Perhaps this is why:
Master Dogen had gone to China to find true wisdom, to understand Zen. He studied many things but he did not really understand. In those days the religion of Buddhism, of Zen, was very widespread in China and he went from one temple to another. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied with the teaching he received so he decided to go home to Japan.

Then one day he came to another temple. It was summer, and very hot. There was a very old monk there working, drying mushrooms. Old and frail as he was, he was spreading the mushrooms out in the sun. Master Dogen saw him and asked him, "Why are you working? You are an old monk and a superior of the temple. You should get younger people to do this work. It is not necessary for you to work. Besides, it is extremely hot today. Do that another day." ...

The old monk's answer was most interesting and has become famous in the history of Soto Zen. It was a satori for Master Dogen. The monk said to him, "You have come from Japan, young man, you are intelligent and you understand Buddhism, but you do not understand the essence of Zen.... If a young monk helped me to do the work, if I were to stand by and watch him, then I could not have the experience of drying these mushrooms."
What was the line from that movie? 'A duellist of the wood-cut school'?

In any event, it's not without value. I don't know that the pneumatic drive could do it better than me anyway, since most of the work is in moving the wood into the right position for splitting, and then stacking it once it is split. You wear out your back with those parts, which no machine seems to want to do.

Splitting is easy. It is a joy. So, I imagine, was driving the steel for John Henry: to be a man moving in the image of his creator, as Johnny Cash put it. Or another -- Thor's hammer and Dagda's club; or the tales in the front of the Kalevala about the breaking of the great tree in the morning of the world. That's a thing men have done for a long time, and gods before us; and we are men who still do it.

That thing is valuable in and of itself. Perhaps it is the chief value.

No comments: