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“The need begins with the man drinking saki; but soon the saki is drinking the saki; and finally the saki is drinking the man.”

— Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

It is not the fault of Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe that his discovery of the dominance hierarchy of chickens should have lent itself to such diverse disciplines as corporate finance, birth order determinants of success among siblings, international relations, and ultimately, to the psychology of the sane.

Thor, as we all know, was a Norwegian zoologist who watched his back-yard poultry with the dispassionate eye of a coyote. He noticed that some chickens always pecked other chickens and were not, themselves, ever pecked. Other chickens were always pecked and yet never pecked a single one of their peers. And a third group pecked and were pecked. Before Colonel Sanders could subject the birds to a final taste test, psychologists applied an electric shock regimen and determined that Chicken Group #3 could tolerate stress surprisingly well, while the others, i.e., the ones that only pecked and the ones that were only pecked, just went to pieces and succumbed quickly in that peculiar way of chickens.

A few extrapolations later it was decided that what was good for chickenkind was good for mankind: the way to survive civilization’s interminable stress was to accept the fact that we needed to walk the midline between abusing and being abused. If we could just accept our aggressive faults and then grant others the right to have these faults, too, we could live long and prosper. There was only one fly in the ointment… two, actually. The system worked well to alleviate acute stress; but despite repeated attempts, it could not put a dent in chronic stress and, in fact, worsened the effects of such stress by adding this frustration to it. And, secondly, it did not address the problem of stress that we brought on ourselves. Self-pecking constituted an order of stress that simply defied all known nostrums. And what was worse, self-pecking, as history has abundantly recorded, was the principal cause of chronic stress.

This is where psychologists and Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe’s chickens left us. When it came to self-pecking, we were on our own.

And still are. Sadly, even a glance at the problem reveals that it is not always a simple matter to recognize that we are the source of our misery, or, if we do manage to acknowledge our contribution to a self-inflicted wound, that we have the smarts necessary to treat it.

Except for a few of us, our problems arise because of unfortunate interactions with others. Generally speaking, we get ourselves into wretched predicaments because of three personality weaknesses. We may have an inexplicable inclination to trust people; or, when we voice a considered opinion that we should or should not follow a certain course, we have a spineless tendency to yield to nagging and surrender our position; or, we have a moronic eagerness to volunteer.

In any case, initially we are optimistic; but things have a way of not working out as we thought they would. Hope may be born in an instant, but it usually takes its time about dying. In the chaotic interim our vision becomes blurred, and we cannot always discern the cause of hope’s demise. With luck and the encouragement of our closest relatives, we will likely see how yet again we are the author of our own tragedy. The “prolonged” aspect of chronic stress then depends on whether or not we can bring the matter to a merciful conclusion. Unless we employ a successful end-game “detachment” strategy we will have no recourse but to watch helplessly as our faulty response devolves into habit and addiction. We are caught in a trap from which we cannot extricate ourselves.

Zen is not silent on the matter.

We know how many ways we can fall into our own traps. From this infinite number, let us take an example. Our driveway is expensively crumbling and we convey this information to a trusted co-worker, friend, relative, or neighbor (it matters little) who immediately rescues us from insolvency by placing at our disposal the concrete services of a highly recommended associate. Delighted to have such a resourceful confidant, we accept. There is a meeting – not of the minds, of course, – but one in which we sign a contract the fine print of which, in our euphoria, we neglect to read. We make a sizable down payment and await resolution of the driveway problem. There are numerous weather delays. Our angst mounts. Finally the jack-hammering and back hoeing start on the day that our neighbor is having a Christening party. Rubble is left in the street where the wheels of passing cars fling it into windshields. The party wall between our property and the next door neighbor’s is inadvertently rammed. The gate to our back yard is unaccountably left open and our mixed breed pit bull escapes to bite and be bitten by someone’s leashed pedigree pit bull. One of the workers makes an unfortunate comment to a passing teenage daughter, initiating an inquiry into his criminal history. We discover that we have become persona non grata in our own hood and still the driveway is far from finished. And then things really go downhill when another worker trips over a garden hose, injures his back, and sues; and we are reduced to consulting with our lawyer who reads our unread contract while whistling an expression of incredulity and alarm.

Though we desire more than anything to be able to blame the problem on someone else, Zen will say, “Neti, Neti” to all our attempts to attribute responsibility elsewhere. And then it will demand that we answer such questions as, “Who is really the gullible idiot? Who insouciantly signs his name like a tennis champion leaving the court?” and not until we answer such questions correctly will Zen supply the needed information: “Regard this as an expensive lesson. Pay your tuition; and put an end to the affair as quickly as possible even it means taking out a student loan. Learn how to fix your own bloody driveway or else select an independent contractor after you have checked with the BBB and licensing board and, by the way, never sign a contract without benefit of counsel.” This is the only safe way to conclude an episode of self-pecking.

But, you may ask, what of non-contractual pitfalls? Let us say that our spouse’s family has a pow wow in which it is decided that all members will take turns sheltering an elderly and somewhat cantankerous relative and that we have been selected, on the basis of merit, to be given the honor of “first turn.” When informed of this every instinct in our psyche screams “No! Hell no!” But we do not know how to articulate that which our every instinct demands. We weasel. “We really don’t have the room.” “Nonsense,” we are countered, “by moving x, y, and z there will be plenty of room.” We try taking a parental interest in our children. The elderly relative in question “is hard of hearing and raising the decibel level of the TV will interfere with the kids’ homework.” Ah, we are mollified, “No tenga pena. That can be remedied with one of those hearing aids which are not nearly so expensive as they used to be.” We will still be offering reasons as the station wagon is being unloaded onto our front lawn.

It need not be said that the next person in line for “a turn” will have left the country unexpectedly, and the person in line after him will be having brain surgery, and the one after that will be under indictment for some felony or other… and on and on throughout the years we continue to be saddled with an in-law who does not particularly enjoy our company. Now the risk is clearly that we have also become members of Chicken Group #2: we are always being pecked both by others and by ourselves. Zen says, “Learn how to say “No.” How? you ask. “Never complain and never explain. That is the essence of saying No.” Zen teaches us that there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome – so why do we propose an obstacle which we know will be immediately overcome as easily as we proposed it? The message is clear. Do not offer reasons for saying no. This merely provokes an argument. Say simply, “For deeply personal reasons which I am not at liberty to disclose, I must decline. But thank you for your kind consideration of me. And how about those Mets?”

If someone wants to borrow money, we use the same tack. “Gee, I’m sorry, but it’s impossible for me to be of any help. You’re a nice and trustworthy person. Just keep looking! And how about those Mets?” Again, never give a reason for being unable to accede to the request. If pressed, plead the regrettable demands of secrecy. And change the subject Use the same technique if you want to end a relationship – i.e., whether you want to quit a job or fire an employee or obtain a divorce. Do not list your grievances for seeking to sever the relationship. If you go into the boss’s office to quit, do not blame anyone, or anything, or any condition which makes your continued employment impossible. Say simply, “With considerable regret I must give notice of my intention to leave. My experiences here have been very gratifying. I’ve learned much and I’ve met many remarkable people. I just want to thank you for having given me this opportunity. And how about those Mets?” Only a fool would rat out coworkers when he is leaving and they are staying. (They will transmit the sting into every recommendation about him they are asked to give in the future.) Again, no matter how loathsome they are or how miserable they have made you, you must leave in blessed silence, putting an end to it.

A February, 2008 court case in Henderson, Nevada, shows how vital it is to confront ourselves and to terminate all forms of destruction – whether done to us or done by us. A man was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $250,000.00 for cutting down neighborhood trees which, he claimed, were spoiling his view of the Las Vegas Strip. The convicted tree killer, a sixty one year old retired construction worker, came into court in a wheel chair. Citing hip, back, heart and prostate problems, he pleaded for leniency and assured the court that he was not a bad man. His attorney reminded the judge that after all, none of his client’s actions had injured a human being. The judge was unmoved.

Out of town newspapers downplayed the crime and suggested that the man was a victim of Nevada’s skewed sense of crime and punishment. Local residents felt that he got off easy.

Zen persons considered the facts. The man’s predicament was a strange one. Most people who move to southern Nevada have come from states that are colder or wetter or have topsoil measurable in meters. Unfamiliar with the ways of desert flora, they are perplexed when the landscaper begins to plant a tree by drilling a hole into the rock-hard remains of the sea bed which is now their front lawn.

People who come from Arizona, however, understand desert landscaping. And this is why is was so peculiar that the man, who maintained a residence in Arizona, bought a second home in a retirement community in Henderson, Nevada, and then discovered that he could not tolerate the ways of plant life in his area.

Henderson, a fast growing town that lies between Las Vegas and Hoover Dam, is a developers’ product. On acre after acre of newly leveled land stand stucco houses and skinny young trees that strive to beat the odds and grow into something that can provide a little shade. It was in 2004 that a dozen or so homeowners awoke to find their young trees sawed off at the base or fatally wounded by having been sawed two-thirds of the way through the trunk.

The immediate response was bewilderment. Who would want to kill a tree? There is no place in the Mojave where a tree is unwelcome. The homeowners had nothing in common – they barely knew each other. This was a retirement community. There were not even any teenagers to blame.

Within days, more trees were killed. The landscaping companies began to be busy, casting suspicion on themselves. It was expensive to have a stump pulled out and a new tree put in its place. Or, could this be the work of an environmental guerrilla group that opposed development of desert lands? There had been several incidents in which environmental terrorists had burned down developments. Elderly residents, some of whom were disabled, feared that they’d awake one night, choking from smoke, or be burned alive, trapped inside the building that had once been their dream-house.

And no one knew who would be the next victim or whether the violence would escalate from arborcide to homicide. People were afraid to go out in the evening for fear that they might come home and encounter the tree killer or killers in the act. The possible motives came and went, and the only rational explanation left was that someone insane was living amongst them..

For nearly a year and a half the community was terrorized.

On the night that the 546th tree was destroyed, a retired sheriff’s deputy was on his way home when he saw a male figure, furtively bent, creep from some lawn shrubbery and then abruptly straighten and start to stroll down a sidewalk. The deputy stopped his car, reached into his golf bag, grabbed a three-iron, and confronted the man who, he could see, was carrying a bow saw under his jacket. The deputy detained the man until the police arrived.

All responsibility was denied. The man insisted that he had found the saw lying in the street. His wife protested that it was impossible for him to bend over to saw down trees because he had back and hip injuries and other assorted ailments.

Records revealed that he had once complained to the local homeowners’ association that some neighboring mesquite trees had begun to block his view of the Strip. He had offered to exchange the offending trees for shrubbery but his offer had been declined. No more was said about it.

And so, rather than try to steel himself to withstand the nightly disappointment of being unable to see the distant lights of the Strip, a view, some thought that was sufficiently far enough away for the earth’s curvature to block, the man, who at 57 had been lucky enough to buy a second home close to a resort area for retirement, could not count his blessings and instead vindictively took revenge on everyone who mocked him with foliage.

At trial, his defense consisted of variations on the theme of innocence. “It’s like you can murder someone and it’s OK,” his wife asserted, “but you’re accused of killing trees and it’s like, execute him.” His attorney claimed that he had been made a scapegoat by naive neighbors, “who had assumed they were immune to crime.” “It was a witch hunt,” insisted his wife, one that deliberately ignored other suspects seen near the kill zones: to wit, a suspicious man driving a red truck; a mysterious man in black rimmed glasses who looked like an old Mediterranean farmer; and teenagers on motorcycles who had ridden through the neighborhood. Friends came forward to testify that on the nights the trees were killed the defendant was in either California or Arizona.

No one, apparently, asked him what he should have asked himself the first dark night he left his house, packing a saw: “What were you thinking?!”

Now, it is clear that all 546 trees were not in his line of vision. What else could have motivated him to kill the extra 540 trees? It is very mysterious. We see him prowling the woods at night like a Rex Nemorensis in The Golden Bough, killing in some weird ritualistic way, achieving an unnatural satisfaction that very few of us, fortunately, could possibly understand. Within a week of his first foray he should have noticed that all the trees he killed had been replaced. Zen, if unable to prevent him from such an ethical breach in the first place, would have forced him to realize that his investment in view-improvements was not paying off. But perhaps he continued to kill because he craved the thrill of danger. Naturally, anyone who considers committing a crime should ask himself, “What will happen to me if I am caught?” But Zen would additionally require him to ask, “What will happen to me if I enjoy committing the crime so much that I become addicted to it? What will be my fate if I cannot stop myself from becoming an habitual self-pecking chicken?” But he was not self-aware, and he did not have an exit strategy.

Now he will have no view of the Strip, but on the plus side, there are no trees in prison yards to tempt him into sin. In U.S. prisons there are, however, many groups of men who worship old Aryan deities. Devotees of Votan and Thor, they meet on Sunday mornings to discuss Valhalla and the charms of Die Walkure. Trees figure prominently in their religion. (It is the belief that divine power resides in trees that prompts us to knock on wood for good luck.) It will be interesting to see how they welcome an arborcidal maniac into their community.

Humming Bird
Author: Ming Zhen Shakya

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