Monday, February 2, 2009

Modern Monday--Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth

By Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press, 2005

Zen Shorts, a Caldecott Honor book, offers an introduction to the Zen tradition for young readers accompanied by beautiful watercolor illustrations. I'm also a bit "panda crazy." Thus Muth's book featuring Stillwell, a giant panda bear is an added bonus.

When Stillwell moves next door he shares traditional Buddhist and Taoist tales in turn with each of his three curious young neighbors: Michael, Karl, and Addy. They first discover their unusual neighbor when he appears just outside their door clutching an umbrella.

"'I am sorry for arriving unannounced,' said the bear. 'The wind carried my umbrella all the way from my backyard to your backyard. I thought I would retrieve it before it became a nuisance.' He spoke with a slight panda accent." (the panda accent remark made me smile.)

The curiosity of the children causes each to seek out Stillwater and in turn he offers each of them a story. The stories are actually short meditations from two Zen traditions, Zen Buddhism and Taoism which introduce the virtues of generosity, the nature of luck, and the dangers of anger and materialism. This children's book produces a calm, serene effect on the reader. I love it.

My favorite of the tales is one called "The Farmer's Luck." Here's a version of that one:

There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit.

"Such bad luck," they said sympathetically.

"Maybe," the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses.

"How wonderful," the neighbors exclaimed.

"Maybe," replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg.

The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

"Maybe," answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son's leg was broken, they passed him by.

The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

"Maybe," said the farmer.

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