The Holy Fool John Thomas Venice 1959
THE HOLY FOOL
John Thomas --- Venice, 1959
I had intended to begin by pointing out that you were frightened and unhappy. I was going to list your sufferings, your hang-ups, the ten thousand things that keep your mind in a perpetual turmoil. But that's not necessary. If there is one thing you know, it is that you are miserable. If there is one thing to which you are devoted, it is to discovering ways to ease our misery. So I would only be talking about what you already know. You know in your hearts that your world has become a huge jail, a diabolical prison complete with all the most scientific instruments of torture. We don't have to dwell on that. Instead, I want to tell you how to escape.
The word "escape" has taken on some very bad connotations in recent years. An escapist is a coward or a misguided person, in short, a fool. The priests and the psychiatrists, members of the Universal Confraternity of Prison Guards, will tell you that escapism is sinful or neurotic. They say, "Be good prisoners. Face up to your life sentence. Don't waste our time sawing on the bars of your cell; earn, instead, the honorable title of 'Model Prisoner'. Stop digging tunnels under the walls. Don't be fools!" If you persist, of course, you are punished. And the greatest punishment, as they well know, is solitary confinement on bread and water. Only the most hardened troublemakers can endure that.
Escape--practically a dirty word. But I want to tell you how it is done. It is really very simple. It is just a matter of making yourself invisible, transparent, and then walking through the wall! (You were warned that this talk would deal with foolishness, so don't complain!)
Become invisible, become transparent, then simply walk through the walls. And now, the techniques of invisibility. You have built, over the years, an attitude towards the world. Let it die. You have learned, over the years, ten thousand things about life. Forget them all. You have devised ways of speaking to people, of dealing with them on a verbal level. Forget all the tricks. You have learned how to act -- have studied the proper behavior for a model prisoner. Drop it. You have learned how to earn your beans and jail coffee-- have you become a skilled worker in the prison tailor shop? Forget all the skills they taught you. They won't help you to escape. Drop it. Drop it all. Apply yourself only to the end of escaping. You are no longer a part of the system. You are now a potential escapee. Fix your mind and y our heart on that. Contemplate nothing but escape.
You will try to argue with me. You will tell me how soiled the walls are, how alert the guards are, or how absurd it is to practice invisibility. If you are really dishonest you will maintain that this isn't even a jail. My only answer is to point through the barred windows of the cell. See! They are walking around out there, free! They made it. If it has been done before it can be done again. You are awed by the walls, by the guards, by the threat of solitary confinement. I see only the free ones, the ones who walked through the walls and enjoy the open air all day.
Historically, Zen is a method of release that came from India to China in the sixth century A.D., then to Japan some centuries later. Historically it is traceable to the teachings of the Buddha and of the Chinese Taoist philosophers. In Japan it took on certain aspects of Jaene thought. But that's not important. It has always been accessible. I was turned on to it in San Antonio, Texas, by a bookseller. You may be turned on in this silly establishment by my words--and I am no Buddha, no philosopher, not even a proper fool. I hear that one of the Kyoto Zen masters is studying English right now, and that next year he will come to start a monastery in Los Angeles. But that is probably not important either. The important thing is release, escape, realization, enlightenment, satori-- many different ways of expressing one even-- the only important event in the world.
What is he like, this holy fool, this man who has attained enlightenment? What are his qualities? What describes him? What is it like to be invisible?
First, he is free. He floats with the currents like a jellyfish, and yet he is free. Prisons have ceased to clutch at them. He is free, like a gas which expands to fit any container. All of space is his home, and it is food, and he is-- not happy, but beyond happiness--he is blissful. He is free. He is immortal. No, this doesn't mean he will go to some sugar-candy heaven when he dies, and spend eternity singing Sunday-school ditties to a bearded father-image. No. He is immortal because birth and death no longer exist for him. Everything is NOW, this present pure and blissful moment, and there is no death in the world of NOW. He knows no fear, no anxiety, no ambition, no hate, no greed or envy. He has passed through iron wall of such hankerings. There are no frontiers for him. He has no shame, no modesty, no pride. He has no needs.
He appears in the world, of course, as a fool. His life is common and anonymous. When he is hungry he eats; when he is sleepy he goes to sleep; when the time for action comes, he acts; when there is no reason for action, he sits quietly, doing nothing. It is all the same to him; it is all one. He is, in this urgent world, a fool.
In his conversation he is foolish. Don't expect subtle philosophies to flow from his lips. He makes no neat verbal distinctions. He has no polite phrases. He offers you no answers. He IS the answer, in the flesh. It does no good to ask him about Buddhism. He is not in that prison and doesn't know anything about it. It does not good to ask him about Zen. Zen doesn't exist for him. He has arrived. He has made it.
(reprinted without permission)