By way of
orientation let’s briefly recall Ulysses of mythological fame. You recollect Ulysses was famous for his single minded devotion to Penelope, his long suffering wife. After the Trojan War, Ulysses wandered at sea twenty
years. He faced legendary challenges from creatures, gods, demigods, tempests and sirens. Only after passing thru this gauntlet did he attain the crowning achievement of his single minded purpose, a return to his home
How much simpler would his life have been without the obstructions and interference of the gods? The diversions from his life’s purpose were innumerable and nearly insurmountable. Even then, not
everything could be blamed exclusively on the gods or fate. It's clear that failures on the part of Ulysses and his crew, particularly when it came to resisting temptation, contributed every bit as much to their delays,
distractions and suffering. Ultimately, the crew was lost. Only Ulysses made it home. There’s much to think about in the story, particularly as regards the consequences of foolishness.
The lure of sirens and
the wrath of gods are powerful distractions indeed. Still, there exist other equally potent distractions. They hover nearly invisible just beyond our awareness, insidious, barely detectable while stripping our capacity
to be fully human.
That brings us to Laughing Jou.
In the north country, Old Jou was a recognized master. He was often sought out by others on the path, and was revered and emulated by all.
But he was not an easy man to figure out, or to get along with.
Generally, his presence was announced by streams of loud and boisterous laughter. Just as certainly, laughter billowed forth when he addressed the
seemingly endless questions put to him by others, which to Laughing Jou, represented the squeals of drifting souls mired in darkness. Many thought it impolite. They told him so to his face. It made him laugh all the
He did not tolerate fools. When questioned why people still sought him as they did, he answered (laughing), “Because I am awake,” adding, “And because I am so damn patient!" Typically villagers
would corner old Jou in the town centers. In the older villages and the outland cities, town center was usually the spot where all incoming arterials met and connected. Most often, there would be a circle
and a gathering place in the middle, where commerce might transact, or folks could get together and talk. They could find him in places like this. They would sit eagerly around him, hoping to glean kernels of
knowledge, perhaps enough to get a handle on their own struggles with the many questions of existence.
"How can I become like you?" they would ask, "Centered and unaffected by the trials and
mishaps of life."
"There's nothing to become."
"How is that so?"
"All you have to do is flush the toilet. Then questions like this will stop pestering you."
"Flush the toilet? We don’t get it?"
"What I’m saying is, you're a crap eater. Empty yourself of the crap. You’ll find you’re better off without it!"
Laughing Jou always found the exchanges hilarious. He meant their thoughts were no different than shit floating around in their heads, stinking everything else up.
When still on the path, I can remember
encountering him in the village center. We used to go to him for medicine and divinations, but most of all for the answers to our own incessant questions. He was far more learned than I, or anyone else I knew. I
remember one particular exchange above all the others.
Mind you, he was a formidable and imposing presence despite his ever present good humor. Typically, as villagers timidly approached, the master would sense
a question about to emerge and would issue his first shot by calling out, “What’s that your’re eating?” Some would scratch their heads and in confusion walk away. Others might look behind to see who he was
talking to, or if there was someone behind them eating something. A few would ignore the comment as misdirected and present their questions anyway as though nothing had been said to them.
On this occasion, a
particularly clever villager rose to the challenge, "I don't know. Tell me. What is it I'm eating?”
“You’re eating excrement!”
The villager gave a look of surprise, then
puzzlement. There was nothing there of course. He wasn’t really eating anything. At least nothing we would think of as food was passing over his lips. This was a matter of two tigers in a cave, testing each other’s
“What do you mean I’m eating excrement?”
“Don’t ask me what I mean, I'm already telling you, you're eating excrement!”
“Would it be better if I had some soup?” the villager responded, making light of it.
You see, the villager was mocking, but also challenging the master. Not unlike the hunter trying to coax the
tiger out of his lair.
“Does the word excrement confuse you? It's shit. Don't step in it, and don’t eat it, and don’t keep it floating around in your head. And don’t try to change it
into soup with words!”
“Do you think everyone else eats it?”
“I see only you before me. You’re eating excrement!”
Unable to catch the meaning or the intent, and feeling he
was perfectly normal in all respects, the villager could only say in his defense, “There are worse things to eat aren’t there? If everyone else is doing it, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
everyone else! Isn’t that really who we hope to be when you think of it? Do and be like them? Eat the same as them? I’m not talking to everyone else. Like everyone else, you come to me seeking wisdom,”
replied the old master, adding “Listen carefully, this is for your ears only, not everyone else’s. Forget about them. YOU’RE EATING SHIT!”
As he said this, he looked in anticipation to the
villager, as though expecting something profound to happen. An explosion perhaps. Maybe the top of a head popping off. Perhaps even a trickle down a pant leg.
Getting no response, he began to giggle, then
to laugh outright. He shook his head to whip the drip from his nose.
The villager reacted, “I don’t understand why you’re calling what’s in here (tapping the side of his head for good effect)
excrement. How would you know if you haven’t tried it.”
The old man’s eyes rolled heavenward, “I can see clearly what it is, look carefully, focus, you'll see it for what it is too.”
The villager answered defensively, “I don’t see it, I don’t smell it. And if you ask me right now, I can honestly say I don’t taste it, or that it actually tastes just fine. Can you tell me why that
“There’s the proof! You’re eating crap! And you're reveling in it!”
“Just tell me why you keep saying I’m eating crap.”
“Beats me, I figure you don’t know better, so I’m trying to help. But it’s all over you, inside and outside, and in your heart and muddling your thoughts. Look there! It’s even on the tip of your
tongue! Hurry, wipe it off!”
“Why do you think you can figure that out and I can’t? Maybe you’re too self important for your own damn good.”
“I don’t know why I can and you
can’t. That doesn't concern me. Your question beats me like a stick against the skin of a living drum sitting before you. A sound emerges from the vibration, you don’t like what you hear or what the sound
represents. To me, it’s just a sound, no sweat off my back! No different than a dog barking, except you take it so personally. Why? You’re questioning me about eating crap, and my only answer can be, you’re eating
crap! You are because you are! You’re putting excrement in your mouth. And then you’re swallowing it. It’s flowing around inside you, drowning your spirit and settling in your center for thinking. What a putrid
smell! Stop spewing it at me!”
Shocked and offended, the villager demanded, “Why does my being like every other normal person so offend you?”
“You came here! You’re asking me! I’m
answering. You’re the drummer, I’m the sound. You’re the image, I’m the emptiness in the mirror.”
Trying to one up the master, the villager thought for a moment then spoke. “Did you know it comes in
Of course at this point, old Jou was laughing so hard, his teapot fell to the walkway.
“I don’t doubt it comes in flavors. That's still crap you’re eating. Crap cherry, crap
vanilla, crap apple, all crap!”
The villager thought he had him. “You know, since there's so much demand, and everyone seems to be eating it, I could start selling it.”
“Some do. Not
me. That’s crap on top of excrement. You’ve outdone yourself. Why do you even tell me? You don’t need my approval, or disapproval. Go ahead and sell it. Be wealthy, accumulate more crap, show it off, wear it,
think it, speak it. Become it if you will. There’s only one choice you have, be crap, or flush the toilet. Dirty water, clean water, look closely, you’ll figure it out soon enough.”
“I’m curious. Does everybody eat crap like I do?”
“That stuff you’re putting into your mouth, chewing, and swallowing. Even your question. That’s horse shit. Still crap in the end!”
“Is there anything that's not?”
“Me!” (For a moment, Old Jou wiped the smile from his face, staring sternly as though emphasizing something important had just been said.)
Trying to turn it around, the villager replied, “Oh, so now you think you’re hot shit!”
“No, I am who I am. You can think of it as hot shit, or sticky shit, or dog shit. That’s your thought to
He horse chuckled through his nose and half laugh snorted.
“Wake up! See for yourself. Better to stop eating the crap first. It fogs your vision, clouds your thoughts, undermines
your senses and muddles your spirit. On top of that, it’s grimy as hell and stinks to high heaven.”
“Looking at you, old master, I don’t see anything so different or so special.”
“That’s a start!”
“You’re speaking riddles!”
“What kind of wise man are you, you're wasting my time.”
“Thank you. May I leave?“
“Not until you tell me what your problem is,” said the villager.
The elder looked at the villager as though he were a simpleton. Then like a bolt of
lightning, his hand reached across the open space separating them and slapped the simpleton's head. “You’re eating shit you imbecile! Stop eating shit and see what happens!”
The perplexed look on the face of the simpleton drew a burst of laughter from the elder.
It almost happened for the simpleton, but not quite.
The gift of enlightenment is a gift that comes at dear cost.
The you whom you value so highly must leave stage center! A sacrifice few are prepared to make, even as truth calls out your bluff.
The moment having passed, the opportunity gone, the master, laughing with even
more gusto, stood, turned away, and set off.
“Wait, don't go, I offended you, I apologize, come back, we need you!”
“Sorry, I won’t be part of your diet. It’s simply too rich for my
taste” the elder replied, and laughed even more heartily.
“Will you come again?”
“Never!” he walked, continuing his laughter, now even further away from the shit eater.
some some distance, the old man turned, “Perhaps someday you’ll reach your gluttonous full, and then you’ll have no choice but to let it go. Stick your finger down your throat and puke it out. With luck, you’ll
understand, and perhaps even have a laugh with me.”
Then, laughing back in ridicule (perhaps hoping to make a final fatal thrust at the wily old tiger), the villager called out, “I think
you’re full of shit too!"
Hysterical laughter faded in the distance, with the old man’s final words, “I suppose I deserved that.”
So there you have it. The others who witnessed alongside me
mumbled among themselves. I overheard one of them say, "I know I just saw something profound, but I have no idea what the hell it was." It was another time, and in the aftermath, I thought about it often. Some
years after I had witnessed the exchange, I had the good fortune to encounter Master Jou in yet another town center. He recognized me immediately and gave his usual warm nod of greeting, along with a welcoming
smile. By this time, several villagers had already gathered, already impatient for his attention and counsel.
He stared expectantly, then unexpectedly turned toward me, as though directing all of their eyes
to see what would happen.
A smile lit slowly across my face, I turned, and with a slow odoriferous pppfffffffttt emerging from my rear in the general direction of Laughing Jou, I walked away from my questions
I could hear his laughter echoing off the walls for quite some time.