cj#688> Teaching Stories (cultural interlude)


Richard Moore

Dear cj,

Someone sent the following unattributed fable to the "philosophy of
history" list:

        One sage in China devoted a half of his life to fight dragons.
        When he became sufficiently sophisticated in this art he began
        wandering in all over the country in order to meet a dragon and
        to win him.  Decades passed but he has not met even one dragon
        to fight.  In the end of his life he realized that he wasted all
        his life for nothing.

          But than he remembered of his brilliant skill and began to teach
        young men to fight dragons.

This Dragon Scholar fable is an example of what the sufis call, according
to Idres Shah, a Teaching Story.

The story is playing its educational role very well, as a wave of
introspective comments were sparked and posted to the list.  One woman, for
example, wrote:
  >If I study cooking my whole life, but never cook a meal am I an excellent
  >cook? No I am an excellent student. If I practise t'ai chi for the health,
  >beauty and relaxation aspects of it am I a martial arts expert? No I am a
  >relaxed, healthy person.

A good teaching story doesn't present a clear moral - that's for childish
fables - it rather seduces you into searching for meaning within yourself -
the story carries _some_ information explicitly, but is more fundamentally
a key to unlock your own information and make it more accessible and
usable.  It is an abstract, and somewhat sneaky, meme.

The effort to unravel the "true meaning" of such a story is an intentional
tease - that effort begins as an attempt to "slay the dragon" (find the
meaning), but ends as being truly useful only in the pursuit itself.  This
particular story is in that way self-referential.

The markedly missing element in the story, from a plot perspective, is the
mental state of the sage - did he become a teacher of dragon fighting out
of desperation to earn money - even if as a charlatan - or did he
ultimately realize that he had gained real value from his pursuit and
wanted to share "the path" with others?  Or was he wise enough to combine
the two aspects?  In this rendition, we simply don't know, any more than we
know which door hides the tiger and which the lady in that other tale.  We
do have the vague clue that he's known as a "sage" rather than a "fool",
but such labels are often used ironically in the literature - referring to
appearances rather than acutal characteristics.

If his attitude were known, the story would be much simpler - the tension
of the missing information gives the story that extra buzz that elevates it
to the higher ranks of such stories.

I'm still reeling from the meme-induced contemplation of my own goals, and
if they turn out to be dragons, I at least want to be aware of the charade.


BTW> Idres Shah published several excellent collections of sufi Teaching
Stories, including "Tales of The Dervishes", and "The Way of the Sufi".