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An Inheritance

Once upon a time there was a young man who decided to build himself a house. He was young, and fairly well off, and lived alone, so he could devote himself full-time to his project. So he studied architecture and engineering and carpentry and so forth and got to work. And he hired local craftsmen to help finish the woodwork and interior designers and decorators to furnish his house, and he shopped in the antique stores and flea markets looking for just the right furniture. And so he was able to build himself quite an impressive house, one he was very proud of. But occasionally he felt a little lonely, because he realized that all his relationships with other people came down to what they could do for him and his house.

One day he got a letter in the mail saying a far-off relative had died and he had come into an inheritance. And though he really didn't need  any more money, he looked forward to being able to splurge on some expensive antiques and art for his house. But the next day, a big moving van pulled up, and he saw that what he inherited wasn't money, but 25 large crates, filled with what looked like machine parts. Not knowing what they were or what to do with it, it had them all stacked in the back yard and just left them out there for a long time.

Years went by, and by now he was a middle-aged man who had done just able everything he could think of to improve and furnish his house. Sure, there was always something that needed fixing, or another antique he could buy, but gradually he had to admit he was getting a little bored with his house, and was looking for something else to do. And then he remembered all the crates he had left piled up in his yard. Gradually he began moving them into the house, even though it meant filling up his living room with them, since that was the only room big enough to hold them all. And slowly he unpacked all the crates and sorted through all the strange parts inside and gradually he figured out that they contained all the parts from an antique automobile, one very old, from his grandfather's generation. It was long process, but eventually he managed to assemble the car right there in the middle of his living room. And for a while, all he could think to do with it was to invite the neighbors in to admire it. Finally, however, he was determined to see if it would run. But to take it out, he had to begin knocking down the walls and doors of his house, and tear up some of his landscape gardening, for that was the only way to move it outside. And though he avoided it as long as he could, when it actually came to knocking down some of the walls he had so carefully put up years ago, he felt a strange exhilaration and sense of freedom.

We'll leave off our story here, and you can if you like imagine what our protagonist will do with his car, and how his experience might change his relationship with his neighbors. For now, let's just look at the story as a little parable about the place we make for practice in our lives. For most of our lives, we are concerned with building up our sense of our Self, making it as grand and admirable and impressive as we can. But there can come a time when that impressive edifice actually begins to feel dull and confining, and then we may to one of the traditional spiritual practices that is our common heritage to look for something new. To bring practice into our lives is inevitably initially disruptive, and we have to move things around to make it fit. But if we're not careful, it simply becomes another one of our admired possessions. Only if we're really willing to tear down some of the old walls and structure of our lives will practice be able to function out in the world. If we look at the story in simply a linear fashion, perhaps most of you are still, trying to figure out what is in all those crates, and where in the world you're going to put all of it. You're still trying to figure out just what practice is and where it will fit in your life. The head monk, who's the butt of all those jokes in the old koans, we could say is someone who has his car fully assembled, perfectly polished, all shiny, beautiful to look at, but set up in such a way that he never has to dismantle any of the old structure of his life. But we can also see each of the stages happening in our lives at different times. Somedays, we don't want to have anything to do with practice - we want to leave outside, while we sit comfortably in our houses. Other days, we're more  willing to really work on it, and sometimes, we are even willing to poke a hole or two in our pre-conceptions and put it to use out in the world. And if we wanted to re-tell the story in a different way, we could say that the car was somehow present and fully assembled right from the beginning, but that it took our young man years to realize what it was and what it could do. And in another version we might say that he finds that the walls he painstakingly built up all those years, once he came to take them down, weren't really there at all, and that all construction of his beautiful and seemingly solid house had taken place in a dream.