for #zenmas. the first #zenmas

story the first.

in the beginning, #zenmas did not exist. and when winter came, and the snow fell, and people shivered inside their homes, they were only sad. but even worse than being sad, they were bored. bored out of their minds.

one person who was particularly bored was a little girl. her parents were both farmers. during the spring, they all planted crops together. during the summer, they tended these crops. during the fall, they harvested the crops. but during the winter, they did nothing.

but one winter’s night, this little girl, this farmer’s daughter, decided to do something, and what she did would change not only the village, but the entire kōaniverse.

she went and found some drapes in a closet in her parent’s home, and she wrapped herself in red, concealing her identity, and she went out into the village with a plan:

she was going to distribute gifts to all of the children in the village, every single last one of them. but how would she afford these gifts, seeing as she was but the child of farmers? well, that was the reason she concealed her identity: she was going to steal them. or, rather, she was going to steal the ducats to pay for them.

so she headed for the bank. and when she got there, she snuck inside. [the guru explains — in painstaking detail — the methods the girl used to get into the bank, but he said they would not appear on the kwiz and so i didn’t write them down.]

once she was inside, she went to the vault and opened the safety deposit boxes. she left the personal belongings, especially anything it looked like someone might love, but she raided the ducats completely, and left the bank broke.

then, she left and went out to the market. it was pretty late at night, but the market was always open, because people always wanted to make a few ducats. fortunately, she had a bunch. she found a man who was selling toys, and she asked to buy all of them.

“do you have any money?” he asked.

she said that she did, and she showed him her cash.

“where did you get all of that?” he asked.

and she replied, “do you want it, or not?”

he quickly agreed and took the money, and the girl left with the toys.

the next morning, the man took the money to the bank to repay the loan he had taken out to start his toy stand in the market. he found the banker sitting on the steps of the bank, crying. he asked him, “banker, what’s wrong?”

the banker wiped tears from his eyes and said, “nothing. we have plenty of money. there’s plenty of money to go around and there’s no reason to withdraw your money because it’s safe here and definitely not stolen.”

the man said, “i actually came to give you money, not to withdraw it.”

the banker smiled the biggest smile he had ever smiled.

and he wasn’t the only one: all through town, children were waking up to find presents at the foot of their bed. and they jumped up and down and cheered and danced, and they were happier than ever before.

and this is the story of the first #zenmas.

story the second.

the guru explained all that to his students on the day that once was #zenmas. he never used to teach on this day, but now that #zenmas was over, he did, and myself and the rest of the students took notes, and those notes are what you are currently reading.

when the guru had told his story, his students had several questions: how do we know about this girl? what happened to her? is it true that the foundation of what was once our biggest holiday is based on the actions of a single girl on a single night? or is there more to this story?

the guru laughed at these questions, but everyone suspected he was just trying to get out of answering them. so i, as a paying student of the guru’s school, decided to do a little investigating of my own.

and since then, i have discovered something: the story the guru told is completely and totally false, and the real story of the first #zenmas can be found in the temple archives:

story the third.

the high priestess prayed every night to the Goddess, but it was only in her 33rd year that she received a response.

the Goddess, invisible, whispered in her ear, “tonight, a star will appear in the sky. follow the star for the first #zenmas.”

so that night, the high priestess climbed to the top of the temple and looked out across the sky, and sure enough, there was a new star twinkling in the distance.

she told no one what she was doing. she took nothing with her. she just began to walk toward the star as the Goddess had told her to do.

she walked and walked and walked. for awhile, the more she walked, the farther the star seemed to be. but then, the more she walked, the closer it seemed to be, and eventually, she reached the place where the star hung overhead.

and there, bathed in the light of the star, stood the Goddess.

the high priestess fell to her knees and said, “Goddess, i am not worthy,” but the Goddess said, “stand up. i don’t have much time.”

the high priestess stood, and the Goddess handed her a book. the book was titled, “the first #zenmas,” and the high priestess opened the book:

story the fourth.

it was the dead of winter, and the two tortoises were cold. even inside their shells, they could not keep warm.

mrs tortoise said to mr tortoise, “we have to do something.”

so they traveled to the market, looking for something to keep them warm, and they found a blanket, but it cost more ducats than they had. one tortoise asked, “would you trade us that blanket for some lettuce?”

the man replied, “no. nobody wants lettuce.”

“what are you talking about?” asked the tortoise. “everybody wants lettuce.”

“no, nobody wants lettuce. lettuce is bland and unpalatable.”

“lettuce is delicious!” the tortoise replied.

“no, it isn’t, and even if i thought it was, it wouldn’t matter, because other people don’t think that it is, and i’m not interested in your lettuce to eat, but to sell.”

“so,” the tortoise replied, “are you telling me that if people were to want lettuce, then you would sell us the blanket for a head of lettuce?”

“people would have to really want lettuce for me to do that, but yes.”

story the fifth, an interlude.

the sunflower, of course, always claimed that she had invented the first #zenmas.

when people told her, “that’s impossible, you weren’t born yet,” she always said, “well, i personally didn’t do that, but a sunflower, my mom or my mom’s mom or my mom’s mom’s mom.”

when people asked, “well, how do you know that?” she replied, “it’s a story that is passed down from sunflower to sunflower, from the beginning of sunflowers to the end. all sunflowers know the story, and we all spread it around, and that way, it’s never forgotten.”

but when people asked, “okay, what’s the story?” she paused for a moment and then replied, “i forgot.”

story the fourth, part two.

the two tortoises left the market, and they made a disguise: they tore small pieces of lettuce off of their heads and affixed them to their upper-lips so that they looked like mustaches, and they went back to the man at the market and they asked him, “do you have any lettuce?”

“no,” the man replied. “why?”

“we were willing to buy some and pay top ducat,” the disguised tortoise said, “but since you don’t have any, it doesn’t matter. we’ll just have to take our seventy-thousands of ducats elsewhere.”

“well, i might have some later, if you came back!”

“oh?” the disguised tortoise said, “well, then, i just might come back.”

and so the two disguised tortoises left and they took off their disguises and they came back and they told the man in the market, “have you reconsidered trading our lettuce for the blanket?”

the man said that he had, and they completed the trade, and that night the tortoises were warm beneath their blanket, though they were a little hungry because they had traded away half of their lettuce.

and that was the first #zenmas.

story the third, part two.

the high priestess finished the story and looked up at the Goddess. “what is the point of this story?” she asked.

and the Goddess replied, “the point is i wrote it, and i was hoping you could try and get it published for me.”

so the priestess went back to the temple in the village with the Goddess’s story, and she showed it to the other priestesses.

tthey read it, but none of them liked it. they all said that what the tortoises had done was fraud, and it was wrong to defraud people, even if you were freezing to death, and that keeping warm was a matter of this world, but being good was a matter for the next, and it was never right to do wrong, but much better to let yourself perish, and place your spirit in the hands of the Goddess, who would certainly sort things out in the end.

when the priestess returned to the Goddess and told her this, the Goddess was not happy. but she handed the high priestess another story, and she said, “perhaps you might like this one more….”

story the second, part two.

the guru found his student’s notes, and the doubts that the student rose about the guru’s version of events. this pleased the guru a lot, and he wrote on the notes, “when you read this, meet me in my office.”

when the student read that, he was terrified. he considered never talking to the guru, or perhaps dropping the class altogether, or perhaps dropping out of the guru’s school, and running away. he could join the Goddess’s temple, or he could leave the village completely, and go out into the woods, perhaps chase after that star that had recently appeared in the night sky, or ask the tortoise if perhaps he could dream a better life for him, if maybe that was how it worked.

but the student realized that it was probably better to face his challenges here and now, rather than running away, and perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad. but the moment the student stepped into the guru’s office, and saw the guru’s face, he knew that it was that bad. he was in deep trouble.

the guru said, “i saw your notes. you don’t believe my story.”

the student considered lying, but then he said, “no, you’re right. i don’t.”

“well,” the guru said, “that’s because i didn’t tell you the ending, the most important part.”

“and what is that?” the student asked.

and the guru smiled, for he wasn’t really mad, and he told the student the second part of his story.

story the first, part two.

while the student had recorded that the parents of the girl were happy, that the banker was happy, that the man in the market was happy, there was one person who wasn’t happy, and that person was the constable.

the constable hated when people stole, even if the stealing was good for the village, even if the stealing made people happy. because children weren’t supposed to have presents for free. they were only supposed to have presents that they paid for.

so he investigated, and he figured it out, and when the little girl woke up, she was surrounded by city guards, who took her to jail.

in court, the constable presented the evidence against her.

the judged listened and nodded along, and when it came time to sentence her, he threw the book at her. literally. but the book was the book of #zen, and he told her, “you deserve a place in this book, as one of the few truly selfless people in the village.”

and the little girl smiled so broad she began to cry, and the judge continued, “however, we can’t have people stealing presents ever year, so i am going to propose a solution: all the parents in town need to give their children presents each year, and if the parents cannot afford to get presents for their children, then other parents should help them out. this way, we’ll never need someone as great as you again.”

and the village rejoiced, and not a single person noticed that the judge looked a little different today, that something was out of place, that his bright-green mustache seemed a little leafy in a certain light.

share these stories on twitter.
share these stories on facebook.
subscribe to koan of the day.

donate to the #zen tortoise fund, to make sure tortoises are warm this #zenmas.