Against The Stream ~ KING CANUTE
be honest and not falsely modest,
I must say that I like to
Just as other people—
But not to the point where
Opinions about me
To paralyze and prevent me
From saying what I feel must
For who will take my place
When it’s time to die?
SOMEONE WHO CONSIDERS HIMSELF my friend
has the habit of ‘ear-jacking’ me for
hours on end and flattering me outrageously, saying
things about me that are not always true. I don't
know why he does this, and what he expects to get
from it, but I don’t like it; he must take me
for an idiot! Fortunately, I know myself better than
he does, and so his hollow praise doesn’t go
to my head. I would like to tell him the story of
Canute (died 1035) was a Danish king of
England, Danes having overrun and conquered that uncivilized
and defenseless land in the 10th and 11th centuries.
His court— hardly a center of civilization itself—
had the usual sycophants and hangers-on. But he was
no fool, and did not let their flattery swamp his
common-sense. Consequently, when the ‘sweet-tongues’
out-did themselves and began to attribute supernatural
abilities to Canute, claiming that his power was so
great that even the winds and waves would obey him,
he decided it was time to teach them a lesson.
Ordering his throne to be carried to the
seashore and placed on the beach, he waited until
the tide was coming in, then sat there and commanded
the waves to come no further. His flatterers stood
around uneasily, knowing they were about to be rebuked.
The waves came nearer and nearer until they were lapping
at the king’s feet, ignoring his repeated commands.
When his robes were quite wet, he said to his followers:
"You see", he said, "how hollow and
meaningless was your praise? In future, restrain your
tongues from falsehood, otherwise you will have to
If only someone had explained to me when
I was young the kind of things that I now explain
to others, I would have been so lucky; I might have
understood and saved myself so much time and trouble!
But it’s not too late to atone for
things that I now regret, and I can try to turn my
mistakes and stupidity around, and make something
positive of them. Perhaps some others can learn from
my experience, and if they do, then my mistakes will
not have been in vain.
Following the Way is often an uphill battle,
of course, as we must face and come to grips with
our mental defilements. Most people don’t even
want to know of this and prefer to live carelessly,
wasting their precious human rebirth— as Tibetans
term our condition— and sliding backwards. But
although it often is difficult, there is something
built into our mental make-up that is on our side
and helps us on our journey upwards; we call it our
Conscience, or inner voice. It makes us feel uncomfortable
at times, but it is in our own interests.
Because we have set out upon the Way does
not mean that we are incapable of doing wrong; we’ve
only just begun, so of course we can do wrong, like
people who know nothing of the Way. The difference
between us and them is that we cannot forget; our
wrong-doing bothers us and will not let us live in
peace. We either feel remorse and try to correct our
mistakes, or ‘confess’ them to someone
else, and in this way, put them behind us and try
to see it as part of our learning-process. It may
be taken as an indication of our progress in Dharma:
that we can do wrong, but not feel good about it.
I don’t have to tell anyone about
this, and I’m not trying to show off, but I
want to ‘confess’ here something I did
that has bothered me since. In doing so, it might
be useful in helping some others avoid doing the same
kind of thing.
While in Kathmandu in 1998, I went to a
second-hand book-shop. In keeping with the custom,
I haggled about the price of a book, and got it for
300 rupees, instead of the marked-price of 400 rupees,
the understanding at such shops being that one may
get a 50% refund later. Some days later, having finished
the book, I went to return it, expecting to recover
150 rupees, but there was a different assistant in
the shop. When he opened the book and saw 400 rupees
written there, he asked me if that was what I had
paid for it. I regret to say that I replied "Yes"—
just one word. He therefore gave me back 200 rupees,
when I should actually— and according to our
agreement— have received only 150. I walked
out thinking, "Well, he made 100 rupees profit
anyway, and didn’t really lose on me".
Yes, he made a clear profit, and didn’t
lose. It was I who lost. I caused suffering to no-one
but myself; I was stupid! Thinking I had gained 50
rupees (about US$0.80), I actually lost much more,
and wish I could rewind the tape and undo what I had
done; it has bothered me, and I’m ashamed of
Telling of this incident, most people have
understood and agreed with me, but one woman was aghast,
and said: "But you are a monk! How could you
do such a thing?!" "Yes, I am a monk",
I replied, "but that doesn’t prevent me
from doing wrong. And I told this story to illustrate
to you how this side of Enlightenment, we are subject
to doing wrong. Moreover, I want even my weaknesses—
not to mention my strong points— to be a source
of strength to others. It is my gift to you, but if
you regard it that way, you will benefit nothing from
I am not in the habit of doing such things;
in fact, I have written about this sort of thing elsewhere
in this book, and I do try to practice what I preach.
The very fact that I said try, however, means that
I don’t always succeed, which is why I wrote
the other article, DON’T FOLLOW ME. I am aware
of my limitations, and don’t want others to
get involved with them, as they have enough of their
own to deal with. But I feel that it helps to know
that we are all in the same boat, and not in a position
to point fingers at others and feel superior. We are
weak, but it is from weakness that strength comes.
I don’t want to boast of my successes, but I
have had some; indeed, if I had had nothing but failures,
I would not be here now talking of it. I’m confessing
my lapses, not boasting of my successes.
Although we should be capable of introspection
and self-criticism, it should be objective and fair,
without exaggeration, self-debasement or self-flagellation.
We often expect too much of others, and often too
much of ourselves; consequently, we become disappointed.
This does not mean, however, that we should not have
ideals to aim for, but should accept the likelihood
of failure, and not be too disappointed when it happens.
It may be seen as an opportunity for further striving
and eventual success, instead of an excuse for giving
way to self-pity and despair.