It is easy to hate Bernie Madoff, especially if you lost money in the great Madoff Ponzi scheme. It's great to have a public villain to put in the media pillory. Scorn. Shame. Vilification. It sure feels good, doesn't it?
But does demonizing Bernie serve our best interest?
It's not everyday that you get to speak at length with a genuine Zen master. I considered myself truly fortunate to land an interview with John Tarrant, Director of the Pacific Zen Institute and author of Bring Me The Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Can Save Your Life how his book is relevant to the financial turmoil we are struggling with these days.
Q: What is a koan and how can it help us get through a crisis?
Tarrant: I wrote this book to show that koans don't have to be a weird strange thing that people do in Asian fashion. It's a poetic form that accepts the creativity of consciousness. You don't want to translate a poem into prose. A koan says you have to trust that poetic quality. It can make sense in the right way or not make sense in the right way. Koans are good because you can carry them around with you.
Q: Can you give an example?
Tarrant: A long time ago, an admirer gave a Zen teacher a rhinocerous fan. It was way before the rhinoceros was biologically endangered so the fan's handle was made of rhinoceros horn. The Zen teacher called it "a silly thing" and threw it in a closet. Then came a heat wave and the teacher asked his assistant to bring him the rhinoceros fan.
His assistant told him that the fan was broken.
"Then bring me the rhinoceros," said the teacher.
A woman said she understood. She lost a child who died. 'Every time I try to bring back a broken fan, I remember it the way it was and it was so sad. But I can continue my deep intimate relationship wit her. I can hold her in my mind now that she's gone. She lived the life she was supposed to have. It was the way it was. When I think she shouldn't have died, I suffer,' she said. But when she appreciates having had her beautiful daughter, she can feel the love she still holds for her.
Q. How does that relate to Bernie Madoff?
Tarrant: We are not suffering from Bernie Madoff. We are suffering from our thoughts about Bernie Madoff. We are fighting with ourselves and saying, "How dare he? He shouldn't have..." If we have lost everything, we don't need to feel ashamed or somehow inadequate. It is now that counts. We don't need to give our lives away to whomever or whatever we think has harmed us.
Q: What about people who have had breakdowns? Who are unable to function due to Madoff?
Tarrant: I have a Bernie Madoff story.
Q: Do tell!
A: I have a friend whose advisor put all his money in Madoff funds. Maybe his advisor was lazy. Anyway, he invested the funds against my friend's instructions. So my friend lost all of his and most of his wife's money which were with Madoff.
I was thinking, 'Pity to waste a good crisis. There must be some spiritual opportunity here.' So I called him and said, 'How's it going? What's up?'
He left this voicemail: 'Symptoms of money loss. I've discovered a hitherto undiscovered interest in cooking and fixing up the kitchen. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my left leg is twitching.'
You can lose all your money and the sun still shines and you still drink your coffee and the birds still call in the morning. A sandwich is still a sandwich.
Q: How is all this affecting you?
Tarrant: I lost a lot of money, not that I had that much. I assume I am complicit because I didn't pay that much attention. I think a lot of us felt that there was something imbalanced about our culture...energy, global warming, people getting 100-million dollar bonuses We knew it wasn't sustainable but we were happy because our house value was going up! We usually do go along a little bit with the people who con us. So we did ...
Q: Katie Couric interviewed some people who were swindled by Madoff. One woman described how her husband was severely depressed and how it was affecting her son. The boy's father is no longer available to the kid. He's not the same man....
Tarrant: If we are flipping out about global warming or losing our money, we are not being kind to the kids and not being there for them. We are becoming unkind and self-obsessed.
When you are enraged the person who is suffering is you. The secondary affects are the people closest to you. The person you are angry at is rarely affected.
All the technology of our great spiritual traditions is about putting that war in our mind to rest. So that we can be here. And we can be kinder.
Q: What about people who feel ashamed of themselves? Who feel like failures?
Tarrant: In terms of how, whatever we have come to in our lives, if we have lost everything, we don't need to feel ashamed or somehow inadequate. It is now that counts.
When we are suffering our chest is closed, we are in prison, our heart is closed. We are not connecting very well with people. We tell stories about how this shouldn't be or couldn't be. Or thinking, ' I'm enraged and I want to get that guy' and then realizing that's not much fun for me and giving it up and having breakfast. It's a moment of clarity and freedom where we step out of the prisons we are making for ourselves. And spiritual paths are about stepping out of the prison into the freedom.
Q: One more question: How does the present crisis show us that money does not necessarily lead to happiness?
Tarrant: I have known people who are very wealthy who are very happy and those who are miserable, despearately trying to get their next billion. Being rich, being poor, there are independent variables with happiness. There are a plenty of unhappy rich people.
Freedom is freedom. It is not reducible. Our lives are bigger than just getting things.
Yet at the same time, to think, when something difficult happens, it could be an interesting opportunity to discover something.
When people lose money, it can be quite interesting. You can find out what you really love about life that keeps us here and what you came to this planet for is not necessarily your apartment.