There’s a Zen story of a famous samurai warrior who visits a Zen master.
The Zen master is seated when he receives the warrior.
The warrior says roughly, “I seek enlightenment monk. Tell me, is there truly a heaven and a hell?”
Without even looking up, the monk answers. “Why would an ignorant thug like you concern himself with such questions?”
A red mist sweeps over the warrior.
He cannot, he should not, tolerate such an insult.
He draws his sword to hack off the monk’s head.
Quietly, the monk speaks, “Here open the gates of hell.”
The warrior pauses.
He considers what the monk said.
A great calmness comes over him.
He sheaths his sword.
The monk quietly says, “Here open the gates of heaven.”
The warrior is enlightened.
He sits next to the monk and becomes his pupil.
And, in time, the warrior himself became a great Zen teacher.
On hearing that story, some people say, “But what does it mean?”
Well, the point about Zen stories is that there isn’t just one interpretation.
They are provocative rather than didactic.
They don’t give you an easy answer.
The point is the reaction they provoke in you.
So I can’t give you your meaning.
But I’ll tell you what that story means to me.
It means hell is the unthinking, reactive emotional mind.
The mind of anger, blind rage, revenge, fear, terror.
A mind without reason.
Heaven, on the other hand, is the rational mind.
The mind of reason.
The mind of quiet, calm, logical thought.
A mind capable of weighing alternatives and choosing a sensible course of action.
A mind not driven by primitive urges.
A mind in control.
A mind that is summarised by Buddha’s quote, “Act, don’t react.”
That is a mind that is truly in control.
In most of us, however, that isn’t the case.
We do react.
We react to everything.
As the philosopher Hume says, “Reason is the slave of the passions.”
The difference between the two minds is the difference between sleepwalking through life, and being alive.
Of course, it’s easier to go on autopilot.
Which is how football-supporters’ minds work.
I was talking to a client about this, an intelligent man with an Oxbridge degree.
He told me that he enjoys going to watch his team because it’s primitive.
He doesn’t have to think about which side is playing better football.
He doesn’t have to appreciate the quality of the referee’s decisions.
The other team is automatically shit, whatever they do.
And every time the referee gives a decision against his team, he’s automatically wrong, he’s a cunt.
He enjoys this lack of thinking.
I find it’s like that with people who can’t separate ‘what’ from ‘how’.
They confuse ‘my team’ with ‘right’.
But why does an action have to be morally right for it to be cleverly done?
There are many people I don’t like or agree with.
But I can still learn from them.
Not about what they do, but about how they do it.
That’s where I part company with moral absolutists.
For me they are football fans, or fundamentalists.
Their rules apply unthinkingly, at all times, in all situations.
Whereas my morals change relative to the situation.
Suppose I think it’s wrong to kill.
Does that mean it’s wrong to kill one person if, by doing so, I could save many lives?
Would it have been wrong to kill Hitler before he killed six million Jews?
I don’t think so.
The good produced would have outweighed the bad.
So, relatively speaking, it would have been right.
And that’s why I find moral relativism more creative.
It allows us to question everything.
It allows us to learn, and come up with surprising, unpredictable solutions.
That’s why I think we can learn from everything.
For us that means even advertising we don’t like or agree with.
Not just work that fits our preconceptions.
Wins awards, sells product, is funny, or well shot, or well written.
Or social media, or digital, or whatever’s fashionable.
Don’t just go where we feel safe.
If we only choose to learn from what we already like, we won’t learn much.
If we choose to spend our life just reinforcing our opinions, we aren’t growing.
We’re switching off.
We’re not thinking.
Because thinking is about opening the door on something new.
And before we can open that door, we have to stop ourselves reacting.