The first Lent reading is about the Chinese character for transform, to change, to turn, spelled zhuan in the romanized form. When you say to the taxi driver – wang you zhuan, that means “turn right.” It is that zhuan you are using. It is also used to talk about things that have changed for the good – zhuan hao le. The character pair I picked for today means “to transform,” and is zhuan bian, I have already written about the character Bian, which is in the book.
Here it is:
A character is made of bits and pieces…
Today we are taking a look at the first character of the pair, zhuan, which means change, transformation, and is used to describe the act of turning.
Left side: a cart, as if you were looking down from above, and saw the cart bed with the wheels and the axels sticking out.
Right side: a phonetic piece, with the added meaning of concentration. It shows a hand, represented on the bottom, a shuttle for weaving on the top.
Have you ever given up anything for Lent?
When I was young I thought that the point of Lent was to give up candy. Or maybe it was to give up chocolate. But I wasn’t sure, and I couldn’t figure out why anyone in their right mind would want to give up candy! Fasting seemed to be a very strange custom.
The history of fasting before Easter
The custom of fasting started in the earliest days of the church, when it was the custom to fast for two days before Easter. People seem to love a challenge – as time went by the fast was lengthened to a week, and then by 350 AD it was a full 40 days, excluding Sundays. Moses and Elijah had been on a mountain for 40 days before they encountered God, and Jesus had spent 40 days in the wilderness after he was baptized, so 40 days was a natural number to choose for a period of retreat and fasting.
What were they giving up when they fasted?
There was no chocolate to give up in those days, but you can see the roots of the idea in the traditional choice of giving up luxury foods. Meat, dairy, fish, oil or wine were all candidates for fasting in the early years.
According to scholars, what was left for people to eat when fasting in the early days of the church was bread, water, juices, honey and nuts. Honey? Well – that is what the scholars said. A far cry from modern times when sweet things are not on the menu. But the point of fasting was not so much what you gave up, it was that you would have a reminder and an opportunity to take your mind from the material world and turn it to the spiritual. As the 12th century Sufi mystic said, To change a person must face the dragon of his appetites with another dragon, the life-energy of the soul.
Lent battle: the dragon of appetites versus the dragon of the life-energy of the soul
Although it seemed to me that deprivation was the point of Lent when I was a child, this isn’t really the point. Rumi points out that “fasting” can be more like a summons to a knight to accomplish a spiritual feat, to rise above our appetites or desires with the life-energy of the soul.
A friend once told Mark Twain that he planned a spiritual feat, that he was about to take the long and dangerous trip to the Holy Land in order to climb Mt. Sinai and see where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. Twain responded by telling his friend, “It would be better if you stayed home and kept them.”
And this is really true – we can spend a lot of time ignoring or running away from the difficult changes that would bring us great benefit, shedding jealousy, unkindness, selfishness, impatience with our family and friends, and lack of generousity. Change can be hard to make because much of what we do is unconscious. But shed some light of consciousness on the problem and you have the potential for change.
To be aware and open to change is critical
And that brings us back to the character for changing, or turning. Remembering the three parts to the character zhuan, we have a cart, and then a hand and a shuttle, which carry the meaning of concentration. The story it tells is that our cart rolls along in the same direction unless we make the effort to change it. It takes concentration to turn the cart to go in a new direction along a new path, but we must pay attention, be aware of where we are, and know where we want to go.
It’s Lent – time to concentrate and turn our carts
In Lent we have three pieces to put together. One is the thing we want to change, awareness of where we want to go, and then the concentration needed to turn our carts in a new direction. Why not question how we do things? Why not question the way we relate to other people, and look for ways to improve? Why not use the concentration to find something we could change and then work on it. It’s a path that will lead us to new peace and joy in our lives.
The Persian poet Rumi wrote a poem that is one of my favorites. He raises up the thought that difficulties and changes can be seen as guides and ways to teach new things. The end result of this awareness can be “a clearing out for some new delight.”
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century Sufi mystic