Sometimes the best comeback after an insult — the comeback that actually does something for us instead of to them — is no comeback at all, as the following Zen koan so beautifully illustrates.
I found myself pondering insults the other day after visiting a local shop while wearing a mask. I have a wonky immune system and am advised to continue wearing a mask indoors for now, even though I’ve been fully vaccinated for months and there is no mask requirement anymore where I live.
As I reached for an avocado, a shopper loudly announced to her companion, while looking directly at me, that “mask wearers are just stupid lemmings.”
I didn’t engage her. I wanted to, though.
But in one of those lovely moments of clarity just before I opened my mouth — clarity I sometimes get only after I’ve opened my mouth — my mind played the final sentence of a favorite Zen koan. The gift of her insult stayed with her instead of weighing me down.
I can’t claim perfection in moments like these, but the koan brightened the moment considerably for me and so I want to share it with you. I’ve shared it before, long ago, but it’s been a while and we are in times when having a reliable non-comeback to an insult is a good thing to have on hand. It is heavy weight to try to rectify every insult and life is short.
The gift of insults
There was once an old man known for being able to defeat any challenger. His reputation extended throughout the land and many gathered to study under him. One day a young warrior arrived at the old man’s village. He was determined to be the first to defeat the great master, since he had both strength and the ability to notice and exploit an opponent’s weakness.
The old master gladly accepted the young warrior’s challenge. As the two faced one another, the young warrior began to hurl insults at the old master. The verbal insults went on for hours, yet the old master merely stood there motionless and calm. Finally, the young warrior exhausted himself. Defeated, he left.
The great master’s students gathered around the old man. “How could you endure such an indignity?” they wondered. “And how were you able to drive him away?”
“If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it,” the master replied, “to whom does the gift belong?”
Again: If someone comes to give you a gift and you do not receive it, to whom does the gift belong?