Earl R Smith II, PhD


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Robert Bly retells a very interesting and useful ancient fairytale in Iron John: A Book About Men. The story begins when a hunter shows up at the castle and asks the King, “Anything dangerous to do around here?” The King replies, “Well, I could mention the forest, but there’s a problem. The people who go out there don’t come back.” But this is a hunter of a peculiar nature. “That’s just the sort of thing I like,” is his response.

Let’s pause here and consider what is happening. The hunter, occupying a realm which some Zen thinkers call the “hungry ghost” is seeking an adventure. He wishes his life to be something other than it is. He desires a challenge – a distraction. He goes to the King seeking advice. Mythologically, the King is a symbol of wisdom.

So, the hunter heads into the forest. The only companion he takes a long is his dog. Before long he comes upon a pond. As the two of them near the pond a hand reaches up, grabs the dog (a symbol of domesticity) and drags him down. The hunter, rather than grieving for the loss of his dog, peers down into the pond. There at the bottom is a large man covered with reddish hair from head to foot. Intrigued, the hunter buckets out water to get to Iron John.

Of course, all of this is metaphor. But what does it mean? Well, it seems to me that there are three interesting questions that come up right away.

  • What is bucketed out?
  • Who is this Iron John?
  • And, what does finding him symbolize?

For those on the journey to right here, right now, those questions might be stimulating some curiosity and a bit of déjà vu. Certainly, anyone who is practicing Zen has experienced the need to quiet the mind – a kind of bucketing out. The hunter is on one side of the water and Iron John on the other. But it’s the hunter that makes the journey down through the wetness to reach the Wildman. So, what’s this all about?

Let’s consider the water. It’s transparent. The hunter can see Iron John at the bottom of the pond. And, we can suppose, Iron John can see the hunter. But what does the water symbolize? And why does it need to be bucketed out?

Clearly it is a barrier between the two. But there is something more here. It is also a medium within which the hunter cannot live – although apparently being underwater causes Iron John no difficulties. So, it may be useful to say that this water, which must be bucketed out so that the hunter can reach Iron John, is a barrier between them.

That seems to bring up another question. How did Iron John come to be at the bottom of this pond? I am reminded of an old Zen proverb:

The student asks the master, “How can I free my mind?
The master replies, “Who was it that put your mind under restraint?”

So, let’s say that the bucketing out of the water symbolizes the work that a student must do to reach right here, right now. But if that is so, who then is this Iron John?

Ancient fairytales are tricky when it comes to questions like this. The obvious response might be: “The hunter is curious about this person at the bottom of the pond and has decided to liberate him.” Well, there’s something in that but I suspect there is considerably more. Remember this is the hungry ghost we are talking about. The journey the hunter must make is downward and through wetness. These are generally symbols of a journey inward. The idea arises that these two might be part of a single being.

That brings us to the last of the three questions. The hunter – hungry ghost – succeeds in bucketing out all the water. The intervening barrier is now gone and he comes into direct contact with Iron John. Perhaps we can think of it in Zen terms. The monkey mind has been stilled and the noise which kept the hungry ghost constantly desiring has abated. The moment of pure contact arises. The possibility of transformation appears. As the hungry ghost touches the Wildman, we expect some sort of transformation. Something happens. But what? And what does the hunter do as the result?

Stay tuned for Chapter 2.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD