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Childlike living may be literally interpreted

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After the stake patriarch had given a blessing to my stepdaughter, I shook his hand and looked him in the eye. I was a little startled by what I saw. His cheeks were a bit flushed and he had a sweet, innocent smile on his face. He looked — for want of a better word — "cherubic." He looked like he was 8 years old.

People who know their Bibles know two scriptures in Luke: the first says the kingdom of God is within you. The second says you must become as a little child to receive that kingdom.

I sometimes wonder if we shouldn't take those notions a little more literally than we do. Maybe it doesn't mean we should "enhance in our personalities the attributes associated with childhood." Maybe it means what it says.

Maybe it means we should actually become little children.

One of my favorite writers is the Japanese monk Ryokan. He lived in the snowy mountains of Japan about the same time Joseph Smith was ministering in America. Ryokan's days were simple, almost "cherubic." He'd get up in the morning, go into town, beg for rice, then return to his hut to meditate and write down his thoughts. Once, while he was visiting in town, a group of children came by and asked him to play with them. They were playing tug of war. Ryokan joined in. Then they asked him to help them braid together some reeds, which he did. They got him to play kickball and sing songs. Then he got them to sing and play kickball at the same time. All of them — Ryokan included — giggled with glee.

People passed by, shaking their heads. What was this? A grown man behaving like a first-grader? Some of them ridiculed him and called him "fool."

The name stuck.

Today, Ryokan is known as the "Great Fool," one of the wisest fools in the history of Japan. His short poems, which he never published, are as lovely and as simple as children's songs. Here is one:

Yes, I'm truly a dunce,

living among trees and plants.

Please don't question me

about illusion and enlightenment.

This old fellow

just likes to smile to himself.

I wade across streams with bony legs,

and carry a bag about

in fine spring weather.

That's my life,

And the world owes me nothing.

Last Sunday, I thought again of Ryokan. In Sunday School the teacher was reading about the day Jeremiah was called as a prophet to the Jews. His response was: I can't do that. I'm just a child. But God touched Jeremiah on the lips and said, "I have put my words in thy mouth."

I think that is what must have happened to Ryokan. He lived so simply and was so pure in heart that God put words in his mouth.

I think it is what happened to the patriarch who blessed my daughter.

And I think it is something that could happen to all of us, if we are ever able to stop trying to adopt the attitudes of a childlike personality and — unself-consciously — simply "become as a little child."

E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com