Tuesday, March 31, 2009

past and present

We can only practice according to the past, but we can only live in the present.

For this reason, I imagine, ethicists and the religiously-inclined are constantly swatting their adherents with reminders: Make the past present, do good now, refrain from evil now ... over and over, reminders of the past.

But we cannot live in the past, no matter how hard we try. The reminders we are given either from our own hearts or from the mouths of others are constantly in conflict with this moment, these circumstances.

The conflict arises, I think, from imagining that although our practice is based in the past, we can therefore rely on the past. People instinctively know -- even when they won't or can't admit it -- that the past is irretrievably gone. It is ungraspable. Thus, to rely on it is a fool's errand. There is a past, yes. But to rely on it is to pose an endless uncertainty.

We can only practice according to the past, but we can only live in the present.

But what happens when we practice according to the past -- not rely on it, just practice in accordance with its dictates as they express themselves in our lives? Maybe it's so: The moment we consent to practice ... in that moment, the past is the present and the present is the past. Even in the midst of vast uncertainty, uncertainty dissolves.

I think this is reliable.

But I wouldn't rely on it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

"I know what I think"

Did you ever hear anyone say -- or even say to yourself in convincing tones -- "I know what I think"?

But if you actually knew what you thought and if it were actually credible, why would you have any need to say so? Wouldn't you -- from an assured position -- be more likely to seek out what someone else thought? What need would there be to convince or entice or seek agreement from anyone else?

"I know what I think" sounds like an error to me. It may be pleasant in the sense that others will allow you to get away with it (they would like to imagine that they too 'know what they think'), but is it the truth?

I guess I just prefer the old silly ....

"How do I know what I think till I see what I say?"

Sunday, March 29, 2009

first time, every time

In the zendo, it crossed my mind:

First time, every time. Isn't that our practice?

Last time, every time. Isn't that our practice?

Breath, rain drops, eating, sleeping, clouds, love, typing, crying ....

Nothing stale.

First time, every time.

Last time, every time.

cleaning up the mess

Sometimes I feel like a five-year-old who has been left alone in the kitchen and discovered all the wonderful things he can make. The result is generally a mess that involves the liberal use of Ketchup. In this life, my tracks and smears and smudges and fingerprints everywhere and someone has to clean things up. That 'someone' is me, since I am not a five-year-old and can recognize that working in a clean space is easier than working in a dump.

But since the cleanup too often creates its own tracks and smears and smudges and fingerprints, finding a truly clean space can be frustrating and elusive.

Perhaps I could start by setting aside the notions of what is a dump and what is spick and span?

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Just the old refrigerator-magnet encouragement:

Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

gas attack

In army basic training, there were all sorts of rituals and skills to learn. How to salute, how to make your bed, how to fill your footlocker, how to shoot, how to run, how to march ... for eight weeks, the exercises continued.

The one that scared me the worst was gas training.

There were a number of different kinds of gas, we were told. Among them, for example, was nerve gas. During a nerve gas attack, those being attacked might see or smell nothing, but the eyes would begin to water, the nose to run and then the vomiting would set in. Eventually the nervous system would come unglued and that would be that. As a countermeasure, the army provided ampules of atropine. When the symptoms began to occur, a soldier would inject himself with atropine and the attack would be foiled. On the other hand, there was another kind of gas -- also invisible and odorless -- which produced the same symptoms. The soldier would inject the atropine ... and it was the atropine, which speeds up the heart rate (as I recall) that would prove fatal.

This was pretty spooky, but there was spookier yet to come.

One of the pieces of training we received was never to remove our gas masks unless an authorized leader (usually the sergeant or lieutenant) told us to do so. And at one point, our instructors popped some tear gas. The air filled with a quite visible smoke. We all put on our masks and waited. It was a little harder to breathe through the mask than it would have been without one, but the safety of clean air made it worth the price of admission.

Pretty soon, the smoke cleared. The sergeant had been called away, some lesser authority said, but we were free to take off our masks. Everything looked fine to the naked eye, so we took off our masks. It was a lesson we were not likely to forget.

The air was filled with an acrid, threatening presence. You might not see it, but you could feel it clawing at your nostrils and throat and lungs. It was encompassing. It was invisible. It was everywhere. It was life-threatening. It was as if your mother -- your deepest and most loving mother, the air -- had betrayed you. The longing to escape was powerful and reflexive .... but how could you escape the air? Where could you run? All around you was the invisible threat and you could see others in the same predicament ... wanting to escape from the inescapable. It was so frightening that I don't think one man in thirty thought to put his mask back on.

Naturally, the sergeant returned and reiterated what we had been told before: Only someone in command could authorize the removal of masks. We hadn't been listening and had paid the price. As I recall, there were a number of unkind epithets used to describe our idiocy ... "asshole" being one of the kinder ones.

Where will you go when you cannot escape the air? Where will you be safe when every situation in life has an 'out,' but this time there is no 'out?' Where will you turn when you are inescapably trapped ... trapped by hope or belief or goodness or evil or habit or love or anger or ... well, whatever the jaws of this trap are made of? Where will you go when everything around you seems to be a betrayal of the first, life-threatening order? Where will you go when there is no place to go? When goodness and evil cease to have meaning ... what then?

I dislike the manipulations implicit in many threats, but I can see why Christians might imagine it is a good tool. People listen when you threaten them. They are less likely to listen when you suggest that what is not threatening -- what is in some sense delightful -- might be an equal threat. How can I be in danger when I am having so much fun, when I am happy, when I am in love, when I am laughing? Go bother someone else with your threats.

But inescapability does not limit itself to happy or sad. This moment does not change its stripes for all the blandishments in the world. You can put as many offerings on as many altars as you like, pray soulful prayers, sit at the feet of innumerable wise men and women, read and collate as much collected wisdom as you like, do good deeds until the cows come home, stick your toes humbly in the sand, raise hell on a Saturday night, chastise yourself with virtuous nostrums ... and still, there will always be the whispering uncertainty ...

This is inescapable.

How shall I escape?

If I could escape, would that truly be an escape?

If womb-gloom-tomb won't cut it and 77 heavenly virgins at your beck and call won't cut it, what will still the whisper that cannot be stilled? We've all tried the Monty Python route -- "Run away! Run away!" -- but how can you run from the air?

How can you be where you are not?

More important, how can you be where you are?

If I were an asshole, I would tell you.

But I hate being as asshole. :)

Friday, March 27, 2009

success at last?

I have never been very good at crediting myself with success. My failures have always seemed more compelling.

But this morning, it occurred to me that I have been a moderately good pest.

Do people get trophies for stuff like that? :)

comforted by the facts

What comfort is comfort? I was not brought up in the ways of comfort or comforting and yet do what I can (a sometimes fierce imperative) to comfort those around me. The teaching I received is, by this time, indelible: Relying on the comforts offered is just a way to need more comfort; trust is unlikely to be requited. It was, on the one hand, a poor upbringing; on the other, it makes a kind of sense. But whatever judgment is brought to bear, still I am wary of comfort and yet feel strongly enough about it to offer what I can. On a guess, I would say I long for comfort -- much as anyone might -- and lack the equipment to accept/trust/believe it easily. This is clearly a mixed-up point of view.

I went to the doctor the other day and he said he imagined it was my gall bladder that was to blame for my discomfort. So there will be an ultrasound next week. At work, I wriggle and twist with the uncertainties of accepting a buyout might entail ... what the hell will I do when/if I no longer enter that workplace hell? I am pretty much officially 'old:' Who would hire an 'old' person, even if the times were good? The tendrils and wisps of discomfort and uncertainty long for comfort and yet, were comfort to be offered, would it change the facts?

Sometimes I think the whole of life's efforts -- and frequently spiritual efforts -- is nothing more than the search for the ability to be comforted by life's facts. Not the fictions of comfort ... the facts. But in order for that to happen, first it would be necessary to examine those 'facts.'

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Zen Forum International

Since the impurities of the world impress me a lot more than the purities anyone might imagine, I enjoy the range and lightness of Zen Forum International

The impurities may be as imaginary as the purities, but I like to 'visit' a place where someone might let loose anything from a sutra to a dirty joke. There seems to be more honesty and goodness in it than in other, good-er places. Calvinistic, policy-wonk Buddhists just don't do it for me any more.

But then, I am getting lazier by the hour.

a season of robins

In the demi-light of a lovely, pink dawn, a local boy and girl robin were trotting around in the street today, one following/chasing the other. In the dimness, you could not see their defining, orange underbellies, but their movements, even in silhouette, were pure 'robin.'

Funny how people demand that we take account of their underbellies -- their delights and confusions, accomplishments and failures -- when, from the get-go, it's clear they are robins.

If you point out that they are robins, they may stamp their feet in irritation: "I KNOW that, for Christ's sake! But will you look at my orange breast!?" I guess it is just not their time yet.

What do robins know about an orange breast?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

the place without stories

Is there a place without stories?

Today, at the dump, I got into a conversation with the fellow who was tending things. We started with a rain barrel that was for sale, segued into the inefficiency of gutters and flat roofs, and along the way chatted about the small Kansas town he had grown up in -- the one that had never been attacked by a tornado since its inception shortly after the Civil War ... not until 2003-2004 anyhow. And what made him leave home? "Uncle Sam called me here, I went out on a blind date, and here I am sixty years later," he said.

Outside the 7-11-type store, a man lounging in a bit of sunshine told me he was waiting for his daughter who had borrowed his truck in order to tag along with one of the doctors who worked in the hospital across the street. He was waiting and didn't know when he would get a ride (though I offered him one). It was all worth it because his daughter was a go-getter, someone entranced by micro-biology, a person who would nag the teachers for answers and explanations. "She's worth the wait," he said.

Where is there a place without stories, whether spoken or unspoken? The highest mountains, the most austere deserts, the crowded supermarket, the edgeless ocean ... where is there a place without stories?

what's wrong with death?

Does anyone or anything "die gracefully?"

This morning, I was reading a posted article* from The Nation about the demise of newspapers and, true to the age I live in, or perhaps just my age, I couldn't find a reason to finish it. This, despite the fact that I work for a downward-spiraling newspaper and the fact that I have some pretty strong feelings about the implications of the death of journalism. The article felt repetitive, threadbare and perhaps a bit whine-y.

The evidence was nicely assembled in the article and the reasons why death might be worth battling were cogent enough. But I found myself whispering and wondering ....

What's wrong with death?

Personally, historically, socially, whatever-ly -- what's wrong with death? Socially, in the case of newspapers ... OK, no one enjoys the inexorable march of the United States to Third-World-Nation status. Historically, the implications are unpleasant. And personally, sure, anyone with two brain cells to rub together might be willing to say, "Yes, it is the nature of all things to be born and to die," but there's always an top-secret addendum: "...but that wasn't supposed to extend to me!" Where your ox is gored, I may positively wallow in the sympathies I am willing to extend. But when it's my ox ... yoiks!

And having discovered that my ox is in the line of fire ... well, it's Nellie bar the door. The discovery seems to prompt a knee-jerk philosophical and religious outpouring. There is "reincarnation" and a misconstrued "rebirth" and "heaven" and "hell" ... all kinds of wily smooth-talking ... who knows, maybe there really are 77 virgins just around the corner. But none of that can still the whisper:

What's wrong with death?

Perhaps it in the nature of things that what is alive should go gracelessly into this "good night." But grace and gracelessness are not so much the point. The point is "me" and whatever that might mean. If asserting a "me" has proved certifiably unable to answer questions I take seriously and if "no-me" has proved equally inane, then what is it that can answer serious questions seriously?

If you're stuck with the farm, whatever the farm might be, then I guess the best anyone could do would be to investigate that farm. Promises and philosophies about some 'other' farm just don't cut it. What about this farm? What about this birth? What about this death? Squirm and fidget and wail and wax as wise as you like ... what about this farm? C'mon, you've gone the sophisticated bullshit route already ... what about this farm?

Is it born? Does it die? Don't try to answer ... just investigate. And, having investigated a little, consider ... who is this investigator? Again, don't try to answer ... just investigate and see what happens.

No one can tell anyone what to do about their own farm. Some raise sheep, some grow corn, some seek vast tracts of land in order to assert their power ... their answers. OK. But whatever the farm's size or purpose ... how about it?

What's wrong with death?


*http://www.thenation.com/doc/20090406/nichols_mcchesney ... sorry, this place doesn't allow me to insert a link.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

when the altars get dusty

What will you do when the altars get dusty?
What will you do when your pace seems to slow?
What will you do when there are no more surprises?
What will you do when your sorrows are gone?

Once the altars were dustless and perfect.
Once the way seemed to be one step or two.
Once there were angels on top of the Christmas trees.
Once there were tears that brought comfort and cheer.

What is the matter with dust on the altar?
What is the matter with the fleet or the frail?
What could be lacking without all the angels?
Are things really flummoxed without all my dust?

Keep it clean, keep it neat ... but know the difference ... if there is one.

be a good leader to yourself

During the Vietnam war, there were incidents of "fragging." An American officer might be sleeping peacefully and suddenly a grenade -- an American grenade -- would roll into his tent. Seldom, if ever, was anyone caught and accused of murder. There were officers who were more dangerous than the enemy. Everyone knew it and some were just willing to do something about it.

I suppose anyone who has been part of any group effort has noticed the phenomenon -- people put in positions of leadership who know, or imagine they know, the theory, but have little understanding of actualities. They are full of themselves, confident. They are willing to sacrifice others to their self-important visions. They are, roughly speaking, assholes, and sometimes those under their command may think that fragging is too good for them.

I sometimes think the difference between a "boss" and a "leader" is humility. A good leader knows the work at hand from muzzle to butt plate. Often s/he has done that work or is willing to do it again. S/he knows the intricacies, pitfalls, and rewards in experience and not just because s/he is wearing Armani or went to a very fine school.

Sometimes I wonder how many are willing to be a good leader and how many are simply dancing around with themselves, pretending to know the terrain, finding excuses for hurting others, talking the talk without walking the walk. It's bad enough when these circumstances exist in the work place or on the battlefield, but how is it when it exists in someone's own heart? I think it must be painful and confusing -- knowing, for example, about "Buddhism," without really breaking a sweat to find out what Buddhism might be; knowing about "love" or "freedom" or "heaven" or "compassion" or "God" without bothering to find out.

Be a good leader to yourself. Leaders have the courage to screw up. Over and over and over again. Isn't it in the willingness to make mistakes that any of us learn in a way that is less doubt-filled and pompous? Find something you love and then love it from muzzle to butt plate. Is there a difference between a smack-down bigot and a Ph.D. who can spell the word "tolerance?" Not a hell of a lot when it comes to honest and easy understanding.

Be a good leader to yourself.

In this way you will be a good leader to others as well.

No one wants to wake up with a grenade in their tent.

Monday, March 23, 2009

being an adult ... or a kid

Did you ever catch yourself playing grown-up? You know, serious, adult, informed, not giggling ... and you just catch yourself at it? Of course, 'adulthood' may be what the circumstances may call for, a kind of gravitas that fits the occasion ... and then you catch yourself at it. And maybe wonder where it came from or whether you'll ever get over it ... whether there will ever be a place where you can be your whole self instead of just, somehow, a partial picture.

And perhaps it makes you giggle.

Or perhaps it makes you weep...

This partial picture.

When I was little, my mother overheard me playing cowboys with a friend in the basement. We had seen a lot of Saturday matinees in which there might be a fade-out from the growing and uncertain boy to the grown, competent man and my mother overheard me saying, "Now it's ten years later and we're all grown up."

Or maybe there's a period during which you feel very together, very Buddhist, very stock broker, very mom, very farmer, very car mechanic, very whatever and things are going fine. You are in the groove, sure of your place and understanding and adulthood when all of a sudden your inner kid comes calling ... big-time: Maybe it's an overpowering desire for something or someone; maybe it's a sense of helplessness that only a kid can feel; maybe it's a foot-stomping anger laced with all the cuss words that can so delight a child's mind. Whoosh! -- from adult to a kid in 0.02 nanoseconds. And you wonder how you got there and whether you'll ever get over it. You know it's only a partial picture, but for the moment it's the only picture there is. And perhaps you wonder if there will ever be a time when you can be your whole self and not just, somehow, a partial picture.

Buddhism is good for this kind of stuff. Buddhism welcomes kids and adults. It also asks the loving grandmother's question, "How many pictures can there really be?" How many masks can you put on before you face gets chafed? How many adulthoods can you assert before you run out of steam? How many floors can you stomp before your foot gets sore? How many distinctions can you make before it's just too tiring and, what the hell ...

You might as well giggle.

marriage, parades and winners

It seems that I will in fact be marrying John and Heather. June 3 is the date envisioned -- a date that is significant in some way to the two of them. After zazen yesterday, John and I talked about getting the necessary state approval... minister for a day. The approval costs $35.

On the one hand, the prospect is delightful -- being a part of something that someone takes seriously. On another hand, it is something of a hoot, being asked to lay the bureaucratic hands of approval on what needs no approval. On yet another hand, the situation puts "marriage" in the spotlight ... what's serious about it, what's off-topic, what's ... well, what's what.

I told John I would certainly be up for the whole thing, but I had hopes that I would win the Great American Think Off, and the debate that the four top contestants will engage in is to be held -- or so I thought -- June 1 in a small Minnesota town. The Great American Think Off is the funnest thing to come along in a while for me and, although it seems unlikely I will win, still I cling to it and really would like to go. Talk about a hoot! June 1, was awfully close to June 3, so I told John I wasn't entirely sure about his wedding date and maybe we could confer again next week after zazen. Later in the day, I looked at the Great American Think Off web site and found out the debate would be held June 13, so there would be -- assuming anyone invited me -- no conflict. I called John and told him...and also asked him to think about the role he might like me to play ... in what way he would like me to 'marry' him and Heather.

Also yesterday, my youngest son, as a member of the high school freshman baseball team, marched in a nearby St. Patrick's Day parade. Who was it who invented parades in the first place and why did s/he invent such a thing? Parades are fun and flashy, I suppose, and perhaps they imply a certain amount of clinging ... lookit me! lookit-me!



The Great American Think Off.


Or maybe clinging and culture. But what is culture if not clinging?

In Buddhism, there is a certain narrowing of the eyes when it comes to clinging, a wisp of disapprobation. Clinging, a Buddhist (or any sensible person) might tell you, has verifiably unfortunate implications and results. But I wonder....

In Christianity, adherents can sometimes get the quote wrong and intone, "Money is the root of all evil." But of course there is nothing wrong with money. It is, "The love of money is the root of all evil." It is the clinging that brings on the problems. It is the expectation that well-laid plans will be fulfilled to your satisfaction. In the ordinary flow of things, anyone might imagine s/he knew what satisfaction might consist of. But then things don't work out exactly as planned and all the clinging comes around and bites you on the ass. Imagined success turns to fact-based failure ... or, if not failure, anyway an unlooked-for version of 'success.'



The Great American Think Off.

Yes, in a disciplined life, there are things to be on the lookout for, things that can create sorrow or uncertainty, things that can tighten the noose. In a disciplined effort, the eyes can narrow and skepticism can be aroused. Clinging is tricky and perhaps dangerous.

But lately I don't mind clinging so much. In fact, it's rather enjoyable. I wouldn't recommend it, but even as I wouldn't recommend it, I also wouldn't say it was somehow not commendable. It's just a bit of fun.

However much I might wish to be included in the winner's circle of the Great American Think Off and however much John and Heather might cling to some view of "marriage" and however much those parading might imagine their effect, still things never turn out that way exactly.

Isn't that a nifty surprise? And isn't that surprise more delicious than the expectations that preceded it?

Clinging. Clinging to not-clinging ... and still you get a surprise and it's better than a decoder ring in a box of cereal.

Why not enjoy yourself?

Enjoy ... your ... self.

Don't worry. It'll pass.

And isn't that the fun part?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Christmas in the Trenches"

I heard this old John McCutcheon song on the radio while driving home last night. The song is one view of an event that took place on Dec. 24-25, 1914 ... a time when German and English/Scottish soldiers stopped shooting at each other, entered no-man's land between their opposing trenches, shared supplies and music, played some soccer by some accounts, and drove the military leadership out of their minds ... the implications of simple cannon-fodder soldiers making their own, quite deliberate peace was ... what? -- crazy? unpatriotic?


Sorry. Can't seem to create a link.


something short

In an age of sound bites, I seem to be writing things that are too long.

So here is something short.


kindness for free

There seem to be people in this life who are inclined to kindness. I don't much care what tendrils and wisps of circumstance brought them to this point, but I enjoy such people and even admire them. Their efforts inspire me to make similar efforts. However halting the efforts -- theirs or mine -- still these are efforts I admire, efforts in whose company I would prefer to live. Teachers, maybe; doctors and nurses, maybe; ministers, maybe; firefighters, maybe; mothers and fathers, maybe ....

But in considering the tableau, in sorting out the kind from the unkind, things get sort of difficult to nail down. It seems that everyone has the capacity for kindness. Whether they exercise it or not is another matter.

I was listening to a lefty lecture on the car radio last night, and some fellow was making a nicely-woven argument about capitalism's fallout. He spoke of the shoe company Nike, which moved its operation out of Ohio and over to Indonesia. In Indonesia, workers were paid 18 cents an hour, had no health benefits and lacked industrial protections. If someone got hurt, s/he was simply replaced with no thought of the one who got hurt. Shoes that cost $7 to produce in Indonesia might cost $70 when they reached the United States. There was a greedy unkindness about it all ... but naturally the unkindness was papered over with capitalist nostrums about free trade and the free market and other sorts of 'freedom' in which a limited number of people participated.

Doesn't the average sort of kindness invariably run into its mirror-image unkindnesses -- leading teenagers and others to cry, "unfair!" and otherwise wring their hands? It may be very hard not to be angry with the self-centered and manipulative unkindnesses that take advantage of kind behavior. Teachers, for example, may be extolled for their 'selfless' service, for the good efforts they offer to the society and the world, and yet, in the country where I live, they are routinely paid as if their services were less than extraordinary or truly beneficial.
Doctors, by contrast, are paid quite a lot and may feel they 'deserve' it.

It may be hard not to expect some kindness in return for our kindnesses. Kindness, I think, presupposes a willingness to do something for others that may exact a price from ourselves. It is hard not to ask, "When do I get mine?"

And that, for my money, is the fly in the ointment of ordinary, altruistic kindness -- the supposition that we are doing something for someone else and the added hope, however secret, that we will get something in return ... perhaps a little kindness.

This is the challenge for those inclined towards kindness. Yes, it is nice to be nice and yes, it is more pleasant to be in the company of kind people, but so long as the expectation remains threaded through such kindnesses, disappointment is bound to follow. And such disappointments may suggest that a savvy, manipulative, defensive and self-centered route would be preferable.

But it's a conundrum for the person inclined towards kindness. To become a savvy, manipulative, defensive and self-centered twit is diametrically opposed to the kindnesses anyone might find preferable. It is to become what you dislike. It feels slimy to excuse unkindness with 'free market' litanies. But also -- when some honest examination is missing -- it feels sort of slimy to excuse and prop up the ordinary versions of kindness.

For those inclined, I think some examination is worth the price of admission. Maybe it's true and maybe it's not, but anyway it might be worth investigating honestly: Kindness works a lot better when it is given freely, with no expectation of return. It is as if a friend said to you, "Pass me that wrench, will you?" and you just picked it up and passed it without a second thought. No moral or ethical or philosophical or intellectual or emotional adjuncts need apply. You are kind because you are kind. You are five-feet-eight because you are five-feet-eight. Self and other don't enter the picture.

It may be hard to examine what is widely praised. Assumptions cling like body odor. Agreements are so pleasant. Kindness is good ... and yes, it certainly is. But, without going all 'Buddhist' on it, who says so? If we want to make peace with ourselves, don't we have to answer the question if we don't want to be stuck in a world of disappointment?

Sure, there is a secretive, raging gnome in the corner asking, "You mean give it away for free?!" And that's exactly what I mean. How can you be free otherwise? Isn't kindness free? Aren't 'you' free? And isn't being what you are easier than being what you hope to be?

Kindness, of whatever sort, is more pleasant than unkindness. But for those with a desire to escape their disappointments, you can't do much better than to follow the advice Gautama offered:

"It is not what others do and do not do that is my concern. It is what I do and do not do -- that is my concern."

Gautama offered his advice for free: As a free man, what other choice did he have?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

your rowdy uncle Ikkyu

I have probably got the story flummoxed four ways to Sunday, but it's just my fairy tale and I am too lazy to correct it ... the man called Ikkyu and the delight he can inspire is former and latter-day Buddhists. The source of that delight, I think, lies at least partly in the fact that Ikkyu is remembered as someone who was not a goody-two-shoes. In a world of virtue, what is apparently not-virtuous really is delicious.

Wikipedia, my concession to 'research,' says this about Ikkyu:

Ikkyū (一休宗純 , Ikkyū Sōjun?, 1394-1481) was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist priest and poet. He had a great impact on the infusion of Japanese art and literature with Zen attitudes and ideals.[1]. He was also one of the creators of the formal Japanese tea ceremony.

"Eccentric," "iconoclastic" ... Ikkyu was part of the world of Buddhism, but he hung out with hookers and seemed to be constantly sticking pins in the "Buddhism" doll. People loved him because he was naughty and bruised and on-the-street and ... was a lot like me. Not someone who made a profession of being good ... not a monk or nun or other elevated being. He was a rowdy uncle, somehow, and it was hard not to love him for anyone seriously interested in Buddhism. What a relief he was.

Isn't it funny how, whatever choices we make, eventually those choices surround us like some increasingly tight corral? Even if they were or remain good choices and provide a more-or-less rich life, still, eventually, they grow somehow old and 'usual' and ... it's hard if not impossible not to seek out the other side of the corral fence, the other options, the iconoclasms.

What other choice is there for someone who is serious in his or her pursuits? If discipline is good, how could that discipline be complete without returning to a world of indiscipline? Without such a return, the fetters remain. Don't we all need to include our rowdy uncle in this life's mix? Don't we all need to become our imagined Ikkyu?

But the discipline of our choices cries out at the prospect: No, no, no! It's too risky, too dangerous, too anti-social. I must keep to the disciplined path ... the path of good choices, the path of agreement and established effort, the path of success or comfort or religion or ... well, whatever the good choices have been.

Let's remember, as our Ikkyu's come calling, that the man who was called Ikkyu studied his ass off before he set out on the path that others later delighted in. He was a monastic. He worked very hard to fulfill a virtuous course. He entered the Buddhist mold and yet is remembered with delight for having apparently broken that mold.

Aren't we all like this? -- enfolding ourselves in what may be very good molds only to run head-on into our rowdy uncles, the ones who tousle our hair and talk loud where others speak in hushed voices, the ones who will not be denied ... or will be denied at our very real peril? Is it really enough that we have worked hard to be 'good?' Is it really enough to delight in people like Ikkyu -- the "iconoclasts" of this life? Isn't there a time when recognizing and activating our own Ikkyu's is the last, great imperative? Isn't there a time when breaking the mold requires us to consent and delight ... mold? what mold? Our chosen molds may be very good molds indeed and their lessons will always be with us, and yet .... It may seem like an terrifying leap of faith ... but what other choice is there?

Will we be content to love and elevate our Ikkyu's?

Or must we, instead, simply BE them?

Friday, March 20, 2009


Mike, a British office chum who sits across from me, is not given to hyperbole or sophisticated whining. He is just someone who keeps on keepin' on -- does what needs to be done and listens more than he talks. He is unfailingly polite. He is unfailingly circumspect with his words. He is unfailingly even-tempered. So last night, in the midst of an unbelievable amount of work, it was notable to me that he should say that the newspaper office had become "a nightmare."

Everyone is being pushed and pushed and pushed some more. More and more work ... work that people are often incapable of performing. The nightmarishness lies partly in the fact that there is little or no time for the training that would allow people to assume new responsibilities. But the push continues. Just do it. Hurry up and learn what you may not be capable of learning ... never mind whether you want to learn it or not. Someone wants the money and we are the means of fulfilling that need. We, for our part, need to support families or lifestyles or whatever all else and consent to a nightmare of someone else's choosing.

Together with the strain, there is a kind of ghoulish fascination. It is like former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's son -- the one who used to feed real or imagined enemies into a wood chipper ... alive: You just can't believe such cruelty could exist and yet the universe says, "Believe it!" And it is hard to avert the eyes even though every pore in your body longs to puke and begs for escape. Believe it!

Nightmares are nothing special. Everyone has them. Everyone is wracked by them. Everyone is overcome by them. Maybe this is part of the reason it sounds so self-centered when one person or group lays claim to the most horrid nightmare of of all: My nightmare, my wood-chipper, is more horrible than your nightmare, your wood-chipper. And maybe it is so ... but that doesn't make it so.

Part of the horror of a nightmare is that no one else can share it, let alone relieve it. Not God, not a shrink, not your mother or father or beloved friend. No one. Somehow the unfairness of a nightmare is compounded by the fact that it is my nightmare. Experience cannot be shared and this fact is somehow a nightmare within a nightmare.

In "The Lazy Man's Guide to Enlightenment," author Thaddeus Golas wrote, "When you learn to love hell, you will be in heaven." On the one hand, this is a nifty or irritating fortune cookie nostrum -- slick as Vaseline on a thermometer.

On the other hand, it is just the truth.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

heaven and hell

If you create a heaven in your mind, you are stuck with the farm and must, by definition, create a hell as well.

Why anyone would want to create a hell for themselves beats me.

Maybe it's just better than TV.

But it doesn't sound like much fun.

Or even very sensible.

Still ...

Whatever floats your boat.

reality check

Like anyone else, I guess, I enjoy the creative juices of my life -- having ideas, zooming around with hope, playing, and perhaps putting into action. A good conversation, ranging and open, is something I miss. Work has shifted into a kind of enforced mediocrity and it takes a lot of energy to be mediocre ... energy I would prefer to put into some excellence or best effort. Eight hours a day of enforced mediocrity ... or that's the way my zooming mind sees it.

And yet this morning I got a note from a fellow who came to the zendo once and asked if he might come again. Like all the visitors who come, his note offered a little reality check to my zoomer, creative mind. Thank God for good teachers. This small request was like a voice saying, "Yo, Adam! Serious up! Take a closer look!"

It's joyful to zoom and swoop and I love finding people who are likewise inclined ... creative, silly, honest. But the question does need to be asked -- what, precisely, is "creative?" And, how is it possible not to be creative or express your creativity?

I still wouldn't mind a fun conversation, a little delighted give-and-take, but I am grateful for the reality-checks that come along as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

effort for what?

My Zen teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, had a mole at the base of his throat. Since the clothing he wore was generally V-necked, the mole was always obvious. (You can't see it very well in this picture, but it's there -- a small dot in a poor photo.) As far as I could ever tell, he wasn't worried about it -- never put any concealing or camouflaging make-up on it. There it was, like it or lump it -- a small, brown mole at the base of his throat. It didn't seem to impede his laughter or lifestyle.

Wasn't there a Henry James story about a man who was deeply in love with a woman who had some skin defect that drove him nuts? I don't remember clearly and I sure as hell don't want to reread Henry James in order to recall more accurately. But as I recall, the man convinced the woman to have the defect removed ... and the removal killed her.

Sometimes I think it is sort of sad that those with the inclination to reflect should insist on removing the obvious by elevating the obscure. "Buddhism" may be wonderful, but what is wonderful is the understanding that flows from what is, not from what might be. What is wrong with how anyone might actually be? If you're five-feet-two and twitchy as a cockroach, well, isn't that enough? Isn't that enough to work with? Isn't that the way home? If you try to add or subtract, doesn't that bar the way, lead to more confusion, and leave you dissatisfied? If you're naked anyway, what's so bad about being naked?

I guess you can't ask people to have faith in themselves when they lack faith in themselves. But it seems a pity to struggle towards the East when they want to go West. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that if going in the wrong direction is the truth, then what is the truth of going in the wrong direction? And if anyone discovered that truth, how could it be the wrong direction?

I too have a mole on my neck. Or maybe it's not a mole. It's not brown like my teacher's and it's over on the right side. I suppose I could have it lopped off, but since it doesn't cause any discomfort and since I dislike going to any more doctors than I have to and since it doesn't seem to impede laughing or crying or walking to the kitchen ... well, what for?

Moles and all, "Buddhism" is for people, not the other way around. All people, not just "Buddhist" people. No point in killing yourself about what is just the truth. No point in struggling to defect-disdaining East.

Go West, young (wo)man! :)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

your genius

Be gentle with your geniuses. Think about it and be gentle.

Imagine -- if your geniuses thought they were geniuses, they would be idiots, just like the rest of us. But since you have decided they are not idiots -- that you need or want or insist on their genius -- at least be gentle about it.

Invite them to sit by your fire on a cold night. Offer your geniuses a cup of warm cocoa. Be at ease with them and allow them to be at ease with you.

And as a part of your gentleness, ask yourself, on behalf of your geniuses, who it is who ascribes and admires this genius. No need to make it a matter of genius. Just ask gently and see what answers arise.

Keep the cocoa warm on the stove. You never know who might drop in.

on target about compassion

Just wanted to save this:

There are two different types of compassion. There is actual compassion, direct compassion, absolute compassion. Then there is the other kind of compassion that Mr. Gurdjieff calls idiot compassion, which is compassion with neurosis, a slimy way of trying to fulfill your desire secretly. This is your aim, but you give the appearance of being generous and impersonal.

-- Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Monday, March 16, 2009

home again

The sparrows which nest in spring at the very peak of a wood-frame Christmas tree tacked to the front of the house are back -- back and building, refurbishing, and repairing the nest.

Or maybe I shouldn't say they're back.

I don't know if it's the same sparrows that were there last year. Perhaps I should be able to distinguish them and greet them by name, but I can't. They are tan and skittish when I come near to watch them build ... just as I know they will be fiercely protective once the eggs are laid and need caring for.

That was the way it was last year and the year before.

Same home.

Different year.


"Transmisconceptualism" -- I woke this morning thinking it ought to be a word, something an earnest Ph.D. candidate might use in a thesis full of semi-colons. Another long word with which to elevate the status of the user. Like the facial hair to which firefighters and shrinks seem disproportionately prone, it would be a word to use in a gathering with "symposium" in its title.

It came into my head with a silly sort of flavor: "Transmisconceptualism." It felt a little like some creation of "The Onion," the sometimes spot-on satirical news outlet that tweaks me into laughter when it is not too full of itself.

But of course "transmisconceptualism" would have to have a definition. And roughly, I guess it would be the idea that anyone might find his or her non-conceptual peace in precisely the concepts that were gumming up the works and making them unhappy ... the use of our own particular set of lies in order to find the unvarnished truth.

I know, I know -- it sounds too much like "Buddhism." But "transmisconceptualism" is longer than "Buddhism" and it makes the speaker sound as if s/he had a grasp of what s/he was talking about... just like "Buddhism."

It's weighty and refined -- "transmisconceptualism" -- and, assuming anyone were interested, needs to be put in the same category as "Buddhism" as a delicious and alluring misconception that longs to be worked through.

Once upon a time there was a vocabulary course that advertised by saying, "Use a word ten times in one day and it is yours." Today, I think I will practice using "transmisconceptualism."

Maybe it will become mine.

As if that were worth the powder to blow it to hell. :)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

the obituary channel

Yesterday, on the way in to work, I was listening to a public radio program called, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" It's a show full of news and humor and whimsy and it makes me laugh now and then.

During yesterday's segment, the moderator made mention of a new TV project someone had come up with -- the obituary channel. It wasn't entirely clear how it would work, and there was a good deal of joking around about it, but between the lines, it sounded like a viable idea to me: People's lives are interesting ... so ... why not tell their tales, if only after the fact?

I have always been a lover of stories. I suppose I love them because they inform me and 'take me away,' suggesting, as they do, other possibilities, other ways of seeing things, other aspects, other loves, other idiocies, other ... well, just other something-or-others that I can ingest and perhaps be nourished by.

But stories are invariably lies as well. They are second-hand renditions of something that, for someone, is true in experience, even when that experience is just a whimsical mind. No story ever told the truth. Trust me, I've tried to tell the truth with words and it just doesn't work.

But the fact that stories and words are lies doesn't mean they can't be or aren't useful. Simultaneously, just because they are useful doesn't mean they are true. Stories, to my mind, are items in which anyone might find usefulness while sidestepping the pitfall of believing they are true.

The obituary channel. Imagine that. Some day, perhaps you or I might be featured. We too might turn into a story. And when you think about it -- despite all the fear and aversion that might arise -- maybe you could wonder: Who could every get our stories right? Who could ever tell the truth? What words would ever cover all the bases?

And, since no one else will ever get it right, don't you think you should get it right yourself? ... alive or dead -- get it right? Tell the truth that no story could ever tell?


Listening to the radio on the way to work was later coupled with a phone call to my 92-year-old mother in New York. She is recovering from a bout of bronchitis and it was difficult for her to talk. Her hearing is going. Her vision is going. And now her talking was going as well.

At her age, death is no longer so spooky. It is more a gentle invitation than a threat and she said she had been thinking of dying. And yet, from within the fragility of her losses and fadings, she summoned up the energy to make a haltingly energetic connection with me: "Don't feel guilty," she said. "Don't feel sad. Just do what you are doing."

A nice blessing for all of us, I imagine.

Or anyway, that's my story.

Saturday, March 14, 2009



Maybe fame is a good entry point ... one Dharma gate among the 84,000 (infinite). On the surface, the glamor and wealth and power and capped-tooth superficialities of fame may seem antithetical to Buddhism's invocations, but I think the ordinary way is to long for some sort of recognition, some version of Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame."

And my feeling is that it's better to 'fess up and go with the flow. Countering such longings with philosophical or religious observations may be good, but is "good" really good enough? I doubt it. So maybe, if sticking beans up your nose is appealing, the best thing to do is to try it and see.

Not everyone wants a Ferrari or an endless supply of drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll. Not everyone wants to make others jump when s/he says "jump." But the acceptance and adulation and sometimes effectiveness that can come with fame ... who doesn't want to feel loved and exalted within some social setting? It's less lonely -- or at any rate it may look that way. Still, as Oscar Wilde observed very-approximately, "If you don't want to be lonely, never get married."

Gonna be The (Wo)man! Respected, loved, listened to ... someone to be reckoned with ... for fifteen minutes at least. Somehow the alternative, whatever it is, is not acceptable.

OK. Maybe it's just how we are all hard-wired.

But what IS the alternative? Without knowing the alternative, what meaning does this fame have? Without knowing the alternative, fame remains wispy and open to attack.

OK. Enter into the world of fame. Achieve what is achievable. Accept whatever applause is excited. Believe it. Be a star, whether large or small.

And now ... isn't it true without any smug or virtuous criticism attached: Now what? Is it really enough to rely on what is currently relied on ... friends and enemies extolling or critiquing, a swirling social environment, a swelling bank account, a wonderful haircut or wardrobe? Now what?

I suppose it's a risky business, suggesting anyone might go ahead and believe themselves. Fame in its ordinary meaning is so enthralling that there may never be a way out. But don't people believe themselves anyway? I think it's better to admit what is currently true and move from there. Fame separates, but does it work?

Ah well, I'm too tired to make the argument very well. It just seems to me that human beings are already famous -- more famous than they could possibly imagine. Without them, how could the sun rise in the East? This is not just some airy-fairy, religious, feel-good argument. It is just true ...

But I don't suppose it's true unless someone actualizes and acknowledges it.

Friday, March 13, 2009

a superstitious cuss

Coming off the Interstate on the way home last night, there was the moon. It seemed to be full or very close to it, and for a moment I indulged in a little superstition: "Ah, a full moon ... that's why things are so stressed and strained. It's the craziness of the moon, the alignment of the stars ... maybe I should consult some oracle or slaughter a bull or try to find a virgin to sacrifice or mortify myself in some virtuous way. That would make things better." For a moment, I felt like someone who knew how to read and chose to immerse himself in a comic book ... going back to some earlier footing that was simple and supportive and comforting.

Intellectually, I was capable of putting such fantasies in their place, of applying, perhaps, some Buddhist technology ... of, somehow, living up to the moment and its actualities. But the fact was that I don't mind such fantastic or illusory comforts any more. What is an "ancient guy" (as my son calls me) going to do about his fantasies anyway? -- actualize what once was dreamed or continues to be dreamed? It's too late, and so, if I feel like dreaming a little, well, it's just dreaming and perhaps pleasant on the drive home from work.

Sometimes I dream that I will wake up young again -- that the whole aging process has been some mistake, that the youthful dreamer within will be vindicated and actualized, that the tectonic plates so lovingly and urgently constructed in the past will cease to drift apart. In the past, I have dreamed of forcing those plates apart, as if there were some better approach to so-called ego and its wonders. But now I wonder about forcing anything ... forcing water to be wet when it has been wet all along.

Last night, I got an Internet note from an Internet chum saying she had bought a copy of my book for her UU minister. "I think he will enjoy it," she wrote. And I wrote back, "It's always nice to be flattered." And it is. I flatter you, you flatter me. It's not that bad, is it? It's just a small superstition. Water is still wet. Tectonic plates move apart. Isn't it only when I imagine that flattery has some stand-still, credible meaning that I run into trouble?

Sometimes I think that those practicing Buddhism are wrestling against the losses they imagine might occur. Fighting on the one hand, inviting on the other: "Enlightenment," "compassion," "freedom," "emptiness," "love," "joy" -- gotta get me some of that, on the one hand, but the price seems exorbitant on the other. In the tussle between the one hand and the other, a lot of dust gets thrown into the air. The eyes sting. The body aches. The efforts are enormous. The philosophies are intricate. And lost or obscured in the mix is just the enjoyment of a little flattery, the enjoyment of the moon, the natural balm provided by a glass of water.

Hell, what can I say? I'm just a superstitious cuss from time to time.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

five eggs

I was driving back from the supermarket a few minutes ago, listening to an interview with a fellow who has dedicated himself to building schools in parts of the world where schools -- especially those for girls -- are often burned down. Places like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The fellow being interviewed described the importance of such efforts in various ways, one of which concerned a mother, who, when bringing home meat wrapped in newspapers, would unwrap the meat very carefully and then ask her daughter to read her the news she herself could not read.

But was there ever a time, this fellow was asked, when he had wanted to give up -- when the obstacles just seemed to be too great? And he said that right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, he was afraid that things might be going down the shitter, that the divisions were too great and the hatred too pronounced ... from both sides.

What brought him back to a place of hope was the people around him in Pakistan and Afghanistan -- poor people who asked for his forgiveness for the attacks, although they themselves had had nothing to do with it.

And one woman, a poor woman, went beyond all words: She handed him five eggs and asked him to give them to "the widows in America."

And at that point I had to slow the car way down. There were too many tears blurring my vision. It absolutely cracked my egg.

Today I will sit with five pieces of incense.


I wonder what things would be like if I took my own advice.

Maybe advice is only useful if I don't imagine I am giving it to someone else.

Or am getting it from someone else either.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Great American Think Off

Yesterday, listening to the radio on the way in to work, there was a report about "The Great American Think-Off." I was all ears, not least because of the slightly-ridiculous name. No solemn academic could ever have had the wit to create so inflated and lofty a title ... the title alone has a touch of Monty Python and I like tongue-in-cheek stuff that addresses what may be serious issues.

Back-of-the-cereal box philosophy -- I love it. Ordinary people -- people who often think privately what they do not express publicly -- invited to expound on this year's topic: "Is it ever wrong to do the right thing?" The topic doesn't interest me as much as the circumstances into which contestants are invited: A small Minnesota town; townspeople turning out to listen to the debate that will occur among the four contestants who enter the most interesting 750-word essays; and finally the chance to be crowned (by the audience) "America's Greatest Thinker for 2009." It's ludicrous, it is serious, and I love it.

It has been a while since I had much fun, so today I will try my hand at it all. Trying to keep the Buddhist stuff at bay. Squeezing my blabber mouth into 750 or fewer words. And being utterly willing to lose at something I love. The contest invites entries that come out of personal experience rather than philosophical argumentation and, being the old fart my son assures me that I am, I have a tale to tell, though I'm not sure exactly how much on-topic it will be.

Well, the devil is in the details, so, if I want to get this done before I go to work, I'd better get cracking.

If anyone wants to join the fray, here's the link: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2157796/posts

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

reliable old me

Every morning, I wake up and rush around like an ant on a hot griddle: Yes, here is the worry I had yesterday; yes, here is the thought or set of thoughts I had yesterday; yes, here is the fear and sadness and enjoyment; yes, here is the laundry list of things I have to do today; yes ... I seem to be all there.

And yet in sleep, I wasn't concerned with all this. I slept and perhaps dreamed and, with luck, woke up refreshed ... ready to run around and recreate the 'I' who, a few hours before, wasn't so necessary at all. What was reliable by day is irrelevant by night.

Reliable old me.

In Buddhism, I think it's a bit spooky at first. Intellectually, the newcomer is drawn to what is clearly true: Everything changes. And not only does it change, but it changes all the time. Intellectually, this is as plain as the nose on your face. But in actual-factual fact, it is not an easy pill to swallow. If 'I' change all the time, then what I had considered an I is not reliable... and the mindset of the past, that which gave meaning and ease, is thrown into a cocked hat. However emotional or intellectual I may want to get ... still, it's just not so ... and it may be spooky at an experiential level: If everything changes, nothing is reliable. And the fact is that I want to rely on something... even as I realize that relying on things is a mug's game. It can all feel like quite a threat. And Buddhists may say, "The ego is just scared." And maybe it's true. The obvious truth insists; the well-worn habits resist.

Unreliable old me. It's a kool thing to say. It's not quite so kool in practice.

But with practice -- with a steady attention -- I think things can turn out OK.

Every morning I wake up and race around finding the bits and pieces that offer some reliable setting, some definition and hand-hold, some reliable me. But with practice, maybe it's not so much of a burden. It's just me, after all -- just the one who longs for something reliable, just the one who weeps for answers, just the one who fears and insists ... it's just like the sunrise, isn't it? -- it happens and it's not that big a deal. It's just what happens. No need to rail against the light with words like "illusion" and "ignorance." It's just what happens ... like sleep ... like sunrise.

Reliable old me.

Or not.

Monday, March 9, 2009

separate times

-- This morning, in email, I got a note wishing me a happy birthday. "Well done," it said. Which made me laugh: How the hell can something be "well done" when there's not a damned thing you can do about it in the first place? Kinda like Buddhism, I think.

-- Today, Monday, is the second day of my "weekend." Weekends are times when people are not at work, when they can do something more to their liking, when they can (hypothetically) rest, when their concentration can go elsewhere, when (again hypothetically) things are easier. Weekends are divided from the rest of the week.

But I imagine there are people in the world who don't know anything about this sort of weekend. They know that when the sun comes up, they get up and go about their business. There is no time of separated rest. There is living whatever lives they lead. And there is no division to be found. Since life cannot honestly be divided, this strikes me as sensible and I wonder a little that I didn't discover/acknowledge it sooner.

-- Yesterday, here in the United States, the clocks were set forward by an hour. What was 2 a.m. became 3 a.m. in the blink of an eye. We 'lost' an hour. But where did it go and how can anything be 'lost?' In order to lose anything, you would have to have it in the first place. But how is it possible to have anything in the first place? Some people build grand philosophies or religions based on such questions, but I think it doesn't need to be so fancy. Maybe thinking things over is enough.

-- Great, wet, slap-the-ground flakes of snow are falling today. It's cold, but not that cold.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

strange in my mind

Three or possibly four people are planning to come to the zendo this morning. It feels, in my expectant mind, like an avalanche. Will there be enough cushions? I don't know. The only consolation is that most of them will not be back.

What a strange business.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

honoring deference

Yesterday, I got an email from a freshman at a nearby college. He is studying religion and wanted to come by "Black Moon Zendo" to sniff the wind, do an interview, and complete a homework assignment. We talked a little on the phone.

Did you ever notice that your own experiences are nothing special? They were just your experiences and, although you might be willing to share them with others -- or even build up your standing on account of them -- still, they were just your experiences -- something you had seen or done and, well ... where's the new experience?

But then someone comes along and says, "Wow! You met the pope!" or "You own a Ferrari!" and they are impressed or interested or something. And you can tell that their attention and perhaps deference is excited. But since you actually met the pope or own a Ferrari ... well, yes, it's nice, but what's the big deal?

Evan, the fellow who wants to come here tomorrow morning and do his homework, was polite both in his email and on the phone ... kind of ueber-polite. Buddhism was clearly something important in his life, for whatever reasons. He seemed to be impressed to talk to someone who was doing what he had only read about or written about for his religion class. Or perhaps I am selling him short, but I think you know what I'm saying: Which of us hasn't been in that wowser frame of mind, that deferential frame of mind, that you-up-there-me-down-here frame of mind?

And my distinct problem is this: I want to help Evan out. I imagine that I could help him in the same confounding way he may imagine I could possibly help him. It's a real nutcracker. I defer to his deference and yet know in my heart of hearts that we are both just students, just teachers, just gettin' on gettin' on. There is a difference between us AND we are the same. It's all a fart in a windstorm and yet ... I stink.

The good thing about deference is that it implies attention. It may be a whopper-jawed attention, but still it is attention. And without attention, how can anyone solve the problems they hope to solve? Homework, enlightenment, compassion ... it doesn't matter. Still attention is necessary.

So I will honor Evan's attention. I will honor his deference. And I will honor the fact that I am not grown-up enough not to wish that we could dispense with the disparities of deference. It may make me feel as if I am walking into a sewer of lies, but what truth could there possibly be outside that sewer?

I guess I'd better do my homework.


Friday, March 6, 2009

enforced mediocrity

In the newspaper office where I work, I was talking to Tommy, a good-natured reporter whose desk abuts with mine.

"What do you think is the most difficult thing about all this?" he asked, referring to the fact that the newspaper is dying by leaps and bounds. With advertising revenue drying up, there are fewer and fewer people to do the same amount of work. And I replied, "Enforced mediocrity ... the fact that we have little or no chance to do our jobs well." Tommy nodded.

His question made me think of the ways in which human beings enforce their own mediocrities and yet yearn for something, some accomplishment, some understanding that is not mediocre ... something that doesn't fall short of the kind of peace that might be had. Something uncompromising and uncompromised. Something light and free.

That yearning for something uncompromised and the mediocrities that seem to bar the door to fulfilling that yearning are as apparent in spiritual endeavor as anywhere else, I think. But perhaps the mediocrities are more confounding and more irritating because in the case of spiritual endeavor, we have no convenient scapegoats -- no boss or company or set of circumstances to complain about or blame. We may search in vain for someone or something to praise or blame -- some emotional yowl or intellectual intricacy -- but the search itself is tinged with mediocrity: There is no one else to blame ... or praise.

And yet we search out some responsible party...someone or something else. Yes-but's pepper the landscape. If only I had time... If only I were nicer... If only I were enlightened... If only I could see things in some other way... If only ... if only...if only.

It is a profoundly human exercise, I think -- wanting the fruit without reaching up to pluck it; longing for the imagined results without making the necessary effort; wanting to be well without taking the medicine we ourselves might prescribe. We may be involved in a holy or uncompromising quest ... but don't ask me to leave my mediocre easy chair.

It's just human. Not a matter for criticism. Just human... to long for excellence and excel at our own mediocrities.

It's just human.

But I think it may be worth noticing.

Thursday, March 5, 2009


Perhaps I am just cranky this morning, but I think it is despicable that spiritual endeavors should promise relief to their constituents. And of course spiritual endeavors all do this -- promise relief.

But there is a difference between seeming to promise relief and making a business out of it. Seeming to promise relief just uses expedient means -- a fib that points to a living truth which any constituency might discover. Making a business out of promising relief is like a constant case of coitus interruptus ... one that simply fills people with imagined goodness and stuffs the collection plate. No release.

Ta Hui once wrote to one of his adherents, "stop praying for relief." Talk about a sword thrust! What student, what adherent doesn't pray for relief ... sometimes with the most piteous wails? Suffering is no damned joke -- why on earth wouldn't someone pray for relief?

In Buddhism, there is a great seeming -- one that addresses the need for hope and belief and tears. There, there, dear -- come closer and I will kiss it better. But Buddhism is a faut-de-mieux business ... it's just that there's no other choice. And so there is the answer to a relief-filled prayer. Once a constituent becomes serious and takes up some practice ... well, the fib becomes apparent and there is some chance for actual release and not just some despicable business model.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

no wussing out

I wrote a post this morning that somehow didn't make it to the thread for which it was intended (my goof ... I hope), but it put me in mind of:

For those who are serious about their Buddhist practice, it has to be asked: Is social justice really enough to assure the peaceable understanding that is sought? It's an old chestnut, I agree, but I think serious Buddhists have to find the courage to ask it ... no wussing out.

Most of us come to Buddhism with some pretty good intentions. And I have heard the Dalai Lama encourage crowds to use their good intentions and good intelligence on behalf of others. I have heard Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews say the same thing: Stop being a self-centered twit. Socially speaking, it is a good message and it beats the hell out of the greed, anger and ignorance that can inform the social landscape.

But is it enough? Is goodness enough? Is altruism enough? Is liberal or conservative whining enough? Is love enough?

I'm not trying to offer an answer. I am trying to pose a question that I think serious Buddhists need to ask and answer for themselves.

In the Bible, St. Paul (I think) was quoted as saying, "Love God and do what you will." It's such a short, simple encouragement and yet the implications are profound. Any dimwit can claim to love God (or enlightenment or compassion or emptiness or ... pick your poison), but who will find the courage and patience and doubt to get to the bottom of things. If you love "God," well, who the hell is this "God" you love? Are book-answers really enough? If books and teachers and temples and beliefs could really solve anything, how come everything isn't hunky-dory? How come you or I or anyone else quavers in the face of death, is overwhelmed by sickness, and cusses a blue streak when the car gets a flat? Can books or people in strange costumes fix the flat?

Of course social justice and kindness are nice. And everyone may feel better when they exercise their goodness. But goodness, like evil, springs from a place and understanding that is immune to good and evil. Sure, it's scary to address the fact that our own beliefs and feelings and thoughts may not tell the whole story, but for serious Buddhists (or anyone else, for that matter), that's what courage was built for ... the scary stuff. If you can create "God," who is the creator?

Is it really enough to circle back in some endless tail-chasing effort and imagine that "God" cannot be known ... or can? Cut the crap and get to work. Take courage and patience and doubt as your allies and -- until you are completely satisfied -- stop waving placards and flags. Stop trying to do good and vow to unearth the good. And for Christ's sake, don't take my word for it!

End of rant.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

at the movies

On Sunday last, the New York Times had an article about the uptick in business at movie theaters. Not that the Oscar-winners were packing in the crowds, but rather the small, frothy adventures were exercising an appeal audiences were willing to pay for. Some commentator in the story said that people wanted diversion (from hard times) and they wanted to be with other people.

The story wasn't without precedent. During World War II and the Depression, I believe the same trend was observed. And during blackouts or enormous snow storms in New York City -- a place where individuals are often notably numbed to the presence of others -- I have seen people become much more friendly and considerate.

In uncertain times, huddle and hope ... and laugh a little. Who would deny solace to an upended world, a world whose roots and certainties were ripped up and ravaged? Isn't the appeal of the latest U.S. president, Barack Obama, partly the fact that he exudes a hopeful firmness and apparent decency in the wake of indecent men? Isn't some movie about the high jinks of dogs or kids just the ticket?

"Hope springs eternal" is a saying that some express with an ain't-it-obvious smile, as if anyone might know it was true ... and not just true, but healthy and good. Hope inspires the action that follows and with luck, dreams will come true. Of course hope by itself doesn't put food on the kitchen table. And while it may mask the uncertainties of any life, it doesn't actually solve the dis-ease that prompted it. It feels good, but then the question arises -- is feeling good is really enough? Hope and huddling warmth may be better than the blow of a stick ... but how much better is that, really?

I don't mean to disdain the therapeutic nature of huddling and hoping, of addressing the gnawing, clawing uncertainties with whatever tools are near at hand. But I wonder, in the midst of this very-human panorama ....

I wonder if somewhere inside, we aren't all the possessors of some ancient understanding -- some deeply-embedded microchip or strand of DNA -- that seeks out the laughter of some frothy movie not just because it takes our minds off things but because secretly we know that laughter is the nature of all things? ... that whether we live or die, fidget or fuss, praise or damn, play the stunning analyst or remain dumb as a box of rocks ... still, we know -- KNOW, not hope -- that some before-time-began laughter is the way things really are.

And it's not as if we could escape it either.


Monday, March 2, 2009

trying again

OK ... it ain't perfect yet, but I guess this thing is more or less up and running.