Thursday, June 25, 2009


There was a certain vengeful glee in Bobby's face and tone as he relayed the information yesterday. Bobby didn't deny it: "The whole thing put a smile on my face," he said.

What made him comeuppance happy was the fact that on Monday, a day when I was off and would not have heard, all of the salaried people around the newspaper office had been called into a meeting and told: 1. everyone's pay would be cut by from 7 to 11 percent; 2. everyone would take a two-week unpaid furlough; 3. everyone would start contributing more to their health insurance benefits; 4. the company would no longer put money into the pension fund it had infused for all these years.

People receiving a salary are not people who belong to the so-called union. They are the ones who traded that protection for (I don't know this but imagine it) more money and a willingness to do management's bidding. The management style has been based largely on intimidation, so salaried people were treated with an understandable wariness by those of us who had to carry out their sometimes irrational and certainly not collegial instructions. They had moved up the management ladder in return for their homage, their spin-doctoring, and their willingness to hurt others. Now they were tasting a bit of bitter fruit and Bobby was not about to say he didn't enjoy it. Union members had endured a series of layoffs and an assumption of more and more work as others were forced out the door. They had been forced to eat a lot of shit while listening to salaried employees suggest it tasted like filet mignon.

Salaried employees had chosen to kiss a lot of ass and in return had now been bitten on the ass. I could sympathize with Bobby's retributive glee and even feel some of it myself.

But folded into this gotcha smirk was the knowing that retribution was really not enough. Retribution did not speak to the loss of honor and quality that many of us continued to hope the newspaper might attain. The loss of staff and unpleasantness of working conditions meant that mediocrity was being given a big boost on behalf of income. Unhappy people do less than their best -- in part because they are hurt and angry and in a fuck-you state of mind, but also because it just is not possible to do a good job when there is little or no time to devote to what might be a good job. Time is money and money is increasingly the goal ... making money with as little effort as possible; pretending that a press release is a news story; scamming the readers.

If 'everybody' says that the Internet is the place to get news, then surely that must be true. 'Everybody' is who I want to hang out with. It is warming and social and I long to be in warming and social circumstances. The emperor is wearing clothes because 'everybody' says so. It is consoling and supportive to agree and be agreed with.

But, whether at the newspaper or anywhere else, the elevation of ignorance cannot be equated with the truth. A bare-nekkid emperor is a bare-nekkid emperor. The price of relying on others is a perpetual uncertainty. What I dislike about it all is not so much that there is some shining philosophical truth that deserves to be upheld -- some 'morality' or decency or 'fairness.' What I dislike about it is that people will get hurt. Was it ever any different? Nope. But do I need to cast my lot with those who elevate and extol the emperor's clothes? It's my choice and my responsibility... just as it is yours.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

retirement tale

Cleaning out my queue, I came upon this. It seemed worth saving:


The next time someone asks you a dumb question wouldn't you like to
respond like this?

Yesterday I was at Wal-Mart buying a large bag of Purina dog chow for my
loyal pet Sheriff the Wonder Dog and was in the checkout line when woman
behind me asked if I had a dog.

What did she think I had, an elephant? So since I'm retired and have
little to do, on impulse I told her that no, I didn't have a dog, I was
starting the Purina Diet again. I added that I probably shouldn't,
because I ended up in the hospital last time, but that I'd lost 50 pounds before
I awakened in an intensive care ward with tubes coming out of most of my
orifices and IVs in both arms.

I told her that it was essentially a perfect diet and that the way it
works is to load your pants pockets with Purina nuggets and simply eat one
or two every time you feel hungry.

The food is nutritionally complete so it works well and I was going to try
it again (I have to mention here that practically everyone in line was now
enthralled with my story.)

Horrified, she asked if I ended up in intensive care because the dog food
poisoned me. I told her no; I stepped off a curb to sniff an Irish
Setter's ass and a car hit us both.

I thought the guy behind her was going to have a heart attack he was
laughing so hard. Wal-Mart won't let me shop there anymore.

Better watch what you ask retired people. They have all the time in the
world to think of crazy things to say.

true lineage

In Zen and other forms of Buddhism, it is within the tradition for a teacher to acknowledge and announce acceptance of one or more students as heirs to that tradition. Each may then claim to be in a lineage ... sometimes referred to as "stretching all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha."

Today I got a note from a friend asking if Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the 102-year-old Rinzai Zen teacher, had selected any heirs. I didn't and don't know the answer, but I can imagine that he might well not have. My own teacher, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi, did not select any heirs either.

Lineage is an important tenet within the Buddhist tradition.

But what crossed my mind this morning -- without any disrespect intended and with a willingness to grant the arguments that favor lineage as a tradition -- was this: Perhaps the most honest, if difficult, acknowledgment is that there is no such thing as lineage. No lineage is true lineage... and the good teachers who recognized this simply declined to be drawn into the fairy tale by trying to 'improve' the dance.

Yes, yes ... I can hear the counterpoint ... what about saving all sentient beings?

But still...if your parents and children are dancing all around you, if the music is already sweet and cannot possibly get sweeter or somehow stop ... well, wouldn't anyone just dance and delight?

twinkle, twinkle

Maybe it's a bit peculiar, if true:

Did you ever notice, in whatever gross or subtle ways, that there is a longing to be the focus of attention, the star, the alpha (fe)male, the capo di tutti capi, the saint, the most sought-after, the beautiful, the hero or heroine, the head-turner, the life of the party, the much-loved, the winner, the sine qua non, the ... well, you get the idea: The top of the heap?

All you have to do is stand in the supermarket check-out line to find an example: Young women with bulging boobs and capped teeth stare out from magazines on the rack; assured young men, often with spikey hair and three days worth of beard suggest that here is a dream worth living. And people buy the magazines ... who doesn't want to be the star, no matter how much they may look down on the crass world of Hollywood ... and isn't finding Hollywood crass or ignoble just another way of asserting stardom, wisdom, achievement, certainty, nobility ... a slickly-revised version of Hollywood?

Well, little or large, gross or subtle, I just figure it's par for the human course ... people work pretty hard to be a star, of whatever twinkling variety.

And if it's just par for the course, then I think we can relax. This is like having five fingers on your right hand. It's just true. It's no biggie but it is worth acknowledging.

A woman in her 40's I once knew summed things up nicely when she said, in response to a light-hearted what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up question, "I want to be a rich ... sexy ... saint!"

OK ... so maybe it's just true and maybe there is the courage to acknowledge it. So far so good.

But did you ever notice that if it is pointed out to our star-gazing, center-stage dreams and hopes that they already are center-stage, they already are saints ... the first thing they do is fidget and demur: No, no, no ... I don't have enough money or sex appeal or power or holiness to be the star. I don't look like the cover on the magazines in the supermarket. I'm not as smart or serene or unconcerned. I'm no Buddha ... Buddhas are way kooler than I am. And they can give you a hundred reasoned and reasonable examples for this point of view. Basically, the idea scares the shit out of them, I think.

Martin Luther King once pointed out what I think is a fact: What's wrong with the world (and by extension, what's wrong with me) is not what worries people so much; what really worries them is that things are all right. A truly frightening prospect ... gut-level scary. And it's no good just saying so. What's scary is the prospect of knowing so.

But look at the up side: If you acknowledged what was right in front of your nose ... think how much money you'd save on supermarket magazines and other holy texts. :)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

just the facts ma'am

I was watching some television news the other day when it struck me how deliriously thin and uninformative it had become. Little popups marred the visual scene. But worse than that was the content. One of the ways that news organizations pretend to be offering the news when they are running out of advertisers and money is to do a lot of crime (if it bleeds, it leads) or medical or rich-and-famous stuff.

But worse than that was the passion that newscasters brought to their subject matter... an overarching sense of lapel-pin patriotism, for example, or perhaps a pretense of sorrow at some tragedy they had not been party to. The implication of this faux emotion was that the newscasters sympathized with what they assumed the viewers' reactions might be ... or that they were in a position to tell the viewer what and how to feel. "See," they said implicitly, "I feel just like you. So please keep watching our newscast and its advertising. Stay with us."

In my book, it was manipulative and revolting.

However imperfect it may be -- and it is full of imperfections -- decent news reporting is just that: reporting the news. Offer the facts as best you may and allow (ALLOW) the reader to bring his or her passions to bear. The problem with blogs and the like is that they lack such strictures. Opinion is allowed on the blog playing field, so are the readers getting facts or fancies? And bit by bit, because it requires less effort, opinion and bias is allowed to pass for fact.

Facts. Dispassion. Clarity. These are approximate words. There is no such thing as a fact that does not rely on other facts. There is no such thing as a dispassion that is not informed by passion. There is no such thing as a clarity that is not infused with confusion. "Objectivity," the once-mantram of the news business, is a myth.

But the intention -- the willingness to try, the willingness to set out guidelines, however inexact -- is important both in news and in personal endeavors. Agreement and passion are secondary matters, assuming anyone is serious. At some point there is a real need to look at the facts of the matter, however poorly they may be seen. And to have an organization or group of organizations dedicated to that pursuit ... it's a good thing. Is it enough to say, "I love Israel and hate her enemies?" Is it enough to say "I hate Israel and love her detractors?" Is it enough to get on board with one point of view or another and adore your own righteousness and virtue?

Lowering the bar, whether professionally or personally, allowing the world or myself to wallow in opinion and bias (however deliciously constructed) is too often a fool's errand.

In making a case for dispassion and facts, the passionate are likely to chafe. Dispassion is too cold, too distant ... and basically requires too much effort. Where's the humanity in it? Where's the juice and joy? And I would argue that they are perfectly right ... who hasn't run into some intellectual dimwit who can't find his own ass with both hands, who can explain everything, dissect everything, analyze everything? Dispassion in its way is every bit as foolish as passion can be in its. Every decision, I would argue, is a decision made out of passion and bias. But to argue that since every decision is made based on passion and that therefore there is no point in investigating as many facts as possible is just lazy and smug and dangerous ... whether personally or professionally. It leads to a world full of lapel-pin patriots and Ku Klux Klan members, religious fanatics and warmongers, self-help books and bibles, Tooth Fairies and twits ... and not a hell of a lot of peace.

Ah well ... as baseball manager Casey Stengel once observed, "If people won't come out to the ballpark, you can't stop them."

Since only I can stop grinding my teeth in this department, I guess the best I can work on when it comes to the delights of ignorance, the wonders of laziness, and the magnetism of unexamined passion and bias is Gautama's old saw:

"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."

I try ... but that doesn't mean I don't whine -- sometimes passionately -- along the way. It's hardly something that qualifies as "news."

Monday, June 22, 2009

say it ain't so :)

The older anyone gets, the less there is to say...

But the more time there is to say it in.

If true, what does that say about anything?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

without the cards

Last night, as I was putting away my hat and cup prior to leaving the office, Al began to tell me about his daughter, a woman of 35 who had completed Yale Divinity School and was off to Berkeley for more religious training. "She's trying to find herself," Al commented.

The conversational situation left me somehow flabbergasted. I have known Al as an old-time sports editor, a man with cancer that needs periodic treatment, a man who goes skiing and enjoys Cape Cod fishing, and a guy who, like me, will leave the newspaper behind come next Saturday.

But I have always known Al as a guy who plays his cards close to his chest ... giving out bits of what sound like personal information without really opening up, a guy with what are sometimes called "social skills," a guy, like a lot of others, who keeps his secrets and thus asserts his control.

Somehow, talking about his daughter and opening a window on 'religion' represented a sea change ... or maybe it just showed how wrong my perspective could be. Between the lines, I heard Al saying that his daughter was someone/something he cared about deeply ... and religion was something he had held at a controllable distance but now, perhaps, wondered about. Knowing who played third base in 1987 might suffice under ordinary circumstances, controlled circumstances, but now, somehow, the control was slipping away.

Of course, I could have been making it all up, but I found something extremely touching in it. There was something wan and defeated in Al's face, as if, having held his cards close to his chest for so long, he was forced to lay them down ... and who the hell would he be without the cards he had held so close to his chest? How could he win if there were no longer any cards to win with?

And I wanted to help, to lend a hand, to ease what I perceived as a sense of loss and confusion. But wanting to help left me somehow confused as well. I was incapable of helping. It simply could not be done. Yes, I chattered a little bit about religion and trying to find ourselves ... I made sympathetic and what I hoped would be helpful noises. But the facts were implacable. I could not solve or salve the difficulty of another. And yet the longing to help -- to be the socially-credible altruist -- badgered and insisted.

In the end, as I walked out the door, I thought I would bring Al a copy of my book and suggest his daughter might like it ... or not ... in which case, it was a freebie and she could throw it in the waste basket. Whether anyone reads the book or thinks well or poorly of me was not the point. It was just what I could think of.

The thought was, I realized, my way of 'solving' my own confusion, of asserting my own sense of separation and control -- cards held close to the chest with something called altruism or kindness. But it lacked something, those cards I was holding.

Did you ever see one of those nature shows in which one elephant or ape will console another elephant or ape? The elephant will run its trunk or foot, ever so gently, across the brow or flank of a suffering or dying or dead comrade. Or the ape will stroke with tenderness some fallen friend. There is nothing extra in it. It has nothing to do with someone or something else. It is just what apes and elephants do. Apes and elephants hold no cards. Their 'kindnesses' have nothing to do with kindness. Who they are is not limited by who they are...or who anyone else might be.

Isn't it enough to be who you are, to lay down the much-worn cards and just breathe?

When I grow up, I'd like to be an elephant. :)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

off to Australia

Today, my daughter, Olivia, is off to Australia to visit a friend for three weeks. I have always hoped that my children would travel abroad ... anywhere ... just to know there is another way of seeing things, however minuscule the variation might be.
If nothing else, I hope that she sees kangaroos on their own turf -- something I have never done. And that she won't spend the ENTIRE time shopping. :)

But also, Oliv's trip falls, for me, into the category of be-careful-what-you-pray-for ... not because you MAY get it, but because you WILL.

I will miss her.

"always speak to everyone of God"

Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century Vedanta Hindu, once said, "Always speak to everyone of God." Buddhists may get itchy teeth when it comes to a notion like "God," but leave that aside for a moment ... just pick whatever it is you like that is bigger than a breadbox, bigger than you, more entrancing or benevolent or far-reaching or ineffable or blissful or superfragilisticexpialidocious ... cut-and-paste that over the word "God" and consider: "Always speak to everyone of God."

For believers, there are churches and temples and duets of people who come around on Saturday mornings and knock unexpectedly on your front door. Selling the good word, or, if you're not inclined to that sort of salesmanship, selling ice to Eskimos. Or maybe just a pain in the ass. From the pulpit and at the front door, here is the good news ... or maybe good news with some strings attached -- if you don't accept and act upon this good news, you will end up in a place that is decidedly bad news.

However this sort of salesmanship is presented, still it is salesmanship and the premise of the whole affair is that something is missing, a something without which your life will be messy, incomplete and possibly doomed. And sometimes we don't even need anyone knocking on the door ... sometimes we ourselves are the salesman: Something is missing.

Talking up "God" is by turns a kindness or a threat or a wonderful usefulness. But I do wonder from time to time: How is it possible NOT to speak of "God?" From dirty jokes to singing songs to a magnificent philosophical or religious exposition -- seriously, how is it possible? And if, in FACT, there is no such thing as not-speaking of "God," is there some reason to speak of "God" ... or not?

OK, OK ... we can all fidget and fuss and weep bitter tears and do our damnedest to "always speak to everyone of God," but in our clearer moments, the moments when nothing is missing ...

"Always speak to everyone of God" ... whether speaking or silent, what other choice is there? Isn't this a time -- right now -- when goodness and evil play no role, when "God" is an add-on ... possible but not necessary, truly God and yet not God at all? Isn't this a time to pick up the dirty socks and throw them in the wash? Isn't this a time to get dressed up for work or kiss a friend or go for a walk or veg out in front of the TV or be sad-sad-sad? Isn't this just a time to enjoy the fact that "God" is doing the speaking? Nothing sexy or refined or consoling or elevated.

"Always speak to everyone of God."

As if you had a choice! :)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Kuan Yin woodcarving

Received in email ...



Things walk away in their own time, I guess. Effort has nothing to do with it. Like it or not, they simply walk away.

Last night, at about 8:40, I gathered up my stuff in the office and headed for home. It was nothing unusual. Down the stairs, out the door, into the rainy parking lot, over to the car, out of the parking lot, onto the highway, attentive to the puddles that had accumulated in the rain. Another 20-25-minute drive, much the same as it had been for 20-plus years.

About three-fifths of the way home, I identified the sense that something was out of kilter in the car, some absence or incompleteness. I was not chanting. I had completely forgotten.

For 20 years, my ride home was a time for chanting, but last night ... I plain old forgot. Not that it changed the road in front of the headlights, not that it changed the rain or the windshield wipers, not that it was some grave error or failure of virtue ... but it was ... what? -- peculiar perhaps. Twenty-plus years -- poof!

It's the same for everyone, I imagine. Easy-peasy. No effort required.

Things walk away in their own time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I have a dermatology appointment in Amherst this morning at 8 and blew my writing wad on this ... so writing here is out of the question at the moment.

PS. OK, so I went. And while I was there, the doctor inspected a small nodule above my left eyebrow ... nothing serious, but something that waxes and wanes in the heat and I thought it might be nice to remove. The doctor said he could/would do it, but not today ... it would take some time, time he had not allotted for today's visit.

And then he segued into the fact that an excision might leave a scar. He said it with a kind of concern, as if a scar on the face might be unacceptable or distressing as if I would be somehow less beautiful in my own eyes or the eyes of others. I told him I was a little old to be worrying about how pretty I might be.

But his words also brought me up somehow short: All my life I have been wowed and smitten by beauty. It melts me and I love being melted. Music, art, a sunset, a way of thinking, a kindness offered, a small smile, a hand held, a bend in the river ... in what seems like endless shapes and sizes, I have loved something called "beauty."

But the idea that I might somehow be concerned or convinced by my own beauty has never crossed my mind. True, I don't want to look, act or speak like a slob, but after that, I cannot find a convincing reason or longing or belief or melting in my own beauty. And the doctor's words made me wonder why I had never turned the lamp around in that way. Others (my daughter's visits to the mall come to mind) seem capable of it ... why am I not?

It was just a flash ... odd stuff.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Now and then I get notes from people who are inclined to be deferential. They use words like "sir" and "sensei." One or two use the word "roshi." Yikes!

It is all like a mirror image of someone calling me "dipshit" or "fuckhead" and I can feel the longing to duck and cover, to hide somewhere or dissuade such language and the implications it might have.

Why are these people lollygagging around when there is work to be done? But of course the question is unkind...and worse, unclear.

I suppose it's a little like a shrink who is forced to cope with a patient's 'transference,' allowing the patient to create and imaginative being as a means of addressing his or her own needs. "I need you to be mom" or "I need you to be dad" and as a result, the shrink IS mom or dad ... even though the shrink is clearly NOT mom or dad.

But it can get lonely.

It's just par for the human course, I imagine: "Mirror, mirror on the wall/Who is the fairest of them all?" Out of the fabrications, perhaps the truth can emerge. How long can anyone stare in the mirror without getting tired, without wanting to go out and play?

Over and over, I catch myself staring in the mirror.

Can I go out and play now?

rainy day

In "A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula LeGuin, there is a scene in which an old wizard and his young apprentice (our hero) are traveling along and then stop to rest. Storm clouds have gathered and it begins to rain. The old wizard, who might, with his powers, easily avert the rain, makes no effort to do so. The younger man wonders why. And there is some talk about the "balance" of things, how unnecessarily disturbing that balance is not a good idea.

I don't know anything about wizards or balance, but I seem to like the idea of doing less about the things others might prefer to do more about. It is hard to find some bright-penny concern. It is as if your dog had wandered away from home ... s/he will return if s/he needs to.

I do sort of miss my dog and the surprises s/he brought into the house.

And I don't even own a dog.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

the rhythms of righteousness

Reading James Ford's blog about Zen Buddhism's hometown scandals, it occurred to me again how useful, if daunting, the practice of zazen or seated meditation is ... or seems to me.

And together with that thought came the phrase, "the rhythms of righteousness..." which led in turn to another phrase, one I hear my daughter use from time to time when assessing a friend or acquaintance or enemy who seems to be far too convinced of one thing or another: "Get over yourself!"

Anyone can say, "get over yourself!" when assessing some aspect of the world. But it is hard to apply the suggestion when looking in the mirror. What is deeply felt or sincerely believed or compellingly argued is often so convincing. I love ... and no one can tell me otherwise. I hate ... and no one can tell me otherwise. War is obscene ... and no one can tell me otherwise. Chocolate is outta-sight ... and no one can tell me otherwise. Gurus and religion are pristine ... and no one can tell me otherwise. I am me ... and no one can tell me otherwise.

Only of course life has its own version of things and "otherwise" comes calling. The rhythms of righteousness, however socially warming, just never quite make the grade. Not that they're naughty or ridiculous ... they just don't quite work, however often I restate and reformulate them. They are limited. Endlessly.

This teacher is fine. That teacher is a fool. This behavior is good. That behavior is bad. All of this and more like it may postulate some excellent directions and efforts but ... get over yourself! Listen to the mirror.

I like zazen as a means of answering the mirror's questions. Literally sitting down. Literally sitting still. Literally being quiet. Literally living the rhythms of righteousness. Literally providing a space in which thought, word and deed can assert their unity that has nothing to do with "unity." Literally, take the time to take a look.

It's not as if you had to give up chocolate or love or anger or any of the other rhythms of righteousness. It's not as if you had to give up your self. It's just taking a look ... and then seeing what happens.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

John "Jack" Gallahue

The only specific suggestion he ever made in the seven years I sought his counsel was, "Remember your dreams." And, in weekly visits over seven years, those dreams formed a wonderful and sometimes painful clarification of the difference between my far-too-adept brain and the soil beneath my feet.

John "Jack" Gallahue died Aug. 27, 2007, and I didn't find out about it until today. He was 76. Some small voice inside me wonders, "How is it possible that I didn't know that, that I didn't have some part in his death?" He was and remains so much a part of my life. As an ex-Jesuit turned psychologist, Jack helped put me on the feet I needed to stand on ... whether in Zen or any other venue.

Not only didn't I know that Jack had died, but I found out only after calling his old phone number, getting his widow's voice on an answering machine, and leaving a message suggesting that if he were available, I would be down in New York tomorrow and perhaps he would like to have a cup of coffee. When I got no call in return, I consulted Google, and there it was. How could I not-know? Sure there were kids and work and the distance between here and New York and a hundred other ordinary reasons. But still ....

Jack and Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi are the two men who stand out in my mind and heart as males who fed me good food. Not always as tasty as I might have wanted, but good, nourishing food. Kyudo died Jan. 29, 2007, and again I was not a party to it. By my reckoning, he would have been 84.

I loved both these men and had I been on hand, I might have said so, although I don't like the idea of burdening or diverting a dying person with my "love." My heart might break, but still, this is their time and I would prefer to wish them what they wished. Would I have the courage for that? I don't know and now will never know.

All I can think of is...

As they loved, so are they beloved.


One of the cornerstones -- if not The Cornerstone -- of Christianity is "caritas," a Latin word that is roughly translated as "charity." In countries where Christianity is woven into the DNA of things, this is important. Jews, for example, also have a "charity" component to their faith, but Judaism is more centrally-based on The Law. It is a distinction worth noting when people run around waving the "Judeo-Christian" flag.

I mention "caritas" because here in the United States at any rate, here in a country whose DNA is touched by Christianity, there is sometimes the question: How come Buddhists are not more overtly involved in giving to those in need ... how come there are not more orphanages or soup kitchens or clinics that bear some Buddhist stamp?

And if I had to guess -- and it would only be a guess -- I would say that the answer is this: Charity is a very good thing, but there is a danger in charity as well. As a starting point, charity is good. But as a nesting place, it is open to question. If that question cannot be addressed, then those who practice charity are doomed to a relative goodness, to a virtue that is limited, and to an uncertainty that persists.

The question, roughly stated, might sound like this: If I give to you or you give to me, there is kindness in the air. Certainly it is a better approach than simply grasping and holding tight and failing to share the wealth that life has visited upon us. Yes, it is a good start.

But if I give to you or you give to me -- if either of us exercises what can pass for "caritas" or "charity" -- that still leaves the separation between "you" and "me." And the question needs to be asked: Without doing a yummy tailspin into "oneness," is such a separation true? Not "is it good?" Just "is it true?" Without investigating such a question down to the ground, I think that "goodness" is the only conceivable outcome.

Is "goodness" really enough? Does "goodness" assure peace? Looking around at the various bits of "goodness" offered in the world, I think it is fair to say that while goodness is better than its alternative, still it cannot assure a bit of peace in this life. Such goodness relies on and thus fuels the very badness it seeks to correct. When can it ever end?

Some hear such an argument and become flummoxed or distraught: If "charity" and the goodness it once promised is not enough, I guess I will give up my charitable doings ... dissolve in a pool of uncertainty and inaction. Or, alternatively, there may be some notion that even if "caritas" or "charity" is just a compromise, well, hell, it's the best compromise I can think of, so there is no real need to investigate further. This, to my mind, is both lazy and foolish.

It is foolish because, however abstruse or confounding the question may sound on the face of it, there is an uncertainty and longing in the heart to know without doubt: Who gives? Who receives? Eyewash answers like "God" or "oneness" just can't hack it because such answers just create new questions -- "Who is God?" or "What is oneness." For those seeking no-bullshit answers, for those whose hearts long and whose uncertainties grate ... well, how about it? Who gives? Who receives? And who could possibly be charitable?

For those who practice Buddhism, for those who consent to investigate, such questions are more than theological gimcrack. Yes, there is the kindness of giving, of charitable works, of extending ourselves beyond our greedy and sometimes self-centered borders, but beyond that ... well, how about it? Is goodness enough? Is virtue enough? Are the shenanigans of religion enough? What are the facts after the fictions have run their course? Does compromise, however well-dressed, speak honestly to an uncompromised and uncompromising life?

Sure it takes courage to ask such questions -- to step into a desert much as Jesus stepped into his. Sure it takes patience -- the sort of patience the river exhibits as it flows around the rock. Sure it takes doubt -- the kind of doubt that demands an answer based in experience rather than platitudes or philosophy.

What about it?

What do you say?

When no one else can answer, what is your answer?

Do you really want to bullshit yourself forever?

How about it?

You tell me.

It's just my best guess.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

get thee before me, Satan!

I guess everyone has their own wish list, their own demands and hopes, when it comes to what they take seriously in life.

One of the demands I had when it came to spiritual life and my interest in it was this: "If it isn't relevant and at ease in the barroom, then it's not something I want to waste my time on."

The barroom ... the wild, entangling, loud, sorrow-provoking, juke-box-laced, cruel, silly, puke-on-the-floor, idiotic, delicious, unpredictable, overwhelming tsunami of some no-virtue-need-apply moment or series of moments. Any get-thee-behind-me-Satan longings I might have felt invariably found their harmonies in ... get thee before me, Satan; if, with what I have learned or hope to learn, there is no ability to stand up and stand straight, then, really, what a crock of shit!

I was never very impressed with virtue -- perhaps because I was never very good at it. Or perhaps because the juiciness of life would not be quelled and experience struck me as more sensible than its trappings.

And now, so many years later, looking back on those demands, looking back on a person who would make a hundred or a thousand mistakes under the imperative of those demands, I am rather surprised to find that I was right. Not "right" in the sense of selling my approach to anyone else, but rather "right" in the sense that for my purposes and in my experience, it was a demand that was correct and, in some sense, came true.

How nice to find out you were right from the get-go. At least I was right about something. Nice going, kid!

Get thee before me, Satan!

today I think

Today I think:

Done and left-undone do not matter so much.

Done and left-undone are matters of compassion.

What matters is who.

Endlessly compassionate ... who.

Friday, June 12, 2009

serious and solemn again

Like a pair of dancers, a couple of thoughts seemed to link up in my mind this morning, moving closer together and further apart as the music demanded....

1. I doubt if the dictionary would agree with me, but if I had to make a distinction between the words "serious" and "solemn," I think I would argue that what is "serious" is what anyone might consent to embrace and what is "solemn" is what is held at a distance.

If this is true -- and if someone fed me enough beer, I think I would argue it is -- then I think it would be wise to examine closely our own solemnities. They are wonderful warning signs. Theologies, term papers and wars are laced with solemnity. Anger, love, and bank robberies are serious.

No doubt solemnities can have serious consequences and serious matters can be left to rot on the vine of solemnity, but we're just drinking beer here, making distinctions.

2. A lot of people love what we might tentatively call "God." And no matter what the religion involved, those same people are likely to assert that "God is omnipresent" -- present in all times and places. It can be a matter of solemn belief and perhaps endless discussion. "God is omnipresent."

But if "God is omnipresent," then only God can worship God and the question arises for any serious person: Why would God bother? As a sly, intellectual question, this can be fun. But as a serious matter, something that enters the heart, well ... why would God bother? Wouldn't this be like water extolling its wetness -- an attempt to separate what is inseparable?

I think this is a good question for Buddhists as well, although "God" may not be their word-of-choice. Is it possible to separate enlightenment from enlightenment, whether by praise or scorn? How long could anyone be satisfied with their own solemnities?

I think it is something worth considering.


a silly

Received in email. Although it is couched in 'guy' terms, still it made me laugh.

Who is your real friend?

This really works...!
If you don't believe it, just try this experiment.

Put your dog and your wife in the trunk of the car for an hour.

When you open the trunk, which one is really happy to see you?


Thursday, June 11, 2009

old story

I enjoyed retelling this old tale to an email chum this morning and thought I would put it here as well:

Once upon a time, when I was living in New York and painting apartments for a living, I stood outside and apartment building as I waited for it to be time to go to work. I was leaning against the building wall, watching pedestrians as they hurried off to catch the bus or be swallowed by a nearby subway entrance. It was sunny and pleasant. Now and then, I imagine, a 'Zen' thought or two crossed my mind ... it was a time in my life when I was hip-deep in the Brown Rice Circuit, attending morning and evening sittings pretty much seven days a week. It was 'important' dontcha know.

Anyway, as I was standing there, a man emerged from an alleyway to my left. He was wearing a warm coat on a warm day -- something to sleep in when cool of the night descended. He was mildly, but not spectacularly, grubby. He came out of the alley and walked directly up to me, standing too close as crazy people often will. Since I was leaning against the wall, there was no place to escape.

Once situated, he began to talk. He talked too loud, given our proximity, but he talked with the assurance of a man who knew what he was saying. The problem was that I didn't understand a word he was saying. My mind struggled to understand. I searched for some language that might explain his assured delivery. No, it wasn't German or French or Spanish. No, it wasn't something out of the Balkans. And it lacked the lilt and intonation of Cantonese or Mandarin. It didn't sound like any African dialect I had ever heard, even in passing. I loved languages, but I simply couldn't get a handle on it. What the hell was he saying?

Finally, he stopped and just looked at me. And I said the first thing into my head, which was, "I'm sorry. I don't understand." And he started all over again ... too loud, too close, very assured ... as if we were friends and of course I would understand. But I didn't and so when he stopped for a second time, I could do no better than to say what I had said the first time: I don't understand.

He seemed about to start all over again, when suddenly things changed.

"Close your eyes a second," he said in perfectly clear English.

And as my eyes closed, I could see the mildly dirty index finger of his left hand rising towards my face. And when my eyes were closed, I could feel that index finger ever so gently removing a bit of mucous from the inside corner of my right eye. It was gentle as a kiss.

When I opened my eyes, he was looking at me in a way that told me we had become friends.

"Have a nice day," he said.

And he walked away.



I wish I knew or somehow could sleep "late," sleep until it had been eight hours since I went to bed, lounge-lizard beneath the covers, doze ... something. My kids can do it, but I can't.

When the birds wake up at 4-4:30, I too wake up. And then I realize I have to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom requires standing on my feet and once on my feet and having peed, the deliciousness of the time is too much to resist or dispel or replace.

At that time of day, there is little or no interaction required. The chores of a later hour are not permitted: All the stores are closed. The dump hasn't opened. And it would be a lousy time to mow the lawn, even if the lawnmower were in working order. The rest of the world and its possible demands is still a thing of the future. There are no demands. Not even the birds demand or require anything: They just sing whether I listen or not. A time of lightness, though it is still mostly dark.

Later, as now, I realize that a little more sleep would have been a good idea. But old habits die hard.


An Internet dictionary defines "genius" this way:

▸ noun: exceptional creative ability
▸ noun: someone who has exceptional intellectual ability and originality ("Mozart was a child genius")
▸ noun: unusual mental ability
▸ noun: a natural talent ("He has a genius for interior decorating")
▸ noun: someone who is dazzlingly skilled in any field

As far as descriptive language goes, it all makes sense. These are recognizable ways in which the word "genius" can be used. And yet I find myself wanting to add to those descriptions ... "modest by nature."

I don't mean Steppin' Fetchit modesty, the kind of stuff displayed in the "Kung Fu" TV serial or the passive-aggressive appearances that can go on display. There's nothing saying a "genius" could not or would not enjoy the talents of the time.

And yet within that realm of great skill and understanding and ability, wouldn't a true genius recognize the tentative nature of things? Not be sad or agitated about what might be lost or gained, but just recognize what was verifiably true? Not scramble to shore up some imagined accomplishment, but see into the nature of what others might call genius?

Geniuses are often distinguished from the rest of us. They are better, more accomplished, smarter and sometimes astounding in their abilities. But I would say that everyone has the capacity for genius about at least one thing, a thing that no one else could ever be a genius about: Themselves.

On hearing such an assertion, some retreat to a safe or 'humble' or perhaps frightened distance: "There's no genius in that. That's too ordinary, too boring, too egotistical. That's stuff anyone could know." But this is just immodest bullshit. What better realm in which to express genius? Hell, you don't even have to go to the library. All the tools are at hand.

Yes, there will be mistakes. But mistakes are what teach and enrich geniuses. And some will stop short of genius, imagining that genius is something they can or will or have attained... ego-trippers and assholes -- haven't we all done that? No one ever said that becoming a genius didn't require some effort.

Besides writing a symphony or winning the Tour de France or creating a better mouse trap or finding the cure for the common cold or inventing a car that runs on water ... isn't there a longing in everyone to be a genius?

So ... why not become one? Nothing special, right? But maybe more fun.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


In Buddhism, there is a suggestion that its followers engage in "dana" or giving/generosity. On the face of it, it sounds very much like dropping a buck in the Christian plate during Sunday services. And there's nothing wrong with that either -- donating to monks or nuns or beggars or institutions that uphold a convincing direction or faith.

But today I wonder if the most profound act of generosity does not lie in this: To offer yourself as best you can.

It's a little tricky, since in order to offer yourself, you would first have to know who you were. Any teenager can say with conviction, "I know who I am," and there are plenty of adults who fall into the same trap, but in order for an offering to be any good, it would be given without a backward glance, without ever expecting anything in return, without seeking accolades or's just a gift after all, nothing extraordinary, just something I might do for you or you for me.

It can't be helped -- isn't that the essence of dana? Isn't that the essence of generosity? Isn't that the way the world goes around? It can't be helped: Life is generous and not to accord with life is an uncertain and unhappy business.

Yes, yes ... there are virtue-mongers who can prattle from the pulpit about generosity, encouraging others as if they knew what they were talking about. And maybe they do. I once saw the Dalai Lama on TV talking at a local college (the tickets were sold out and I am getting a little old for the crowd scene, so I had to settle for TV). In a fairly repetitive fashion, he encouraged his mostly-academic audience: Use your brains to lend a hand. Be generous. Don't be an intellectual or emotional pinch-penny.

Was he promoting his apparent faith -- Buddhism? Was he trying to convince others?

Or was he just being who he happened to be -- the Dalai Lama?

No one can answer such a question about the Dalai Lama any more than they can answer such questions about their friends or enemies. But is an answer necessary? I don't think so. You are you; the Dalai Lama is the Dalai Lama ... isn't that delightful? Isn't that fun?

Generosity just works better and accords with life. No need to convince anyone. It can't be helped. I can mention it, just as you might. I can put a buck in the plate if that's where I am at. I can imagine that better and worse are better and worse ... and maybe they are. I can cling like flypaper to something called generosity or dana.

But in the end ... well, don't things just work better that way -- the way that is tentatively called generous? Nothing sexy or profound. As a matter of conversation, "I give" or "you are generous." But in the end, isn't it just more interesting to see what actually happens?

Be generous.

It can't be helped.

So stop helping it. Stop imagining there is some payback or elevation or improvement. How could life be improved? How could you be other than you ... assuming you could ever figure that out?

True generosity makes the sun come up in the East. It makes tears bitter and a kiss sweet. It just makes laughter easier. Or anyway, that's what I think.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

exciting times

There was a program on TV last night about snake-handling as a part of Pentecostal worship. The handling of venomous snakes without being hurt was/is seen as a concrete sign of the power of God based on the biblical verse that goes:

And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mark 16:17-18)

In a turn of logic, those who were bitten and died were seen as blessed by God -- assured of a place in heaven ... perhaps because they, at least, had been willing to put themselves in the hands of a god portrayed in Bible writ. Heaven was no doubt better than the hard-scrabble existence of coal-mining Appalachia where the practice of snake handling largely took root.

Watching the grainy film clips and listening to those who had studied or believed in the practice of snake-handling, I felt a certain kinship and vague sadness. How were such people, the ones wearing perhaps the only suit or dress they owned, very different from those who had built Vatican City or the Masjid al-Haram or put stock in the Vedas or the Tripitaka or sat naked and alone in some mountain cave? How were they different from a singles-bar gathering where celebrants hoped to get laid and would not, even on their worst day, pick up a venomous snake?

Exciting. Isn't it all pretty exciting, whether challenging death or adorning the faith or climbing into bed with someone new and novel? Of course there will be those who opine in well-educated tones laced with semi-colons: "Well, you know, there is a qualitative difference" or, less politely, "No point in being an asshole."

Common sense tells us to be wary of venomous snakes, to husband our lives. But common sense does not suggest we might be wary of our excitements. What is exciting makes us feel more alive. We are comforted and, perhaps, elevated. We are not as boring or unimportant as a coffee cup. We are reaffirmed in our excitements.

And excitements are good because what they imply is attention. Attentive when handling snakes. Attentive to holy places. Attentive to our wisdoms. Attentive to getting laid. Attention strikes me as a good start. If you don't pay attention, how can you ever learn anything, ever get to the bottom of anything?

If there is a worse combination than stupid and lazy, I'm not sure what it is. Stupid is not so bad -- that can be fixed. But lazy is worse than a venomous snake. In laziness, our biases are confirmed and affirmed. In laziness there is a sorrow that creeps up, an uncertainty instilled, and we find ourselves intoning like Popeye, "I yam who I yam" without ever taking the next step to ask or consider, "Who, exactly, 'yam' I?"

I figure it for an acceptable premise: We're all assholes. Now what? Smart people are stupid, stupid people are stupid ... big deal! But what anyone does about it is another question. Will we keep chasing the excitements and use them to shore up who "I yam?" Smart or stupid, well-dressed or in rags, ground down by coal companies or sipping white wine from inside designer-label clothing, who does not seek out the excitements that will assure who "I yam?"

Everyone seeks from within his or her own confines -- confines of education, confines of upbringing, confines of material wealth, confines of bar-hopping, confines of religion, confines of family or ownership or whatever all else.

But no one wants to be confined, right? What are excitements for if not to break the boundaries somehow -- to stand in some wide field of freshness? The trouble arises when the boundary-breaking excitements seem to provide the only way to break out of our own confinements. More and more and more excitements. More and more and more uncertainty. It is sad ... or anyway it felt that way to me, watching the snake-handlers -- people who, like others, had found a curse and called it a blessing: "I yam who I yam."

Still, there is the capacity for attention. The kind of attention anyone might bring to getting laid or expounding on a wondrous holy verse or adding sophisticated semi-colons or feeling wrenching loss or handling a snake.

Attention. In attention there is freshness. Liveliness. Certainty. Lazy inattentions allow things to grow stale and overwhelming and looking for another excitement fix. Attention.

Attention is a good friend when you pick up a boring old coffee cup. No one wants hot coffee in their lap, however exciting it might be.

Monday, June 8, 2009

a "Christian" version of marriage :)

Though I suppose the implicit analysis might apply equally well to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, Jains and anyone else who might want to constrain the so-called bonds of matrimony:

One man and one woman

history lessons

If I were to sum it up as a news story, yesterday consisted of zazen in the morning, my son's baseball game in the afternoon, and a dinner for the young baseball players in the early evening. Short and sweet and not a day that would excite much interest. It's history now and history is the summing up or bracketing or limiting of what actually happened, whether interesting or prosaic.

But before it became history, before it became something that could be described, it was alive and inexplicable. It was what actually happened ... right now. It was not something that could be skipped over with a blase nod or a fit of boredom or even seen as a matter of intense curiosity or interest. It could not be balanced or compared. Love, hate, anger, serenity, effort, wisdom, laughter and tears: It was alive in a way that no history or news story could capture. Ever.

Did you ever notice in your own life that you might try to tell a friend (or even yourself) of some compelling experience of the past and no matter how hard you tried, there was always something missing, some factor that made the whole exercise inaccurate, somehow? What was "now" when the event or circumstances arose is simply no longer "now." And here you sit, "remembering" as if you could actually remember and be accurate.

No one wants to be consigned to "history," and yet no matter how hard anyone tries, still they are consigned to "history." The wounds and wows of what came before are gone, however much they may linger and inform the now. In the present, nothing is missing. Everything reaches out and touches everything else. It is alive as you are alive. Your whole life is nothing other than this zazen, this baseball game, this endless chatter about the feats of young athletes. But by the time you notice any of it, by the time you assert it, it has lapsed into history. From limitless to limited in less than a nanosecond. Instantaneous history...endless history. It may be infuriating as hell (we are, after all, terrifically important to ourselves), but I think it is a fact.

What then are the lessons that our histories teach? What useful role does history play as we enter and exit these endless moments that cannot be contained or limited in any way ... the moments that cannot honestly be 'entered' or 'exited' but are simply who we are ... neither limited nor unlimited?

The best I can think of is this: Make a mistake, correct it.

This, of course, opens the question of what could possibly be a mistake.

Which points, without recourse, to the recognition that you might as well ...

Enjoy yourself.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

twinkle, twinkle

Yesterday, I got an email from a doctor who wanted information about Buddhist temples in western Massachusetts where I live. He wrote that he had run across my web site and thought I might be able to help.

He didn't say why. He didn't say what school of Buddhism he was interested in. He didn't really offer any concrete realm in which to answer. Perhaps his brevity was an expression of diffidence. Perhaps it was an expression of fear. Perhaps it was an expression of arrogance. Perhaps it was just a little intellectual curiosity. Perhaps ... I had no way of knowing anything except that he had written to ask based on a web site I think of as rather musty but still containing a bit of fun.

How little any of us know and can know of anyone else. Each of us, whether secretly or openly, is intensely interested and informed and touched by our own lives and yet cannot really apply the same concern or intimacy to someone else's life. Sure, we can be 'empathetic' or 'sympathetic,' but what we actually know never reaches and sees the twinkling facets of another's jewel.

I didn't know anything about this doctor and yet ... I knew exactly -- much as anyone might know exactly about their own twinkling jewel. Two arms, two legs, prattling on about the differences and similarities that might distinguish things, waxing wise or feeling stupid and bereft, looking for support or hoping to stand tall ... on and on and on. How secret or different is any of that? How many jewels are there, really?

Yes, yes, I agree: Absolutely unique stuff from one to the next. And yes, yes, the devil's in the details. But the details get tiring and stale after a bit: Same old phiz in the mirror, same old twinkling facets ... and what lifted anyone up now bears them down. Is any of it somehow rare or hidden or extraordinary? Yes, we may want it to be extraordinary (after all, it's all closer to us than body odor), but is it really?

I wrote back to the doctor as best I might, pointing out a web site that listed Zen centers and saying he was certainly welcome to come here this morning and do a little zazen. But did it help? Did it respond? I have no clue.

Today, the birds began singing at 4:30 a.m.

Twinkle, twinkle.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rosetta Stones

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799 and was instrumental in allowing scholars to decipher the intricacies and meanings of the hieroglyphic writings of ancient Egypt. Its importance and impact were so great that the term "Rosetta Stone" became a metaphor or synonym for anything that offered a key to perfect understanding of a complicated subject...the pivotal piece in some intricate and compelling jigsaw puzzle.

I guess everyone longs for some Rosetta Stone in their lives, some something-or-other that will provide a key to uncertainties or fears or confusions. An explanation that explains all other explanations, perhaps. Something to put a period on a sentence that never seems to end. A safe haven that brooks no contradiction or back-sliding. And I guess we're all lucky that such Rosetta Stones are more metaphor and synonym than concrete artifacts: The original Rosetta Stone weighed 1,700 pounds.

Generally, I think people settle for Rosetta Stones that aren't exactly Rosetta Stones, but they seem to come pretty close ... "love" or "freedom" or "enlightenment" or "compassion" or "Buddhism" ... stuff like that, stuff that fits pretty much anywhere, and yet fails to fulfill the imagined perfection of a Rosetta Stone because it's never exactly the same as a 1,700-pound stone ... immutable and fershur. Our Rosetta Stones are often pretty close, but never right on the gnat's ass. Our Rosetta Stones await our actualization ... a time when our answers become true answers.

But in the meantime, well, the Rosetta Stones we choose will have to do. And we may cling to them with an adoring ardor. They probably are Rosetta Stones, but we haven't discovered that yet so we settle for calling them "Rosetta Stones" and ... get out of bed in the morning.

One of the Rosetta Stones I have always liked comes out of the world of Buddhism. A touchstone of sorts, it concerns a question put to Gautama Buddha and his response. I cannot remember who asked the question or under what reported circumstances it was asked. And who knows if Gautama actually gave the answer he was said to have given? I just remember reading about it in a book and gathering up another Rosetta Stone:

Someone asked Gautama, "What is the highest teaching?" And, "using all his powers," Gautama replied, "It's not intellectual."

For me, as someone who likes a Buddhist approach, the notion that Gautama would use all his powers, his whole life-experience from start to finish, and then reply as he did ... well, at a minimum, it left me paying attention ... speechless with attention. This was worth heeding ... at first because someone I admired had said it, but later because the implications began to sink in ... the intimate stuff that Rosetta Stones point to with an inviting and insistent voice.

If the highest teaching was not intellectual (and by necessary extension not emotional), what the hell could the highest teaching be? Any approach was the wrong approach because "it's not intellectual" is an intellectual construct ... spoken in words that under ordinary circumstances excite more words ... words like these. The confounding nature of the assertion, assuming anyone were to take it on as a Rosetta Stone, was enough to make a blind man weep. Where could anyone turn when there was no place to turn? More important than "anyone," where could "I" turn?

And as if the investigation weren't confounding enough on its face, there was the recognition as well that Gautama did not say, "it's not not-intellectual." If the highest teaching is not intellectual and not not-intellectual ... well ... how about it?

All this and more like it was just a Rosetta Stone for me. Someone else might find it a delightful conundrum over an afternoon cup of coffee. But I chose to make it a Rosetta Stone that made carrying a 1,700-pound rock seem like child's play.

I guess that's the way with Rosetta Stones. We recognize their importance in our lives and then set out to discover their importance. Sometimes our travels are fruitful and a success. And sometimes we're just left with 1,700 pounds of rock.

Friday, June 5, 2009

finding a new home

Isn't it strange, somehow, that no matter how often anyone might be confronted with the facts, still there is the habit of finding a home -- a kind of warming stasis -- in what we "know?" It doesn't seem to be anything fancy or philosophical or worthy of criticism. It just seems to be a fact ... something verifiable in the surprise anyone might feel in the face of something "new."

I was thinking about this the other night when watching a TV show about a deep-water submersible that had traveled far, far below the ocean surface and taken pictures of the creatures that managed to survive and flourish in the darkness.

There they were, like some five-year-old's version of something frightening and powerful -- all teeth and self-generated luminescence and ... well, outside the comfortable knowings of my world. A surprise to me, but hardly a surprise to them. In a small way, they challenged my knowing world, asked me to see more widely and stop imagining either stasis or surprise.

Everyone likes a good surprise, which may account for the popularity of horror movies, but doesn't the basis of surprise rest in my current appreciation of the world, a world that is somehow shaken by something that doesn't fit within that appreciation? And doesn't this surprising stuff happen all the time ... every moment if you get down to it ... a gesture, a word, a smile, a piece of clothing that seems somehow out of character for the person wearing it? In what comfort zone, what stasis, do I find this surprise?

I don't mean to challenge surprises. I do mean to point out the assumptions that often make surprises surprising. I may feel comfortable and comforted in those assumptions -- this "me" that seems to accompany my travels as surely as my shadow in the sunshine -- but how reliable is such comfort? How true? How free? How easy?

One of my all-time favorite stories, one that I can't help telling again and again, came from an office chum. Peter came from Kenya where, as a child, he had lived on a farm. Farms in Kenya do not resemble the wide-open spaces that shape them in the US. Rather, the space for planting is laid out among tall trees -- trees that local monkeys would climb.

Peter said that when the gourds that were grown in these fields were full and ripe, the women would go out to pick them. If, by chance, they had babies, they would dig a hole in the ground, line it with cloth, put the baby in the hole and then pick the squash.

The problem was that the monkeys liked the gourds too. The women would shoo them away as best possible, but the monkeys had their wiles. As a matter of ritual, and when they saw the opportunity, the monkeys would come down out of the trees, snatch a baby and then return to a perch in the trees. There, they would taunt the women below until a couple of gourds were tossed to them -- a ransom for the baby held carefully in their grasp. In return for the gourds, the monkeys would return the baby unscathed. No baby was ever hurt, Peter said. He added that when one of his sisters was stolen in this way, "I did hope they wouldn't give her back."

In this small and wonderful tale, a lot of my assumptions and comforts are challenged. Civilization vs. the wild; man and animal ... in fact, this one small story has the capacity, like a pin popping a balloon, to let the air out of the entire panorama of my assumptions. I am forced to rethink and revise the whole thing ... and the first thing I do is to go and find another balloon to blow up, one that will include this new and surprising bit of information.

Over and over again, a new balloon. If a blue one won't do, maybe yellow or green will work better. Over and over again, creating a place of stasis and comfort ... which invariably won't stand still and creates an eventual discomfort and uncertainty. Over and over and over again. It's all both pretty common and pretty observable. Over and over and over again.

But because the habit doesn't seem to assure the comfort that I claim to seek, perhaps it is worth wondering if there is another approach, a more assured comfort zone, a world without balloons and arrogance and despair.

The Dalai Lama observed, "Everyone wants to be happy." And surely children are happy in a world of balloons. But it might be worth noting that eventually children have to grow up.

Or maybe not.

Thursday, June 4, 2009


Because I knew the line would be long and the wait uninspiring, I grabbed a book on the way out the door to the unemployment insurance office. "Still Life with Woodpecker" by Tom Robbins. It was just the first book I saw on the porch shelf, so, despite the dust it had accumulated, I grabbed it.

Sure enough, the line was long and the waiting stretched out on all sides, so I opened the book and read about 50 pages. I had enjoyed Robbins in the past for his ranging quirkiness, his combining and juxtaposing of apparently unrelated ideas, and I found myself enjoying it again. It was artful, if a bit too artful after a while. It was more up my alley than a lot of other novels I could think of. I liked the mind that had created this stuff, but after 50 pages, I had had enough.

There are several hundred books on the porch shelves here and probably twice as many sitting untouched in the basement. Most of them I have read, some more than once.Novels, history, a little science, biographies, some poetry, and probably more spiritual advisers than any sane man might need. Once, I had read quite a lot. It was a habit -- a couple of novels a week, or maybe one fat history book ... it was part of the landscape of my days.

But sitting in the unemployment office, I realized that I really would rather step outside for a while and watch the grass grow. So I did that. The grass was green and unremarkable and lacked any apparent quirkiness. It was just grass after all, artless as salt.

If asked, in a day and age when reading is in decline, I would say that reading is a good thing. It offers up possibilities the reader might not have encountered before and possibilities enrich anyone's life. Being stupid is pretty stupid assuming you can avoid it. Not everyone can avoid it -- and the bottom line is that we are all stupid in one way or another -- but making some effort is a good idea. Reading opens the mind even as it helps to close the mind off. It's a good thing.

And yet I no longer read much at all. In saying such a thing, I can hear and make up the caterwauling of those devoted to the wonders and wonderfulness of reading. But still, these days I am not much different from the local councilman in (was it?) Kentucky who explained his vote against building a local library by saying he only owned "one book (the Bible was implied)... and that's enough for me." The difference between him and me is, perhaps, that I own more than one book and none of them is enough for me. I'm not against reading, but I guess I am more content with my stupidities. Or maybe just lazy. Reading is just not something I do much of any more.

Make a mistake, correct it ... that seems to be enough.

And here I sit writing words someone else might read. I suppose I would like to think someone might read it and consider it, but in the end, writing is just my style. A plumber is a plumber. An astronaut is an astronaut. It's just the way things turned out. Writing is something I enjoy. It pretty much falls into the category of "how do I know what I think till I see what I say?"

I guess I like to think I'm just growing with the grass.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

around and around and around

It's such a threadbare and forlorn metaphor that I hesitate to use it, but summer is coming and summer makes me think of walks along the beach at sunset. And there, up ahead, is a lighthouse throwing out its revolutions of light. It's not a warning to those walking along the beach and it's not a brilliant and pure spotlight. It just flashes from time to time against the darkening sky ... around and around and around.

And I think that this is the case with the usual approach to spiritual life. It's important, perhaps, but it comes and goes and is crowded around with the other events and adventures of anyone's actual-factual existence. Sure, ministers and priests and mullahs and swamis may call spiritual endeavor a beacon or a salvation, but for most of us, it's an occasional matter: A dollar in the collection plate; a hymn that sounds pretty much like the one that preceded it; a prayer or two; a little cake and schmoozing after the service ... and then life's other adventures call out.

In sharper moments, perhaps the light is a bit brighter for a bit longer, but, well, let's not lose perspective -- there are soccer games the kids need to get to; there is business in the office; and the alternator on the car decided to give up the ghost.

I'm not trying to tease or criticize, but rather make an observation that may be too broad-brush. Still, I think it's pretty much true. Bright light in brief moments. And why should it be otherwise? Walking along the beach is pleasant at sundown.

Sometimes I find it curious that for pushing 40 years, not a day has gone by when, in one way or another, I haven't brought up some spiritual implication or conundrum in my own mind. And yet, during the same 40 years, another person may never have given such matters a thought. Or, perhaps, briefly gave it some thought on a particular Thursday afternoon, but then went back to walking on the beach.

Some will explain the spiritual impetus as a matter of "suffering" -- finding the uncertainties or sorrows of life compelling or perhaps overpowering. But my mind gets grouchy at such an explanation. Others may say it is "karma" -- the result of good or bad actions in the past ... but this too leaves me grumpy. More than an explanation or a meaning, I find myself wanting to bask in the interesting-ness of it all.

Who knows what lighthouse will offer the flash of light that excites an interest and determination and curiosity that is more than a mere flicker? Maybe poker or mountain climbing or motorcycles or love affairs or academic achievement or farming or drinking or ... who knows?

It's nothing unusual or elevated or even really holy.

But I think it's interesting.

Around and around and around.

no but's about it

Today, I will probably take the day off from work and try to get some answers to questions I have about retirement. The changes that retirement implies seem vast and interconnected and confusing. The past, which was once so steady-state, is being revised, challenged, dissolved. It would be nice to get my ducks lined up, however imperfectly, and in order to do that, I have to get information I haven't got. I need to 'understand.' So today I hope to get to the unemployment-insurance office and find out what I can.

One of the tendrils of the situation is a feeling that I need help. And more, that I deserve it. And more than that, a sense of resentment that I am not getting the help I deserve. And more still than that, that there really is no one who can help me and I have to help myself. How unfair! Why is no one helping me as I think I deserve to be helped? Why, when the office is anxious to get me out the door and I have agreed to go, is there so little help available in the office. No one cares! I want to blame someone for my uncertainties and anxieties. It's their fault, some foot-stomping child protests. I deserve better than this! It's so lonely to think I have to help myself.

It all reminds me of spiritual practice. Over and over and over again, the longing for some solution, some Tooth Fairy, some beneficent Answer crops up. And over and over again, some patient and persistent and occasionally irritable voice responds, "Help yourself, nitwit! Who else is there who can find the answers you seek? Stop pissing and moaning and get to work. Stop lollygagging around looking for answers and discover the answers that are offered!"

But...but...but...but the fact is I love pissing and moaning. It convinces me I have status and personality and meaning. Who would I be without my heartfelt cries?


No but's about it.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

later is already now

The search has been fruitless, and yet I do wish I could get the Martin Luther King quote accurate in my head ... a remark whose thrust was: What upsets people is not so much what's wrong with the world; what really scares them is the fact that things are all right.

Without something wrong, there is no longer a need for "me." But since "I" am a largely-overrated commodity in the first place ... well, it just makes better sense to relax and stop fidgeting. But of course common sense is sometimes too spooky to enjoy.

Somehow this came to mind when reading words that concerned a Zen teacher I once studied with. Over and over again, the man has proved himself a twit -- unwilling or unable to set aside or investigate the rank he will tell you he doesn't care about. It is nitwit Zen -- sad-making and infuriating by turns. But with his long history of the same behavior, criticizing no longer makes any sense. It's like standing in front of a brick wall and wishing it were not there. Who's the dummy now?

I think there is an idealistic streak in Buddhist practice -- one that suggests all things are going to turn out (later) all right and "all right" means somehow nice and kind and clarified and compassionate... in short, smooth and soothing in my eyes. I may wish it for myself and, by extension, wish it for others.

But it's a tricky business because the implication is that there is something wrong with assholes, jerks, fools and other people like "me." Somehow, the mind suggests, things will get better because of Buddhism, because of my kindnesses, my efforts, my idealistic oomph. Yessiree, I'm going to change things, be helpful and kind and ... well, things are going to be all right(later).

Who will stop to consider the (perhaps scary) fact that things are already all right? "Later" is already now.

The more anyone tries to "make the world a better place," the more the world throws up evidence -- plain old facts -- that there are assholes, jerks and fools. I can be an altruist and an idealist until the cows come home; I can receive accolades galore for my mild and kindly disposition; I can convince myself seven days a week that this "Buddhism" I espouse is the right course, and yet, what kind of promise could this course possibly fulfill? Isn't this the course that simply inspires and relies on the course I would rather not take? Don't I end up chasing my virtuous tail like some silly dog? Am I not praising the light by cursing the darkness ... and thereby inspiring yet another asshole, jerk and fool?

Dogen commented that "one mistake after another is also true practice." This is important, but the notion that there is a mistake deserves care and consideration. Where does this mistake originate? Where does it go? What is a true practice? Seeing what is foolish is good. Seeing what may be better is good. Now ... what, exactly, is good? No chickening out ... what is honestly good? Anyone can be a fool. Anyone can be an idealistic nitwit. OK. But still, how does anyone really fulfill a meaningful promise? With goodness? With evil? With twits and saints? Anyone can play that game, but how successful has it been in the past?

Yes, what scares the pants off anyone is the possibility that things are already all right. But since that possibility is insistent and in-your-face from morning until night ... maybe it's worth a look. Emotional and intellectual convictions may be wonderfully or horribly convincing, but how convincing are they when the sun comes up in the East? Is it worth the effort -- hoping, praying or begging the sun to come up someplace else? Can your virtue or lack thereof outshine the sun? I doubt it.

Talk about a dog chasing its tail! Here I am back with the encouragement offered by Gautama ... an encouragement whose source matters not at all.

"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."

Monday, June 1, 2009

regret and repentance

I guess everyone has some sense of regret -- a longing to repent of things that have been done or left undone. I know I have. There may be no undoing to past, but still there is a nagging presence, like sitting on a tack and somehow being unable to get up. There once as a Zen teacher who counseled, "In order to do this practice, you must feel shame" and perhaps that pointing finger (minus the cogent and up-to-date analyses and denials) indicates something about regret and repentance.

One of the interesting things about regret and repentance is how assured I can feel in their presence. What demands regret is assured and insistent, but what requires no regret is wobbly and uncertain. But how could the one arise without the other? This may be a common-sensical observation, but when was the heart ever swayed by common sense?

To be more specific, I was thinking last night and again today about my own stinginess when it comes to lending others a 'Buddhist' hand. Any counterpoint generosities are somehow lost or dismissed ... it is the stinginess that nags and sticks me in the ass.

And the best I can do to illustrate my stinginess (without laying claim to the good heart that resolves the situation) is to cut and paste one of my all-time favorite Zen stories ... one I think is worth considering ... or anyway I like to consider it. It's just my bellybutton we're talking about here, so the highlights are just my emphasis on what I think is important about this tale:

Stingy in Teaching

A young physician in Tokyo named Kusuda met a college friend who had been studying Zen. The young doctor asked him what Zen was.

"I cannot tell you what it is," the friend replied, "but one thing is certain. If you understand Zen, you will not be afraid to die."

"That's fine," said Kusuda. "I will try it. Where can I find a teacher?"

"Go to the master Nan-in," the friend told him.

So Kusuda went to call on Nan-in. He carried a dagger nine and a half inches long to determine whether or not the teacher was afraid to die.

When Nan-in saw Kusuda he exclaimed: "Hello, friend. How are you? We haven't seen each other for a long time!"

This perplexed Kusuda, who replied: "We have never met before."

"That's right," answered Nan-in. "I mistook you for another physician who is receiving instruction here."

With such a beginning, Kusuda lost his chance to test the master, so reluctantly he asked if he might receive Zen instruction.

Nan-in said: "Zen is not a difficult task. If you are a physician, treat you patients with kindness. That is Zen."

Kusuda visited Nan-in three times. Each time Nan-in told him the same thing. "A physician should not waste time around here. Go home and take care of you patients."

It was not yet clear to Kusuda how such teaching could remove the fear of death. So on his fourth visit he complained: "My friend told me when one learns Zen one loses the fear of death. Each time I come here all you tell me is to take care of my patients. I know that much. If that is your so-called Zen, I am not going to visit you any more."

Nan-in smiled and patted the doctor. "I have been too strict with you. Let me give you a koan." He presented Kusuda with Joshu's Mu to work over, which is the first mind enlightening problem in the book called The Gateless Gate.

Kusuda pondered this problem of Mu (No-Thing) for two years. At length he thought he had reached certainty of mind. But his teacher commented: "You are not in yet."

Kusuda continued in concentration for another year and a half. His mind became placid. Problems dissolved. No-Thing became the truth. He served his patients well and, without even knowing it, he was free from concern over life and death.

Then when he visited Nan-in, his old teacher just smiled.

I have never knowingly and deliberately given anyone a koan -- some kindness that would offer temporary purchase and focus and comfort. That's pretty stingy, pretty strict and pretty impatient, perhaps. But I salve my conscience with this: How is it possible for anyone NOT to offer the comfort of a koan? Isn't it a koan to imagine that there might actually be a koan ... or not?

It's just a koan for this old, stingy, faithless bastard.